Twilight of Democracy—A Review
Anne Applebaum (US Embassy, Kyiv, Flickr)

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

John Lloyd
John Lloyd
12 min read

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages.

Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless.

The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness of its own message that democracy’s sun is now setting in the West. She elaborates on this claim when she writes that, for this development, “there is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution. But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” [emphasis mine] That’s as large a statement about our liberal democratic future as any in this time of large statements about our liberal democratic future. Since this is the work of a serious commentator—previously for the Washington Post and now as a staff writer on the Atlantic magazine—it should be taken seriously. The more, since, in her 30s, Applebaum wrote The Gulag: A History of the Soviet Concentration Camps, a magnificent and deeply felt work of extensive research, which showed how “prisoners were treated like cattle, or lumps of iron ore.”

Which is to say that, on the subject of illiberalism, Applebaum is more familiar with the topic than most popular commentators. She is surely correct to note that authoritarianism is a protean “–ism,” expressing itself in both right-wing and left-wing forms. Of the world’s two leading authoritarian or despotic states, Russia inclines to the Right and China (ostensibly) to the Left. In the Western world, the right-wing form is presently more evident in opposition, holding power in only Poland, Hungary, and the United States. The left-wing variant, meanwhile, tends to dominate in South America (excepting Brazil), especially in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Anyone as familiar with Stalinism as she is through her researches into the dictator’s mass incarceration system knows the difference between old-fashioned dictatorship and modern authoritarianism. Where Italian fascism, Stalinism, and Nazism were governed by big lies, the new authoritarians rule by what Timothy Snyder calls the “medium sized lie,” of which Donald Trump’s assiduously repeated claim that Barrack Obama was not born in the United States is the best known example—shameful in its implicit racism as it was in its manifest mendacity (but one which forced the former president to demonstrate documents to sink the claim—though not with all in Trump’s support base.)

Applebaum believes—following the psychologist Karen Stenner—that the authoritarian allure is most popular among those who dislike complexity, since it provides easy answers, and relieves people of choice. In this, she slips, for she does not show this to be the case. The various examples of those she introduces, who have switched from liberal anti-communist conservatism to dour anti-European nationalism, may have adopted false conspiratorial simplicities. Yet they are without exception clever, politically active, and used to working with complexities of various kinds. The masses who would be assumed to dislike complexity are absent.

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Applebaum’s Gulag is arguably the definitive account of the Soviet prison camp system by an outsider. In Twilight of Democracy, however, she offers an insider’s account of Western conservatism’s populist turn as she chronicles its effect on the elite journalistic and political circles in which she has moved during her career. The book opens with a New Year’s Eve party on the cusp of the new millennium, held in the family mansion she and her Polish husband Radek Sikorski had renovated. Between 2007 and 2014, Sikorski would serve as deputy foreign minister in Poland’s liberal-centrist Civic Platform government, and the guests at that party—politicians, journalists, artists, sundry professionals—generally shared the values of their hosts: moderate conservatism, attachment to free markets and free trade, anti-communism, enthusiasm for the European Union, and cultural openness. Spirits were high, and amid the general exuberance, one of the guests shot her pistol into the air.

That guest, Applebaum reports, now “appears to spend her days as a full-time Internet troll, fanatically promoting a whole range of conspiracy theories, many of them virulently anti-Semitic.” This is a pit into which a number of her guests that night have since fallen (Applebaum is Jewish and lost not only those she thought were friends, but watched as they embraced doctrines that consider her an enemy). They also grew hostile to the EU and aggressively nationalistic.

They turned coats as, it seemed, the country did. The Law and Justice Party, created by the brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński in 2001, had grown fast enough to form a coalition government between 2005 and 2007, and then a majority administration from 2015 to the present. Founded as a rightist Christian Democratic party, “its radicalism immediately became clear” when it assumed office for the second time. This time around, the administration packed the constitutional court and the civil service with its supporters, turned the public broadcaster into a propaganda channel, marshalled museums and galleries into patriotic displays, and began to openly advertise its dislike of gays. Very few migrants are allowed to enter Poland, and the most conservative kind of Catholicism has been willingly enrolled into national service, its tenets broadcast by the popular Radio Maryja.

Lech Kaczyński became Poland’s president in 2005, and was killed five years later, along with his wife and many leading officials and military officers, when their jet crashed as it tried to land at Smolensk air base. The party onboard was bound for a ceremony held in remembrance of the 1940 Katyn massacre committed by the Soviet NKVD, and a conspiracist cult has since grown up around the accident. The surviving brother, Jarosław Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice party and the most powerful political figure in the country, has repeatedly alleged that the crash was a Russian plot, although evidence supporting this theory has yet to be produced. One of Applebaum’s former journalist friends has spent the past decade “investigating, over and over again, a set of conspiracy theories involving the death… each time postulating a different explanation.”

