A Review of “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2020)
The year 1999 was a very good year, so Anne Applebaum and her husband, Radek Sikorski, held a party at their Polish country manor house. At the end of a truly miserable century for East-Central Europeans, there was much to celebrate in expectation of greater and better things in the new millennium. In former communist Central-East Europe, democracy had achieved consolidation—all the post-communist countries west of Ukraine had experienced by 1999 at least one peaceful change of government. The painful restructurings that followed the liberalization of these economies were finally bearing fruit with higher standards of living and lower unemployment. The graduating class of post-communist democracies had been admitted to the exclusive geopolitical club of NATO in 1999, offering them more security than ever before. Poland was widely considered first in this class—most reformist, summa cum laude.
As the 20th century drew to a close, American politics was sufficiently carefree to focus on then-President Clinton’s peccadillos. The world economy was enjoying the peace dividend and the dot-com boom. The political successes of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s economic liberalization were being carried forward by the center-left governments of Clinton and Blair, who did not reverse their conservative predecessors’ policies. In Israel, Ehud Barak defeated the failed prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and embarked on renewing the peace process with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The year 1999 also saw the publication of a minor literary phenomenon: Norman Podhoretz’s “Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.” Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary magazine, told the story of his political migration from the left to the neoconservative right through his broken relations with former friends. Anne Applebaum, for her part, would not start her journey in the opposite political direction until 2008. A journalist and editor, she had also been publishing popular history books on communism and its atrocities. She has a long and intimate knowledge of East Europe and especially Poland, where she was a correspondent and has been living with her politician husband. She has even gone sufficiently native to co-author a Polish cookbook. Applebaum’s new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” uses that 1999 fin-de-siècle party in her Polish chateaux as well as a 1995 book launch event in Washington, D.C., as two points of reference—baselines—by which to track the parting of political trajectories that has taken place between former friends who had been allies in the 20th century.
Podhoretz’s book is the more entertaining of these two accounts of political migrations, though not because Applebaum is a worse writer by any stretch. While Podhoretz told stories about Ginsberg and Arendt, Applebaum had to make do with Laura Ingraham and obscure East European functionaries. Some of Applebaum’s subjects refused to converse with her for the book. And those who did speak had apparently little more than platitudes to offer, often culminating with the dubiously moral defense of what Applebaum colloquially calls “whataboutism”—tu quoque. The radical politics of some of Podhoretz’s protagonists, not least their own early Trotskyism, is charmingly amusing in no small part because they enjoyed moral luck; his fellow intellectuals were not in a position to seriously hurt anyone, with the notable exception of Norman Mailer’s wife. Applebaum’s protagonists, by contrast, have enjoyed no such luck. They became too successful to be amusing.
Applebaum asks an important and interesting question about some otherwise dull and mediocre people: What turned these “conservatives” into what she calls “authoritarians”? Applebaum does not examine the political front row, so to speak, with the exception of Boris Johnson. She focuses instead on those ex-friends of hers who gradually settled in as third-row enablers, helpers, spinners, rationalizers and apologizers for the illiberal right.
There is now little doubt that Viktor Orban’s regime in Hungary is authoritarian. But if we understand authoritarianism as the opposite of democracy, as the absence of accountability of the rulers to the ruled, then for most of his reign Orban had not been an authoritarian. Nor are the other usual suspects on Applebaum’s list, from the United States to Poland, either. Instead, these politicians share a resistance to constitutional limits on the powers of democratically elected legislatures and executives. They deny the rights of minorities and the rule of impersonal and universal law, applied and enforced impartially. Their shared policies consist of attempts to dismantle the institutions that should countervail against and, in American parlance, “check” executive powers—institutions ranging from courts to central banks to independent media.
