Twilight of Democracy

Recommendation: I would read Timothy Snyder before this, but still a useful piece

Where to read: Blanket, fire, puppy, comfort food

Read with: Allow me to suggestion a decent quarantini

In brief: “Why democracy is in trouble” is a popular genre at the moment (and on this blog). Applebaum is not offering anything particularly ground breaking or comprehensive on the topic but she does touch on one critical point – the whys and hows of educated people who have benefited from the system as established becoming enablers for would-be dictators.


Anne Applebaum is an interesting author with a curious personal and professional history – her husband was Defence and then Foreign Minister in Poland in a conservative (ish) government, she’s something of an old school Republican, a journalist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the history of the Gulag. Naturally, she now writes for The Atlantic … because I read this book, and I am a sucker for anything involving that particular publication.

Twilight of Democracy opens with an account of a party in Applebaum and her husband’s country house in Poland in 1999 and the kinds of people they had in convivial attendance. She then tracks some of their lives and careers in the years that followed, and the divergences and rifts that opened up over the years. To her very palpable distress, many of their guests ended up as fervent supporters of the Polish Law and Justice Party and other extreme right-wing groups. Educated, intelligent people became hand maidens for autocratic regimes and parties, and cheerleaders for dictators.

This modest and yet important observation is her subject:

Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do … They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues and their friends.” (p. 17)

There are illiberal, authoritarian tendencies on the left, god knows, but as Applebaum notes, the truly dangerous activity in the last couple of decades has come on the right. Trump is the obvious American manifestation of this trend but other leaders across Europe, South America and good old Bibi in Israel have embraced similarly destructive, undemocratic rhetoric. In doing so, or so goes Applebaum’s argument, they have been aided by precisely the kinds of people who benefit from the current political order. An essay written for The Atlantic about Laura Ingraham’s evolution is illustrative (and free): in Applebaum’s telling, post-Cold War optimism about American victory and the inevitable march of democracy gave way to “apocalyptic pessimism … America is doomed, Europe is doomed, Western civilization is doomed—and immigration, political correctness, transgenderism, the culture, the establishment, the left, and the “Dems” are responsible”. As a result, many Reganites and Conservatives became increasingly sympathetic to anti-democratic and authoritarian arguments as the only way to save the country, and were able to justify the unjustifiable with reference to those existential threats.

This all sounds very Snyder-ish, albeit in a far less comprehensive fashion and with a much more limited argument, but I think it’s an interesting piece of work on its own. If nothing else, if thinking about the application of this thesis in the real world is too depressing, it might be useful in interpreting The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Serena Joy.

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