Friday, November 26, 2021

Review: Twilight of Democracy

From Twilight of Democracy, by Anne Applebaum:

Open quote That moment has passed. Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too." Twilight of Democracy

This is Anne Applebaum's personal account of the decline of Western liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.

Grade: B+

Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for "The Atlantic" and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She begins her latest work by recollecting the optimism after the fall of the Soviet Union, the heady days when it seemed like democracy was on the rise and spreading across the world. She is a conservative intellectual, but her optimism was shared by liberals as well.

She then details the changes in Europe, where she has lived for much of the last 25 years. She has a thing or two to say about America, too. These changes split the conservative movement. Some, like her, remained true to classical liberal democracy, while others on the right turned increasingly against democracy and towards authoritarianism. It's not just Trump. From her European perch, Applebaum says, "British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different traditions, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and a political idea of 'the West.'"

Almost all of those values are now lost, or at best, given only lip service, by many on both sides of the Atlantic. The undermining of democracy and institution of authoritarianism does not happen through revolutions or military coups any more. Applebaum spells out the methods it has happened or is happening in countries around the world. It's through systematic erosion of voting rights, partisan control of the electoral process, erosion of a free press, propaganda of the Big Lie, pushing constitutions to their limits or defying them altogether, sowing distrust of experts, and delegitimizing mainstream institutions (businesses, schools, press, courts, police, military, international alliances, democracy itself).

It's all so depressing. If there's any silver lining, it's that nothing seems to last forever. Democracy was invented in ancient Greece. Applebaum draws some hope, such as it is, from Greek history. "In Greece, history feels circular. Now there is liberal democracy. But next, there might be oligarchy; then there could be liberal democracy again. Then there may be foreign subversion, an attempted coup, a civil war, a dictatorship, or maybe oligarchy again. That’s how it will be because that’s how it’s always been, all the way back to the original Athenian republic."

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