Democracy is never assured: a review of Twilight of Democracy


 "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 will."

On January 6, 2021, a mob attacked the United States Capitol. Armed with weapons and white supremacist paraphernalia, including the Confederate flag, KKK signs, and Nazi symbols, the rioters interrupted Congress's Electoral College vote certification process to confirm Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. They threatened, stole, hurt, raged, and defiled. Five people were killed. The insurrectionists attacked American democracy in the name of a leader they believed was unfairly stripped of power: Donald Trump.

Why do events like the riot happen? How do alt-right groups championing authoritarianism gain traction in democratic societies, and why are they spreading around the world?

In Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, historian and journalist Anne Applebaum interrogates these questions. Her enthralling exploration of the emergence of one-party governments in Poland and Hungary and rising nationalist movements in Spain, Britain, and the United States reminds us that democracy is never assured.

While acknowledging that the question of what allows an authoritarian's rise to power is multifaceted, Applebaum argues that a malicious leader's success hinges in part on the efforts of intellectuals and elites. Despite the pervasive stereotype that the ignorant and uneducated are the most likely group to support authoritarian leaders, behind the curtain of every icon exists educated, wealthy individuals. These figures— lawyers who find loopholes, writers who warp words, and speakers who fabricate spin— are necessary to creating a "token opposition", or the appearance of a rival political party to assure citizens that the dictatorship is soft and unassuming. Those that are privileged and choose to assist authoritarians have a vested interest in the fruition of a one-party state. They want power, and can earn it by weaponizing their knowledge and resources and loyally serving a singular party. To these elites, morals are a simple sacrifice. Their complicity in promoting authoritarianism is made particularly detestable by their awareness of the chaos that they are creating.

To illustrate this idea, Applebaum paints vivid portraits of former colleagues who have shamelessly committed this sacrifice. Here, where the author intertwines the political and the personal, her commentary is critical and poignant. At one point, she and these individuals were in agreement about "democracy, about the road to prosperity" and close enough to attend New Year's Eve parties together. Now, Applebaum is no longer with speaking terms with those that promote extremist, racist, and discriminatory propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczyński represents one such person; the Polish politician spearheaded the development of nationalist state media for the far-right Law and Justice Party. Mária Schmidt, a Hungarian historian who promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, which resulted in the closing of a university, represents another. American readers may recognize Applebaum's former friend Laura Ingraham, a lawyer and American television host who today advances xenophobic rhetoric on Fox News. Boris Johnson also stands out as a familiar name. Johnson once served as a liberal mayor of a "multicultural" London and opined to the author that "nobody serious wants to leave the EU," but later used his platform to advance anti-immigrant rhetoric for Brexit. The actions of the author's case studies reflect the appeal of authoritarianism to elites seeking power through loyalty: 

"If you believe, as many of my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism...then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them deserves to rule? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore truly deserving of wealth?"

Social media, in the author's eyes, can worsen matters by providing a platform to pro-authoritarian elites and spreading faulty information fast. In times past, anti-communists feared "The Big Lie", an all-encompassing fantasy that would convince citizens to reject democracy. More dangerously, social media enables "medium-sized lies" to proliferate. Medium-sized lies, unlike The Big Lie, rest on tiny, twisted truths to create alternate realities. One need only listen to interviews of the rioters in the pro-Trump mob to see how pervasive these lies can be. In this interview, for example, an insurrectionist and retired Air Force officer who attributed his understanding of the election to social media expressed that he participated in the mob because "The President asked for his supporters to be there to attend, and I felt like it was important, because of how much I love this country, to actually be there." In addition, social media allows budding authoritarian leaders and parties to generate credibility by creating the impression that their base of support is larger than it actually is. The conservative party Vox in Spain utilized this tactic to grow party support after the movement for Catalan independence created confusion and dissent. In other words, equipped with social media, even unpopular leaders can fake it until they make it.

Applebaum deftly weaves why citizenry support authoritarians in spite of lies, oppression, and the death of innocents into explanations about the powerful. An "authoritarian predisposition", or preference for simplicity over complexity, can influence our preferences:

"The jangling, dissonant sound of modern politics; the anger on cable television and the evening news; the fast pace of social media; the headlines that clash with one another when we scroll through them; the dullness, by contrast, of the bureaucracy and the courts; all of this has unnerved that part of the population that prefers unity and homogeneity."

Yet Applebaum does not linger on a note of despair, nor mourn the relationships she lost to harmful ideologies. Her conclusion is effective because it is optimistic but honest. She warns that in America, eroding trust in institutions and other citizens roots a growing sense of cultural despair in an identity of ethnic nationalism defined by "white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall." Subscribing to moral equivalence, or believing that there is no point in doing good if no one else is doing good, can also collapse democracy. But it is the people that retain the power to shape their states. Being an active civic participant and surrounding oneself with others who care about trust and kindness can strengthen us. We can be "rooted to a place yet open to the world."

- ★★★★★ -


  1. "democracy is never assured" Boy, is that ever true! I never imagined I would see anything like the riot. I'm so glad some of our institutions held the line- I was pleasantly surprised to see the courts in particular, and even some officials of the same party, stand up with integrity or things could have been worse. The cultural nationalism, though, is so concerning and apparently widespread-it's going to be a long struggle, I think.

    Anyway it's been amazing to me how many intellectuals have championed Trump. And at the same time, I often think- what if he had been more competent? We were lucky, I think, that he couldn't shoot straight, so to speak. I've heard people say the next authoritarian will be more successful, and I hope that's not true (and doesn't happen anytime soon).

  2. Scary but true words, 'democracy is never assured' I'm just so thankful this time it did win out. This book is one I now want to read.

  3. I haven't heard this book before, but it sounds excellent and I love how in depth your review is! Thank you for sharing, I'm adding this to my TBR now.

  4. Great blog and a really excellent review of Anne Applebaum's book and I must read it. I too have been stunned by how many intellectuals, people who we think should know better, have championed Trump and what a disappointment the GOP Senate and House have been in not holding him accountable. I am so worried about 2024. But Anne's book sounds like the one I should be reading to make sense of it all.