Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism | BOOK REVIEW

Grayson Lewis

Anne Applebaum offers us her own explanations for liberal democracy’s recent retrograde trajectory in her 2020 book, Twilight of Democracy: the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Her work adds to the growing number of scholars warning of the dangerous trends of democratic erosion. Admitting that the book has no central thesis, the author instead identifies a set of culprits, along with their motivations and tools of the trade. It is today’s media figures and intellectuals on the political right who are largely to be blamed for empowering the modern populist demagogues that are wrecking (small “l”) liberal democracy. Either out of a sense of growing cultural despair and a dissatisfaction with the results of liberalism, or perhaps just pure self-serving calculations, these individuals are now using their mastery of modern communications technologies to propagandize on behalf of contemporary ultranationalist, would-be autocrats.

Applebaum partially builds her work off of an interwar tract by the French philosopher Julien Benda, who writing in the 1920’s, made similar arguments in a time of deep political polarization and division. Benda accused several “fallen” intellectuals and media figures of his time –des clercs in his French- of betraying the academic search for truth and reason in favor of partisan political causes. He was vindicated when these individuals went on to serve as apologists and spin-doctors for fascists or communists. Applebaum contends that today’s clercs labor on behalf of would-be strongmen like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States, or the xenophobic Vox and Law and Justice politicians in Spain and Poland respectively. Like in Benda’s time, modern clercs extoll the supposed wisdom and might of the caudillo or Party who commands their allegiance, while also discrediting or dismissing legitimate questions of that leader or cadre’s integrity, morality, or adherence to institutions and norms which might otherwise be a check on their power. Whereas clercs once wrote in newspapers, published books and pamphlets, or took to the radio waves to get their message across, today they wield the formidable reach of the internet and television. 

For Applebaum, the most painful element of her narrative is the acknowledgement, the wistful acceptance, that many of these modern clercs used to be her coworkers, professional colleagues, and even her close friends. The author begins Twilight of Democracy recounting a 1999 New Year’s Eve party that she threw at the turn of the millennium for dozens of conservative friends of her and her husband, Polish politician Radek Sikorski. Most attendees knew each other from their work in the Polish, British, and/or American center-right political institutions of that optimistic, unipolar era of democratic capitalism’s ascendance. Two decades on, many of Applebaum’s girlfriends, office chums, even a godmother to her children, who began the year 2000 with her and her husband at that party have since grown to believe that her ideological views are sinister and treacherous. “…I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” the author laments, and “they in turn would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit that they had ever been there.” A leading critic of communist authoritarianism, in the Soviet Union, she personally identifies with the center-right ideology of “European Christian Democrats… and the [American] Republican Party of John McCain.” It is not her politics that have changed for the sinister, but those of her onetime friends and colleagues.

Who then, of Applebaum’s circle of former acquaintances, does she indict as modern day clercs? Figures as well-known as Boris Johnson (himself a former journalist) and Laura Ingraham are discussed in lengthy sections of Twilight of Democracy, as are less recognizable individuals like John O’Sullivan of Britain, Jacek Kurski of Poland, Maria Schmidt of Hungary, and Rafael Bardaji of Spain. While many of these individuals weren’t at the New Year’s Eve party, nor are some of them figures that the author has talked to more than a few times, she nonetheless identifies them as once being the kind of people that she once enjoyed keeping company with. All of these individuals were at Applebaum’s metaphorical New Year’s party.

Not all clercs have the same rationale for abandoning their dedication to truth and democracy. For some, it is a growing sense of cultural despair, a fear that what has “made a country great” is fading away in the face of immigration, secularization, globalization, or dependence on other nations. Into this camp fall characters like Laura Ingraham, who has become one of the most desperate and apocalyptic voices on the right. She and others like her have apparently lost their Reaganite optimism about America’s potential to improve the lives of both its own citizens and people across the world through its influence and example. Staunchly supportive of the “America First” vision of recent President Donald Trump, Ingraham has spent the last four years of his administration excusing or explaining every one of his brazen assaults on the rule of law, electoral integrity, and civil liberties in the United States. To Applebaum, an acquaintance of Ingraham’s, the marquee Fox News anchor’s defense of Trump -a man whom she mocked years before his political career- is born out of an agreement with his policies and his appraisal of America’s condition. Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, protectionist trade stances, anti-abortion sentiment, and derision of multiculturalism were more than enough to make up for any autocratic tendencies he regularly manifested. The author describes Ingraham and those like her as apocalyptic in their perception of leftist political ascendancy as an existential threat to their vision of what America, or the West more broadly, should be. “And if the real America, the true America is disappearing,” Applebaum explains, “then extreme measures might be required to save it.”

