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Twilight of Democracy

January 7, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

The twilight of democracy became visible with a shock in the storming of the Capitol yesterday. The United States of America have been an example for the Western democratic world for decades, but over the past four years they slided towards authoritarianism, rearing its ugly head in yesterday’s events. Ann Applebaum writes: “The new right wants to overthrow, bypass, undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists”. QED.

Ann Appplebaum’s book helps to understand yesterday’s events but doesn’t offer a solution. She writes that American democracy was intended to be built on the basis of rational debate, reason, and compromise. But the founding fathers had no illusions about human nature. They knew that any political system built on logic and rationality was always at risk from an outburst of the irrational and that special measures were needed to prevent democracy from sliding back into tyranny. They sought to create a system, stuffed with checks and balances, that would encourage people to behave better. Although the American political system is creaking at its seams, the Senate and the House of Representatives today confirmed the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

Ann Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a former columnist at the Washington Post. She has written extensively about the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In her new book she tries to understand what attracts people to authoritarianism, including some of her former friends with whom she shared a worldview that was dedicated to representative democracy, religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions and transatlantic alliance. Now some of those friends work for people like Victor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. She wanted to understand their altered worldview but they refuse to speak to her.

Applebaum writes that these supporters of authoritarianism are not like the ‘deplorables’ of Hillary Clinton. They are not poor and rural. They have not lost their jobs to migrant workers. They are not part of an impoverished underclass, they do not match any of the lazy stereotypes. On the contrary, they have been educated at the best universities, they often speak foreign languages, they live in big cities and they travel abroad. They are the intellectuals that support authoritarians “to promote the riot or launch the coup”.

Applebaum quotes the economist Karen Stenner who states that about a third of the population in any country has what she calls an authoritarian predisposition, one that favors homogeneity and order. The opposite is a libertarian predisposition, one that favors diversity and difference. Authoritarianism appeals to people who cannot tolerate complexity. They prefer simplicity, because it makes them feel safer and more secure. Authoritarianism is anti-pluralist and it is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas; it can sit at either side of the political spectre.

This is a well-written book which makes it a joy to read, also because Applebaum makes her exploration palpable by writing about her personal experiences and those with family and friends in Poland, Hungary, the UK and the US. She ends her book with a note of hope. She writes that democracy is not self-evident. “The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. (…) We always knew, or should have known, that alternative visions of our nations would try to draw us in. But maybe, picking our way through the darkness, we will find that together we can resist them.”

Ann Applebaum. Twilight of democracy. The seductive lure of authoritarianism. Doubleday, 2020