Lech was considered more flexible than Jarosław, and the latter’s politics have only hardened in office. It may be that authoritarians in power produce, of necessity, an “ideology” of sorts as a means of retaining and consolidating support. Jarosław’s favoured pitch seems to be a cocktail of nationalism and reactionary Catholicism (not at all of Pope Francis’s stripe), and he has even declared that every Pole must be a Catholic.

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Applebaum is particularly good on her British friends, including the present prime minister who, though highly ambitious and in some things brilliant, was never wholly serious. His misleading dispatches from Brussels for the Daily Telegraph, she says, blazed a trail for tendentious tabloid Euroscepticism and helped to inculcate myths about the EU’s overweening power over British democratic life. “His specialty,” she writes, “was amusing, half-true stories built around a grain (or sometimes less than a grain) of fact that poked fun at the EU and invariably portrayed it as a font of regulatory madness. His articles had titles like ‘Threat to British Pink Sausages.’ Although they were laughed at by those in the know, these tall tales had an impact.”

Johnson’s journalistic career, which continued through his periods as mayor of London and MP, was marked by extravagance of language and an adolescent urge to provoke. He had multiple affairs, and (it is said) fathered several illegitimate children. As foreign secretary, he was a mediocrity, but he was very keen to be prime minister even so, and in the end, he succeeded in spite—or maybe because—of the fact that his evident unseriousness had led very few people to take him seriously. But he is taken seriously now and, as one who contracted the coronavirus and nearly died, must take himself more seriously too. It’s still too early to pass a definitive judgment on his ability, although Britain’s response to the pandemic has not been especially distinguished on present evidence.

Applebaum once moved in these circles, too—her husband had been prominent on the Tory Right since Oxford, where he had belonged to the select Bullingdon Club, and she was a journalist, mainly for British centre-Right publications. She uses her experience to identify the curious emergence of a kind of upper-class postmodernism (of which Johnson is the main exemplar). She became deputy editor of the Spectator magazine in the mid-90s and was a participant at lunches and meetings where “the tone of every conversation, every editorial meeting, was arch, every professional conversation amusing; there was no moment when the joke ended or the irony ceased.” She catches the mood well, in which commentators like Johnson could casually employ racial slurs and anachronistic imperial language to satirical effect and everything could be waved away as a mischievous rebellion against the strictures of political correctness.

Applebaum sees her old journalistic friends turning away from liberal pro-Europeanism and towards a nostalgic nationalism-imperialism. Not, she reassures, because they want India back, but because there nevertheless still exists “a nostalgia for something else: a world in which England made the rules.” The Brexiteers, she argues, “believed that it was still possible for England to make the rules—whether the rules of trade, of economics, of foreign policy—if only their leaders would take the bull by the horns.” She adds that she has “come to suspect that ‘democracy,’ as an international cause, was far less important to a certain kind of nostalgic conservative than the maintenance of a world in which England continued to play a privileged role… in which England is special [her italics], and perhaps superior.”

She instances two old friends—the commentator and historian Simon Heffer and the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. She says that both have submitted to a deep cultural despair about their country—“the idea of merit has gone out of public life,” wrote Heffer, who thinks the UK has become a “banana republic” and that neither Labour PM Tony Blair nor Conservative PM David Cameron had “a scintilla of principle” between them. Scruton, not to be outdone, wrote that “the old England for which our parents fought has been reduced to isolated pockets between the motorways.”

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If Applebaum’s account of English liberal Toryism is a story of old friends lost to nostalgic despair, Hungary is a story of old friends now in thrall to a quasi-dictatorship having fallen into a “narrow nationalist trap.” Maria Schmidt is a writer who had celebrated Hungary’s opening to democracy following the collapse of communism in 1989 (a process in which it was a pioneer). Today, Schmidt is wealthy and uses her magazine Figelyo to churn out pro-government propaganda. She is hostile to Applebaum, and participates enthusiastically in the demonization of George Soros, the émigré Hungarian billionaire and funder of the Central European University, now largely forced out of Budapest.

Another Budapest resident and former close friend is John O’Sullivan whose long career has included stints as a Daily Telegraph editorialist, aide to Margaret Thatcher, columnist for the Canadian National Post, and editor of the National Review. A man, in other words, with a conservative career of some distinction, and a mellifluous writing and speaking style which made him good company. Now O’Sullivan is at the Danube Institute, a think-tank “marginal” to the politics of the state but which exists, Applebaum says, to present a picture of Hungary to the world as a fully-fledged democracy.

She reaches O’Sullivan by phone while he is on a cruise, and their conversation is testy. He tells her she is much changed from the anti-elitist woman he once knew—“I was now part,” she reports him saying, “of a ‘liberal, judicial, bureaucratic, international elite’ that was opposed to ‘democratically elected parliaments.’ [O’Sullivan] didn’t really explain how you can even have a ‘democratically elected parliament’ in a state like Hungary, where the government can and does cheat with impunity, where opposition parties can be randomly fined or punished, where a part of the judiciary is politicized, and where the bulk of the media is manipulated by the ruling party.”

