.
A

t the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama penned The End of History and the Last Man, a work of triumphalist political philosophy that argued that with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ascendancy of the Western liberal order, humanity was approaching the “end of history”—this being the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The triumphalism was nearly universally shared. The West had won, what else could follow in its wake?

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism | By Anne Applebaum | Doubleday | July 2020.

Thirty years later, the piece seems quaint, naïve, and perhaps, full of hubris. Today, authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, with the seeming momentum of the fringe right and left now squeezing out the middle—if such a thing exists anymore. The “End of History” decidedly did not occur and liberal democracy is no longer guaranteed as it was once assumed to be.

In her new book Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum explores the allure of authoritarianism and how it is imperiling liberal democracy. An author of previous books on Russia’s gulags and the famine in Ukraine, Ms. Applebaum’s approach to this issue is innovative and intriguing. Using her own personal New Year’s Eve party in 1999 as a starting point, she explores how her friends and professional network have diverged in the subsequent years with some being drawn into the orbit of authoritarians.

The Authoritarian Eco-System

In her tour d’horizon, she starts in Poland, then covers Hungary, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The parallels across each are frightening but informative. Her decision to explore beyond the immediate protagonists of new authoritarianism is clever and thought-provoking. It is less a story about the Orbans, Kaczyńskis, or Trumps of the world and more about those around them—the individuals who are drawn to and enable the authoritarian tendencies she articulates.

There is, as Ms. Applebaum writes, an eco-system of sycophants and supporters, or clercs—borrowing from the French philosopher Julien Benda—that gravitate toward authoritarians. They are the bloggers and meme-ers, spin doctors and intellectuals, functionaries and bureaucrats who normalize the authoritarian, echo and enhance the message, draw it from the fringe to the center, change the frame of reference for society. They flock to the authoritarian for any number of individual and personal reasons—be it cynical power politics, profit, or the pursuit of popularity—just as the rank and file supporters find themselves drawn to the authoritarian to fill their voids and absences.

She notes individual resentment about the system, economic pressures, frustration with one’s lot in life, envy, entitlement, dissatisfaction, among other reasons for supporting authoritarians, but doesn’t find a single reason sufficient. This shortcoming is fair—it is a complex and individual journey as she notes. Discussing individuals in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States, she explores personal journeys of these clercs from the center-left or center-right to the far-right fringes of authoritarianism.

Yet, in so doing, she provides insights into the allure for the average person—what makes an authoritarian attractive to the average American, Briton, or Pole.

The Allure and Attraction of Authoritarians

In her exploration of how authoritarians appeal to individuals, Ms. Applebaum could, if anything, be too dismissive of the underlying grievances. Perhaps grievance is not the right word, but rather it is the perception of grievance that drives those to support authoritarianism.

The vast majority of the Western world enjoys a standard of living unheard of in human history. As Ms. Applebaum notes, it is the absence of the finer things such as WiFi or air conditioning that seem to denote hardship today, not a want of food, shelter, or security. This is not to discount structural or systemic issues or to ignore societal inequality, but at a macro-level, the standard of living is unequaled in human history.

Yet, there is, for a portion of American society, a perception of grievance and discontent, that something is wrong and insufficient about modern society. The perception that their lives are harder than they should be, that they should be somewhere other than where they are, and that there is no explicable reason why it is this way. They perceive that their way of life is under siege, be it by immigration, multi-culturalism, foreign competition, cultural and economic “elites,” or something else.

There is a desire of nostalgia, a return to life as it was, even if that nostalgia—as most of it is—is founded on fallacy and false memory. It is less a desire to remember things as they were with wistful memories, but a desire to return to that “simpler” time when X was X and Y was Y; when the individual knew their place in society and society made sense to them.

Authoritarians seize upon this sense of perceived grievance and twist it toward their cynical political ends, enabled by the clercs who normalize it and rationalize its extremities. Here, the allure of authoritarianism is in its simplicity—its narrow answers to complex challenges. It provides binary answers to multi-part equations.

For the authoritarian and their supporters, the problem is not societal or technological change, it is the “other.” It is not your fault, it is “theirs,” whoever “they” may be—manifested in wholly unacceptable Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, George Soros, or any other flavor du jour. It’s not a force beyond your comprehension or control; it is a system that is designed against you. For the aggrieved, it provides an identity, a sense of self, or mission, amidst societal upheaval or social change. It provides a rationale or understanding of the perceived grievance.

