By Helen Epstein
Twilight of Democracy made me yearn (uncharacteristically) for hard scientific data to supplement Anne Applebaum’s punditry about the pundits.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday; 206 pp)
Like many readers intrigued and troubled by the international lure of totalitarianism across the world, I was eager to read journalist Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Applebaum (born in 1964) follows in the footsteps of a small number of American women journalists such as Dorothy Thompson and Martha Gelhorn, who found in Europe an arena for their professional and personal interests and became prominent foreign correspondents. She has had a distinguished career, working as a staff writer, foreign correspondent, editor, and columnist for major newspapers and magazines – the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Spectator — in the US and Europe. Gulag, her 700-page history of the Soviet labor camps between 1917 and 1986, is considered the foundational work on the subject. Applebaum has long been married to Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish Defense Minister and Foreign Minister whom she met in the heady years of 1989, and has lived in Poland as well as in the US and UK. If anyone is well placed to write about the global rise of authoritarian regimes and their polarization of society, it is Applebaum. I thought this would be a meaty book, but I was surprised that the slim volume reads more like a longer version of one of her Atlantic articles.
Applebaum frames the book with two social gatherings at her family’s country home in northwest Poland — the first on New Year’s Eve of 1999; the second in the summer of 2019. The guests are members of what in Poland is called the “intelligentsia” and what, in the West, are termed “elites” — academics, intellectuals, and political pundits in and around the media. Some of us would recognize this as a self-referential “bubble.” Applebaum describes her guests as examples of what the French philosopher Julien Benda wrote about in 1927 in La trahison des clercs, intellectuals who betrayed their noble calling and became publicists for the Right, perpetuating “the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” The guests present at the first party — but absent from the second, 20 years later — succumbed to “the seductive lure of authoritarianism” embodied by Poland’s current Law and Justice government.
“In ancient Rome,” Applebaum writes, “Caesar had sculptors make multiple versions of his image. No contemporary authoritarian can succeed without the modern equivalent: the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. Authoritarians need people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. 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.”
In Poland, the people Applebaum identifies as clercs are well educated, cosmopolitan, and multilingual. Yet, after the fall of Communism, not everyone got to live out their dreams and, for some ambitious people, the transition to democracy bred resentment. “If you are someone who believes that you deserve to rule, then your motivation to attack the elite, pack the courts, and warp the press to achieve your ambitions is strong. Resentment, envy, and above all the belief that the ‘system’ is unfair—not just to the country, but to you—these are important sentiments among the nativist ideologues of the Polish right, so much so that it is not easy to pick apart their personal and political motives.”
Americans and Brits have lived their lives enjoying the benefits of democracy yet, like Spaniards, Greeks, Hungarians, and the Poles, they are drawn to populist and nationalist authoritarian leaders. Why does this phenomenon cross cultures and borders? Applebaum wonders. She does not offer an answer, but offers a series of miniportraits and encounters with the clercs she knows or has observed.
This would have been an excellent strategy for Twilight of Democracy had her subjects been interested and cooperative. We might have gotten to know some of the people who turned away from democratic ideals to authoritarianism in a meaningful way. But Applebaum, an American Jew, married to a Polish politician, is not welcomed as an interviewer, nor does she observe or report on them in the way an outside journalist would. As a self-described “exotic political spouse,” she has been negatively featured on the covers of two magazines supporting the current authoritarian “Law and Justice” regime of Andrzej Duda. One of them portrayed her as “the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland.” She is, as she points out, part of the story, a participant as well as an observer – not an ideal position for a reporter. Toggling back and forth from gossipy vignettes to weighty historical allusions to contemporary political analysis, her narrative reads more like an unusually intelligent and international dinner party conversation than a serious book.
What drew the many people she portrays to support authoritarian regimes? Disappointment? Opportunism? Conviction? She’s not entirely sure. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” Many of her subjects — not only in Poland but elsewhere — refused to be interviewed by Applebaum. In the US, her one-time colleague, American pundit Laura Ingraham, also refused. It’s unclear to me why Applebaum didn’t delve more deeply into her subjects’ families, the role of their educations, and how and when their political views changed. Despite Applebaum’s very personal beginning, the reader doesn’t get to know anyone at the parties, including the author, in any depth.
What Twilight of Democracy lacks in depth, however, it makes up for in breadth. This slender book highlights ideas about political matters from Plato to historian Timothy Snyder, who distinguishes between Orwell’s Big Lie and the Medium-Size lie. Examples of the latter include the birtherist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States or that George Soros was importing Muslim migrants to replace Christians in Hungary. It sheds some light on complicated and ongoing political events such as Brexit and its instigators; and it highlights how anti-LGBT actions and policies resonate across cultures.
Bottom line: Twilight of Democracy made me yearn (uncharacteristically) for hard scientific data to supplement Applebaum’s punditry about the pundits; for summaries of informed studies of individual and group behavior in regard to authoritarianism; and for a stronger historical context — more than allusions to the Dreyfus Affair or the end of the Hapsburg Empire or Weimar — in which to ground our contemporary political polarization. The author has written a highly readable extended essay that leaves her basic questions unanswered and the importance of her clercs unsubstantiated.
Helen Epstein is the author of 10 books of non-fiction and has been reviewing here since the inception of Arts Fuse.