“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.”
– Anne Applebaum
“You want it darker.” – Leonard Cohen
Anne Applebaum’s new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism tells of her experiences with powerful right-of-centre political figures and makes the case that our democracies are in mortal jeopardy of being utterly eroded. She takes us on a tour to many European countries that are in the throes of becoming one-party states.
The book is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the growing rise of authoritarianism, although undoubtedly Applebaum is capable of writing one, having won a Pulitzer Prize as a historian for her writing on the Russian gulag. Twilight of Democracy focuses on the people she feels are destroying democracy. Most of those she writes about were once her friends and one was even a future head of state, but they are no longer speaking to her. (It’s important to understand that she herself is a conservative.) In some instances they are the intellectuals and power brokers who allow one-party regimes such as those now found in Hungary, Poland, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Russia to flourish. She calls these disgruntled people “clerics”: the enablers of would-be despots. Most of them, she feels, have not felt appreciated in democratic societies and desire more power. Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s angry right-wing “what’s in it for me?” acolytes are helping to dismantle democratic states. Truth is the last thing these “advisers” wish to discuss, and “alternative facts” are the way to create division.
Applebaum speaks of “restorative nostalgia,” which is used to rekindle a nation’s supposed past “greatness.” The narrative goes like this: the nation has become a shadow of its former self; the nation’s identity has been taken away and replaced with something less heroic. She warns, of its proponents, “All of them seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power. Alexander Hamilton warned against them, Cicero fought against them. Some of them used to be my friends.” She adds, “Eventually, those who seek power on the back of restorative nostalgia will begin to cultivate these conspiracy theories, or alternative histories, or alternative fibs, whether or not they have any basis in fact.” Sound familiar?
For many people in the UK who support Brexit it is the EU that has sapped the true greatness of Britain. For Trump’s restorative nostalgia gimmick “Make America Great Again” to work, it must have a list of ills that have befallen the USA for which Trump points the finger of blame at Democrats, immigrants, protestors/agitators, Black Lives Matter supporters, gun-control advocates, scientists, anti-fascists, climate change activists and even the coronavirus lockdowns that necessitate masks and social distancing.
Understand that “reflective nostalgia” is quite different. We might study the past or mourn the past, but we realize that in fact life was more difficult then. Those old photographs, though they might have us romancing bygone days, are not going to help us revive those times again.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in 1973, gives us a nightmarish glimpse into the vast Russian prison holding areas. It tells us as much about the insane Kafka-like bureaucracy and Russian dictatorships as about the prisoners caught up in horrific, surreal incarceration. Only raw violent power is recognized as being worth pursuing. Solzhenitsyn’s book should be a reminder of how low all societies could descend.
It’s as if we need to find enemies so that we can justify our own insecurities and create a tribal response based on the fear of the “other.” This is not 1930s politics, but political camps have now metamorphosed into a redrafted belligerency. Words such as “freedom” have become the calling cards of white supremacists, though with that word they would take away the freedom of others.
America has hundreds of militias. The US constitution always has allowed for that, but since Trump came to Washington those militias have come off the firing range and into cities such as Portland, Oregon.
“The public embrace of militias and paramilitaries is clearly recognizable authoritarian behaviour,” says Steven Levitsky, co-author with Daniel Ziblatt of How Democracies Die. Veteran journalist Dahr Jamail concurs. In an interview with Truthout’s Patrick Farnsworth, he ponders, “Are we going to see clearly that we live in an autocratic state? … It also means that we are entering in an extremely darkening age, where whatever stress and chaos and loss that we see today, this is really just a prelude of what’s coming.”
Hannah Arendt wrote persuasively in the second half of the 20th century about fascism: “Totalitarianism in power 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.” [Origins of Totalitarianism]
A levelling of capabilities and talents goes with the kinds of regime that embrace a blind loyalty to their leader. Authoritarianism rewards loyalty and creates corruption and mediocrity in government, as opposed to meritocracy, whereby talented people are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievements.
Last Saturday’s Guardian carried an article by Nick Cohn titled “The meritocracy has had its day”: “Public service jobs once went to people who knew what they were doing. Boris Johnson would rather promote a courtier.” Take for example Australia’s ex-prime minister Tony Abbott, who has recently been appointed as an adviser to the UK government’s board of trade and is a climate denier.
Although many government administrations reward their donors and party faithful, present-day right-wing regimes, including the Trump administration, have severely harmed democracy by promoting utterly unsuitable and undeserving individuals to positions within the highest levels of government. In fact, the march towards totalitarian regimes requires that arm’s-length government-oversight commissioners, who can monitor compliance to high ethical standards in governance, be kicked out. After all, Benjamin Disraeli said, “What is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.”
Twilight of Democracy starts with a dinner party in 1999 and ends with one in 2019, both at Applebaum’s home. Although there were some return guests, some people she knew in 1999 were no longer friends and had become clerics of one-party states. This microcosm of the polarization of society now taking over the world and shredding democracy is one that she feels strongly must be confronted. The risks for our world are far too great. “Participation, argument, effort, struggle” are needed, as well as “some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.”
It is up to us to be vigilant, to speak out against the undermining of our hard-won democracy, and to use the power of our votes.
“Ring the bells that can still ring.” – Leonard Cohen