The Medium-Sized Lie

The authoritarian spins the “Medium-Sized Lie,” as opposed to the “Big Lie”—the latter being a propaganda tool used by Adolf Hitler, something so egregious that no one would believe its advocate could distort the truth so much. The Medium-Sized Lie is that false story contemporary authoritarians use to satisfy the perceived grievances of the populace.

In Poland, the Law and Justice Party crafted its Medium-Sized Lie around a conspiracy theory about the Smolensk air disaster, which claimed the life of the then-president and most of his cabinet. Despite an independent investigation that laid much of the blame on an aircrew pressured by the traveling politicians to land on schedule in foul weather, many—including the dead president’s brother—clung to an alternative truth. The Law and Justice Party (PiS, in Polish) warped the perceptions of many Poles, using the Smolensk tragedy to consolidate power and wealth. In so doing, PiS demonized those they deemed as insufficiently patriotic, bolstered the Catholic Church and demonized LGBTQ individuals, and sought to undermine cultural, legal, and bureaucratic institutions.

Viktor Orban spun his Medium-Sized Lie in Hungary, blaming the country’s ills on non-existent Muslim migrants, the European Union, and George Soros. Under this Medium-Sized Lie, Orban twisted the country from the inside, radically reshaping its cultural, bureaucratic, and legal institutions. In so doing he created a cadre of clercs beholden to him, and whose wealth and power is decided by him. A Soviet Union-style competition of loyalty and fealty ensues—who is clapping loud enough and long enough, who is praising the prime minister most vociferously? No one wants to be the last one clapping.

For Great Britain, its Medium-Sized Lie was found in its lost Empire, which was replaced with a struggle to find a sense of place in the world. A sense of nostalgia for when the world made sense and was driven from Whitehall and Parliament. London clung to, as Ms. Applebaum notes, the “special relationship” to a greater degree than Washington, punching above its weight as a Greece to America’s Rome. The sense of loss compounded by changing demographics made a portion of largely English society—egged on by fringes of the Tory party—revolt against Brussels and the “Eurocrats” personifying the faceless bureaucracy causing all of contemporary Britain’s socioeconomic ills.

In America, as Ms. Applebaum notes, the rise of this reactionary authoritarianism that comes from the Republican Party is surprising. For “the Party of Reagan,” of small-c conservatism and gradual change, to support the erosion of the institutions of liberal democracy, something has clearly changed, and not for the better. In Ms. Applebaum’s estimation, the contortions with which supporters of the president must undergo is similar to that of other clercs in Europe. Friends of hers, who were Reagan Republicans, are now advocates of the president and his policies, and his erosion of institutions and violation of shibboleths.

Losing Belief

So much of what has sustained the Western liberal democratic experiment is collective buy-in into the institutions that make this model work. Its courts, its elections, its representatives, the very things that make up a liberal democracy. When trust in these institutions erodes and when belief in their fairness is broken down, the system itself becomes unstable. There is the perception of grievance that the system has failed the individual, that it has not met their expectations, and therefore it must be overthrown.

There are real and significant systemic societal issues that need to be and must be addressed. But rather than address those issues through civil discourse, conversation, and compromise, a sense of anarchic nihilism has taken its place. Ironically, here both the far-left and the far-right appear to agree: The system itself is corrupt and must be brought down. The system itself is beyond redemption and must be overthrown. The system itself stands in the way of human progress and therefore must be burned to the ground.

America’s Founding Fathers had no such presumption that the system was perfect or that men were angels. As she writes, “Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy.” Indeed, that’s why they crafted such—until perhaps recently—a robust and malleable system that moderated the extremes, provided checks and balances, and oriented natural tensions between conservatism and progressivism towards compromise and conciliation.

The Future

Those looking for, or hoping for, some sort of outcome, resolution, or path forward will be sorely disappointed. As Ms. Applebaum notes, there is none. There is no defined future path—the world could be akin to Weimar Germany, in the twilight of democracy, and heading toward a future of authoritarianism, or we could find ourselves going through the looking glass and finding a renewed sense of collaboration and cooperation. Either, as she notes, are equally plausible. What is, perhaps, meant to be a closing note of optimism—another parallel party with her friends, children and their friends, and neighbors—is less optimistic than she would perhaps have intended.

Ms. Applebaum’s writing is hauntingly beautiful. Her prose is fluid and enthralling, evocative and poignant. It is a shame and disappointment that the topic is so thoroughly depressing; honest and real, but depressing, nonetheless. There are no clear or easy answers in this book. This is not a weakness of the book in any sense. It forces the reader to consider the myriad of reasons for the attractiveness of authoritarianism and holds up a mirror to society in a way few books in recent times have done.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Twilight of Democracy

Photo by Grant McIver via Unsplash.

