Written by Democracy

Anne Applebaum’s New Book “Twilight of Democracy”

OGERTA LALA

Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Democracy is complicated, diverse and not guaranteed anywhere. Not in the United States of America, not in the United Kingdom, not in Spain, not in Italy and certainly not in Poland or Hungary. Democracy must be protected everywhere. This is the highlight of Anne Applebaum’s new book “Twilight of Democracy”.

Applebaum brings on modern authoritarian regimes her insights as historian, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History, whichnarrates the history of the Soviet Union concentration camps. She brings also her gravitas as acknowledged journalist who has written for the Economist, Washington Post and the Atlantic.

Differently from most of Applebaum’s previously published work, “Twilight of Democracy” it is a natural blend of political analysis, philosophy and personal stories. What makes the book special is the fact that Anne Applebaum speaks her mind as much as her heart.

The book opens up with Anne and her husband, Radosław Sikorski, throwing a party for their Polish guests and friends who were part of the Polish “intelligentsia”[1], in December 1999, in a village in rural Poland. The book closes with another party hosted by Anne and Radosław in the same village in 2019 but definitely with different guests. In the timeframe of two decades not only politics had changed but also their friends. Many of Anne’s guests and friends in the 1999 party, had shifted their political views from liberalism towards authoritarianism. She is not afraid to name and shame every one of her guests who once were partying with her and now they were ashamed of even admitting the participation in her party. On the other side, Anne admits that “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party”. What led Anne’s friends to change their political views from liberalism to authoritarianism? What caused their unpredicted transformation into vocal sympathizer of autocratic regimes?

Applebaum dares to state that “when given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will”. The recent rise of the far-right rhetoric and illiberalism, not only in the “East” but “West” and globally, demonstrates that authoritarianism can easily replace democracy everywhere.

Initially, “Twilight of Democracy” takes place in Poland where the current government of Law and Justice party is known for their conservative ideology, the homophobic agenda and the destruction of media freedom especially in the case of the national television station.

Applebaum discusses the case of Hungary where nepotism, state capture and corruption are clearly visible. In both countries, citizens are being served and fed with conspiracy theories and “Medium size lies”. In Poland, Kaczynski has used the Smolensk tragedy to electrify its followers. Meanwhile, in Hungary, Orban is using “Medium-size lies” such as George Soros and the Muslim migrants and blames them for the problems that the country is having. In the 90s Muslim immigrants coming from former Yugoslavia and Chechnya settled in Hungary and Poland and such settlements have never caused any distress or tension within the societies. Truth is that immigration is an imaginary problem in Hungary and Poland.

Applebaum believes that the promotion of the conspiracy theories and “Medium size lies” by governments has an extraordinary impact on societies beliefs and morale. She dares to question what was the role of Polish state television in the assassination of the Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz? Jo Cox, a member of the British parliament was also murdered by a man who believed that England would be destroyed by brown foreigners. Needless to say, what is happening in Poland or United Kingdom might be some sort of “conspiracy” problem connected with the propaganda apparatus.

Applebaum turns her attention toward the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The British are dealing with Brexit and since the 1960s, as Dean Acheson, United States Secretary of State under President Truman said, “has not yet found a role”. The Brexit campaign revived the idea that a world where the UK could make the rules does exits. The British people are to believe they are special, so special that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has suggested that the coronavirus infection rate is higher in the United Kingdom than in Germany or Italy because Britons love freedom more[2].

The political situation is similar in the United States. Trump’s victory in November 2016 gave end to the common morale of the American people. Americans are more divided than ever thanks to “Medium size lies” that the Trump campaign and then later administration has been fueling into the society. Trump and his advisors have introduced into the political spectrum “another version” of events which are being used to furthermore brainwash the conservative followers into engaging “at least part of the time, with an alternative reality”. Applebaum argues that people have always had different opinions but now it seems that they have different facts.

The ideas of “alternative facts”, “alternative reality” were used by U.S. Counselor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 2017. Conway totally fits the description of what Applebaum calls “clercs”. Steve Banon, executive chairman of Breitbart News and former White House’s chief strategist in the administration of President Donald Trump is also a “clerc”. The Brits have their “clercs” such as Neil Farage, leader of the Brexit Party and previously leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Dominic Cummings, chief spin doctor of the Leave campaign and now Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister Johnson. Poles, Hungarians, Spaniards they also have their “clercs” but of course less famous.

The term “clercs” was coined by the French philosopher Julien Benda in the short book “La Trahison des Clercs” from 1927. The “clercs” are intellectuals, writers, television producers, people of influence, spin doctors who help the spread and rise of authoritarianism. The “clercs” are “restorative” nostalgic about the past. According to Applebaum they want the world to be as it has been in the past. They want to behave like their predecessors did and they want to do it now and that is why restorative nostalgia “goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories and “Medium size lies”.

Applebaum observes that “clercs” are in every society and that authoritarianism can cross cultures and borders easily. She is troubled and worried about the future. In the meantime, Applebaum wonders and hopes that the pandemic that we are going through will wake up in us the sense of lost solidarity, but she is also skeptical that the situation might also enforce autocrats in power. In the end, will democracies will be able to defeat authoritarianism and prevail? The answer to the question relies on the future but “we must accept that both futures are possible. No political victory is ever permanent. …”

Ogerta Lala is a communication expert at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. Previously, she has worked as an anti-money laundering and compliance consultant for Deloitte Warsaw. Ogerta is a graduate of College of Europe and SUNY New Paltz, New York. Her research is mainly focused on anti-money laundering, anti-corruption and transatlantic relations.


[1] Intelligentsia. —Informed intellectual people; the educated or professional group, class, or party; —often derisive.” The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “That part of a nation that aspires to independent thinking.”

[2] https://www.thelocal.de/20200922/coronavirus-boris-johnson-contrasts-germanys-lower-infection-rate-with-freedom-loving-uk

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