A celebrated historian’s defense of liberal democracy does away with pluralism.
As far as celebrity writers go, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum is of a distinctly “global” kind: her fame follows her byline from suburban D.C. to Warsaw; and from Budapest to Fleet St. In covering all these places, she stands out from her colleagues for her formidable grasp of local contexts (though, admittedly, her specific beat is a generic and timeless one).
In her recent book Twilight of Democracy (July 2020), Applebaum’s primary ambition is to chronicle how modern republics can undergo dismantling, from within, through the subversive influence of a rogue faction of the intelligentsia. For Applebaum, national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting. By focusing on countries that are far further down the path to autocracy than the U.S., her journalism reads like a (somewhat more) refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues—the Frums, Rubins, Boots, and Kristols of the world.
For Applebaum, national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting.
Despite sometimes indulging in sour partisanship, Applebaum remains one of her profession’s rare talents, with a parallel claim to fame as a historian. Before earning a Pulitzer for her bestselling history of Stalin’s gulags, she drew in wide plaudits too for her expertly researched works on Ukraine’s Holomodor and the rise of the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. In a number of ways, she seemed predestined to just this kind of writing career. Her great-grandfather fled conscription in the 1880s under then-Russian emperor Alexander III. Her father is one of big law’s star attorneys on matters of antitrust and trade. And, while her mother curated Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, the young Anne read history and literature at Yale, attending Wolfgang Leonhard’s famous course on Soviet history, visiting her forefathers’ Belarus in 1985, and eventually crossing the pond as a post-grad Marshall scholar at the LSE. This distinguished career has acquainted Applebaum with the frontiers between the Old and New Worlds, between our fragile democracies and the dark alternatives to them.
Applebaum’s intellectual vagaries reflect the sensibility of a distinct kind of American descendant of East European émigrés, those who never felt entirely cut off from their distant roots, and seized the opportunity to revisit them after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While writing for several British magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, she went on several reporting trips east of the Iron Curtain, resulting in a travelogue—Between East and West—that forebode some of the region’s present political conundrums.
After going largely suppressed during four decades of Soviet-style authoritarianism, nationalist sentiments across much of the former Eastern bloc reared their head at the onset of pluralism in 1989. Simultaneously, another universalist creed became ascendant just then threatening to overshadow them, this time a political ideology imported from the West. The liberal-democratic model that the region embraced as a condition for membership in the West augured a delicate coexistence with the region’s resurgent nationalism and its attendant emphasis on national sovereignty.
None of this seemed to register, however, among a certain cast of Cold Warriors in the West, who remained naively buoyant about what seemed like the ultimate victory of liberal democracy over all its enemies. No doubt Applebaum herself also basked in the West´s triumph, but her background gave her every bit the historical discernment needed to critically appraise, in hindsight, that zeitgeist of giddiness. Unfortunately, she leaves this critical task to those not encumbered with the urgency to sell books.
This lack of self-criticism earned her writing more or less damning reviews from Douglas Murray, to her right. “Applebaum falls out with old friends on the right but doesn’t reflect on what she might have got wrong,” writes Murray. To her left, similarly critical, is Ivan Kratsev, who writes: “Applebaum wants to understand rising illiberalism but is clinging to a Cold War moral framework that no longer applies.” (Kratsev’s own work with Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed (March 2020), could have given Applebaum a hint or two had she chosen to delve deeper into the matter.)
“Applebaum wants to understand rising illiberalism but is clinging to a Cold War moral framework that no longer applies.”
In 2016, Applebaum’s long record of warnings about the fragility of post-Soviet democracies gained an eerie prescience applicable to Trump’s distrust of traditional checks on his power (the media, a bipartisan congress, a professional civil service, or an independent but increasingly activist judiciary). Waxing alarmist about the demise of the American republic is something of an oversubscribed beat across the mastheads she writes for. Still, she is championed for grounding these fears in a broader global story about the inevitable transmutation of right-wing populism into proto-totalitarian tyranny. Consider A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come, the ominous title of an essay she wrote in the Atlantic in October 2018, of which Twilight of Democracy is an outgrowth.
Other writers focus their alarm on the precedents set in Turkey’s Erdogan or the Philippine’s Duterte, but the parallels Applebaum draws to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law & Justice party (PiS) sound more clairvoyant for a simple reason. The national-populist governments in these countries echo President Trump in their railing against the West’s liberal establishment—of which Applebaum is most certainly a paragon in every case.
