Book Review: Twilight of Democracy

Anne Applebaum. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Signal/McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, 2020.

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October 21, 2020
Anne Applebaum’s book chronicles how popular enthusiasm for democracy that swelled after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has transformed, in eastern Europe and elsewhere, into growing support for authoritarianism. Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

By several measures, global democracy is in rude form. According to Freedom House, a think tank, 39 per cent of the world’s 7.7 billion people live under free political systems; 25 per cent more are partly free. Compare this snapshot with any other period in history, including that of the ‘greatest generation’ after 1945 or the years of détente in the 1970s (still less than a half century ago): most will count themselves fortunate to be alive today.

Yet if we dig a little deeper, the picture darkens. Across 34 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 52 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with democracy; only 44 per cent satisfied. Freedom House has recorded thirteen consecutive years of setbacks, ending in what it describes as today’s “leaderless struggle for democracy.” The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2019 ranks only twenty-two states as full democracies — fifteen in Europe plus three in Latin America (Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay), Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Recent concerns over the electoral system, immigration and asylum policy, inequality and the role of money in criminal justice and politics have relegated the United States to the ranks of the “flawed democracies.” And without a single full democracy in continental Asia or Africa, where three quarters of the world’s population now lives, how far have we really come in the struggle to make democratic freedoms a global reality?

Anne Applebaum is as well placed to answer this question as anyone on the planet. A Pulitzer-prize-winning historian of the Soviet Gulag, chronicler of the USSR’s campaign to crush democracy in postwar central Europe and more recently of Stalin’s famine-genocide in Ukraine, she has had a ringside seat for the last quarter century in the political arenas of Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States, where she was born. The result is a richly textured, brilliantly composed essay on why in recent decades democracy has lost altitude, while dictators and xenophobes have been welcomed back into polite company from Budapest to Los Angeles.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism starts out in Poland and Hungary. Applebaum tells the story of brothers Jarosław and Janek Kurski, once activists in the same anti-Communist cause, who are today bitter foes, one a long-time editor of Poland’s leading liberal daily, the other an architect of state television’s decline into shabby alt-right chauvinism and conspiracy-mongering. Boris Johnson is tracked from his days predicting Brexit “won’t happen” around a dinner table to presiding unsteadily over it. Two chapters follow on populism in Spain and the rise of Trump’s awkward squad of grifters and reprobates.

Cover photo of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Applebaum interweaves didactic anecdote with intellectual history, book-ending her argument with portraits of two dinner parties — one in 1999, when the guests basked in the afterglow of Europe reunited; another in 2019, with liberal democracy’s ranks thinned and under siege. Her conclusion is that we should all choose our friends carefully since, as the anti-Dreyfusards showed in 1894, today’s moderates quickly become tomorrow’s extremists.

Applebaum’s core message is that responsibility for keeping democracy vibrant rests with each one of us. When we’re complacent, or asleep at the wheel, bad things happen. She wants democratic vigilance to be a shared habit. Her book is a good-natured but serious warning about the new ‘banality of evil’ in our midst. She writes with a gift of expression that should take her appeal well beyond Timothy Snyder’s drier On Tyranny or Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s more academic How Democracies Die. For Applebaum, both freedom and tyranny are still possible outcomes. Our challenge is to chart the right path, as these seven sentences illustrate:

We may be doomed, like glittering, multiethnic Habsburg Vienna or creative, decadent Weimar Berlin, to be swept away into irrelevance. It is possible that we are already living through the twilight of democracy; that our society may already be heading for anarchy or tyranny, as the ancient philosophers and America’s founders once feared … . To some, the precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainty has always been there. … The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability. Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.

It is hard for most people to accept that nations change; that political change is constant and inevitable; that the global economy creates winners and losers; that complex problems need sophisticated solutions and careful deliberation. Democracy is not about instant gratification. It’s about sifting and balancing. In other words, the features that make democracy successful also make it dull, even alienating. But why is it in such acute crisis today?

“Democracy is not about instant gratification. It’s about sifting and balancing. In other words, the features that make democracy successful also make it dull, even alienating. But why is it in such acute crisis today?”

Applebaum’s chosen essay genre precludes a more thorough analysis of these deeper maladies. In short, this current crisis of established democracies is quite new. From Karl Popper’s full-throated celebration of liberal democracy in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) through to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the big democracies stayed on a fairly even keel, even as Stalin rolled over Cold War central Europe and propped up Communist China. Vietnam caused ripples, as did economic chaos in the 1970s, briefly boosting the appeal of Moscow-backed autocrats. But by the 1980s and 1990s, dictators were in retreat as Soviet prestige evaporated in Afghanistan, the Warsaw Pact fell apart and the USSR dissolved.

So why have democracies hit new turbulence today? The answer, I believe, is fourfold.

First, in three quick steps — recognition under Nixon, appeasement under George H. W. Bush and promotion to the WTO under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — the People’s Republic of China vaulted in a few decades from Cultural Revolution under Mao to world’s largest producer of merchandise goods under presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. For the first time, a one-party dictatorship with global surveillance and reserve currency ambitions enjoys trade surpluses with every major world economy. Ruthless exploitation of this economic leverage means US and other firms are unwilling to disengage, just as Beijing’s disregard for human rights and sponsorship of autocrats become more visible and more damaging than ever.

Second, Europe’s failure to hold out the prospect of EU accession to Ukraine, the three countries of the Caucasus, Turkey and North Africa fuelled a political backlash. Within the EU, the benefits of a wider, deeper union plateaued with the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, ushering in a new era of inwardness. Financial and refugee crises have further polarized European politics.

Third, as the United States and Britain sent manufacturing jobs offshore to China and elsewhere, they counted on their global leadership in technology, financial and other services to continue. The triple blows of 9/11, defeat in Iraq and the subprime meltdown forced the Anglosphere to rely even more heavily on Silicon Valley’s successes and London’s status as banker to Europe, China, Russia and the Gulf. They ignored the malign potential of social media platforms and dictator-fuelled corruption. The result has been Brexit, the greatest act of self-harm in modern British history, and the most disastrous American presidency in nearly two centuries.

Fourth, through all this Putin has preyed on America’s distraction to extend his shelf life. By 2010, he had tested soft and hard power in Georgia, Hungary and Poland; after 2011, he unleashed both in Syria, Ukraine and Libya. After 2014, he mounted the most aggressive “active measures” operations in Kremlin history to make Brexit happen and put Donald Trump in the White House. Facebook, Google and Twitter still give Putin’s information warfare order of battle instant access to nearly every household in the US, UK and other democracies.

In other words, by appeasing China, mothballing incentives for improved governance and giving Russia a direct channel into British and American psyches and politics, leading democracies have been authors of their own setbacks. Will twilight become darkness? My guess is no, though Applebaum has written this book because she thinks the jury is still out. One thing is certain. Without much more serious strategy to curb or counter the forces that precipitated this crisis — Chinese illiberalism, EU inertness, Anglo-American self-harm and Russian information warfare — the prospect of a starless, moonless future for democracy will only grow.

Why don’t more people care? How does unspeakable Trump remain over 40 per cent in the polls, while British citizens are still blissfully unaware of the under-the-carpet role played by Putin’s people in orchestrating Brexit? Mark Twain is often credited with saying, “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” This quip is a play on Jonathan Swift’s truism: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” Except that, aptly for this era of disinformation, Mark Twain wrote no such thing. He did say, in 1906, “The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant incumbrance. … How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!” For now, most democracies seem intent on remaining encumbered. Only new leadership (and fresh crises) will force a reckoning.