The Sunday Magazine

How democracies fail: Anne Applebaum on the rise of authoritarianism

Anne Applebaum reflects on how many of her former friends shifted further and further to the right as populism surged across the Western world. Her new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism explores the people behind the politicians, as Applebaum knew them, before and during the rise of the far right in Eastern Europe, the UK and the United States.

In her latest book, Applebaum recounts how her former allies became sycophants to authoritarians

Anne Applebaum's latest book examines how some of the western world's brightest examples of democratic success stories have descended into far-right autocracy. (Submitted by Anne Applebaum)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening lines of his 1877 classic, Anna Karenina. He was referring to the myriad ways that marriages can fail, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum believes the quote can also apply to politics.

Her latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, examines how some of the western world's brightest examples of democratic success stories have descended into far-right autocracy. She explores the rise of populist figures like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Donald Trump in the U.S. and her own former friend and colleague, Boris Johnson in the UK.

"There's no checklist of how democracies fail because they fail in different ways," Applebaum explained to Sunday Edition guest host Elamin Abdelmahmoud. "Some of them fail because they break up and civil war breaks out ... Often they fail because someone is elected to power who doesn't respect the rules of the democracy."

Applebaum chronicles how many of her own former friends and political allies, with whom she worked closely following the fall of communism, turned against the classical liberal values they had once ardently defended.

"I had to go back and reconstruct who these people were and look at things they've said in public, at what influenced them over the last several years," she said.

"In some cases, the explanation is that they changed. They were either personally or otherwise affected by the way that things went after 1989. Some didn't achieve what they wanted and others didn't like the kind of society that had evolved and wanted something different."

The medium-sized lies

Some of those former friends found ways to sell their visions of nationalism and autocracy in their respective countries, using tools such as conspiracy theories, explains Applebaum.

One that had an enormous impact was the debunked theory, propagated by Donald Trump, that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Applebaum speculates that the "birther" conspiracy, which was shared by more than a third of Americans, greatly damaged their trust in government.

"If you think the President is fake and that he's not legitimate, then you believe that we're ruled illegitimately," she explained. "If you are willing to believe that, then you're also willing to doubt whether the American bureaucracy is run by patriots, whether the FBI and the CIA are legitimate, whether American foreign policy is legitimate and whether all kinds of other things follow other, deeper levels of distrust."

This phenomenon of using conspiracy theories to weaken democratic institutions doesn't just exist in the U.S., Applebaum says. In Hungary, Viktor Orban used the spectre of George Soros, a liberal Jewish Hungarian billionaire, to scare Hungarians about a refugee invasion. In Poland, the far-right ruling party used theories over the death of former president Lech Kaczyński in a 2010 plane crash to accuse the centrist government of a massive coverup.

"It's very important to understand that when I'm talking about authoritarianism in my book and when I'm talking about modern Europe, I'm not talking about all-encompassing ideologies like Nazism or communism," explained Applebaum. "But all of them do use conspiracy theory as a tool of modern politics."

If you think the President is fake and that he's not legitimate, then you believe that we're ruled illegitimately.- Anne Applebaum

Why democracy is "illogical"

Despite being an ardent supporter of liberal democracy, Applebaum believes the fall of democracy is inevitable in every society.

"Democracy in some ways is a very illogical political system," she said. "When you win an election, you have to preserve the institutions that would make it possible for your political enemies to win next time. If you think about it, that's almost antithetical to human nature."

That is why, she says, it is easier for younger democracies like Poland and Hungary to break down — because the consensus required to keep a democracy afloat hasn't solidified in the nation's culture yet.

"Usually the story amounts to a loss of consensus and then the rules stop working," said Applebaum. "The system stops feeling fair to people and that's usually how democracies die."

The system stops feeling fair to people and that's usually how democracies die.- Anne Applebaum

Cancel Culture

A critical feature of keeping democracies healthy is freedom of speech, said Applebaum. That's one reason why she signed an open letter published by Harper's Magazine earlier this month deriding the rise of "cancel culture."

The letter, which has 153 signatories, including Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, criticizes what it perceives as a present state of "illiberalism" across the political spectrum. It denounces online shaming by the left as an affront to free speech.

Applebaum concedes that when she was first approached with the letter, she didn't think it would have any impact at all, but stands by her decision to sign it. A scathing response entitled "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate" was signed by more than 160 academics, journalists and activists.

"There is now a sense in many places that there are strict and increasingly arbitrary rules about what you are and aren't allowed to say, and subjects that were possible to bring up and debate even a couple of years ago are somehow off the table," said Appelbaum. "There's a culture of creating rules about what is and isn't allowed to be talked to about."

She insists the letter is not meant to protect those who signed it from losing influence, but rather, to send a signal that the freedom to openly debate difficult topics should be defended.

"I don't think Noam Chomsky is in fear of being fired or J.K. Rowling is in fear of being fired. It's not about those people," she said. "It's about the culture of academia and journalism and some other public institutions."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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