Profound historical dynamics lie at the root of recent crises that have exposed Central Europe’s experiment with democracy as markedly fragile. From reforms to Poland’s judiciary to Hungary’s crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs (both policies termed “illiberal” by the international press yet highly popular in their respective countries), a more absolute expression of national self-determination has taken precedence over liberal-democratic shibboleths. Political sentiments like deeming foreign-funded NGOs as fully legitimate political actors, or an inherent distrust of government-friendly media, were never really understood as more than Western political imports. The democratic ‘backsliding’ these controversies exposed is rooted in the unique condition of the post-Soviet psyche, something that Applebaum knows all too well can’t be reduced to a single party platform or a particular election in time.
And yet, in the book, she portrays these illiberal trends as almost exclusively the work of opportunistic demagogues. In Twilight of Democracy, Anne the never-Trumper gets the better of Anne the historian.
THE PARTY BREAKUP—OF EVERY SORT
Given her transatlantic acclaim, for her book to drop simultaneously in the U.S. and the UK is an exception duly made to the standard rules of publishing—but note how Twilight of Democracy appears differently subtitled in each. The Breaking of Politics and the Parting of Friendships, as the subtitle appears in the UK, gets at the auto-biographical scaffolding Applebaum lays out to buttress her political psychology of the populist right.
Applebaum is uniquely qualified to trace the factors that have diverted Poland and Hungary away from the liberal promise of the 1990s and into their present crossroads, but Twilight of Democracy doesn’t do that.
he subjects she interviews (or, diagnoses, more precisely) are friends or acquaintances who shared in the moral optimism of the Euro-American right in the waning days of the Soviet Union—but with whom relations have since soured. Applebaum chastises these “friends” for turning their backs on that buoyant spirit as their common Soviet enemy receded into memory, favoring instead a politics that she identifies as incompatible with liberal pluralism. Or, at the very least, Applebaum foreshadows democratic breakdowns everywhere said brand of politics is given a chance to govern.
Her 2018 Atlantic essay provides the narrative hook to the book, recounting a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband (Radek Sikorski, then Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister in a liberal-centrist government), threw in their Polish countryside estate to welcome the new millennium. Most of her guests have since changed direction, preferring the region’s right-wing nationalism. (Suffice it to say, Applebaum has withdrawn her welcome to such fêtes as political retribution.) Her personal tale is highly revealing of the region’s larger dynamics.
Applebaum sees in the national-populist turn of Poland’s PiS and Hungary’s Fidesz in the early 2000s a distant prequel to President Trump and Brexit. PiS and Radek Sikorski’s Civic Platform splintered in 2001 from a big tent born out of the political arm of the anti-communist trade union Solidarity. Fidesz similarly underwent its own distancing from Europe’s mainstream Christian-Democrats. The leaders that brought both parties to dominance (the Kaczyński twins in Poland and Viktor Orbán and his youth friends in Hungary) could once have claimed kinship with their center-right peers to the West. Today, their brand of national-populism has been branded as an arch-nemesis of Angela Merkel’s bland right-liberalism. (Though suspended, Fidesz remains a member of the European People’s Party, and some of its leaders still claim the mantle of Christian-Democracy).
With considerable lag, and for markedly different reasons, the GOP and the pro-Brexit share of the UK Tories have also realigned, and have done so around much the same national populism as their Central European peers. One can’t help but admire Applebaum’s ability to navigate across these distinct cultural environments, as much as her sincere wish to see the liberal-democratic ideal travel inversely to her forefathers’ journey, from its Western cradle to its Eastern edge. The pity is the immodest one-sidedness of her account. Again, given her education and biography, Applebaum is uniquely qualified to trace the factors that have diverted Poland and Hungary away from the liberal promise of the 1990s and into their present crossroads, but Twilight of Democracy doesn’t do that. Instead, the book shoehorns their vastly different political predicaments into a meta-narrative—The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, as the book’s American subtitle suggests.
FOR APPLEBAUM AND HER CREED, REASON POINTS ONE WAY
To be fair to Applebaum, she does warn, in the foreword, against expecting the kind of sweepingly researched, multi-perspective impartiality that she has accustomed her readers to. The electoral appeal of populists, she humbly concedes, eludes a single explanation, and the individuals she describes as exemplars of it are of a single demographic, a sample that reflects her own relatively narrow experience of the phenomenon.
For Applebaum, intellectuals who turn to populism were never intellectuals in the first place, but budding authoritarians, frustrated underachievers, mental degenerates, or some combination thereof.
