Twilight of Democracy
David talks to the writer Anne Applebaum about her highly personal new book, which charts the last twenty years of broken friendships and democratic failure. We start in Poland with the story of what happened to the high hopes for Polish democracy, including what we've learned from this week's presidential election. But we also take in Trump and Brexit, Hungary and Spain. What explains the prevalence of
conspiracy theories in contemporary politics? Why are so many conservatives drawn to the politics of despair? Is history really circular? And is democracy doomed?
Yesterday, Poland’s incumbent president Andrzej Duda narrowly won re-election.
- Anne thinks that this shows divisive politics can succeed.
- A central issue was LGBT rights: Duda said that LGBT was an ideology worse than communism.
- The ruling party now has 3 more years to continue undermining the press and the judiciary and putting pressure on anyone the party sees as a threat.
The new illiberal way of thinking is not a totalizing ideology.
- These are medium-sized lies, conspiracy theories.
- You can use conspiracy theories to undermine people’s trust in political institutions.
- Should we differentiate between conspiracy theories and opportunistic lying?
When elections become about ‘who is really Polish,’ whoever wins gains a sense of legitimacy in excluding and discriminating against the ‘others.’
- Can these arguments stand when the results are this close?
- The Polish government has tools to harass its opponents. It’s a vengeful state.
- The opposition now will probably fragment—this is what happened in Hungary.
How did Brexit bring together figures like Johnson, Scruton, and Cummings?
- Politicians, journalists, and propagandists can manipulate feelings of nostalgia into a political campaign and ride it into power.
- Did nostalgia have to be anti-European Union? In some ways, the EU is a bulwark against certain features of modernity.
- But to a certain breed of nostalgic British conservative, the EU would always be foreign. To them, the idea of negotiating, or co-deciding was fundamentally unacceptable.
In places with a shorter modern democratic history like Greece and Spain, democracy has proved surprisingly robust.
- The degree to which these forces win or lose is dependent on the local context.
- History shows that democracies do fail; if you neglect rotting institutions they can bring you down.
- Both complacency and cynicism can threaten democracy.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Anne’s new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends
- Anne’s writing for The Atlantic
- WaPo’s Trump lie tracker