In 1927, Julien Benda published La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), the short book that would become his most famous work. Benda was infuriated with intellectuals who allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for totalitarianism. He was living, as he writes sadly, in the age of the “intellectual organisation of political hatreds.”
This quotation from Benda appears as the epigraph of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. Applebaum argues that La Trahison des Clercs is as relevant now as it was a century ago. Modern-day clercs—anti-democratic elites of the left and right in politics and the media—are just as willing to overthrow, bypass or undermine democratic institutions. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum writes. “Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.”
Applebaum argues that there is no single recipe for democratic collapse, but the book runs through a few likely ingredients. One is the “medium-sized lie”: the conspiracy theories that so effortlessly spread through social media. Another is “restorative nostalgia”: the desire to bring back a mythical past that may have never actually existed. Then there’s the understandable frustration with the slow, complex and out-of-touch institutions of modern liberal democracies. The final ingredient is the hyper-partisan world of politics in internet echo chambers, where it has become worryingly easy to isolate yourself from opposing views and start seeing your ideological opponents as an existential threat to society. “People have always had different opinions,” Applebaum writes. “Now they have different facts.”
Applebaum is concerned about the authoritarian sensibility of far-left campus agitators, Twitter mobs and intellectuals turned spin doctors, and she was one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter on justice and open debate. But while she acknowledges that their cultural power is growing, Applebaum argues that only the anti-democratic clercs commonly associated with the nationalist or populist right—a movement “more Bolshevik than Burkean”—have managed to actually get into government.
To demonstrate this, Applebaum takes her readers on a stroll through the contemporary political landscape of five countries. First, she covers Poland and Hungary, where the political movements Applebaum is critical of are in government, and then the UK, Spain and the US, where she argues that they are gaining influence. She has personal connections in and familiarity with each place, and her anecdotes, quotations and observations from them form one of the most interesting parts of Twilight of Democracy.
A Tour of Democracy in 2020
Applebaum begins in Poland, where she has one of the best local connections—her husband is politician Radosław Tomasz “Radek” Sikorski and she is a dual Polish–US citizen. She begins the section in 1999, at a New Years’ Eve Party in rural Poland, where an eclectic group of liberals and conservatives are celebrating the country’s first decade free from Communist rule. Twenty years later, many of the partygoers are no longer on speaking terms because of their opposing opinions on the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party. Some have eagerly embraced it; others, like Applebaum, consider it worryingly authoritarian. Hence the connection between the twilight of democracy and the parting of friends in the book’s subtitle.
Applebaum is critical of the Law and Justice Party’s politicisation of the courts and influence over the media—she likens the appointment of populist politician Jacek Kurski as chair of state TV network Telewizja Polska to putting conspiracy theory website InfoWars in charge of the BBC. In Hungary, she is similarly critical of the Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. She accuses her former friends and allies of whataboutism in their willingness to defend both these governments. For example, she describes a tense interview with British conservative columnist John O’Sullivan, who now lives in Budapest and works for the Danube Institute, a Fidesz-aligned think tank. When she asks him about growing government control over the media, he responds by pointing out that the media in the United States is more favourable to the Democratic Party. Applebaum’s criticisms of the Law and Justice Party and Fidesz can come across as vague at times—I had to search for supplementary information elsewhere—but her warning about the dangers of whataboutism cannot be repeated enough.
Of course, the topic most readers are probably most interested in is Applebaum’s view of the future of democracy in the English-speaking world. In Spain, democracy is younger than leisure suits and disco. In Poland and Hungary, democracy is younger than MTV and rap music. But are there meaningful threats to democracy in its centuries-old strongholds in London and Washington? Applebaum doesn’t offer a direct answer, and the series of individual people and incidents she describes don’t really form a cohesive whole. For example, she writes extensively on Boris Johnson and Brexit, without really explaining where they fit into the big picture. I was not left convinced that the collapse of democracy in the UK and US is inevitable.
Even so, Twilight of Democracy is well worth reading. Applebaum cites western conservatives, worried about counterculture and political correctness, who have been drawn to the Law and Justice Party and Fidesz. Yet the Law and Justice Party openly supports “LGBT-free” zones, now encompassing a third of Poland, where free speech is curtailed. Both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have published reports expressing concern about press freedom in Hungary. The Orbán government’s takeover of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has created fears for academic freedom both inside and outside the country. Political institutions in the United States are much sounder than those in Eastern Europe, but Applebaum’s concern about President Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories and about the rhetoric of his associates is perfectly reasonable. Sadly, I expect her criticisms will often be deflected using the very whataboutism and hyper-partisanship she warns about in the book.
Applebaum concludes by noting that liberal democracies demand effort and participation from their citizens, as well as a tolerance for “cacophony and chaos.” This last point is critical—particularly in such a cacophonous and chaotic year as this one. One of the clercs criticised by Benda in Treason of the Intellectuals is Charles Maurras, a fiercely nationalistic writer who became involved in politics during the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army, was convicted of treason based on a letter later found to be forged. Maurras, a self-described antisemite, was among the anti-Dreyfusards, who were happy to see Dreyfus sacrificed on the altar of national unity. In the 1930s, Maurras was scathingly critical of French conservatives who openly admired Hitler, but in the 1940s, he eagerly embraced the Vichy regime. The Vichy government blamed France’s ignominious defeat on the decadence of the Third Republic, with its weak governments and tumultuous politics, and promised renewal through an authoritarian counter-revolution. Believing that the Enlightenment and democracy had sent France down a path of decline, Maurras was perfectly happy to dispense with the French Republican motto of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood in favour of the Vichy alternative of Work, Family and Fatherland. Convicted of collaborating with the Axis powers after the war, he famously declared “this is Dreyfus’ revenge!” to the court that sentenced him to prison. Applebaum describes Maurras’ story in detail in Twilight of Democracy. She rightly points out that, although any future collapse of democracy in the western world will not simply be a repeat of the democratic retreat of the 1930s, clercs who think like Maurras could easily play a similar role.
Liberal democracy is preserved by those who think it worth the effort. Twilight of Democracy is a timely warning to anyone who might be tiring of its “cacophony and chaos” and looking for some sort of authoritarian counter-revolution of their own—or, at the very least, be willing to defend authoritarianism only because they fear something else that they wrongly consider to be just as bad.