These past few years I’ve been reading more political and history non-fiction than usual, in an attempt to better understand the political divisiveness in our country. How we got here. Why Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything. What we can do about it.
Twilight of Democracy: the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum is an illuminating new book–and more hopeful than the title might suggest. The author makes the point that once a country embraces a democratic form of government, there’s no guarantee it will last forever (dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.) But if we want our democracies to last–if we believe in the main principles of justice, majority rule, equality among citizens–we need to understand how and why they fail.
Anne Applebaum is a respected historian, journalist and a Pulitzer-Prize winning author (for Gulag: A History, in 2004.) Although in Gulag she examines the Soviet prisoner labor camp system under Communism, here she explores the threat posed by the rise of authoritarian governments in the West (in Poland and Hungary, for starters.) “Far-Right governments,” she terms them. When a Far-Right government becomes too extreme, it moves towards Fascism: think Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain.
If you’ve read this far but stopped because you lean conservative and think this author sounds way too liberal, please keep reading. You’re in for a surprise.
Ms. Applebaum is an American with a personal and professional background that makes her well-suited to hold up a magnifying glass to these Far-Right governments. Born in Washington, D.C. and educated in the U.S. through college, she crossed the Atlantic to earn a Masters in International Relations at the London School of Economics. A few years later, in 1988, she moved to Warsaw as a correspondent for the Economist magazine. Poland became her second country after she married a Polish journalist and former war correspondent, a man appointed the Deputy Minister of National Defense for a center-right government in 1992.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Anne and her husband threw a big party at a country house her husband’s family had bought ten years earlier. The guests included international journalists and a few diplomats, but most of the guests were Poles: friends and cousins, journalists, a few civil servants, a couple of junior members of the government. The mood was upbeat. The majority of the guests were conservatives, anti-communists, what Poles called “the Right.” They believed in democracy, the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in a Poland that was on its way to joining the European Union. Anne describes her own politics then and going forward along the lines of the Republican Party of John McCain (up until 2008 when he chose Sarah Palin as his Presidential running mate.) At the time, her husband was the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the center-right government.
Nearly twenty years later, she recounts, she would now cross the street to avoid many of the people at that party. They, in turn, would be embarrassed to admit they’d even been at that party. “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.”
This election season I noticed a political sign in a neighborhood yard that says: No Socialism 2020. Don’t Go Left. That suggests the homeowners believe the Democratic candidates for President/VP are running on a Socialist platform. They’re not. Why do the homeowners think that? The other question raised by a sign like that: how far Right are some Americans willing to go? If we look at the extremes, as Ms. Applebaum’s book does: Socialism and a Far-Right ideology are different sides of the same coin. As are Communism and Fascism. The rule of law and a system of checks and balances get lost in the spin of both these ideologies. Toss the coin, and regardless of whether it lands on the C-side or the F-side, we’re looking at state-controlled (propaganda) media, cronyism, and loyalty-above-truth to the Party or Autocrat.
This is what happened in Poland, Ms. Applebaum explains in her book. Poland has both a President and a Prime Minister. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is neither at the moment, but he’s the 71-year-old leader and co-founder of the populist Law and Justice Party currently in power, and he’s a former Prime Minister. The party had previously been in power, briefly running the government from 2005-07 and occupying the Presidency from 2005-10 as a center-right government. But in the years it was out of power, the party’s ideology became more extreme. Many voters didn’t realize how much. Law and Justice ran a moderate campaign and won by a slim margin in 2015 against a center-right party that had been in power for eight years. Ms. Applebaum says it was headed by a weak, unimpressive Prime Minister, and it was understandable Poles wanted a change. What they got was radicalism. The new Law and Justice government did the following:
*Improperly appointed new judges to the constitutional court *Fired thousands of civil servants and replaced them with party hacks *Took over the state public broadcaster and replaced experienced reporters with far-Right personalities from online media *Fired Generals with years of expensive training in Western academies *Fired experienced diplomats *Wrecked cultural institutions (like museums) by replacing internationally respected heads with inexperienced unknowns
And the list goes on. The government promoted xenophobia. It curtailed public debate about the Holocaust “after two decades of profound Polish-Jewish conversations and reconciliation.” The international community was shocked, and the government eventually changed the law due to American pressure. More recently it has aggressively promoted anti-LGBTQ views, and the Polish Catholic Church (which used to be apolitical) has joined in.
How does this happen? How do voters think they’re voting for one kind of government and end up with another that’s so extreme? It’s not a simple answer, but the author tries to explain the complexities.
Demagogues and/or authoritarians don’t win on their own. They need writers and bloggers and spin doctors and TV programs to sell what they stand for to the public. They need media people and online forums to give voice to grievances and to channel anger and fears. Ask any historian and they’ll tell you the wheels of democracy turn slowly. But in Poland, for example, the new-Right doesn’t want slow. “These are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions.” For them, the end justifies the means. Truth is a luxury that’s not so important.
What drives influencers to support an autocratic leader? Some want power or fame. Some are extremely religious. Some want chaos so they can impose a new order. Some are motivated by fear or a deep desire for a national unity that’s conformist.
That’s Poland, from the viewpoint of the author. What’s going on in Hungary is similar. Ms. Applebaum also examines trends in England under Prime Minister Boris Johnson and in the United States under President Trump. The point is democracies are fragile. They need nurturing. They need a center-right and a center-left that can find ways to agree or compromise on important issues. To keep the country going, better and brighter, for future generations. That’s the kind of democracy I want to live in. Whatever your politics, I imagine most of you do, too.