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Anne Applebaum on the Twilight of Democracy

What role do members of the cultural and media elite play in the ascent of nationalist rule? In her new book, Twilight of Democracy, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum examines the surrogates who enable autocracy. She discusses the patterns of weakening democracies around the world with Washington Post columnist Max Boot.

  • Anne Applebaum
  • Max Boot
October 27, 2020


Welcome to this Brennan Center for Justice event. For those of you who don’t know, the Brennan Center is a nonpartisan law and policy institute affiliated with New York University School of Law. I’m Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center.

I’m thrilled to introduce our distinguished guests this afternoon. In America and around the globe, democratic institutions have begun to deteriorate. Unfortunately, what’s gaining traction are authoritarian movements. Anne Applebaum, journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, argues in her new book, Twilight of Democracy, that this trend should come as no surprise given what she calls “the seductive lure of authoritarianism.” This conversation will be moderated by Max Boot. He is a CNN global affairs analyst, Washington Post columnist, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome, Max.



Thank you very much, Larry. It’s going to be a terrific conversation at a very unusual time in U.S. history and the history of the world. Now it’s my pleasure to welcome Anne Applebaum.

In the Washington Post review of Anne’s book, Sheri Berman writes: “Twilight of Democracy offers many lessons on the longstanding struggle between democracy and dictatorship, but perhaps the most important is how fragile democracy is. Its survival depends on choices made every day by elites and ordinary people.”

And we’re here to talk about Anne’s book, Twilight of Democracy, which I highly commend to you, not only in the way that Sheri Berman did but let me just say that just as a reader I found it to be a very fast, very informal read. I got through it in an afternoon. But it’s packed with wisdom and insights, which is exactly what I would expect from Anne because there is really no writer writing today who I respect more than Anne. So it’s a pleasure to be with you again, Anne, and to discuss your important book.



Thank you so much, Max. That’s very kind words. And thanks so much to NYU and to the Brennan Center for organizing.



Great.  Well, let me start off by talking about the way you start off the book, which is by writing about a party that you had to mark the new millennium on December 31, 1999. And I believe it was in the very house where you are currently sitting — a much more impressive backdrop, I might add, than the hotel kitchen that I have behind me at the moment.

But, you know, you wrote about this in the book as well as in an Atlantic article previously. And it’s really something that I think caught people’s attentions, because you wrote about how you partied at the end of the 1990s with all of your fellow conservatives, people who believed in classical liberalism, in essence, and who felt like their vision had been vindicated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. And there was kind of this giddy sense of triumph, of new possibilities, of — even of history ending, as Frank Fukuyama wrote.

And you look back on that from the vantage point of 20 years on, and it seems like a much more dismal picture. And what you point out in the book is that so many of the people who were fellow well-wishers at this party are essentially no longer talking to one another because they have gone in such different directions, with many of them turning out to be illiberal nationalists, conspiracy mongers, anti-Semites, et cetera, et cetera, and others, like you, sticking to what you view as being a fairly consistent belief in conservatism, meaning, I guess, essentially classical liberalism. 

So, you know, I would start off by asking you, what do you think changed? I mean, did these people change or were they simply not who you thought they were in 1999? Were they always like this, or have they just gone — have they just changed because of changing circumstances over the last couple of decades?



So it’s — I mean, the book is the answer to that question. I mean, it begins with the party. And let me hasten to explain that I’m not a great hostess and I don’t give lots of parties or anything like that. It just seemed like the party is really a metaphor for a group of people for a kind of group of not even so much friends, but a group of political associates, people who thought alike and kind of hung around together, and now no longer do. 

And the book is an answer to that question. And I answer it by looking at the same problem in several different places, not just Poland but also the U.S., U.K., Spain, with some references to other, other countries. And there isn’t a single answer. It’s not a political science book with a sort of big thesis that can be defended. It’s partly — you know, it’s very — it’s from my point of view. It’s a subjective view of what happened.  And I give different answers for different people. And mostly, most of the explanation, sooner or later, comes down to disappointment — either people being disappointed with their societies, disappointed with how something turned out, disappointment at a very general level.

