By Eric L.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is a great read for the current moment. The title of the book should give you a fairly good idea of what the book is about. Anne Applebaum’s area of analysis and expertise seems particularly relevant right now. Sadly, she and I agree that hate and the belief in authoritarians has increased in recent times in America. Applebaum discusses how this is also the case in Britain, Hungary, and Poland (countries with which she has experience). Applebaum’s husband is involved in politics in Poland, which provides her an interesting vantage point into the “power elite” (my term).
If you’re not familiar with Anne Applebaum, I would encourage you to read some of her articles in The Atlantic. I am mainly familiar with her work through this magazine. She is a journalist, but I would also describe her as a historian who has authored several highly regarded books on Russian history. She is also currently a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. I would describe Anne Applebaum’s politics as different than mine, where she is “center right” and I’m not. We may differ on specific policy prescriptions and perhaps views on liberalism and markets, but we agree that hate and authoritarians are both inimical to democracy.
The book grabs you from the onset by describing a New Year’s Eve party they hosted as the 20th century ended. She details the somewhat raucous party, the guests, and the optimism many attendees shared for liberal democracies in the 21st century. I am younger than Applebaum, but I recall a similar optimism (and perhaps a little worry about Y2K). She then goes on to describe how in the 20 years since this party many of the guests would no longer speak to each other, and how’d she’d cross the street to avoid some of these folks. In our highly polarized and political society we can all share this sentiment to some extent. Perhaps we don’t know Boris Johnson personally, as she does, but we can relate, and her brief biographical sketch of Johnson is indeed indicative of western politics at this moment.
The book is written by a good journalist, and thus it is engaging and thoughtful. It is very Western-focused, but it does concern more than the United States. The similarities of the things happening in these countries are a bit frightening. Personally, I’m remembering the era during the last century when fascism began to spread in the West.
She goes into detail through character sketches of some of the people and the trajectory of their political beliefs. Many were former anti-communists and are now hard-right and authoritarian in nature. She points out that these are not poor, rural people, but actually quite elite, wealthy, and well-educated. She subsequently proffers her theories as to why this is the case, including that of a behavioral economist who suggests about one third of the population, irrespective of political beliefs, has an authoritarian “disposition.” This actually does not surprise me. Applebaum also puts words to the belief of many of these folks that things were better in previous times. The section where she delves into the different types of nostalgia is very interesting.
I don’t agree with everything Applebaum posits, however I’d like to think she’d appreciate that fact. Specifically, I think she discounts corporate power and race issues in America. They’re addressed, but not to my satisfaction. Where I agree with Applebaum is that democracy is messy, it’s problematic, and not everyone is happy. In sum, it’s tough! It’s certainly much easier to be in complete control and get your way all the time. However, I don’t think I have an authoritarian “disposition” and I think getting my way all the time is not good for me psychologically. That said, I hope we’re not in the twilight of democracy.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is also available in large print and as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.
Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.