This is what makes these actors, and the regimes they serve, illiberal or, to use an older synonym, absolutist. Authoritarian regimes can accept institutional limits to their powers and respect the rule of law, as in predemocratic Britain, the Habsburg Empire and contemporary Singapore. Much as liberalism can coexist with authoritarianism, absolutism can coexist with democracy. Indeed, classical Greek and Roman democracies were absolute in this sense; they were not limited by traditional restraints or liberal institutions. Classical absolutist democracies led eventually to authoritarianism, to be sure, but it was a long, drawn-out process. What many contemporary writers, including Applebaum, fail to recognize is that the opposing pairs of democracy vs. authoritarianism and liberalism vs. absolutism are in separate political dimensions. While the former is concerned with who rules, the latter is concerned with limits, the extent of restraint on that rule.
The other distinctive feature of today’s regimes, also shared by classical ancient democracies, is populism. Populism, as the ancients understood it, is the politics of passions that trump strictly rational interests served by technocracy. Populism is the politics of fear, hate and wishful thinking. Populist leaders almost always emerge from factions of the elite that either want to use populism to preserve power or obtain it. The current political crisis consists of the intersection of populist electorates with absolutist politicians who, for their part, manipulate the electorates’ passions to achieve absolutist powers. Once they achieve such power, they might dispense with the need to care for, manipulate and satisfy the passions of their followers. They might, in other words, abolish democratic elections, rule as autocrats, and bequeath their throne to their progeny, like Caesar Augustus. But this is still a very long way off in the U.K., U.S. and Israel. The illiberal populists may never become modern-day Caesars.
Some populist illiberals, like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Matteo Salvini, had never been mainstream conservatives before gaining power. But Hungary’s Fidesz and Orban, Poland’s Law and Justice and the Kaczyński brothers, Israel’s Likud and Netanyahu, and the newly populist British Conservative Party and Boris Johnson had all previously been conservative-liberal. For much of their political lives, these parties and their leaders had respected the rule of law, traditional institutions, the professional civil service and limited government.
Applebaum offers no simplistic monocausal explanation for how this new illiberalism arose, nor a single key for understanding these illiberals and their societies—which differ immensely from each other. She is right to resist any single causal account, notwithstanding the points of overlap among these politicians. The illiberal fellow travelers of populism she describes run the full gamut between probable true believers to cynical opportunists. When, for example, formerly staunch “conservative” politicians do a complete about-face and humiliate themselves by abandoning their deepest held principles rather than honorably exiting politics, their opportunistic motivation is clear. Obvious examples include Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Likewise, Boris Johnson, the cosmopolitan former mayor of London, has adopted cynically manipulative politics that (even) he cannot possibly take seriously. Of Applebaum’s former friends, Roger Kimball used the opportunity in 2016 to offer an honest, conservative critique of Trump, but he has enthusiastically defended Trump ever since. Laura Ingraham’s character is more ambiguous since she appears a true believer, while privately she adopted three immigrant children.
John O’Sullivan, to take one of Applebaum’s most interesting examples, was a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher and later editor of National Review. On the night of Thatcher’s victory in 1979, at O’Sullivan’s instigation, Thatcher recited for the cameras the (apocryphal) prayer of St. Francis that can read as an anti-populist credo: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”
Yet, after serving in Radio Free Europe as a Bush appointee and continuing to serve for quite a while during the Obama presidency, O’Sullivan moved from Prague to Budapest as the president of the Danube Institute, a new think tank partly and indirectly supported by the Hungarian government. Applebaum interviewed him while he was on a cruise (probably organized by National Review). While holding onto the creed of Atlanticism and free market liberalism, he deflected tu quoque her questions about Orban, noting nonchalantly that he disagrees with some of the policies of other politicians he supports, drawing a parallel between Orban’s regime changing policies and ordinary policy variations within liberal democracies. There may well be a whiff of sulfur hovering over the bargain O’Sullivan cut with the Orban government. But I am not entirely sure Orban got the better deal.