For Applebaum, the path journeyed by her former friends from Cold War-era conservative-liberalism to illiberal right-wing populism is at best a degeneration, and, at worst, simply incompatible for someone of an intellectual disposition. In Applebaum’s mind, a certain level of political education necessarily immunizes one against the populist temptation to distrust the elites guarding the system. Embracing populism is, in this view, somehow lese-majesty, or worse still, a “treason,” to borrow the words of Julien Benda, whose obloquy against France’s far-right intellectuals of his epoch in La Trahison des Clercs (1927) largely inspires Applebaum’s book.
Yet, among this demographic of center-right intellectuals, many of whom were once her friends, these antibodies have failed them. Applebaum indicts them for breaking something of an unwritten covenant with liberalism. Her own commitment to pluralism and the open exchange of ideas is real, but when it comes to typical liberal shibboleths (such as multiculturalism, EU integration, or immigration), the temptation to demonize and second-guess her dissenters proves overpowering—that is the sense one can’t help to get from dispassionately reading her book. For Applebaum, intellectuals who turn to populism were never intellectuals in the first place, but budding authoritarians, frustrated underachievers, mental degenerates, or some combination thereof.
In one instance, Applebaum describes PiS, which has enjoyed an expanded majority after President Duda’s re-election in July, as somehow in the thrall to “the Smolensk lie,” a conspiracy that incriminates the Kremlin for crashing a plane carrying Poland’s entire government on its way to commemorating the Katyn massacre in April 2010. Yet she fails to give any evidence that this largely baseless conspiracy has any sort of broad sway over the Polish public. The fact is, other than the few voices Applebaum cherry-picks for quotes, it doesn’t. Applebaum also describes the party’s socially conservative agenda as driven by homophobic bigotry, which is the same dumbed-down narrative that spares her and the NGOs that peddle it the journalistic brunt work of explaining the less sensationalist issues that actually divide the bulk of Polish society. Wariness about the sexualization of K-12 curricula or adoption by same-sex couples is, in this facile account, a symptom of creeping homophobia.
More of the same in the case of Hungary, where Applebaum credits Prime Minister Orbán with the superhuman ability to conjure racism and anti-semitism in order to divert attention from his entourage’s crony dealings. For Applebaum, the fact that Hungary has relatively few migrants at present somehow makes opposing any new ones necessarily xenophobic. As early as 2016, she dismissed the country’s referendum giving Hungarians a choice on the size of migrant quotas as a scheme “to stoke xenophobia.” Similarly, the resentment of a large chunk of Hungarians at the overweening influence of George Soros on the country’s NGO scene can only possibly be inspired by anti-semitism, Applebaum assures. Only hatred of Jews can lead one to question Soros’ funneling of millions towards left-liberal causes, such as highly unpopular policies to welcome unprecedented numbers of unvetted migrants, her thinking goes.
Twilight of Democracy is not a sober or nuanced explanation of Polish and Hungarian politics.
As for the UK, Applebaum badmouths her pro-Brexit former colleagues for whipping up nativism and nostalgia of British grandeur to pursue an imagined sovereignty that Brexit arguably cannot deliver. She has rarely written about the 2016 referendum as anything other than a mass delusion orchestrated by an elite misleading a gullible people. In Applebaum’s world, a vote for Brexit cannot possibly be the result of reasoned argument over the downsides of membership in the EU. Reason points one way only for her; ending up elsewhere exposes you as a nutjob.
To be sure, there’s a long scholarly precedent behind Applebaum’s reflex to psychiatrize her political detractors. Foreshadowing this intellectual impulse, in 1950, a team of sociologists and psychologists at Berkeley sought to explain the rise of fascism in pre-war Europe by correlating its appeal to a set of personality traits resulting from adverse childhood experiences. Despite the grotesque statistical flaws, The Authoritarian Personality enjoyed a decade of acclaim until the study’s methodological absurdity became too large to ignore. (Theodor Adorno and his colleagues, as it turned out, weren’t so much interested in the link between authoritarian politics and human psychology, but in discrediting as a proto-fascist anyone who’d venture into too conservative territory.) There’s a reek of this kind of faulty thinking in every page of Applebaum’s book, which makes its argument not only dubious, but thoroughly unoriginal.
None of this means that brushing off Applebaum as a wacky alarmist is in order. She draws attention to an old truth that merits recalling—yes, democracy only thrives when a spirit of republican virtue overcomes factionalism, authoritarianism, and other undemocratic impulses. And there may well be cause for alarm on this score in the post-Soviet East. But Applebaum´s record of casting off divergent views as the work of authoritarian demagogues puts her in a difficult spot to raise the alarm.