In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum grapples with the transformation of the anti-communist right she has long been an emblematic representative. Weaving together political analysis and contemporary history with intimate portraits from within what used to be her own milieu, this urgent volume reflects on the unexpected reversals in the author's adult years.
A young supporter of the neoliberal-neoconservative turn in the West originally from Washington DC, Anne Applebaum was in her mid-twenties during the fall of Soviet regimes in Europe, that seemingly conclusive “victory over totalitarianism.”
She was part of a large and diverse group at the time whose members believed that “the democratic revolution would now continue, that more good things would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union” (160).
Based in London during the early 1990s, Applebaum soon moved to Poland to emerge as a journalist, political commentator and historian of Soviet regimes much discussed on both sides of the Atlantic.
The intrusion of history
On the pages of Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum sounds pensive about how the optimism surrounding the spread of democracy, political freedoms and human rights, and the subsequent rebuilding and integration of countries into Western structures – an optimism she vividly experienced in Poland during the late 1990s – gave way to angry, paranoid and openly authoritarian politics across the former East-West divide.
What makes such a transformation all the more puzzling and worthy of examination to Applebaum is that it has also unfolded in her immediate environment: much like Mihail Sebastian’s justly celebrated Journal 1935–1944, Applebaum’s new book chronicles the disturbing radicalisation of its author’s intimate friends and close colleagues.
She shows through captivating and disconcerting anecdotes how the sudden intrusion of history and politics in the early decades of the twenty-first century came to divide groups of friends and even nuclear families.
Drawing on Julian Benda’s classic discussion of La Traison des Clercs from 1927 in particular, Applebaum’s explorations in six chapters are focused on how a new generation of clercs – “beginning with a few whom I know in Eastern Europe and then moving to the different but parallel story of Britain, another country where I have deep ties, and finishing with the United States, where I was born, with a few stops elsewhere” (20) – has come to betray the central task of intellectuals, i.e. the search for truth, in favour of particular political causes.
Applebaum asserts that the decline and fall of liberal democracies in our age, similarly to the interwar years, has largely been the product of the rightist intellectual organisation of political hatred. Rightist clercs have been responsible for launching fierce attacks on the rest of the intellectual and educated elites of their countries.
Convinced that their political systems had been corrupted and the future of their civilisation was at risk, they have manipulated discontent and have channelled fear and anger to attain power and then try to permanently hold it.
A double detachment
As a liberal-conservative, Applebaum is highly critical but can be empathic towards the varied persons – intellectuals, writers of high-minded political essays, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, creators of memes, propagators of conspiracy theories – she portrays.
She has known many of the key protagonists in her book for longer – Rafael Bardají from Spain, Ania Bielecka from Poland, Simon Heffer from the UK, Laura Ingraham from the US, Mária Schmidt from Hungary, among others – and often rather closely. She understands their frame of reference even while she disagrees with their current political agendas.
When Applebaum discusses the conviction of conservative Brexiteers that something essential about England was dead and gone, it is palpable that she shares some of their sensibility, although without herself having succumbed to their profound cultural despair.
Her portrait of English nostalgics is also clear on how insufficiently they have come to grasp the character and dynamics of European politics, and how they utterly failed to recognise that Britain had already found a meaningful new role after empire – as one of the most powerful and effective leaders of Europe, an important link between Europe and America, and a champion of democracy and the rule of law.
Applebaum sounds positively generous when she lauds the House of Terror in Budapest as “one of the most innovative new museums in the eastern half of Europe” (46), even when she depicts Mária Schmidt – the long-standing director of the said institution – as a cynical alt-right nationalist who spends much of her time denigrating Western democracy without suggesting any improvement worthy of serious consideration.
Twilight of Democracy amounts to a surprisingly calm and self-assured chronicle of Applebaum’s personal-political dramas. It could even be said to be the product of a double detachment: neither a work of self-examination (Applebaum assures her readers that she is primarily interested in how others have shifted their values in disagreeable directions) nor an open display of negative personal emotions and judgements about others.
The former is a key lacuna in her reflections. The limited role the latter play in these pages is all the more laudable, however, especially knowing that some of the conspiracy theories recently propagated in rightist media have revolved around Applebaum’s alleged influence.
