Twilight of democracy

Twilight cover

  • Anne Applebaum, Twilight of democracy: the failure of politics and the parting of friends (2020; subtitle for US edition the seductive lure of authoritarianism)

serves as a useful survey of disturbing trends around the world, notably in Europe and the USA, making a slim and accessible tome with its own seductive lure. *

As a historian, Applebaum has long been a noted critic of the Soviet system, with her thoroughly-researched accounts of Stalin’s gulag and the 1930s’ famine (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain). Such work is easily co-opted by “anti-Communist” conservatives in the West, and until quite recently Applebaum, happily aligned with the centre-right, didn’t care to argue; like many liberals, she only felt compelled to confront the wider issue when authoritarianism began posing a threat to democracy around the world.

With her media profile as a journalist (e.g. in The Atlantic and on Twitter), Applebaum is prominent among the legion of vocal critics of Trumpism (including, from her own field, other public intellectuals such as Timothy Snyder, as well as committed democrats like Robert Reich), and she’s just as engaged with related global trends, notably in Europe and the UK. By virtue of her own background, her warnings seem, at once, all the more telling (it’s good to find erstwhile conservatives defecting) and flawed.

A 1999 New Year’s Eve party that she hosted with her husband Radek Sikorski at their Polish home prompts her to reflect on the imminent “parting of friends”.

What, then, has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millenium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?

Along with anecdotal passages, the book also provides excursions into earlier debates over democratic values. Applebaum suggests:

Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity; there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their ideas from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.

Following World War Two,

British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different backgrounds, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and the political idea of “the West”.

Such values seemed to have triumphed after the collapse of Soviet regimes from 1989. But recently, “by contrast, the new right does not want to conserve or to preserve what exists at all”; liberal democracy turns out to be worryingly fragile.

Noting the role of political entrepreneurs and propagandists, Applebaum cites Julien Benda’s 1927 La trahison des clercs. Having cautioned us that “there is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution”, she begins her discussion of right-wing populism, its lies and conspiracy theories, with east Europe (notably Poland and Hungary), where two illiberal parties have monopolies on power: in Poland, the Law and Justice Party, and Vikor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary.

Applebaum finds hypocritical the grim warnings over the influence of “Communism” that retain an appeal for the right-wing ideologues of her generation. Her explanation of the crisis in Poland is informed by her own involvement with the leading political figures there. In Hungary, she has a run-in with the historian Mária Schmidt, whose House of Terror Museum she had found impressive, but who later espoused Orbán’s nationalist cause.

Observing that these movements are not particular to the former Communist countries of east Europe. Applebaum turns to the UK and the rise of Boris Picaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, whose “outsized narcissism” complemented a “remarkable laziness” and penchant for fabrication. Her encounters in 1990s’ London with “nostalgic conservatives”, and the jocular atmosphere at the Spectator, seemed like harmless fun. She harangues effectively against the Brexit débacle, but again, given that she consorted happily with Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, one worries about her social circle.

Nostalgia took the form of belief in a world where England made the rules. In The future of nostalgia Svetlana Boym distinguishes “reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia: the former miss the past, without wanting it back; the latter want to live in it, right now, lamenting decline.

In the Western democracies anxiety, anger, and the backlash against immigration may seem like a long-delayed reaction to the crises of capitalism since the 1960s, compounded by new technology (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).

After considering the Vox party in Spain, Applebaum focuses on the USA, noting antecedents to Trumpism and the predilection for violence, and introducing former acquaintances with whom she parted ways, such as the alarming Laura Ingraham and Roger Kimball.

* * *

Twilight of democracy has been widely welcomed—see e.g. LARB, NYT, and in the Guardian, this review (along with Kratsev and Holmes, The light that failed) and interview here. But it’s worth reading two reviews by David Klion and Jorge González-Gallarza—both critical, yet far apart on the political spectrum.

Klion comments:

Applebaum’s blind faith in the centre-right strains of neoliberalism and meritocratic mobility conveniently absolves her and her remaining friends of any responsibility for the present crisis. […] It never seems to cross Applebaum’s mind that having had so many erstwhile friends who ended up on the far right might say something unflattering about her own judgment—and more generally about the centre-right political tradition to which she belongs. […] Applebaum is willing to skewer her erstwhile friends, but she is unwilling to interrogate her own culpability and that of the centre-right establishment more generally.

From a conservative standpoint, Gallarza observes:

Her journalism reads like a (somewhat more) refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues. […] Waxing alarmist about the demise of the American republic is something of an oversubscribed beat across the mastheads she writes for. […]

Applebaum’s primary ambition is to chronicle how modern republics can undergo dismantling, from within, through the subversive influence of a rogue faction of the intelligentsia. For [her], national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting.

Gallarza concludes:

[Applebaum] draws attention to an old truth that merits recalling—yes, democracy only thrives when a spirit of republican virtue overcomes factionalism, authoritarianism, and other undemocratic impulses. And there may well be cause for alarm on this score in the post-Soviet East. But Applebaum’s record of casting off divergent views as the work of authoritarian demagogues puts her in a difficult spot to raise the alarm.

Given the valuable role that Applebaum plays in defending the cause of liberal democracy, perhaps we might overlook her dubious past involvements with the sinister figures she now excoriates. But similar arguments from further left may prove to be more valuable. For practical, passionate, informed ways of strengthening social justice, do follow AOC!


* Rather like the decor for her online interviews—runaway winner in the Classy Book-Lined Study category.

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