There are many other such encounters in the book, and they usually end, and sometimes begin, with a row. One of her conclusions is that the new politics, of division and rapid-fire polemics, is in part a consequence of social media, and the communication universe they create. Applebaum has, with the writer Peter Pomerantsev, conducted some research into this at the London School of Economics, and believes that:

The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favour… if you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites… Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal.

She may be right about this, but the normalcy of division doesn’t seem especially new. In the Scots fishing community in which I grew up, people believed the weirdest and most rebarbative things about one another—my mother, the local beautician and hence the node of gossip, would pass some of what she heard on to me, and indeed shared in some of it herself. A few miles away, in the Fife coalfields, communism and Stalin remained genuinely popular deep into the 1970s (they had a Communist MP, Willie Gallacher, for 15 years between 1935 and 1950). Catholicism was regarded as a foreign cult, and vigorously, sometimes violently, despised. Some of that still lingers in Glasgow and Dundee. All without the benefit of Twitter.

Applebaum’s portrait of the Tory Brexiteers misses a good deal of nuance, too. Johnson’s default mode of expression is ebullient optimism, not declinist despair. And while he may have engaged in puerile postmodern race-baiting as a commentator, in power he has appointed the most ethnically diverse cabinet ever seen, especially to the most senior posts. The head of his policy unit, Munira Mirza, is the daughter of a working-class Pakistani immigrant; his first chancellor, Sajid Javid, was the son of one. Javid’s replacement Rishi Sunak is the Hindu son of a Kenyan father and a Tanzanian mother, and the home secretary Priti Patel is the daughter of parents who came to the UK from Uganda. Politically, meanwhile, Johnson has shifted his party to the Left not the Right, and become (at least, as of this writing) a working peoples’ Tory and an enthusiastic advocate of pumping money into the neglected provinces of the UK.

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Applebaum has crafted a book of great readability, helped by an easy and uncluttered explanatory writing style and anecdotal use of her own experiences, likes and dislikes. Her personal judgments make it vivid and—on a higher plane than that of a beauty parlour—enjoyably gossipy. But at times, this narrow perspective causes her analysis to become myopic. By peopling her gallery with friends and acquaintances who occupy positions of relative prominence, she excludes the very people whose support of populist movements she considers a threat to democracy. Indeed, these are the people who justify the title of her book.

However, the reactionary turn among some of Applebaum’s Polish friends doesn’t mean that Poles have rejected liberal democracy. Indeed, in the presidential election in July, the incumbent Andrzej Duda barely scraped a victory over Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski by 51 to 49 percent on the second ballot—and this was with state media working overtime on Duda’s behalf. Trzaskowski had won the mayoralty of the country’s capital in October 2018 with nearly 57 percent of the vote. He comes from a well-known musical family, was educated in Oxford and Paris and elected to the European Parliament. Last year, he signed a declaration in support of the Polish LGBT community. In other words, he is exactly the kind of cosmopolitan liberal Law and Justice love to hate, but who many Poles stubbornly seem to like. When Poland broke with communism 30 years ago, for a public figure to support homosexual rights would have been bizarre. The country has come a long way down a civil path since then.

And when Brexit is assumed to be a matter of nostalgia, there has to be evidence drawn from those who actually voted for it, and not just from those members of the elite who worked or wrote in its support. Data from three separate pollsters—YouGov, Ashcroft, and the British Election Study—identified “sovereignty” (a desire for laws to be framed by the British parliament) as the most important reason leavers voted as they did, followed by a wish to see greater control exercised over immigration—which is, in a sense, the same thing. A preference for a democratic parliament over a not particularly democratic institution like the EU isn’t a sinister choice. One might argue—as I did and so voted—that the UK’s longterm position of remaining a member while opposing further integration was the better option. But the Brexiteers had a perfectly defensible position of their own which doesn’t seem to owe much to nostalgia, still less to imperialism.

Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP for the former mining town of Wigan and now shadow foreign secretary, is one of the few Remainers who recognized the strength of popular anger produced by repeated attempts to reverse the (narrow) vote for Leave by holding a second referendum. Writing in the New York Review of Books, she observed that “to seek to overturn a democratic referendum looks like tyranny to those who fought hard, using that vote as their only tool, for the security, dignity, and hope that was denied to their parents and grandparents.”

The languid, long-lunching layabouts at the Spectator arrived, in some cases, at the same conclusion as the former miners of Wigan, and probably for the same reasons. They decided that a clearly understood democratic parliament was a better forum for preserving them from tyranny in a world where national parliaments remain, for good and ill, the only reliable institution over which the mass of people can exercise a little power. So long as these remain vigorous and their parties free and combative —as they do in most of Europe and North America—then democracy’s sun won’t settle into twilight yet.

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.