The strategy of the new right
What insights does such a combination of intimate familiarity and double detachment yield?
Unhappy with structural explanations, Applebaum insists that the current authoritarian-nationalist wave is the result of actions by groups of individuals who disliked their existing democracies. She is clear that illiberal rightists are eager to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions and destroy what exists – that they are, on the whole, more revolutionary than conservative, closer to the Bolsheviks than to Edmund Burke.
In their disdain of a neutral state, an apolitical civil service and any notion of an objective media, they seek to redefine their nations, rewrite social contracts, and alter the rules of democracy so they would never lose power. Their ultimate goal is to establish an illiberal state, a de facto one-party state that controls state institutions and limits freedom of association and speech while allowing a token opposition to exist, as long as that opposition does not threaten the regime.
Even though Applebaum repeatedly asserts that these trends now belong as much to the West as to the East, her dissection of contemporary Poland and Hungary was bound to play a large role in the volume.
As she correctly notes, only in these two Western countries have illiberal parties actually established monopolies on power (27). The book indeed offers numerous insights into the political strategies of Law and Justice as well as Fidesz. While not all of the insights offered in these pages qualify as truly original, they unfailingly illuminate key aspects.
Liberal democracy is based on meritocratic ideas, Applebaum explains, such as the ideas that the most appealing and competent politicians should rule, the institutions of the state should be occupied by qualified people, and the contests between them should take place on an even playing field. However, open competition may breed resentment and envy and may generate a belief that the system is unfair, not just to the country, but to specific individuals.
To those who believe that the rules of competition are inherently flawed, an uncompetitive and anti-meritocratic system based on prior notions of deservingness and on ritualistic acts of loyalty may come to possess great appeal. In Applebaum’s interpretation, the crassness of some of the newly prominent political entrepreneurs in Poland and Hungary has its origins precisely in their acute sense of having been unjustly denied and unfairly excluded from power.
Furthermore, Applebaum emphasises that parties with monopolistic ambitions began to identify existential enemies and threats in order to justify their breaking or arbitrary rewriting of the law. This, in turn, has enabled them to determine who gets to be part of the new national elite without engaging in any open political debate or at least providing rational arguments in favour.
Parties like PiS or Fidesz may not have developed a full-blown ideology. At the same time, they have encouraged their followers to believe in alternative realities through propagating what Timothy Snyder has imaginatively called Medium-Size Lies.
More often than not, such alternative realities have been carefully designed, with the help of modern marketing tools, audience segmentation, and social-media campaigns – cutting-edge techniques in the service of hollowing out open and argumentative polities.
Both PiS and Fidesz would strategically deploy conspiracy theories too. The simplistic views at the heart of such conspiracy theories must have appealed most to those already converted but the decision to place such fantasies at the heart of political imaginaries has played a larger and more sinister role: it has helped lay a new moral groundwork. Raising highly emotive issues while presenting themselves as valiant defenders of Western civilisation has proven a surprisingly effective tactic too.
As Applebaum critically notes, such a tactic has succeeded at refocusing much of the outside world’s attention on sheer rhetoric – away from authoritarian governmental action and multiplying cases of profound corruption.
Viktor Orbán’s cynical anti-elitism and peripheral anti-colonialism may seem worlds apart from the style and substance of British conservatism. Applebaum nonetheless succeeds at showing that a broadly convergent development could be observed in England where nostalgic conservatives – whether restorative or reflective in their nostalgia, whether angry or elegiac in their tone – have persuaded themselves that it was their last chance to try and salvage their country, whatever it took, whatever price had to be paid.
Painting disaster fantasies of their own, established conservatives in a seemingly stable liberal society thus helped prepare the groundwork for Britain’s unprecedented and disruptive exit from the EU.
These convergent forces might all be called nationalistic. According to Applebaum, what truly unites them on a deeper level though is their shared dislike of the societies they inhabit as well as a genuine fear that some of their own values would soon be lost in them.
