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224 pages, Hardcover
First published July 21, 2020
“The post-1989 liberal movement—this was the exception,” Strathis Kalyvas said. Unity is an anomaly. Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal--------------------------------------
Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.Anne Applebaum, erstwhile Thatcherite, long-time conservative, spouse to the former foreign minister of Poland, journalist, historian, onetime member of The Washington Post editorial board, Pulitzer Prize winner, staff writer for The Atlantic, and senior fellow at The Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University of Advanced International Studies, offers an inside look at the extant wave of authoritarianism that is washing across the planet. It has picked up steam since the time when she was writing for right-wing propaganda newspapers and palling around with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham. She looks at then versus now, and how it came to be that what she believed to be actual conservatism, as in wanting to conserve established norms, institutions, and values, transformed into a push toward dictatorship across the planet.
…these movements are new. There was no authoritarian-nationalist antidemocratic wave after 1989 in central Europe, outside of ex-Yugoslavia. It has arisen more recently, in the past decade. And it arose not because of mythical “ghosts from the past” but as a result of specific actions of people who disliked their existing democracies. They disliked them because they were too weak or too imitative too indecisive or too individualistic—or because they personally were not advancing fast enough within them.She cites research indicating that in any country there is about one third of the population that has what can be called an “authoritarian predisposition,” having nothing to do with political policies. One could be of this type and be a Republican or a Democrat. Such folks favor homogeneity and order, and have a low tolerance for diversity. We can see this in the blatant racism of the right with no trouble at all, but it can also be present in some progressives who insist that older people, for example, should step aside, so they can fill their shoes, that older people cannot possibly understand their needs or perspectives, or that moderate Democrats are quislings who should be driven from the party. It ain’t just the other guys, folks. We have such people across the political spectrum. But they are certainly more manifest, and have achieved considerably more notoriety under the Republican red flag than under any other, by a long shot. So, there are people who are ok with simple answers to complex problems and we will always have that third to contend with. But one third of the population is not sufficient to gain power. And we presume that there is a corresponding third that tilts the other way, that welcomes diversity and difference, and can handle complexity. So, what is left is that middle ground. How does a wanna-be authoritarian or authoritarian-curious party reach them?
In ancient Rome, Caesar had sculptors make multiple versions of his image. No contemporary authoritarian can succeed without the modern equivalent: the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.Applebaum reports on French essayist Julien Benda, who wrote about the people who supported authoritarianism in the 1920s. He saw intellectuals supporting class or national passion (communist or nationalist) as a motivating force, and betraying the true intellectual’s work, the search for truth. He called them clercs, idealogues of the left and right. While there are seams of authoritarianism in both left and right in today’s world, it is the seam of the right that has become dominant, only the right-wing clercs, who have attained any power.
They are…a specific kind of right, one that has little in common with most of the political movements that have been so described since the Second World War. British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different traditions, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and free speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and a political idea of “the West.”While there are some differences for sure, I am not so certain the ultimate difference, in many respects, is really all that deep. Even though she mentioned it a little before this in the book I guess she quickly forgot that the American electoral college system is an enemy of representative democracy, one that Republicans will never allow to be changed. I guess she missed the Willie Horton campaign of GHW Bush. I guess she missed the part of American history in which Republican nominees to the Supreme Court had to align with a religion-based anti-abortion policy to even be considered. This is not a new right she is describing. It is the old right without the veneer of caring what anyone thinks. Sure, there were some who would occasionally stand for decency, McCain on the attempt to revoke Obamacare and Romney on impeachment, but look at the other policies they promote, and it is the same old Republican assaults on civil liberties, environmental safety, and worker rights, no longer afraid to goose-step in public, and having recruited a lot more people who are more than happy, and now prepared, to wear their brown shirts outside their basements and private clubs. It does feel at times like an argument about which of the farmers will be cutting off the chickens’ heads. Not something we chickens are likely to be particularly concerned about. Another:
Two decades ago, different understandings of “Poland” must already have been present, just waiting to be exacerbated by chance, circumstance, and personal ambition. Before Trump’s election, different definitions of what it means to be “American” were on offer as well. Even though we fought a civil war that struck powerfully against the nativist, ethnic definition of what it means to be an American, it lived on long enough to be reincarnated in 2016. The Brexit vote and the chaotic debates that followed are proof that some older ideas about England and Englishness, long submerged into a broader definition of “Britain,” also retain a powerful appeal. The sudden support for Vox is a sign that Spanish nationalism did not disappear with Franco’s death. It merely went into hibernation.Really? She ignores the fact that in the USA, far from retreating to underground dens for protracted periods of rest, the forces of darkness have never stopped promoting their views. From the Civil War to the KKK to Reconstruction to the racism of the Palmer raids, to the Bund to McCarthyism, to the Kochs, to the Tea Party, to Qanon. There has never been a time when the right has been quiet in the states. There has never been a time when they were shy about lying. The current level of 24/7/365 mendacity and provocation is merely a continuation of the same approach, but on a steroidal level facilitated by the internet, encouraged by corporations like Facebook and Twitter that profit from the growing madness, and merrily abetted by their new best friend, Vladimir Putin.
All of these debates, whether in 1890s France or 1990s Poland, have at their core the questions that lie at the center of this book: How is a nation defined? Who gets to define it? Who are we? For a long time, we have imagined that such questions were settled—but why should they ever be?
Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts…False, partisan, and often misleading narratives now spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them.