They feel their countries are degenerate or they are going downhill or they are not as good as they used to be or they are weaker or, you know, less authentic than they used to be, or in some cases it’s disappointment with their own personal circumstances.  In Poland, there are a number of people who I write about who, for example, expected that the transformation, the transition from communism to democracy in the 1990s, would be personally good for them. And actually in most cases it has been good for them. 

I mean, you can’t — these aren’t — this is not a book about people who are starving or are somehow victims of the transition or anything like that. But they weren’t quite as successful as they thought they should be. They didn’t become prime minister or, I don’t know, bestselling authors. And many of them became very resentful of the system that was created and of the people who were running it and of the values that it espoused.  So the book is about how people then dealt with that disappointment. And the argument is that when you’re really disappointed, when you really think your society is dead or declined or undermined or changing in ways that you don’t like, then that’s one of the paths that sometimes leads to political radicalism. 

Extreme views often are — you know, are — you find them in people who are really quite angry and they feel that nothing left can be done, that democracy has failed or the political system has failed or the elites have failed or the society has failed, and it needs a radical, dramatic, even violent or disruptive change. And that’s the mood that leads people into radicalism. And I kind of — I trace that path in different ways and how different people have followed it over the last 20 years.



But is it possible that some of those people were kind of radicals or illiberal to begin with, and those differences between them and you were papered over by the Cold War, by the mutual fight against communism? And I’m thinking of people like Solzhenitsyn who, of course, was a great hero of the Cold War struggle, a great — not only a great Russian writer, but great Russian dissident but not a liberal democrat, somebody who didn’t actually believe in the system that you and I hold dear. Do you think that was true of more of those people at the time than you realized?



Yeah, I think — I mean, that’s certainly true but, I mean, I think that’s true in the United States as well. I mean, all of these anti-communist coalitions everywhere were just that. They were coalitions, and, you know, why were people anti-communist? I mean, you know, look, even if you take the United States, well, so some people were Cold Warriors because of realpolitik and they were worried about nuclear weapons and they worried about Soviet influence in Europe and around the world and that included, by the way, a lot of Democrats. Some people were Cold Warriors because they believed in human rights and democracy and they believed that human rights — that democracy was the opposite of communism and, therefore, communism had to be fought. Some people were anti-communists or Cold Warriors because they were Christians and because communism was atheist and they thought that by — you know, by engineering the fall of communism they would spread Christianity and they expected that to be one of the outcomes of the fall of Berlin Wall.

And one of the things that happened, I mean, and I think actually happened quite fast in the 1990s if you look across different countries— rather, Poland, the U.S., the U.K. — is that those coalitions quite quickly began to break up and there was a lot of, initially, disappointment with — you know, in the 1990s in the U.S. and the U.K. you had the George Bush, Sr., administration, you had the John Major administration, and these were run by people who were pragmatic and believed in, OK, now the drama is over and now it’s time to rebuild Europe and put the pieces back together again, and that was a process that for a lot of people was quite boring. I mean, people missed their — the radical days when they were on the cutting edge of politics and, you know, they were in disagreement with everybody else and then they proved to be right, and they sought bigger challenges.

And that was one of the things that happened in the U.S. and then, actually, as you say, in Eastern Europe, yes, there were a lot of people who were anti-communists but that didn’t mean they were democrats. It meant that they were nationalists or they were — you know, or they also had a religious vision of society and they believed that society should be organized, as in Poland, around the Catholic Church, or in Russia as around the Orthodox Church. And so yes, very quickly people found that they had great differences. I mean, one of the effects of that in Eastern Europe initially was that in a number of countries former communists came back to power and that was very often because the anti-communist opposition turned out to be so fragmented and to have such — so little unity.

