What, then, has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? 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 eventually will.
Stenner’s definition of authoritarianism isn’t political, and it isn’t the same thing as conservatism. Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity: there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their politics from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.
Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.
Unlike Marxism, the illiberal one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power, and it functions happily alongside many ideologies.
The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil rights jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable: they went to the most loyal.
You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture, corruption. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: it represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy, political competition, and the free market, principles that, by definition, have never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, what’s wrong with it?
Although the Macierewicz commission has never produced a credible alternate explanation for the crash, the Smolensk lie laid the moral groundwork for other lies. Those who could accept this elaborate theory—could accept anything.
More to the point, it offered a means of defining a new and better elite. There was no need for competition, or for exams, or for a résumé bristling with achievements. Anyone who professes belief in the Smolensk lie is by definition a true patriot—and thus qualified for a government job.
The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth.
But this thing I was calling polarization was nothing new. “The post-1989 liberal moment—this was the exception,” Stathis Kalyvas said. Unity is an anomaly. Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.
More recently I have come to suspect that “democracy,” at least as an international cause, was far less important to a certain kind of nostalgic conservative than the maintenance of a world in which England continued to play a privileged role: a world in which England is not just an ordinary, middle-sized power like France or Germany; a world in which England is special—and perhaps even superior. That was part of why some of the nostalgic conservatives were always suspicious of the Single Market that Britain did so much to create.
It is not by accident that restorative nostalgia often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories and the medium-sized lies.
In due course, the EU became a kind of fixation for the nostalgic conservatives. Quite apart from any legitimate criticisms of EU policies or behaviors—and of course there are many to be made—“Europe” became, for some of them, the embodiment of everything else that had gone wrong, the explanation for the toothlessness of the ruling class, the mediocrity of British culture, the ugliness of modern capitalism, and the general lack of national vigor. The need to negotiate regulations had emasculated the British Parliament. The Polish plumbers and Spanish data analysts working in Britain were not fellow Europeans who shared a common culture but immigrants threatening the nation’s identity.
Alongside the revival of nostalgia, the disappointment with meritocracy, and the appeal of conspiracy theories, a part of the answer may lie in the contentious, cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself: the ways in which we now read about, think about, hear, and understand politics.
Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative.
People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.
The algorithms radicalize those who use them too.
Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal.
Democracy itself has always been loud and raucous, but when its rules are followed, it eventually creates consensus. The modern debate does not. Instead, it inspires in some people the desire to forcibly silence the rest.
It wasn’t an ideology on offer, it was an identity: carefully curated, packaged for easy consumption, cued up and ready to be “boosted” by a viral campaign. All of its slogans spoke of unity, harmony, and tradition. Vox was designed, from the beginning, to appeal to people who were bothered by cacophony. It offered them the opposite.
It was a perfect example of the American alt-right, the European far right, and Vox all messaging the same thing, at the same time, in multiple languages, attempting to create the same emotions across Europe, North America, and beyond.
By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left—their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change—met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy. Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump. Two years earlier, Trump had railed against American failure, and called for a solution Trotsky would have appreciated: “You know what solves [this]? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have … riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
Trump himself contributes new elements to this old story. To the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the far left he adds the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world. Trump has no knowledge of the American story and so cannot have any faith in it. He has no understanding of or sympathy for the language of the founders, so he cannot be inspired by it. Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations.
For the party of Reagan to become the party of Trump—for Republicans to abandon American idealism and to adopt, instead, the rhetoric of despair—a sea change had to take place, not just among the party’s voters, but among the party’s clercs. “
Those two visions of the nation, this disagreement about “who we are,” split France right down the middle—or, perhaps, revealed a split that had been there all along, beneath the placid assumptions of rapidly industrializing, modernizing France. Tempers flared. Social allegiances changed—and guest lists were altered. In the later volumes of his great novel Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust described how the Dreyfus case ruined friendships and reorganized society.
All of these debates, whether in 1890s France or 1990s Poland, have at their core the questions that lie at the center of this book: How is a nation defined? Who gets to define it? Who are we? For a long time, we have imagined that such questions were settled—but why should they ever be?
It might be a turning point. Maybe my children and their friends—all of our friends, and all of us, really, who want to go on living in a world where we can say what we think with confidence, where rational debate is possible, where knowledge and expertise are respected, where borders can be crossed with ease—represent one of history’s many cul-de-sacs.
It is possible that we are already living through the twilight of democracy; that our civilization may already be heading for anarchy or tyranny, as the ancient philosophers and America’s founders once feared; that a new generation of clercs, the advocates of illiberal or authoritarian ideas, will come to power in the twenty-first century, just as they did in the twentieth; that their visions of the world, born of resentment, anger, or deep, messianic dreams, could triumph. Maybe new information technology will continue to undermine consensus, divide people further, and increase polarization until only violence can determine who rules. Maybe fear of disease will create fear of freedom.
He had seen the excesses of two different kinds of extremist politics. Still, he thought the struggle was worth continuing. Not because there was a nirvana to be obtained, and not because there was a perfect society to be built, but because apathy was so deadening, so mind-numbing, so soul-destroying.
My review of the Twilight of Democracy