Explaining how and why people choose their alliances is complicated. Applebaum suggests correctly that, following the end of the Cold War, anti-communist coalitions disintegrated into their constituent parts: anti-modernists, neoconservatives and political realists. The anti-modernists who opposed communism as the most extreme form of modernity were most susceptible to illiberalism because they had never been liberal in the first place. Neoconservative idealists and political realists, for their parts, could find little common ground with the illiberal right. Applebaum, however, does not mention the alliance-fraying effects of the expansion of the NATO Alliance in East Europe in 1999. Joining NATO enjoyed broad political popularity as a means to secure former Warsaw Pact countries against the threat of a revanchist Russia or Germany and, thus, guarantee peace. Yet almost immediately after signing on, post-communist countries found themselves at war with Serbia—a fellow Slavic country with historical ties to Czechoslovakia and Poland. Later, they found themselves unwitting partners in the war on terror and then in the invasion of Iraq. The popular or rather populist post-communist ideal of joining NATO was to become secure by being defended by the U.S., not to assume new risks and insecurities by participating in America’s global wars.
Applebaum uses two French historical frames of reference to interpret the present: Julien Benda’s book on the betrayal of the intellectuals, “La Trahison des Clercs,” and the Dreyfus Affair. Benda considered intellectuals secular prophets who owe their allegiance to universal values, justice and truth, if not to God. He accused French intellectuals of selling their values, loyalties and truth itself to public opinion and political interests, thereby relativizing and instrumentalizing them. Instead of representing reason, intellectuals came to serve and inflame the self-destructive passions that destroyed Europe in World War I. The contemporary post-conservative clercs likewise sold their universal values for a spot on Fox News, Applebaum suggests. The earlier Dreyfus Affair adumbrated, in Applebaum’s opinion, the politics of the passions. In that period, of course, tabloids rather than social media served up narrative representations of fear and hate.
These interpretative frames are useful for understanding populism. As analogies, however, they have limits. Current populists are anti-intellectual. Irregular syntax and grammar, tweet-length arguments, and ignorance of history and literature are required of populist leaders as signs of authenticity and anti-elitism. Most intellectuals, by contrast, have learned the lessons of the disastrous utopian engagements with totalitarianism by the likes of Heidegger, Schmitt, Merleau-Ponty and Lukács. Today’s intellectuals know better than to become politically useful idiots. Academically employed intellectuals are still not required to pick sides—at least in North America and Western Europe.
The “betrayal” of democracy today has been, rather, by politicians, political engineers, and campaign strategists, rather than by intellectuals and academics. The radical shrinkage of the conservative and social-democratic electorates left people who made a living from politics—from politicians and pollsters to pundits, policy experts, and spin doctors—with a choice of joining either the illiberal populists, a broad liberal tent in the center or exiting politics. A uniquely candid examination of these dilemmas can be found in an obscure lecture delivered by the otherwise private and taciturn Republican pollster and strategist Arthur Finkelstein at CEVRO University in Prague in 2011. Finkelstein had worked on 33 Republican senatorial campaigns, including those of Sens. Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms. He had a plausible claim to have invented modern negative campaigning and the use of “liberal” as a pejorative. When he deemed it useful, Finkelstein even used anti-gay messaging to help candidates get elected.
Yet Finkelstein was also mild mannered, sensitive, cultured and, when it became legal, he married his longtime boyfriend, with whom he adopted two girls. In his 2011 lecture, Finkelstein analyzed correctly the state of the Republican Party: originally a coalition of free marketers and cold warriors, racists and Evangelicals. Unemployment and other effects of the Great Recession led to growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant racism among the GOP’s base, particularly against Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
The racists, Finkelstein observed, were becoming more numerous and set to transform the Republican Party into the party of hate. At the 2011 lecture’s Q & A session, I asked him about the ethical dimension of his own actions in the reshaping of the Republican Party. Finkelstein replied that he would work only for candidates with whom he generally agreed, or in races where he did not care who would win. For this reason, he said, he had turned down offers to work for Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential primaries—just as he would reportedly turn down Trump in 2016, prior to his passing in 2017.