Remarkably, these rightist forces in what used to be the East and the West in Cold War days have also converged on an agenda that promotes socially conservative, religious worldviews, opposes immigration, especially Muslim immigration, both real and imagined and rejects “EU interference” and international institutions more generally.
Amidst a great transformation
A key difficulty in grasping the present political moment lies in the fact that grand changes are caused by new kinds of disruptions. According to Applebaum, the global spread of political anger is not primarily the product of lived experiences as traditionally understood: while there are genuine sources of anger, distress and discomfort, references to the economy or inequality cannot explain the simultaneous rise of angry politics in varied places across the globe, she maintains (108).
As political sentiments may change abruptly and in unpredictable ways, the potential impact of political entrepreneurship has grown exponentially.
Twilight of Democracy does not claim to offer a grand theory, let alone a universal solution to the growth of authoritarianism. Instead of such ambitions, Applebaum elaborates on a key theme: given the consciously subversive role of a minority under specific conditions, any society can be turned against democracy.
In her interpretation, this unceasing danger to liberal democracy is due less to the appeal of specific sets of political ideas and more to a given frame of mind: the authoritarian predispositions characterising substantial numbers of people in practically all modern societies (16).
In a self-critical fashion, Applebaum asserts that elites of more open societies have long been rather smug about their tolerance for conflicting points of view. As a matter of fact, for much of recent history, the actual range of mainstream political views remained limited – for better or worse, there was a single national conversation within the parameters set by the centre-right and the centre-left.
However, the communication revolution of the early twenty-first century resulted in a novel information sphere without clear authorities and few trusted sources. The rise of partisanship and the absence of a centre ground that resulted bother especially those who have difficulty dealing with complexity.
In such an environment, the new right can consciously worsen the cacophony, knowing full well that people with authoritarian predispositions will be frightened by the experience and will acutely desire the forcible silencing of the rest of their societies. The new right’s polarising messages have thus not only shrunk the spaces for meaningful public exchange but also helped them impose their exclusivist visions.
Beliefs and problematisations
The personal anger and cynicism of new nationalistic entrepreneurs who intend to undermine existing institutions; their opposition to a meritocracy based on prior notions of deservingness; their conspiracy theories to foster an alternative moral framework; their emotionalisation of public discussion to shift attention away from actual political practices; their raucous polarisation to impose exclusivist visions: these are key points in Applebaum’s illuminating analysis of political forces that have come to reshape much of Western politics in recent years.
Applebaum is equally persuasive when she admits that there is no detailed road map to a better society, no didactic ideology and no rulebook. What liberal democracies demand is continuous participation, effort and argument from their citizens – their greatest enemies remain nihilism and apathy.
As she perceptively adds, such regimes require some tolerance for cacophony and chaos as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos (189).
What is missing from Anne Applebaum’s engaging account of the parting of ways between her and several intimate friends and close colleagues is an exploration of how her neoliberally inspired conservatism might have planted the seeds of its own weakening.
The volume curiously fails to address in what ways the political successes and policy failures of Applebaum’s own Thatcherite camp might have enabled the rise of the new rightist political forces she otherwise insightfully examines and critiques.
In the book’s interpretation, Applebaum’s friends and colleagues have shifted to the authoritarian right essentially due to rather constant features of modern politics and due to their personal proclivities and choices.
However, there is a middle level between such long-term factors and the recent impact of individual personalities: the neoliberal political revolution from the right that Applebaum herself enthusiastically endorsed with all its momentous consequences.
For a book reflecting on the most significant and worrisome political reversal in its author’s lifetime, Twilight of Democracy remains surprisingly weak on this crucial context.
Ultimately, Anne Applebaum’s unwillingness to examine the contemporary historical connection between the neoliberalising trends of the past nearly half a century and the more recent rise of right-wing authoritarianism is another reason why this urgent book can be viewed as an essential read on the generationally specific beliefs and experiences of a prominent Western liberal-conservative intellectual devoted to the democratisation of Central and Eastern Europe.
She is an erudite and mature analyst who saw major political improvements in her youth and who now earnestly grapples with the disturbing successes of the new right but who does not appear ready yet to scrutinise the consequences of the rightist projects she has endorsed throughout her adult years.