So, yes, I think you’re right. I mean, I think these big coalitions broke up, but I think that’s something that also — that just happens every generation or so.



What about your own views? I mean, I think you’re very eloquent in tracing the changes in many of your friends — or maybe, as Norman Podhoretz would say, ex-friends — but what about your own views? I mean, are you the same person politically and ideologically as you were in 1999, or have you shifted, as well?

As a former Republican — I think we’re both former Republicans, although you earlier than me — I like to repeat Ronald Reagan’s line about I didn’t leave my party, my party left me, but I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate because I feel  like my views have shifted in some matters, as well. And I’m just wondering, what about you?



My principles are still the same and the reasons why I was an anti-communist remain the same as now, and I was one of the people who was interested in democratization and human rights, and that was what I thought was at stake in the 1980s and early 1990s. But I also think that, you know, any intelligent person — and I think on the Left and the Right this is true — changes their views as circumstances change. There’s that famous quote from [Keynes], which is, you know — you know, when the facts change, I change my views, you know, what do you do? And I do feel like life throws up different circumstances and new problems, and not all of your old frame of mind fits the new problem, and not all of the ways that you thought in the 1980s or 1990s are appropriate, you know, to 2020. 

And so, yeah, I probably have changed what I — what I think about some things. I mean, on some basic levels you have to adjust your views. 

And I would say that I’m still fundamentally committed to a society in which there is an even playing field in politics in which — you know, in which there is — there are independent courts, in which there are separations of power — of powers, in which, you know, there are some forms of independent media that are not either dependent on the state or dependent on — you know, on oligarchs with close connections to the state. So there are sort of — there are certain fundamental rules that I would say I haven’t changed on. But how the issues present themselves and the importance that they have, I think that has changed in my head over time. And I think it should.



Have you changed your views on whether democracy is destined to triumph? Obviously your book is called The Twilight of Democracy. So I’m just curious — and I don’t want to put words into your mouth — but have you gone from being, you know, super optimistic about democracy to being super pessimistic? Is that accurate?



I’ve certainly — so, I mean, that is what my book is about. It’s about the loss of certainty and the loss of, you know, our — exactly that sense that, you know, there’s something inevitable about democracy. But I actually think that that feeling of inevitability, you know, that it has to be that way, you know, that history is progressive and it unfolds in a certain manner, and of course that’s — which, you know, that’s, of course, a caricature of what most people thought.

But it was clear — you know, even in the ‘90s it was clear that it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing. I mean, it was clear to me that Russia wasn’t going to be a democracy quite early on, for example. In fact, my party opens on December 31st, 1999, which is also the day that Boris Yeltsin resigned and Putin began what would be his — the beginning of two decades long in power. So even at that moment it was becoming clear. So, you know, I don’t want to oversimplify what people thought, but certainly the — this feeling of inevitability was a mistake. And it was a mistake not only because it was — you know, it made us predict the future incorrectly, but also because I think it gave people a sense of complacency about — particularly about our own democracy, about American democracy, about West European democracy, and not just about the new democracies of Eastern Europe — newish. They’re not so new anymore. 

And that feeling of complacency, I think, meant that for a lot of people, you know, they kind of checked out of politics starting in the 1990s. Well, politics is something that professionals do. We don’t have to worry about it. You know, it’ll somehow manage itself. We don’t need to vote. We don’t need to be members of parties. We don’t need to be part of civic institutions. We don’t have to worry about get-out-the-vote campaigns. There’s someone who will do that. You know, there’s some kind of professional caste or class who will do it. 

And I think that was a major mistake because that really — that was one of the reasons why people’s faith in democracy began to weaken. And it was one of the reasons why democracy in the U.S. in particular was taken over and began to be harmed by these, you know, just torrents of spending and by lobbyists and special interests who sought to twist it in various ways and that — which then undermined people’s faith in it further. 