Perhaps, for some clercs like Poland’s Jacek Kurski, authoritarianism’s “seductive lure,” is simply more of a self-serving calculus. While his older brother found success and renown in the 1990’s and 2000’s as a liberal newspaper editor, Kurski was a relatively unnoticed and talentless legislator. He was always in his brother’s shadow, craving his success but coming up short. That is, until he caught the eye of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party who, in exchange for his fealty, put him in his current position of prominence: the head of Poland’s leading public television news network. The network that Kurski now controls, TVP, was once comparable to the BBC in its reputation for quality journalism. Kurski has degraded and deformed TVP to a regime propaganda network, producing programs with taxpayer dollars that mock, slander, and undermine the Polish parties and politicians opposed to Law and Justice.

For Kurski and clercs like him, neither ideological commitments – to Law and Justice’s hardcore conservative principals or any other belief set – nor a dedication to democracy, autocracy, or any form of governance- are particularly important. In Applebaum’s telling of things, what matters to such individuals is what they need to do and say to gain power, money, love, or revenge. To gain their desires by buttressing the public image and electoral chances of demagogues and populist tyrants, a free press is something to be manipulated and undermined. As LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, judicial independence, and the rule of law come crashing down in Poland, their demise hastened along by a cadre of TVP broadcasters under the command of Law and Justice, Kurski continues to jealously guard the fortune and fame he thinks life owes him.

Maybe the most interesting element of Twilight of Democracy is its discussion of the modern tools which today’s clercs use to evangelize for their strongmen. In addition to television, the most potent tool that clercs deploy is the internet. Applebaum, echoing the observations of many modern scholars of technology, points to the double-edged nature of the world wide web’s fundamental characteristics of being user-driven and non-hierarchical. Everyday users can choose which online articles, videos, podcasts, or images to consume. Their choice of such media sources can reinforce their own worldviews while failing to present them with conflicting, possibly more accurate information that could change those beliefs. In a time where ever more people are getting news from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, professional, standards-driven journalists are unable to weed out those sources that are biased or unreliable.

This provides the opening for clercs to push divisive, fact-free content on behalf of populist politicos. Clercs design videos on YouTube, podcasts on Spotify, or memes on Facebook and Twitter to play off feelings of pride for an idyllic, unrealistic sense of the past and the homeland. Other pieces of online media can be crafted to evoke anger and suspicion towards outgroup members (Muslims, feminists, Jews, Hispanics, LGBTQ+ individuals, etc.) who are to be blamed for the perceived problem of the in-group. Some do both. All of them share the core characteristics of being built on lies, or at least half truths and misunderstandings. Together, sustained campaigns by clercs to spread these messages across social media, online message boards, and video streaming sites ensure a distribution to a much wider audience than was previously possible before the internet.

In her final chapter- again with a party, 20 years on from her original New Year’s bash- the author apprises that history is cyclical and unending. The future has never been set in stone, even before the world-altering coronavirus pandemic hit as this book was nearing completion. She cautions that democracy is not a passive undertaking, and warns us “to choose our allies and our friends with great care…for only with them, together, is it possible to avoid the temptations of the different forms of authoritarianism once again on offer.” 

She is reminded of the historical analogy of the Dreyfus Affair, now mostly forgotten to the ages. Here too, clercs used contemporary technology (newspapers) to divide and enrage the denizens of Europe over the issue of antisemitism. While the Affair and a lack of common facts surrounding it divided friendships and families, eventually the truth prevailed. With time, these old partisan animosities were forgotten for other political issues, and nations healed. The clercs of that time, Julien Benda’s contemporaries, faded away into obscurity. The conclusion that Anne Applebaum leads us to draw is that if we are indeed in a true Twilight of Democracy, there is perhaps reason to hope that at some point in the (hopefully near) future, we will see it reborn in a radiant dawn.

Grayson Lewis
is a recent graduate from the Democracy and Governance master’s program at Georgetown University.