Twilight of Democracy is a fascinating and personal book by the American-Polish historian, Anne Applebaum, which looks at the threats facing democracy today.
What makes this book different from others, is that Applebaum is familiar with many politicians in power around the world today.
She recounts how she used to speak to Boris Johnson on occasion, have friends who are now around the Polish government. This gives the book a different angle than others because it presents some of them in two different lights.
This Twilight of Democracy summary looks at an important book to read in this era of culture wars and polarisation. It’s essential to understand how authoritarianism starts and how we can stop it before our civil liberties are eroded.
The central theme of the book is that the creeping authoritarianism we see today is the result of people who not long ago, would have considered themselves liberals, or conservatives with a small c.
What has prompted this change in their outlook is what Applebaum tackles in her book. This is what makes it such a fascinating read because it shines a light on how politicians can change tack and surprise their former friends.
It exemplifies how those who feel they have been neglected or wrongly overlooked can rise to power in regimes that prize loyalty above all else.
Twilight of Democracy summary
Takeaway 1 – People who believed they are entitled to power and destined for greatness are dangerous
One of the telling passages in the book is when Applebaum describes the relationship between Jaroslaw and Jacek Kurski.
Both brothers were involved in the resistance against communist rule in Poland. However, it was Jaroslaw who was more revered than his brother.
This annoyed Jacek who felt he deserve recognition and a top-ranking job. This was despite not doing much to earn one.
As the years went on this resentment festered and even though he was elected an MEP, he never made a mark in politics which singled him out for greatness.
Following the success of the Law and Justice Party in 2015, he was appointed as head of State TV in Poland and turned it into a state propaganda channel.
It was from this platform that he would exact revenge on those who overlooked him and he was now content that he had been rewarded with a position he felt he always deserved.
The same is true of Boris Johnson, who felt he always deserved to become Prime Minister of the UK, despite not doing much of note in politics.
This attitude is a dangerous one to have in politics. If you rise to the top with this attitude, it’s easy to be dismissive of those who oppose you.
It also promotes people who shouldn’t be promoted. The best should rise to the top, not those who feel like they deserve it.
Once this starts to happen, democracy starts to die and corrode from within.
Takeaway 2 – Longing for the past can be destructive
One of the problems with the UK is that it’s obsessed with the past. As an Englishman, I see this on an almost daily basis.
Every weekend there is a new story in the papers about the Nazis and the war effort. This is despite the war ending nearly 80 years ago!
I understand it’s an important part of our history and one that we should be proud of as a nation. I studied history at university, I understand its significance and importance.
However, it has developed into an obsession that has become unhealthy. This became evident during the Coronavirus pandemic when everything was referenced back to the war and the Blitz.
The problem with looking back to the past too much is that you can end up longing for it. Sometimes, I do wonder whether some people in the UK long for those days to return where the UK fought the Nazis.
I think this is what contributed to the Brexit vote in the country. Euroscepticism has long been strong in the country. Primarily because of the view that we saved Europe in the war and that because of this we are somehow bigger and better than them.
This forgets the fact that without American and Russian help, it’s likely Britain would not have lasted long in the fight against the Nazis.
History is important and should not be forgotten. It’s when we forget history that the same issues from the past rear their ugly head in the future.
However, a longing for a time that has gone can also have the same effect. It can destroy a nation that should be looking forward to the future and hanging on to a past that has been warped out of all proportion.
Takeaway 3 – A lot of authoritarian regimes are built on lies
The Nazi regime was built on the belief that the Jews were a corrupting influence in Germany and that the Germans were a superior race.
Both of these points were blatant lies, but that didn’t stop them from being adopted by many Germans at the time. Why?
Because they offered a simple narrative and presented a scapegoat for Germany’s ills. We all know what happened next. Unfortunately, similar lies are underway today.
In Hungary, George Soros is blamed for several issues in the country, despite his large investments in Hungary.
Likewise, the regime purports that it’s trying to save Hungary from a wave of migrants ready to storm the country. The problem? There is no wave of migrants.
It’s a lie.
Hungary is not being invaded by migrants from the East, it’s being taken over by George Soros, yet the regime is insistent that this is what it’s protecting citizens from.
The reason is, authoritarian regimes need lies to construct a narrative around. To convince people of the need for their policies they have to create scapegoats and fictional enemies out of thin air.
The Nazis did it, the Soviets did it and it’s happening today in China, Hungary and Poland. The US and the UK are also falling prey to such lies.
It’s the job of politicians in a democracy to be transparent and open with the people they serve. Once facts start to become distorted and lies become commonplace, the road to authoritarianism is not far away.
- “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
- “If you are someone who believes that you deserve to rule, then your motivation to attack the elite, pack the courts, and warp the press to achieve your ambitions is strong.”
- “The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth.”
- “We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past.”
- “This form of moral equivalence – the belief that democracy is no different, at base, from autocracy – is a familiar argument, and one long used by authoritarians.”
Twilight of Democracy review
This Twilight of Democracy summary has looked at a few of the issues raised in this fantastic book.
What makes the book so powerful is that Anne Applebaum is familiar with many of the figures in Hungary and Poland who have turned towards authoritarianism.
The book that shows that no matter how secure we think democracy is, it’s actually fragile if we are not vigilant.
In the 21st century, countries are backsliding on democratic processes and the rule of law.
Relics of the past are returning in new guises. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, so much so that I read it in two days!
It’s great to get the personal insights of someone well connected in the political world and her view as a historian too!
I can’t recommend Twilight of Democracy enough!
Who should read Twilight of Democracy?
Anyone that is interested in politics and how democracy erodes has to read this book. Its value is the author closeness to many prominent political figures today.
If you’re worried about the rule of law and how authoritarian regimes start, this is the book for you! Complement it with Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.