So, in fact, one of the things I hope to achieve with the book is a — it’s a kind of clarion call, you know, a reminder to people, don’t be complacent. Democracies do fail, and in fact, all democracies in the past have failed and, you know, even most of the ones that exist now are very recent. You know, ours is — ours is a couple of hundred years old. It’s one of the oldest by some — it depends how you want to compare us to Great Britain. But by some — by some measures, it is the oldest and most of the ones around are far more recent.

And you know, we’ve seen democracy collapse multiple times. We’ve seen it collapse many times in South America over the last several decades. We saw it collapse in Europe in the 1930s. Many European democracies that we think of as fairly stable, they’re quite recent, you know. Forget Eastern Europe, I mean, Spain and Greece, you know, became democracies in the 1970s, which is not so long ago.

And keeping that in mind and remembering that, you know, politics is really cyclical rather than progressive — that it doesn’t go in one direction, it can go in many directions, and that there’s no — there’s no law that says once you’ve had a democracy for X numbers of years you’ll always have one. I think that’s a good reminder, especially for Americans, who have this sense of, you know, this — you know, that our democracy is somehow inevitable or guaranteed.



Let me press you a little bit more on the title of your book and the thesis of your book. And you’ve said repeatedly that it’s not a strongly thesis-driven book, but let me just ask you about the title because I notice it is called Twilight of Democracy and it doesn’t have a question mark.

And at some points in the book you seem fairly pessimistic about the outlook for democracy, where you write for example on page 14: “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” And yet, by the end of the book — by page 185 — while you say that "we may be doomed like glittering, multiethnic Habsburg, Vienna, or creative, decadent Weimar, Berlin, to be swept away into irrelevance, it is possible that we are already living through the twilight of democracy, that our civilization may be heading for anarchy or tyranny," and so forth and so on.

But then you write: “Or maybe the coronavirus will inspire a new sense of global solidarity. Maybe we will renew and modernize our institutions.” Do you have a — at this point in time — and I realize the story remains very much unfinished, but I mean, which way are you leaning? Is this actually the twilight of democracy, or not?



First of all, I don’t do predictions. Second of all, one of the things I came to — one of the conclusions I came to while writing the book, actually, is that it is irresponsible for people in my generation to be pessimistic and to say it’s the end, you know, it’s all over, because that is unfair to people who are 20 and 30 years younger than us who are just beginning their lives and their careers, and who have a chance to change things and make them better.

I mean, the book is really a warning rather than a prediction. It is — you know, it points out that democracies do die. It shows and indicates how some of them could die. It points out that, you know, some die and then are revived, and you know, history’s been circular in many places, and there are countries that have — like Greece that have gone back and forth between democracy and dictatorship over many decades. But ultimately, it leaves — it points out that the — you know, there is no — there is no — you know, there is no way to predict the future. And decisions that are made now, both by people in power and by people who are younger, can affect the outcome. 

You know, it’s — you know, we can — we can revive democracy. We can bring it back. We can change the way its rules works. We can — you know, we have the power, for example, to eliminate the flows of money that go — in our democracy, we have the power to eliminate flows of dirty money around the world. We could end tax shelters tomorrow by making them illegal, you know. We have the power to change things, and I hope that the book inspires younger people to see that.



Is social media a danger or a boost for democracy, or both and which way do you think it’s going to shake out?



So social media, like any media, is neutral in that, you know, it can be used by different people in different ways. It’s sort of neither good nor bad. I mean, it’s like asking whether, you know, TV is good or bad. I mean, TV — you know, you can do fantastic things on television and, you know, amazing, creative documentaries, you know, or you can put out, you know, reality television garbage 24 hours a day.

And social media is a little bit like that in that it’s a reflection of how people speak and talk to one another, and both the best of humanity and the worst of humanity can be found on social media. And social media has, clearly, been used to organize people in an empowering way, and it’s been used to divide people in a disempowering way. And you know, much depends on which channels are being used and who’s using them.

