“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against a democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
As with many people, the 2016 election proved extremely divisive among my family and friends. My Boomer, upper-middle-class white parents, who were living their best Gordon Gekko life in the Reaganite utopia of the eighties, went from red to blue so fast I never even saw the purple. My Gen-X, upper-middle-class Mexican-American in-laws, who worked three full-time jobs to support their family, went from reddish to vermillion. Neither change really surprised me—my parents have always had moderately liberal sensibilities peppered through their anti-regulation convictions, and my in-laws have indicated that they’re socially (as well as religiously) conservative. The person whose political evolution did surprise me was a close friend who lives in DC. She holds an MA from the London School of Economics, knows more about international policy and economic systems than most people will forget, and is easily one of the smartest women I know. She interned for various Republican representatives in both Congress and the Senate, and I was curious to know how she voted and what she thought of the present administration. When I asked her what about President Trump’s policies attracted her, she spoke more about how George Soros is heading a conspiracy to destabilize the west and the sex trafficking ring run by the Hollywood elite than she did about what she liked about the President’s agenda. It wasn’t her support for the President that intrigued me—considering his positions on immigration and corporate regulation, I’d assumed that she’d voted for him—it was her stated reasons for that support. Her reasons weren’t so different from other family members’—there was a general lament over immigration, the decline of traditional values, and the aggressive liberal policies changing the tone of public discourse. I began thinking about it, so when The Atlantic ran an excerpt of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, I was primed and ready to click ‘Buy Now’. (Pun.)
Applebaum’s premise is simple and more insightful than the slender volume implies. The growing complexity of the modern world, the rapid transmission and evolution of information, the yearning for the comfort and relative security of a simpler time, and the feeling of being left out or marginalized by contemporary social and political culture have converted formerly-center-right intellectuals into advocates for authoritarianism. Beginning with a chilling account of the growing authoritarian government in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, she traces the ideological-psychological roots of the popular academics who supported his rise to power, and demonstrates their parallels with other popular commentators and journalists in the UK, the US, and (briefly) Spain. These clercs (‘scribes’, taken from Julien Benda’s 1927 essay La trahison des clercs) deploy what historian Timothy Snyder calls ‘the Medium-Sized Lie’—a carefully-developed alternative reality marketed to specific audiences via social-media campaigns—to promote an alternative account of why certain aspects of everyday reality indicate an irretrievably degraded (and degrading) society, thereby demonstrating the need for radical change and providing the popular impetus to effect it. Their role is crucial:
“No contemporary authoritarian can succeed without the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. […] They 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 members of the intellectual and educated elite who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite.” (17)
In Hungary, the Medium-Sized Lie (MSL) is the belief that George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire, is plotting to destroy Hungary through the deliberate importation of migrants (there is no evidence for this; Soros did encourage Europe to accept more Syrian refugees as a way of alleviating the crisis of the civil war). In the UK, it’s a combination of the feeling that Britain has been imposed upon by the European Union (it hasn’t; the EU didn’t and does not have the power to force any nation to adopt any economic measures) and a kind of nostalgia for the time when Britain made the rules (and could make them again, if only their leaders would grab the bull by the horns and do it). In Spain, it’s anger over the continued debate about Catalonian secession and the need to defend the ‘Christian’ West against Islam (the actual percentage of Spanish Muslims is about 4.45%). In the US, it’s a pessimism about the power of the ideals upon which our society is founded and a moral equivalence about the corruption in our branches of government.
Applebaum points out that “people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences—makes them angry. They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.” (106) We mustn’t forget that these real changes create real (not just felt) problems—the Syrian war of 2016 saw thousands of refugees arriving in Europe, creating genuine dilemmas (particularly for those countries with Mediterranean coastlines): how to house, care, and feed those people; how to successfully integrate them into European society. (107) She writes that “In some parts of the United States and United Kingdom, there is evidence that new immigrants create unwelcome competition for jobs. In many countries there have been serious outbreaks of crime or terrorism directly associated with the newcomers.”
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that real problems take careful thought and time to produce good, sustainable solutions. One of the most important insights Applebaum makes is on the inability for governing bodies to react to real-time problems instantaneously:
“Modern democratic institutions, built for an era with very different information technology, provide little comfort for those who are angered by the dissonance. Voting, campaigning, the formation of coalitions—all of this seems retrograde in a world where other things happen so quickly. You can download a movie at the flick of a wrist, but it takes years to debate a problem in the Canadian Parliament. This is far worse at the international level: multinational institutions like the EU or NATO find it extremely hard to make fast decisions or big changes. Unsurprisingly, people are afraid of the changes technology will bring, and also afraid—with good reason—that their political leaders won’t be able to cope with them.” (117)
Add to this, “the noise of argument, the constant hum of disagreement—these can irritate people who prefer to live in a society tied together by a single narrative.” (106)
A simple, intuitive explanation and fast solution—however reductionist, inaccurate and ultimately unhelpful—is better than the seemingly endless labor of trying to understand how the moving parts of a complex, global world work together and formulating reasonably consensual solutions. The clercs who don’t know (and don’t care to know), go to work destabilizing the institutions they believe are the source of the problem. Those who do know (but don’t care), exploit it to their financial and vocational benefit. Consistent to the end, Applebaum doesn’t provide us with any solutions, but by carefully and thoughtfully identifying and explaining the various aspects of the problem, gives us excellent tools with which to improve our understanding and develop possible solutions.
Brooke Ventura is a writer. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.