on July 21, 2020
Genres: 20th Century, History, Nonfiction
From the United States and Britain to continental Europe and beyond, liberal democracy is under siege, while authoritarianism is on the rise. In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum, an award-winning historian of Soviet atrocities who was one of the first American journalists to raise an alarm about antidemocratic trends in the West, explains the lure of nationalism and autocracy. In this captivating essay, she contends that political systems with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else.
Despotic leaders do not rule alone; they rely on political allies, bureaucrats, and media figures to pave their way and support their rule. The authoritarian and nationalist parties that have arisen within modern democracies offer new paths to wealth or power for their adherents. Applebaum describes many of the new advocates of illiberalism in countries around the world, showing how they use conspiracy theory, political polarization, social media, and even nostalgia to change their societies.
Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity
I would have never known about this book if I wasn’t in a book bingo challenge that asks us to read one of Barack Obama’s recommended reads of 2020. I spent the whole time reading it wondering how I had missed following this author.
The book opens with the story of her New Year’s Eve party in 1999. She was an American living in Poland. She is a journalist. Her husband is a leader in conservative circles in Poland. She talks about the people at that party. They were close friends. They were godparents to each other’s children. Now they don’t speak. Ideological differences since then have pushed them apart. Many of her former friends have gone on to support authoritarianism in Poland, the U.K., and the U.S. She and her husband are more centrist-right in their political ideas. They are pariahs.
This was a hard book for a crazy liberal like me to read. It describes a world view that is antagonistic to my own. It was a very worthwhile read though because it put into words things that I have been thinking but unable to articulate nearly as well as she does. I was highlighting large passages on my ereader.
Arendt observed the attraction of authoritarianism to people who feel resentful or unsuccessful back in the 1940s, when she wrote that the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
These modern-day clercs understand their role, which is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, and however disastrous their impact on ordinary people and institutions. In exchange, they know that they will be rewarded and advanced.
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.
I found myself nodding along as I read. Everything she talked about triggered a memory of at least one thing that has happened in the U.S. in the last few years.
Reflective nostalgics miss the past and dream about the past. Some of them study the past and even mourn the past, especially their own personal past. But they do not really want the past back. Perhaps this is because, deep down, they know that the old homestead is in ruins, or because it has been gentrified beyond recognition—or because they quietly recognize that they wouldn’t much like it now anyway. Once upon a time life might have been sweeter or simpler, but it was also more dangerous, or more boring, or perhaps more unjust.
Restorative nostalgics don’t just look at old photographs and piece together family stories. They are mythmakers and architects, builders of monuments and founders of nationalist political projects. They do not merely want to contemplate or learn from the past. They want, as Boym puts it, to “rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.” Many of them don’t recognize their own fictions about the past for what they are: “They believe their project is about truth.” They are not interested in a nuanced past, in a world in which great leaders were flawed men, in which famous military victories had lethal side effects. They don’t acknowledge that the past might have had its drawbacks. They want the cartoon version of history, and more importantly, they want to live in it, right now. They don’t want to act out roles from the past because it amuses them: they want to behave as they think their ancestors did, without irony.
Yeah, I know some of these people. I was also reading this as the Republicans became the minority party and started using the term “unity” at every opportunity.
…she reminded me that the “authoritarian predisposition” she has identified is not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness. It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences—therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.
She concludes that it comes down to how people define being “American” or “British.” People who think of it as a genetic heritage will lean towards authoritarianism when life gets complex. People who define it as a set of ideals to live up to function better in a multicultural society. She says that to move people in that direction to fight for democracy is going to require new partnerships.
I’d recommend this book to everyone who was horrified by the Trump administration and who wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- European Reading 2021