In my book, I do talk about the ways in which the authoritarians have sought to use social media, which is, interestingly, almost the opposite of the way the guy I — the Belarusian I wrote about last week is using them — namely, they have sought to use social media as a tool of division in order to, you know, create wedge issues to — and also to create a sense of fear and to create senses of "us versus them" community online. You know, we need to hang together to protect ourselves against the — you know, the rest of the evil society.

And so, you know, again, it’s a tool that can be used either way. I mean, there’s a — there are a number of ways in which some forms of social media, and particularly Facebook, but also actually even YouTube and Twitter have been — you know, certainly have been used to increase extremism. The way their algorithms work is that they — you know, they favor — they try and get people staying online as long as possible. They tend to show people or guide people in ever more extreme directions.

And so there is a national conversation, I think, that needs to be held about whether we want social media to do that, and should there be some insight into these algorithms and transparency about how they work? Is it — you know, given that that’s increasingly the way in which people get their information, don’t we want there to be some — you know, some input from the entire society about what the rules are? 

You know, so I think social media can be very destructive or it can be very constructive.  You know, it depends how it’s used. It depends what the rules are. I mean, certainly I think we can say that it’s very — it’s undermining of whatever current system is in place. You know, any media revolution, you know, whether it was the invention of the printing press at the beginning of the Reformation or whether it was the invention of radio in the early 20th century, any time there’s a new system of information or people getting information in different ways, there’s always a political revolution that follows. And I think that’s really what we’re in the middle of now.



Has there been more coordination in recent years between democracy movements?

And let me also ask you, the flip side of the question is is there also more coordination between dictatorships? Are dictatorships also working together to stymie freedom fighters?



I think both are absolutely true. You know, of course — and remembering, of course, that they’ve always been true. So what happened in 1989, which was a pre- — you know, pre-internet, pre-social-media era, was that people, you know, in one Eastern European country saw the revolution happening next door and imitated it or imitated aspects of it. You know, and actually you can look back at 1848 or other revolutionary moments in history or other, indeed, authoritarian movements in history and you can often see countries copying one another or importing ideas. So ideas have always moved very fast from country to country.

But you asked specifically about whether dissidents are helping one another. The answer to that is yes. There is — in some cases it’s voluntarily. There are some groups that have  — that go out of their way to make that happen, to make that — you know, there are people who have dedicated themselves to explicitly trying to learn the lessons of what makes a successful nonviolent movement, for example, or a successful street demonstration. And they have tried to spread that knowledge from one place to the next. 

And by the same token, I mean — and this again is in my book — there is no question that both authoritarians learn from one another and learn technologies from one another. In some cases it’s explicit. You know, China explicitly, for example, exports its form of social credit, so its form of social control, which uses social media and uses the internet and uses spy cameras and all kinds of things. It is explicitly exporting that to other countries and teaching them how to do it. So that is absolutely happening.

But it’s also — there are other — the sort of illiberal international also functions in a different way, which is that there are online activists who copy one another’s style and techniques, and sometimes even literally repost their memes and their jokes, which works also across borders. So there is something like an international alt-right, which takes some cues from the U.S. and some cues from Europe and sometimes organizes itself even spontaneously around themes and ideas.



What’s inspired the reaction against liberalism in the United States and Europe? Are elites leading this or are they following popular cues?



That’s — I mean, that’s a chicken-and-egg question. You know, it’s a bit of both. I think there is a — there is a lot of disillusion in the United States. You know, you can go back to the financial crisis, which was a moment when a lot of people lost faith in the idea that many had had that people in power — you know, they may not know a lot, but at least they know how to run financial markets in the United States. And this was quite powerful, actually, outside of the U.S., around the world. You know, faith in American leadership really was damaged at that moment.