August 1, 2020

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism | By Anne Applebaum | Doubleday | July 2020.

A

t the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama penned The End of History and the Last Man, a work of triumphalist political philosophy that argued that with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ascendancy of the Western liberal order, humanity was approaching the “end of history”—this being the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The triumphalism was nearly universally shared. The West had won, what else could follow in its wake?

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism | By Anne Applebaum | Doubleday | July 2020.

Thirty years later, the piece seems quaint, naïve, and perhaps, full of hubris. Today, authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, with the seeming momentum of the fringe right and left now squeezing out the middle—if such a thing exists anymore. The “End of History” decidedly did not occur and liberal democracy is no longer guaranteed as it was once assumed to be.

In her new book Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum explores the allure of authoritarianism and how it is imperiling liberal democracy. An author of previous books on Russia’s gulags and the famine in Ukraine, Ms. Applebaum’s approach to this issue is innovative and intriguing. Using her own personal New Year’s Eve party in 1999 as a starting point, she explores how her friends and professional network have diverged in the subsequent years with some being drawn into the orbit of authoritarians.

The Authoritarian Eco-System

In her tour d’horizon, she starts in Poland, then covers Hungary, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The parallels across each are frightening but informative. Her decision to explore beyond the immediate protagonists of new authoritarianism is clever and thought-provoking. It is less a story about the Orbans, Kaczyńskis, or Trumps of the world and more about those around them—the individuals who are drawn to and enable the authoritarian tendencies she articulates.

There is, as Ms. Applebaum writes, an eco-system of sycophants and supporters, or clercs—borrowing from the French philosopher Julien Benda—that gravitate toward authoritarians. They are the bloggers and meme-ers, spin doctors and intellectuals, functionaries and bureaucrats who normalize the authoritarian, echo and enhance the message, draw it from the fringe to the center, change the frame of reference for society. They flock to the authoritarian for any number of individual and personal reasons—be it cynical power politics, profit, or the pursuit of popularity—just as the rank and file supporters find themselves drawn to the authoritarian to fill their voids and absences.

She notes individual resentment about the system, economic pressures, frustration with one’s lot in life, envy, entitlement, dissatisfaction, among other reasons for supporting authoritarians, but doesn’t find a single reason sufficient. This shortcoming is fair—it is a complex and individual journey as she notes. Discussing individuals in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States, she explores personal journeys of these clercs from the center-left or center-right to the far-right fringes of authoritarianism.

Yet, in so doing, she provides insights into the allure for the average person—what makes an authoritarian attractive to the average American, Briton, or Pole.

The Allure and Attraction of Authoritarians

In her exploration of how authoritarians appeal to individuals, Ms. Applebaum could, if anything, be too dismissive of the underlying grievances. Perhaps grievance is not the right word, but rather it is the perception of grievance that drives those to support authoritarianism.

The vast majority of the Western world enjoys a standard of living unheard of in human history. As Ms. Applebaum notes, it is the absence of the finer things such as WiFi or air conditioning that seem to denote hardship today, not a want of food, shelter, or security. This is not to discount structural or systemic issues or to ignore societal inequality, but at a macro-level, the standard of living is unequaled in human history.

Yet, there is, for a portion of American society, a perception of grievance and discontent, that something is wrong and insufficient about modern society. The perception that their lives are harder than they should be, that they should be somewhere other than where they are, and that there is no explicable reason why it is this way. They perceive that their way of life is under siege, be it by immigration, multi-culturalism, foreign competition, cultural and economic “elites,” or something else.

There is a desire of nostalgia, a return to life as it was, even if that nostalgia—as most of it is—is founded on fallacy and false memory. It is less a desire to remember things as they were with wistful memories, but a desire to return to that “simpler” time when X was X and Y was Y; when the individual knew their place in society and society made sense to them.

Authoritarians seize upon this sense of perceived grievance and twist it toward their cynical political ends, enabled by the clercs who normalize it and rationalize its extremities. Here, the allure of authoritarianism is in its simplicity—its narrow answers to complex challenges. It provides binary answers to multi-part equations.

For the authoritarian and their supporters, the problem is not societal or technological change, it is the “other.” It is not your fault, it is “theirs,” whoever “they” may be—manifested in wholly unacceptable Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, George Soros, or any other flavor du jour. It’s not a force beyond your comprehension or control; it is a system that is designed against you. For the aggrieved, it provides an identity, a sense of self, or mission, amidst societal upheaval or social change. It provides a rationale or understanding of the perceived grievance.

