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Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum

Anyone wondering what has gone wrong with democracy over the last 20 years should buy this book. It opens with a New Year’s Eve party thrown on 31st December 1999 by Anne Applebaum and her husband Radek Sikorski at Chobielin, their not yet fully restored manor house in an “obscure piece of Polish countryside”.

It ends with a summer party which they gave there in August 2019:

“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 polarised 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.”

The guests in 1999 are an eclectic mixture of journalists – Applebaum is an American journalist and historian who has by now already worked for The Economist in Warsaw and The Spectator in London – junior diplomats and politicians – Sikorski is at this point Poland’s deputy foreign minister – along with local friends, “a large group of cousins” and “a handful of Polish journalists…none then particularly famous”.

The party lasted all night,

“and was infused with the optimism I remember from that time. We had rebuilt our ruined house. Our friends were rebuilding the country… Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.”

Why are they no longer on the same team? Why has a part of the right – including the Law and Justice party in Poland – yielded to “a different set of ideas, not just xenophobic and paranoid but openly authoritarian”?

For Applebaum, this is a treason of the clerks, or of the educated class: she refers to Julien Benda’s work of 1927, La trahison des clercs, in which he described how intellectuals of both the Left and the Right betrayed their essential task, the search for truth, and became propagandists for Soviet Marxism, or else for “national passion” in the form of fascism.

With admirable brevity – the book is under 200 pages long – Applebaum touches on a wide range of countries, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, and on an even wider range of writers, some of whom have abandoned liberalism and become apologists for authoritarianism.

She recognises the temptation which an authoritarian regime presents to the disappointed, second-rate writer, who by placing his pen at its service obtains the material rewards and significance which have hitherto eluded him.

The poverty of his talents is made up for by his loyalty to the regime, demonstrated by his willingness to acclaim its lies as truth.

Applebaum is acute on the way a one-party state, a form of political organisation invented by Lenin, can be regarded as more just than a democracy which has competing parties:

“If you believe, as many of my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, people who are loyal to the party leader, people who are…a ‘better sort of Pole’ – then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them deserves to rule? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore truly deserving of wealth?”

She has the humility not to pretend fully to understand what is happening:

“There is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution. But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We can never rest on our laurels and suppose that the end of history has arrived. Even the highest forms of civilisation contain within them the seeds of decay.

All that is true, and yet I think Applebaum’s pessimism is overdone. Or to put it another way: this lament for the failure of liberals to live up to their liberalism could have been written at almost any time since 1789.

There is a void in this book. The people in whose name the liberals act are absent. They have occasional walk-on parts: Sikorski knew almost everyone “including the flight attendants” on the plane which crashed at Smolensk in 2010 with the loss of all on board, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of senior military figures and politicians: an event since exploited by the Polish right to peddle disgraceful conspiracy theories.

At Applebaum and Sikorski’s parties, unimportant people are of course made welcome. As she writes of last year’s summer party:

“At one point, I noticed the local forest ranger engaged in heated discussion with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, with whom my husband created the Eastern Partnership between the EU and Ukraine several years earlier.”

We do not, unfortunately, discover what point the local forest ranger was trying to impress on Bildt. The ranger is, as it were, a charming decoration, like one of the small, rustic figures which adorn a classical landscape, whose point is to show the imposing scale of the ruins in which the artist and viewer are really interested.

And here is Applebaum on the difficulty which far-right movements often have in forming alliances with each other:

“Relations between the Italian far right and the Austrian far right, for example, once came unstuck after they started arguing, amusingly, over the national identity of South Tyrol, a German-speaking province in northern Italy that has sometimes been Austrian.”

What a wealth of meaning the word “amusingly” carries here. We find ourselves at a dinner party where the foibles of the natives are dismissed as merely ridiculous.

For those who care about it, South Tyrol is not “amusing”: it speaks to deep emotions and loyalties, and carries a weight of history.

If one wants to prevent demagogues from exploiting those emotions, one shouldn’t start by ignoring or downplaying or declaring illegitimate or laughing at the very existence of such feelings and loyalties, while instructing people to forget any inconvenient bits of history.

Liberals have to show they offer a better way, which quite possibly they do: the abolition of borders. But that project can only work if instead of handing it down from on high, as if to their vassals, the liberals first listen with respect to what the people may be attempting, however inconveniently, to say.

Applebaum knows Boris Johnson: her husband was with him in the Bullingdon Club. In her view,

“Both were playing with the old forms of the English class system, acting out some of the rules because it amused them. They enjoyed the Bullingdon not despite [Evelyn] Waugh’s vicious parody, but because of it.”

That sounds right: the Bullingdon was a joke. But part of the joke was at the expense of the priggish middle class, the Puritans shocked by the club’s hooliganism – a hooliganism which, one cannot help thinking, may have put its members more in touch with the hooliganism found in other classes of society, though not, of course, in the middle-class prigs.

Applebaum one day bumps into Johnson in the City of London:

“He was then mayor; he was riding his bike. I waved at him, he stopped, exclaimed over the amazing coincidence, and suggested that we go into a pub for a quick drink.”

Once inside the pub he is mobbed by people demanding selfies. But then they have a chat. She does not tell us what they said, but here we see a man anxious to mend fences, or if possible not to fall out in the first place.

The Conservative Party has endured because it has avoided, at least with greater success than the Liberals or Labour, “the parting of friends”. Let’s have a quick drink.

And let’s find a leader who can connect with the wider public, however much the liberal intelligentsia may despise him – or her, in the case of Margaret Thatcher.

Applebaum at length takes us to Washington DC, where she was an early and outspoken opponent of Donald Trump. She recognises that he represents “another America”:

“This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described. The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair.”

All this may be true, but does not do much to penetrate with imagination or sympathy into the hearts and minds of Americans who voted for Trump, many of whom regard themselves as followers of Jefferson, president 1801-09, and of Andrew Jackson, president 1829-37.

Morality gets in the way of understanding. These people are deplorable. As I suggested at the end of a recent piece, “American liberals…will do everything they can for the American people short of spending any time with them.”

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