"A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist explains, with electrifying clarity, why some of her contemporaries have abandoned liberal democratic ideals in favor of strongman cults, nationalist movements, or one-party states. Across the world today, from the U.S. to Europe and beyond, liberal democracy is under siege while different forms of authoritarianism are on the rise. In Twilight of Democracy, prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum argues that we should not be surprised by this change: There is an inherent appeal to political systems with radically simple beliefs, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else. People are not just ideological, she contends in this captivating extended essay; they are also practical, pragmatic, opportunist. The authoritarian and nationalist parties that have arisen within modern democracies offer new paths to wealth or power for their adherents. Describing politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and others who have abandoned democratic ideals in the UK, U.S., Spain, Poland, and Hungary, Applebaum reveals the patterns that link the new advocates of illiberalism and charts how they use conspiracy theory, political polarization, social media, and nostalgia to change their societies"--
It begins with a party she and her Polish husband hosted in 1999. Their friends at the time were people who had participated the democratic movements that
This is due to the fact that many of her former centre-right friends in places like Poland and Hungary are no longer centre-right; they now identify with what some call ‘populism’ and others call the ‘far right’ or ‘alt right’.
So far, so good. But the book offers little beyond anecdotes about Applebaum’s former friends, and why they are ‘former’. This includes stories of old friends reluctantly meeting her and then insisting on recording their conversation. Stuff like that.
Applebaum’s other books are rigorously researched and footnoted; this one reads more like something she might recount at one of her parties. It’s not without interest — most things she writes are interesting by default — but it’s not her best work by far.
But for some reason she then decides to go further afield, and the argument quickly loses its coherence. Without drawing any clear parallels to Poland and Hungary, she spends chapter 3 on Brexit with a particular focus on Boris Johnson. This did not make any sense to me. I'm sure she considers Brexit to be an unfortunate event, but does it really portend the end of democracy in Britain? The author does not seem to hold such an extreme view, but she also does not explain why Brexit needs to be discussed. It becomes clear that she is displeased with some of her British acquaintances who have taken personal advantage of conspiracy theories and other nonsense, but I don't think these isolated cases of low integrity are really of any interest to the reader. British democracy will be in danger when high positions start to be distributed to incompetent people based on their loyalty to an authoritarian leader. As far as I can see, it is safe for now.
In chapters 4 and 5 she continues in the same vein by presenting a few Spanish and American political opportunists who have gained minor political successes by peddling falsehoods and xenophobia. It is of course unfortunate that such things happen, but do we really need to be overly concerned about the state of Spanish and American democracy? Maybe we do in the case of America, but even though conspiracy theories and immoral lunatics abound in American politics, perhaps it would be also be worth noting that Donald Trump failed in (at least most of) his attempts to spread rot through the civil service by appointing loyalists. To understand the risks better, perhaps it would have been worthwhile to interview someone who was offered a benefit-in-exchange-for-loyalty from Trump but declined the offer.
In general, I think this book lacks a planned and well-considered argument. The fact that social media spread falsehoods and some political opportunists take advantage of that is well-known. Presenting examples of such falsehoods and opportunists from different countries does not really yield an interesting book. It certainly does not prove that modern democracy will come to an end in the near future. The danger is there, but if we want to understand that danger we should not just look here, there and everywhere for lies and bad people. Instead, we should look in more detail at what has happened in countries where democracy is clearly being extinguished. As I already mentioned above, it is a shame that the author did not focus only on Poland and Hungary, or even only on Poland. I believe that would have resulted in a much better book.
Her analysis not only covers developments in
One interesting tidbit offered. Laura Ingraham dated Donald Trump (once) but I found that interesting. I never heard that anywhere else. Applebaum also offered some opinions on other writers and political people of note.
Some interesting observations from the book shown below:
No contemporary authoritarian can’t succeed without the modern equivalent: the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, Spin Doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future.
Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.
It is not by accident that restorative nostalgia often goes hand-in-hand with conspiracy theories and the medium size lies. These need to be as harsh or crazy as the Smolensk Conspiracy theory or the Soros conspiracy theory; they can gently invoke scapegoats rather than a full-fledged alternative reality. At a minimum they can offer an explanation: the nation as long longer great because someone has attacked us, undermined us, sapped our strength. Someone – – the immigrants, the foreigners, the elites, or indeed the EU – – has perverted the course of history and reduced the nation to a shadow of its former self.
I'm not judging this book on whether it is the final word on the subject or the author's likelihood of turning out to be right. It is well written and it is adequately sourced. Could it be better in both categories? Yes. But it does a good job of taking a sweeping topic that spans the arc of human civilization -- the lure of authoritarianism -- and putting it in context with our own times without running on for a thousand pages. It is admittedly one person's perspective. Accept or reject some or all of the comparisons between European 20th-century fascism and today's U.S., but some of the parallels are compelling. Some I'd describe as haunting, and certainly plausible. People who are not doing well under the present system resent those who seem to be benefitting more than them. There are politicians who are willing to exploit that for power. These things are not so hard to understand. Applebaum provides the richness of her own background to paint the picture. Some reviewers here have rejected it wholesale and there is nothing I can say about that except that they merely disagree with Applebaum's thesis. They give the book one star because it doesn't support their current beliefs.
As for the ideas that I found interesting on a personal level, Applebaum convincingly argues that the illiberal Right is more of a coordinated movement than a lot of people would assume. I was one of those people that considered David Frum's "Axis of Evil" speech a bit of a reach, to put it mildly; "Twilight of Democracy" makes it seem somewhat more plausible. She also usefully defines nostalgia that is merely personal or aesthetic -- which is generally harmless -- and what she calls "restorative nostalgia," which seems actively seeks to bring back political situations that have already been consigned to history. Her analysis of how this phenomenon connects with the British drive for Brexit is especially interesting. So although this book wasn't what I was expecting, I'll recommend it: it's bracing, intelligent, and, deeply felt. I don't think many books that I've read about politics have been worthy of those three particular adjectives.
I didn’t always
I wish she’d said more about Trump...she seemed to kind of skip over a lot of the things he’d done and how dangerous he is although she also clearly wasn’t a fan.
I can't decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic after this book. I think Applebaum could have added case studies (to varying degrees) in Turkey, Israel, Brazil, Russia, Italy, France, and China. I worry for the state of pluralism and liberal democracy around the world. These authoritarian-leaning states embrace the cynicism of their message, and it seems to be very effective. Maybe our modern political malpractice will be a counterexample that future generations will reject.