The Medium-Sized Lie

The authoritarian spins the “Medium-Sized Lie,” as opposed to the “Big Lie”—the latter being a propaganda tool used by Adolf Hitler, something so egregious that no one would believe its advocate could distort the truth so much. The Medium-Sized Lie is that false story contemporary authoritarians use to satisfy the perceived grievances of the populace.

In Poland, the Law and Justice Party crafted its Medium-Sized Lie around a conspiracy theory about the Smolensk air disaster, which claimed the life of the then-president and most of his cabinet. Despite an independent investigation that laid much of the blame on an aircrew pressured by the traveling politicians to land on schedule in foul weather, many—including the dead president’s brother—clung to an alternative truth. The Law and Justice Party (PiS, in Polish) warped the perceptions of many Poles, using the Smolensk tragedy to consolidate power and wealth. In so doing, PiS demonized those they deemed as insufficiently patriotic, bolstered the Catholic Church and demonized LGBTQ individuals, and sought to undermine cultural, legal, and bureaucratic institutions.

Viktor Orban spun his Medium-Sized Lie in Hungary, blaming the country’s ills on non-existent Muslim migrants, the European Union, and George Soros. Under this Medium-Sized Lie, Orban twisted the country from the inside, radically reshaping its cultural, bureaucratic, and legal institutions. In so doing he created a cadre of clercs beholden to him, and whose wealth and power is decided by him. A Soviet Union-style competition of loyalty and fealty ensues—who is clapping loud enough and long enough, who is praising the prime minister most vociferously? No one wants to be the last one clapping.

For Great Britain, its Medium-Sized Lie was found in its lost Empire, which was replaced with a struggle to find a sense of place in the world. A sense of nostalgia for when the world made sense and was driven from Whitehall and Parliament. London clung to, as Ms. Applebaum notes, the “special relationship” to a greater degree than Washington, punching above its weight as a Greece to America’s Rome. The sense of loss compounded by changing demographics made a portion of largely English society—egged on by fringes of the Tory party—revolt against Brussels and the “Eurocrats” personifying the faceless bureaucracy causing all of contemporary Britain’s socioeconomic ills.

In America, as Ms. Applebaum notes, the rise of this reactionary authoritarianism that comes from the Republican Party is surprising. For “the Party of Reagan,” of small-c conservatism and gradual change, to support the erosion of the institutions of liberal democracy, something has clearly changed, and not for the better. In Ms. Applebaum’s estimation, the contortions with which supporters of the president must undergo is similar to that of other clercs in Europe. Friends of hers, who were Reagan Republicans, are now advocates of the president and his policies, and his erosion of institutions and violation of shibboleths.

Losing Belief

So much of what has sustained the Western liberal democratic experiment is collective buy-in into the institutions that make this model work. Its courts, its elections, its representatives, the very things that make up a liberal democracy. When trust in these institutions erodes and when belief in their fairness is broken down, the system itself becomes unstable. There is the perception of grievance that the system has failed the individual, that it has not met their expectations, and therefore it must be overthrown.

There are real and significant systemic societal issues that need to be and must be addressed. But rather than address those issues through civil discourse, conversation, and compromise, a sense of anarchic nihilism has taken its place. Ironically, here both the far-left and the far-right appear to agree: The system itself is corrupt and must be brought down. The system itself is beyond redemption and must be overthrown. The system itself stands in the way of human progress and therefore must be burned to the ground.

America’s Founding Fathers had no such presumption that the system was perfect or that men were angels. As she writes, “Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy.” Indeed, that’s why they crafted such—until perhaps recently—a robust and malleable system that moderated the extremes, provided checks and balances, and oriented natural tensions between conservatism and progressivism towards compromise and conciliation.

The Future

Those looking for, or hoping for, some sort of outcome, resolution, or path forward will be sorely disappointed. As Ms. Applebaum notes, there is none. There is no defined future path—the world could be akin to Weimar Germany, in the twilight of democracy, and heading toward a future of authoritarianism, or we could find ourselves going through the looking glass and finding a renewed sense of collaboration and cooperation. Either, as she notes, are equally plausible. What is, perhaps, meant to be a closing note of optimism—another parallel party with her friends, children and their friends, and neighbors—is less optimistic than she would perhaps have intended.

Ms. Applebaum’s writing is hauntingly beautiful. Her prose is fluid and enthralling, evocative and poignant. It is a shame and disappointment that the topic is so thoroughly depressing; honest and real, but depressing, nonetheless. There are no clear or easy answers in this book. This is not a weakness of the book in any sense. It forces the reader to consider the myriad of reasons for the attractiveness of authoritarianism and holds up a mirror to society in a way few books in recent times have done.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.