Book Review Number 47

Twilight of Democracy – Anne Applebaum

Ms. Applebaum is an American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism–Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. The focus of this book is the rise of authoritarianism around the world and the stress that is placing on liberal democracies.

She uses the political journeys of Poland and Hungary as examples to illustrate how easily democracy can descend into authoritarianism. She reports the early euphoria in both countries over their newly established democracy and the rule of law. She reports how over time people became dissatisfied with the rate of political progress and political parties began endorsing more xenophobic and paranoid ideas with openly authoritarian goals. Ultimately they succeeded in taking over those governments through the legitimate election process. Once in power they immediately began dismantling the rule of law, subverting the judiciary and free press, stifling political opposition, and ignoring the constitution.

Ms. Applebaum suggests that to assume that the rise of authoritarianism in 

Poland and Hungary is unique to eastern Europe or left over unrest from the Soviet era is a mistake. She says what is happening there and elsewhere in the world is new and is a function of people being unhappy with their existing democracies; they consider them too weak, indecisive, or individualistic. The very idea of liberal democracy, the competition of different ideas of governance makes them vulnerable to autocratic challenges.

The author discusses the attraction illiberal one party governance has for people in democracies. She points out that such governance is not philosophical as one might describe Marxism or other political dogma, but is simply a mechanism for holding power. It focuses on loyalty above merit or competence. It hold power not by rewarding the most industrious or competent, but by advancing those most loyal to the party. This strategy appeals especially to less educated less competent people because they are likely to be the most loyal. They often are the ones feeling they have not been appreciated or have been left behind by a democratic system.

Ms Applebaum says that part of the attraction of one party autocratic rule is also that it is so simple. The electorate does not have to consider competing ideas. They just have to support the party which claims simple solutions to the major issues. Autocratic leaders of these parties are generally charisma personalities who present themselves as take-charge problem solvers that will bring order. That is comforting to people tired of the loud chaos of democratic governance.

This book offers insight into the long-standing struggle between democracy and dictatorship. But perhaps the most important revelation is how fragile democracy is: Its survival depends on choices made every day by ordinary people. Ms. Applebaum writes: “There is no road map to a better society, no didactic ideology, no rule book. All we can do is choose our allies and our friends with great care, for only with them, together, is it possible to avoid the temptations of the different forms of authoritarianism.”

Americans particularly should take Ms. Applebaum’s words and the threat of autocracy seriously. We are on the doorstep of the greatest threat from a would-be autocrat in my life time. Trump has the instincts of a master showman and is trying to use it to execute the dictator’s play book written by Hitler and Stalin, with a little help from his idol, Putin.

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