Book Review | The Twilight of Democracy

Authored by: Anne Applebaum | Publisher: Doubleday | Year of Publication: 2020
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The author Twilight of Democracy: The seductive lure of authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer winning journalist and a well-known historian of communism. As she lays out in the book, she is also an international socialite with friends spread out in the political and intellectual landscape of Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom as well as the United States. The book begins with her description of a jubilant gathering in the Polish countryside in 1999 celebrating the dawn of a liberal democratic Poland. Twenty years hence, she finds many of the attendees, who she once considered her ideological comrades, have switched sides and have become enthusiastic supporters of authoritarian regimes. And in their eager cheering of populist governments lies Applebaum’s central question — were they always closet authoritarians?

The book which is part memoir and part political journal describes Applebaum’s exasperation at the support provided by this intellectual class to the mushrooming authoritarians of the western world.

The book which is part memoir and part political journal describes Applebaum’s exasperation at the support provided by this intellectual class to the mushrooming authoritarians of the western world. It attempts to expose their tenuous loyalty to the liberal principles of democracy, freedom of expression, and division of power. Applebaum’s book mainly covers the populist rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the growing totalism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary, the sudden popularity of the far-right Vox party in Spain, the Brexit referendum and (of course) the Trump elections. She paints a grim picture of Kaczyński and Orban’s single-party politics — marked by strangling of free business and independent media, widespread corruption, and muzzling of an independent judiciary. The more secure democracies in that lot are marked by ‘post-truth’ election campaigns, the abasement of the public discourse, and growing protectionism which arouse concerns for the idea of the free and democratic western world order.

The common thread behind this right-wing phenomenon is the cultural despair of a large section of these societies which, she claims, runs parallel to a sense of restorative nostalgia. For some, it is symbolized by Raegan’s American exceptionalism or the buoyancy of the Thatcher days, and for some others, it is a sense of a more nativist past. She draws inspiration from a 1927 book called ‘The Betrayal of the Intellectuals’ and places the onus for the rise of this cultural despair on the shoulders of the intellectual class. It is they she claims who ‘stoke these passions and bend truths in favour of particular political causes’ with their use of sophisticated rhetoric to ‘voice grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear.’ 

The common thread behind this right-wing phenomenon is the cultural despair of a large section of these societies which, she claims, runs parallel to a sense of restorative nostalgia

Nevertheless, the author does not go on to address these grievances of the citizens which obviously have led to a change in their political taste. Similarly, the book alludes to the authoritarian predisposition in populations that favour homogeneity and order. But for the author, the migrant crisis in Europe, changing demographics, undermining of Christian values, and intermittent terror attacks are not legitimate enough reasons for desiring such homogeneity. 

She draws inspiration from a 1927 book called ‘The Betrayal of the Intellectuals’ and places the onus for the rise of this cultural despair on the shoulders of the intellectual class. 

In one section while writing on the nostalgia for American exceptionalism, Applebaum rightly hits the nail on the prevalent ‘hatred for a new American landscape where universities teach people to hate their country, where victims are more celebrated than heroes, and older values have been discarded.’ In a minor way, the great failure of the liberals of our times is revealed in her inability to seriously engage with these resentments and consider them in view of a solution.

Despite these shortcomings, Applebaum in her journalistic style has done a commendable job in laying bare the anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic atmosphere that authoritarianism breeds. The uncritical and unswerving loyalty game, a direct consequence of this atmosphere can only take a nation backwards. It is easy to write her off as a member of those liberal, international elites who oppose democratically elected parliaments that do not suit a specific ideological framework. Yet her emphasis on the mutualism between the intellectual class (which she refers to as the clercs) and the authoritarian leadership brings into focus the question: who qualifies for this intellectual class? Are these meritocratic, result-oriented individuals or is upward mobility reserved only for sycophants and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is the best guarantee of their loyalty to the power they serve?

To conclude she reposes hope in the cosmopolitanism of the coming generation, a generation with ‘no deep cultural differences, no profound civilizational clashes, no unbridgeable identity gaps.’

Applebaum finds that the fading away of democracy coincides with the rise in nationalistic sentiments. To conclude she reposes hope in the cosmopolitanism of the coming generation, a generation with ‘no deep cultural differences, no profound civilizational clashes, no unbridgeable identity gaps.’ However, the question that lingers on is about whose cultural identity and civilizational norms will be erased to be replaced with a dominant set of ideas that are claimed to be global. Faced with this crisis, maybe democracies will be left with no other option than to elect leaders who they feel will be best positioned to resist.

1 comment

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  • A very wholistic review, critical yet appears aware of the reasons such opinions take birth from. Highlighting salient points with apt references highly appreciated. Overall a professional review.

B Shruti Rao

B Shruti Rao

B. Shruti Rao is a part of the Yenching Scholars at Peking University. She is a Young India Fellow, Ashoka University and has previous work experience with India Foundation and PriceWaterhouseCoopers Bangalore

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