This is my first book by Anne Applebaum. She is a journalist and historian, but this one is certainly written more from a journalistic perspective. What drew me to this book is the fact that Applebaum is closely associated with Poland (her husband was at some point a Minister for Foreign Affairs in Poland). So while she deals with radicalization of the far-right and populism, she also uses the Polish example as her stepping stone.
Her tale starts on the New Year’s Eve in 1999, turning of the millennium. Quite a big party at her house drew in many of her and her husband’s friends. They were all hopeful, all was right with the world and it looked only up. Democracy and liberal capitalism seemed to be working and felt like to solution worth spreading and pursuing. Now as she writes her book, during the pandemic, she is no longer on speaking terms with many of her guests. In fact to avoid meeting some of them she’ll happily cross the street, while others agree to speak with her for this book only if they can record their copy of the conversation. A total erosion of trust that eradicates any trace of what was once friendship.
With this personal starting point Applebaum starts to analyze what changed in those twenty years to create such a rift between her and her friends, who once shared the same values and ideals. Then she broadens her scope to try and understand if the same reasons are behind the global rise of populism that threatens the world as we know it.
From the party she dives into a bit of historical side-story, regarding various forms of non-democratic state seen throughout history. Wondering if oscillating between democracy and tyranny is humanity’s natural cycle of forms of government. Once done with history she takes a psychological angle, trying to understand what constitutes authoritarianism in individuals. Among other things she mentions the firm rejection of complexity. People who favor authoritarian forms of government do not deal well with any form of complexity, hence pluralism is what they hate most. A single truth or even untruth, as long as it’s single, would always be preferable, to the multitude of narrations present in any democratic society.
Having built this theoretical foundation she moves on to analyzing examples. Country by country she moves through Poland, Hungary, Spain, the UK, the US and France. She starts with people she knows personally, as if this could help her understand their motivation in supporting a party that is founded on a conspiracy theory (Smolensk plane crash), aggressive nationalism and homophobia. It really doesn’t help. What she instead makes clear is that any form of authoritarian state needs their new elite. As populist as it can be, the populism needs to be built by an elite of journalists, lawyers, historians and politicians, who, for various reasons are fully loyal to the system and will use their skills to support it at all cost.
The rejection of democracy, meritocracy and fair competition by those forces is baffling. But only until we consider that some of those people feel they haven’t gotten their due in a system based on meritocracy, so they will happily support a revolution that will given them the recognition they think they deserve in exchange for their unfailing loyalty rather than merit. She describes how some of those people support a party that expresses opinions that cannot possibly be reconciled with their personal life (eg. a woman supporting homophobic Law and Order in Poland, while her son is openly gay). A kind of schizophrenia.
Another ingredient she identifies, while looking at the UK and US is the reconstructive nostalgia. An emotion based on idealizing the past combined with active efforts to bring that imaginary past back (‘Make America Great Again‘ and ‘Take Back Control’ being the prime summaries of this approach). It’s longing for the past where the world was simpler, life was more fair and our nation (whichever it is) was a key player in the world’s arena.
Once we have the combination of authoritarian personality, perceiving democracy and meritocracy as a rigged system, with the reconstructive nostalgia there is just one thing missing to make it a highly explosive combination. The media, or rather the broadly understood communication. Until probably twenty years ago all of us were part of one conversation. We could agree or disagree, but we were talking. As Applebaum writes democracy is loud and raucous, but it leads to consensus. This time is over. There is no longer one conversation, now each side has their own conversation and they never cross paths.
As soon as we stopped using television, radio and mainstream newspapers as our main sources of information we lost the common platform. The online news feeds tailored to our individual interests not only amplify our perceptions by feeding us more of what we saw and agree with. They isolate us completely from people who think otherwise. We don’t get to see their side of the story ever. Using a simple example, imaginary one, if I would watch a lot of content about pandas (because they’re cute) there is quite a big change my news feed would be full of news about pandas around the world, about zoological gardens, maybe some news about China. Now imagine my friend is watching a lot of content about Dingo, their feed will be full of dogs and Australia. The potential for us to have a conversation on something we both read it minuscule.
As we become more and more isolated in our small news kingdoms, we also become easier to manipulate. What’s more our need for simplicity grows. We want what we know. We don’t want to whole world to shout at us about its misery. And the algorithms do their job beautifully. They give us tailor-made ignorance.
Applebaum’s book is worth reading for her first hand examples. She writes about people she knows, she also writes about her own disappointment and doubts. But it s more a book of a journalist than a historian, some of the ideas feel rushed. I felt like some of them could use with a more in-depth analysis rather than being supported by one single example.
On the flip-side this is precisely why this book is so easy to read. It highlights the problem, does a quick and dirty root cause analysis of it and leaves us to do the rest. Which is not a bad approach, but sometimes feels a little superficial. For example with all the literature she mentions there is one book that is weirdly missing – The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz, for me the ultimate book about how intelligentsia/elite works in an authoritarian state.
Nonetheless, it is certainly worth reading. It consolidates some global phenomena that we sometimes still tend to perceive as disparate from country to country. Applebaum brings us the very personal view and understanding combined with a bird’s eye view of the global situation. And it is a scary picture that she is painting.
Quotes from the Twilight of Democracy