Books for Our Times: “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” by Anne Applebaum

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Second in an ongoing series, “Books for Our Times”

We live in troubled and turbulent times: The great experiment in self-governance — democracy — appears to be faltering, the liberal world order appears in retreat, and authoritarian reign appears on the rise. To make sense of the chaos, what better voice to hear than one that is measured and real, deeply read and experienced, someone who “walks point” into the trouble and turbulence and comes back to report, in a personal and not oracular tone, “Here’s what I think is going on.”

That is the voice Anne Applebaum uses in her new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” a short book (only 189 pages) that is big on the contours of our times. While the title “Twilight of Democracy” might strike one as Wagnerian, Applebaum’s treatment is provisional and, in the end, hopeful that — if we stick together and keep thinking clearly — we can make our way through the dark to a better place.

This is the voice that first drew me to Applebaum, with her columns in The Washington Post, where she wrote for 17 years; she shifted this year to The Atlantic as a contributing writer, writing at length. In fact her voice is so free of polemic yet liberal-seeming that I assumed she was center-left, as I am, and did not know, until this book, that she identifies as center-right: Married to a Polish public figure and living in Poland, to be anticommunist, as she explains it, is to be of the right, not the left. Being of the right, and also forthright, she assesses in this book her former ideological comrades as they journeyed, self-blinded, into authoritarian thinking. (She did the same recently for The Atlantic in a brilliant essay on Republican complicity.)

That journey, and the ensuing parting of ways, is vividly traced in her book’s opening, in which she describes a party she and her husband Radek hosted at the turn of the millennium, New Year’s Eve 1999. While the guests — journalists (like herself), government officials (like her husband), diplomats, hailing not only from Poland but from around the world — were nominally conservative, “at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals,” not only classical free-market liberals but believers in democracy — rule of law, checks and balances, the European project. Yet today, 20 years later, half of those guests, now moved far-right, “I would now cross the street to avoid… They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there.” She follows up with some to learn the Why of their transformation — these meetings are tense, tape-recorders going — but finds only ideological defensiveness. In essence, the book is an inquiry into the Why: the lure of authoritarianism. The book ends with another party.

Applebaum’s tour d’horizon of democracies tending authoritarian range from new ones — in addition to post-Franco Spain, there are Poland and Hungary, freed from Soviet domination, both quickly turning illiberal — to those of longer duration: France, England, Italy, and of course the U.S. (Applebaum is American-born). On the matter of duration, Applebaum sounds this sobering note: Democracy is not necessarily forever. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

Just as Applebaum book-ends her account with parties, she book-ends her inquiry with two reigning ideas. The first I found especially illuminating, in showing how, in a democracy, authoritarian rule comes not through violence but via the aid of small-d democrats. This idea was propounded in the French writer Julien Benda’s 1927 book, “La trahison des clercs,” or “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals,” in which he observed the elites, left and right — writers, journalists, essayists — whose output supported either “class passion” (Soviet Marxism) or “national passion” (fascism), accusing them, per Applebaum, of “betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth.” (I get now the Why of Applebaum’s dispassion.) Sarcastically, Benda called these fallen intellectuals clercs or clerks, minions who paved the way for Hitler and Stalin. Her own book, Applebaum writes, “is about this new generation of clercs and the new reality they are creating.” One thinks immediately of the “alternative facts” deployed by Donald Trump’s clercs in his quest for strongman rule.

Applebaum’s other reigning idea, cited at the end, is from Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, specifically his essay written in the 1950s, “The Choice of Comrades,” in which he described, per Applebaum, “why he was still engaged in politics, despite so many disappointments and defeats.” Silone had been Communist, then anticommunist; he may have collaborated with the fascists before turning antifascist; he’d been “under illusions and then been disillusioned,” seen the excesses of two different extremist politics. Still, says Applebaum, “he thought the struggle was worth continuing. Not because there was a nirvana to be obtained, and not because there was a perfect society to be built, but because apathy was so deadening, so mind-numbing, so soul-destroying.” Echoing today’s atmosphere, Silone’s countrymen felt, per Applebaum, “that ‘all politicians are crooks’ or ‘all journalists lie’ or ‘you can’t believe anything.’” Silone understood the impact: “Political regimes come and go,” he wrote, but “bad habits remain” — and the worst habit is nihilism (italics mine), “a disease of the spirit.”

In between these ideas— the blind passion of the clercs, the nihilism of the clercs and the people — Applebaum traces how democracy can erode from within. She speculates on the psychological need — resentment, chiefly — that enables a clerc to argue a lie in the face of fact and how a clerc comes to devalue messy democracy for the simplistic illiberal one-party state — it really is, al fondo, all about power. Food for my thought: the nihilism of the right — “All is decadence, all is lost” or “Only God can save us” — that Applebaum sees among former ideological comrades; quite rightly, she cites the nihilism of the left, too — its distrust of institutions, the media, even “bourgeois” democracy itself. One former comrade she takes us close to is British prime minister Boris Johnson, whom she knows from his journalism days. She tells us how she lost her own faith: when the Bush administration engaged in torture in Iraq (my brief too) and when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his V.P. She shows us how the far-right exploits the public’s dissatisfaction with democracy — its messiness, its ineffectual response in crisis, its corruption — with promises to “make [name of country] great again” (see: chapter titled “The Future of Nostalgia”).

And, importantly, she zeroes in on the tango would-be strongmen dance with clercs to disable democracy and achieve one-man rule, with a detailed look primarily at Hungary’s Viktor Orban and also Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

In sum, Applebaum covers a lot in a short space. Like the guide I cited up front, she paints the big picture and lays out the “deets.” Concluding, she says: Democracy is in twilight and that twilight can lead either to permanent darkness or to better days. She leaves us with this: “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.” We struggle on, we push back. And someday we will party.

Further about the author: Applebaum has also written three books of history on the former Soviet Union, with one, “Gulag,” winning the Pulitzer Prize.

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Written by

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

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