Critical Review: Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum
Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum explores the rise of populism and nationalist ideology. A melange of the political and the personal, the book takes us behind the curtain of the demagogues of the past and the present, as well as the motivations of their supporters. Starting in Poland, but swiftly travelling across Europe and the USA, Applebaum name drops her famous friends and provides details her conversations with them. It is precisely this “insider account” which is makes the book unique and fascinating, but also lends itself to some criticism.
The book starts at the cusp of the new millennium, at a New Year's Eve party at Applebaum’s home in Poland. Her friends who are in attendance consist of journalists, intellectuals and diplomats -- i.e. the elite. She and her friends hold conservative, centre-right views, and support “the pro-European, pro-rule of law, pro-market” ideals (p. 4). However, as time passes, political divergences ensue, and these friendships do not stand the test of time.
The standard narrative surrounding the surge of support for populism is that this is a rebellion of the unheard. It is the voice of the impoverished underclass, the forgotten natives who have been left behind in favour of globalisation. But, Applebaum is not talking about these people. Rather her book focuses on the “intellectuals” who drive these movements forward. These are the people who sell the image of authoritarians to the public. Applebaum explores the psychology of her former friends and others who further populist agendas. Were her friends simply closeted authoritarians (p. 14) or did something cause their transformation?
The first explanation she presents is restorative nostalgia or cultural despair (p.74). It is the longing of the good old days; the desire to rebuild a greatness that was lost - this was the underlying sentiment which led to Brexit and is personified in Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
Another explanation is careerism or personal gain. This point is illustrated in the portrayal of Laura Ingraham, who, driven by former failure, secured her own prime-time Fox TV show partly because of her connection to Trump. However, it is telling that Applebaum writes “But I don’t think, for someone as intelligent as Ingraham, this is the full explanation” (p. 170). Earlier in the book, she discusses the idea of simple-mindedness, that “people are attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity” (p. 106). But, why is Ingraham exempt from this? Is Applebaum biased due to the personal connection or is she in a better position to decode her behaviour? Applebaum highlights the many contradictions in Ingraham’s personal and public lives (she is against legal immigration yet has adopted three children from abroad), and suggests that the exaggerated advocacy of the far-right is an attempt to hide their own and doubt and shame (p. 171). Is this the manifestation of cognitive dissonance in the political sphere? This may also explain why Boris Johnson told Applebaum how nobody serious wanted Brexit to happen (p. 70), yet ending up being the face of the Vote Leave campaign.
Interestingly, several of Applebaum’s friends have descended into the far-right or populism, yet Applebaum does not ever consider whether there is any relation between this change in ideology and her own centre-right views that her former friends used to share.
Although the individual nationalist movements in the various European countries have many apparent similarities, Applebaum confirms that they are very much rooted in their own country’s specific issues. In fact, they have even clashed with each other. But the thing that unites them, is the issue of foreign immigration, especially Muslim immigration, even where said immigration is not a reality (p. 132). This is exactly what happened in Hungary - a country with hardly any foreigners where the “ruling party has successfully stoked xenophobia” (p.108). She notes that it was the spreading of false images of Muslims “celebrating” the Notre Dame fire that aligned the alt-right and far right groups across Europe, North America and beyond ( p. 137).
There are of course real concerns with (mass) immigration and the influx of refugees did create genuine short-term problems in Europe, but conspiracy theories or “alternative facts” start with an element of small truths before cascading into a series of gargantuan lies. Additionally, whilst the focus of the book is not immigration, Applebaum fails to make a link between the restorative nostalgia which, taking the British as an example, longs for “a world in which England continued to play a privileged role” and “made the rules” (p. 63 - 65), and the anti-foreigner rhetoric which unites the West’s far-right.
So, are we currently in the twilight of democracy? Applebaum herself writes, “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will,” (p. 14). If democracy is built on logic, rationality and reason, then the irrational and emotive nature of human beings would always end up threatening it. The book ends with cautious optimism for the future as Applebaum reminds us that the definition of “the nation”, of “us” and “them” are constantly evolving and that no political victory lasts forever.
By Tooba Kazmi