The dénouement of this morality play came a bit later, however, when Finkelstein accepted opportunities to work for Hungary’s Fidesz and Orban. He and a business partner, George Birnbaum (an American son of an Auschwitz survivor and a former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) apparently read the polls, interpreted them correctly and then fashioned a winning strategy for Orban: bring back anti-Semitism, embodied in the person of George Soros. I can believe that Finkelstein and Birnbaum did not give a damn about who wins Hungarian elections. But could such a clever duo not know that when the anti-Semitic genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to control it, return it to the bottle after the elections, and prevent it from spilling over into other countries? Birnbaum defended himself to the press, saying that the campaign did not generate new anti-Semites. But even fleeting knowledge of the history of political racism, including the Dreyfus Affair, demonstrates that dangers to minorities arrive when private bigotry becomes politically organized.
The road to Charlottesville was paved in Budapest by a gay Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor. What could motivate these men? Finkelstein could not have been in it for the money. By 2013, after nearly half a century in the business, he must have been very wealthy. Whatever Orban paid him, he could have made more working in American campaigns. The best explanation I can muster for this apparent political pyromania is that they did it because they could. They seemingly derived professional satisfaction from deploying their well-honed technical skills. Engineers and architects, purveyors of instrumental rationality, may be similarly pleased without considering meaning or consequences.
Applebaum’s concentration on elites in all these societies excludes the broader social context in which they have operated. This decontextualization gives “Twilight of Democracy” necessary focus as a book, but it also limits understanding: She notes as a matter of fact that in 2015-2016 the politics of rage simultaneously overtook countries with entirely different histories and social structures. From this convergence, she infers path independence, especially regarding the legacies of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. But the historical context is important. The turn to illiberalism and populism in post-communist states preceded that of countries that had older, better-entrenched liberal institutions. These Central-Eastern European countries in effect served as proverbial canaries in the democratic coal mine.
Orban’s victory in the 2010 Hungarian elections and his reign demonstrated that illiberal populism could be politically successful and could gradually dismantle liberal institutions and the rule of law from the inside—all without significant diplomatic costs or opposition from liberal democracies. When former Social-Democratic prime minister Miloš Zeman was elected president of the Czech Republic in 2013 as a populist, with overt Russian financial support and without American objections, he showed the viability of an election strategy. The Russians would reproduce this success elsewhere. When this wave of contagion reached Poland in 2015, with the victory of the Law and Justice Party, it was already too late for the EU to consider sanctioning or expelling these states, because populist illiberals would vote as a bloc to protect each other.
Applebaum dismisses complaints about “blocked mobility”—the claim that elites have entrenched their positions at the top while preventing others from climbing up—as the cause of mass populist resentment led by particularly mobility-challenged illiberals. She retorts that the supposedly mobility-blocked populist illiberal elites have broadly been socioeconomic winners. Applebaum qualifies the generalization, adding that there were not enough elite positions after the fall of communism to accommodate all former dissidents in elite positions. This was especially true in Poland, where, unlike in other communist countries, there was a mass anti-communist movement. She defends the results of post-communist stratification as essentially meritocratic. The result is that “Twilight of Democracy” regards “authoritarianism” in these countries—which I read as populism—to be a revolt not just against technocracy but also against meritocracy.
But Applebaum’s theory leaves the global rise of populism and illiberalism a puzzling mystery: Why did countries as different from each other as the United States and Hungary, the United Kingdom and Brazil, all develop similar political symptoms within the span of only a few years? A likely common denominator is blocked mobility. These countries all witnessed negative economic growth following the Great Recession in 2008. Since then, growth has been anemic at best. Elites used then all their skills and ingenuity to protect themselves from social decline by blocking the upper mobility of talented and capable scions of lower classes. Consequently, construing populism as a revolt against meritocracy, as Applebaum does, requires a practically Social Darwinian concept of merit as the justified reward for one’s excellence in competing, acquiring and holding scarce resources by any means. Where Applebaum sees meritocracy, others may perceive an oligarchy. True, the illiberal populist leaders are themselves parts of the same oligarchic elite, but they appealed to genuine resentment against a consolidated social structure. The reasons for the absence of mobility in each country beyond the effect of the 2008 Great Recession are of course very different.