You can also look to the feeling that many had that they were left out of the arguments in the 1990s and that the, you know, economic changes and demographic changes didn’t include them or they weren’t consulted. And so some of that disillusion and sense that we’re not heard or our voices aren’t heard does come from the bottom. But, you know, again, one of the things I argue in the book is that much of that disillusion has also been packaged and formed and sold by elites — so by, I mean, right-wing intellectuals or far-right intellectuals or makers of memes or presenters on Fox News or people who’ve thought long and hard about how to package and sell and promote that sense of alienation or that sense of fear, how to make people angrier and how to make people more discontent and how to prepare people, therefore, for more radicalism.

And then, of course, there’s a feedback loop whereby the efforts of the elites creates more alienation on the ground, and then the alienation on the ground feeds a demand for the fear and anger that you see on Fox News. I don’t think you can point to one another. I think they feed into one another. And both are important. 



What is the status of democracy in the United States.

How endangered is it?



So I do believe it is deeply endangered. I believe we are at a critical moment.

I think there are more and more people in power who are trying to figure out how to use the organs of the state, you know, to preserve power or to benefit themselves. And the — you know, the weight is — you know, and these are — you know, the language that’s being used and the divisive tactics are very difficult to stop, you know. We’ve seen a number of other — in a number of other countries anti-populist movements have often not succeeded because the appeal of a message of unity or a message of niceness or a message of let’s all be together, let’s not be divided, sometimes the appeal of that kind of message is just less powerful than the appeal of fear and anger and hatred and division.  

we are lucky in the United States that we’re such a big country and we’re such a decentralized country. We don’t have an interior ministry, although we saw — we had the little glimmerings of what one might look like when we saw the sort of strange, camouflage-wearing troops sent to Portland a We don’t have an interior ministry and we don’t have — you know, we’re not a centralized state. Washington doesn’t control the police in every state. It doesn’t control the voting systems in every state. It doesn’t control the media in every state the way in some much smaller countries — you know, in Hungary, something like 95 percent of the media is now one way or another controlled by the government.

You know, we have — in that sense, our size and our — and our great variety are a kind of bulwark against authoritarianism, as are our courts, you know, our — and the division of power. 

But it is — it’s a dangerous moment. I don’t think democracy in America is over. I think in a lot of ways it’s very lively. But it’s proved to be weaker in some ways than we thought it was.



Besides voting, what is the most important thing individuals can do to prevent/stop those intent on authoritarianism from winning the day?



I think the most important thing to do is to join civic organizations. If you don’t want to join a political party or you don’t want to work for a political party, then work for or join or help a get-out-the-vote campaign or even participate somehow in your local or neighborhood politics. I think being part of public conversation — being on the school board or being in the PTA or being in some way a participant in things that we all design jointly — is really the best way to contribute.

And you can have as much influence, as much impact at a very narrow, local level as you can at the national level.



Do you feel like actually the participation that so many people have on places like Twitter and Facebook and other social media, is it helpful or hurtful, or both? Because it just seems like the more the public gets involved and the less the gatekeepers matter, the more vitriolic the debate has become in many ways. 



So I think social media is a kind of substitution for real participation.



It’s not — you know, by clicking something or by talking to people online, you aren’t actually participating.

Being part of, you know, real groups that do things offline is also really important, and making sure that you have sources of information and sources of connection to people that aren’t just via random Facebook or Twitter connections is extremely important. You know, putting time into real organizations, into these real institutions, that’s, I think, how democracy is built, rather than by scrolling through things on your phone — tempting, though, that, of course, is for all of us to do.



Well, on that note, thanks to Anne Applebaum for joining me in this discussion. I wish you the best of luck with your new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. I hope that everybody listening today goes out and buys the book. It’s not very costly and it doesn’t take a long time to read, and I think it really rewards a close read.

Thank you to Larry Norden and all the folks at the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU’s Brademas Center, NYU Votes who produced this program. I’m Max Boot. Thank you for joining us. 

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