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Working our way through the darkness

“The point of all these changes was not to make government run better,” Anne Applebaum writes in the opening pages of her sobering Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020). “The point was to make the government more partisan, the courts more pliable, more beholden to the party.”

Applebaum is explaining the true motivations — the point — behind the moves of the nativist Law and Justice party in 2015 Poland shortly after taking power in a narrow electoral win. Moves that included the improper appointment of judges; writing laws to punish judges whose verdicts contradict party policy; firing thousands of civil servants, army generals, and diplomats with decades of experience; replacing experts with incompetent political loyalists; and wrecking cultural institutions. Because they did this without a mandate, they stopped using ordinary political arguments and began identifying existential enemies instead.

She was describing the direction taken by a majority of what used to be the center-right party in Poland. But as Applebaum takes us through changes in the decades since the end of the Cold War, she could just as easily have been describing life in Hungary, Spain, France, Italy, and — with some differences — Britain and the United States. Different countries. Same playbook. In this work, she covers them all.

The people leading these changes in these various countries — some of whom used to be friends with Applebaum and her husband Radek Sikorski, who served as a deputy foreign minister in the Polish government before the ascension of the Law and Justice party — are a combination of individuals driven by resentment and envy, true believers in the righteousness of a moral system that elevates them while punishing those they do not like, grifters looking to make a quick buck, and elite intellectuals who are seeking to maintain their power and will launch a war against their fellow educated elites to do so. To see those who buy the seductive lure of authoritarianism — the people who elect and then support these leaders — she turns to behavioral economist Karn Stenner’s description of the individual with an authoritarian predisposition: one who favors homogeneity and order. People who “cannot tolerate complexity.”

Without stating it so directly, Applebaum makes the compelling case that many of the people leading these changes are morally blind. They have no empathy when others get in the way of what they want. And they are preaching to a crowd that often uses the moral language of Christianity and national pride to justify crushing those who are different.

When the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch. *

There is much to recommend in this important book. Applebaum is, first and foremost, a compelling narrator. She brings context for those who only become attuned to European affairs at times when an authoritarian bully attacks a freely elected democratic state. She also has a way of synthesizing history over centuries into digestible portions. The Future of Nostalgia — her chapter describing the lead up to, and reasons for, Brexit — is simply the clearest I’ve ever read on the topic.

That chapter title comes from a book by Russian essayist and artist Svetlana Boym, where she describes two types of people who deal in nostalgia:

  • Reflective nostalgics are people who miss the past and dream about the past, but they really do not want the past back.
  • Radically different are the restorative nostalgics, the mythmakers and architects who do not “want to merely contemplate or learn from the past.” Instead, “they want to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.” Applebaum adds, “They want to behave as they think their ancestors did, without irony.”

Believing that something essential about England was dead and gone in the move to be part of the European Union, the “Leave” campaigners were willing to cheat in the Brexit election, lie about the impacts, and throw away long-held democratic norms because they saw the stakes of hanging on to what made England so special as worth any price. Other chapters on Spain and Hungary are also compelling and clear.

It is in the description of the rise of Donald Trump and today’s authoritarian (some would say fascist) Republican Party that some of my quibbles with Applebaum’s work came forth. She makes no secret of the fact that she is a right-center “John McCain” type of Republican. As such, she can’t quite let go of grousing about “authoritarians” on the left in the U.S. and how bad their actions are. I get that there are authoritarians on both the left and right. But her argument may have been more persuasive had she not relied on the 1970s radical fringe group the Weather Underground as one of her chief foils, her description of their work giving them undue influence. She also has a difficult time admitting that conservatives have long been on the wrong side of civil rights, and she never suggests that the policies of the New Deal and the Civil Rights era were enormously popular — which they were — until Republicans spent fifty years hammering home the coordinated message that Americans should hate these things they appreciated and wanted.

Nonetheless, there is much of value to take away from Applebaum’s book. Most importantly, democracy is fragile. No system of government will last without continued work to keep it fresh and serving a new generation. Her final two paragraphs hit at what is critical. The precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, but it has always been there. Our checks and balances never guaranteed stability. Liberal democracies always demand some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, “as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.” History could — and probably will — “reach into our private lives and change them.”

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.

For other recent essays and articles on various aspects of the threat to democracy, you may wish to read:

  • Ukrainians are consoling us (Thinking About, March 14, 2022) — Historian Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny, writes that “Because Ukrainians are resisting, not just on the battlefield but as a society, they console us all.  Every day they act is one when we can reflect, and hope. People do have values. The world is not empty.  People do find courage. There are things worth taking risks for.”
  • It’s time to confront the Trump-Putin network (The Guardian, March 2, 2022) — Rebecca Solnit‘s take on how Russia has staged a military attack on the west for the past eight years.
  • The right targets queer theory (The Nation, April 19, 2022) — Candace Bond-Theriault takes a look at how the person who propped up the conservative white Christian nationalist crusade against critical race theory (CRT) is now rallying his base to oppose yet another fabricated foe: queer theory. 
  • Letters from an American by historian Heather Cox Richardson on April 22, 2022, where Richardson describes Republican lies and the need for accountability, and this especially powerful one from April 23, 2022:

Let’s be clear: the people working to keep Trump in office by overturning the will of the people were trying to destroy our democracy. Not one of them, or any of those who plotted with them, called out the illegal attempt to destroy our government.

To what end did they seek to overthrow our democracy?

The current Republican Party has two wings: one eager to get rid of any regulation of business, and one that wants to get rid of the civil rights protections that the Supreme Court and Congress began to put into place in the 1950s. Business regulation is actually quite popular in the U.S., so to build a political following, in the 1980s, leaders of the anti-regulation wing of the Republican Party promised racists and the religious right that they would stomp out the civil rights legislation that since the 1950s has tried to make all Americans equal before the law.

But even this marriage has not been enough to win elections, since most Americans like business regulation and the protection of things like the right to use birth control. So, to put its vision into place, the Republican Party has now abandoned democracy. Its leaders have concluded that any Democratic victory is illegitimate, even if voters have clearly chosen a Democrat, as they did with Biden in 2020, by more than 7 million votes.

Former speechwriter for George W. Bush David Frum wrote in 2018: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” And here we are.

More to come…


*Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 15:14).

Image by Zelle Duda on Unsplash


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