In post-communist Europe the 1989 revolutions were political, not social or legal. Regimes and governments changed. Borders opened and geopolitical alliances were redrawn. But the social elites from the communist era remained in place. The lawlessness of post-communist privatization, which disproportionately benefited the communist elites, should not, in principle at least, have mattered. In theory, it should have been possible to create private property spontaneously by “turning off the lights for five minutes,” or by “throwing deeds off helicopters,” because—again in principle—in free economies, over time and irrespective of initial property distributions, competition and creative destruction tend to lead to optimal redistribution of properties to their highest valued social uses. Theoretically, then, it should not have mattered that late communist elites, “red” managers and former secret police officers were overnight transformed into property owners and oligarchs.
But in reality, these elites had no reason to play by the rules of the free market, rather than continuing to use their networks in the civil service and only-too-corruptible political parties to continue to receive subsidies and influence the regulations and regulators that governed their operations. Politically, this “birth in sin” discredited the economic results of 1989. Fidesz and Law and Justice manipulated this popular grievance to gain power by using their reputation as the most extreme anti-communist “street fighters.” This was not a revolt against meritocracy, but instead a revolt against gangster-technocracy. The unfortunate result has been the replacement of one, technocratic, gang with another, populist, gang.
After the collapse of the USSR, maintaining judicial continuity was an inevitable mistake. At the moment of transition from communism, of course, there were no alternative, trained elites to replace the judiciary and the procuracy (a broader institution than American concepts of “public prosecution” that also, for example, operated prisons in some places and that enjoyed higher status under communism than the judiciary). At most, it was possible to let go of the worst and most compromised 10 percent or so of judges, and appoint the few available intellectually competent and politically untainted jurists to new constitutional courts (even still, these courts initially also had their share of post-communists holdovers).
Over the decades, new and better educated judges who were too young to have collaborated with totalitarianism entered the judicial systems as their elders retired. But in Central Europe the judiciary is a distinct career path. New judges begin at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy and advance gradually. The senior judges, who retained their positions from the previous regime, socialized their juniors and determined their promotions. Consequently, the quality of the rule of law has progressed only slowly. Most notably, judges continue to consider current and former elites as literally “above the law” and certainly above the judges in the social hierarchy. The judiciary was, and is, perceived as corruptible and politicized. For example, the Polish government could not find judges who would agree to enforce the lustration law that should have separated former officers and agents of the communist secret police from powerful positions in government. Fidesz and Law and Justice used this civil distrust in the judiciary to replace those judges with their own cadre of politicized hacks, rather than with nonpartisan, well-trained professionals. They also used the cover of political storm to sweep away the better and more independent jurists, especially those in the constitutional courts.
Appeal to the idea of entrenched elites who block mobility explains but, of course, does not justify scapegoating the weakest members of society (minorities, refugees, immigrants, the LGBT community) who, unlike the elites, cannot protect themselves. The genius of the populist illiberals has been in associating blocked mobility with liberal institutions and technocrats who manage them, without actually opening careers to talents. Meritocracy has remained a fantasy. The global popularity of talent shows for performing artists and “reality” competitions for budding entrepreneurs and managerial apprentices is a symptom of societies where meritocracy exists only as a televised spectacle.
Both the insights and the blind spots of “Twilight of Democracy” stem from this elite perspective. It offers a valuable perspective on the politics of former conservative elites, and policymakers and scholars would be wise to read it closely. But because of its focus on these elites, the book says little about changing populist currents in the political ocean in which, inevitably, even elites must swim—either with or against the currents.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to the "early Trotskyism" of Norman Podhoretz. Though in "Ex-Friends" Podhoretz describes many of his friends as Trotskyites, he does not explicitly identify himself as such.