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“Is friendship possible,” Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian wondered in 1937, “with people who have in common a whole series of alien ideas and feelings – so alien that I have only to walk in the door and they suddenly fall silent for shame and embarrassment?”
We are not living in the 1930s, but some parallels we still feel in the gut. Who can’t name a friend, a family member, a work colleague, that we once knew, laughed with, loved, that is now lost? Those losses hang heavy over Anne Applebaum’s new, beautiful memoir, a long lament for a lost liberalism.
Like so much by Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is full of sharp, political and economic analysis, but the tone of the book is simply sadness. Our radicalizations and polarizations have penetrated now to the heart and home, our hates, envies, and fears pulling apart even the most intimate of bonds. The carnage of liberalism’s long demise is measured in this book not by currencies or court rooms, but the bodies of friends and lovers.
It is by now cliché to argue that the classic liberalism of Applebaum’s defense is under attack from all directions: from radical progressives, whose “progress” marks a dangerous groupthink of sexual and identitarian fundamentalism, and from conservatives, not Burkeans in the least, who would radicalize and revolutionize, rather than conserve, on populist and often religious principles.
All hate liberalism. It is either racist and classist, on the one hand, or smutty ‘globalists’ on the other. Free markets, free debate, freedom of association, all these hallowed freedoms of the liberal canon, are arsenals for the enemies of our positions, and should probably be suspended when needed.
Who’s afraid of liberalism? Why are we so terrified of this tradition, so varied, so plural, that even using it as a shorthand villain is just short of unintelligible? The answer is that liberalism gets back filled with the content of whatever problem seems to be in fashion. You can blame it for teen pregnancy and corporate capitalism, but you can also blame it for prudish sex shaming and socialistic egalitarianism. What a versatile villain! And the truth is – this is the tricky part – all of this blame is partly right.
Liberalism is such a crazy, wild, centuries long conversation that if you want to go hunting through its record to find the thing you think is badly wrong with present day society, you’ll probably find it. The really pernicious leap is then to argue that the bad things today are inevitable from the liberalism whose record you’ve cherry picked – the logical flaw in which should now stand out as obvious. If we have to cook the books a bit to say liberalism is all of our bad things and none of our good things, then it really is a bit deceitful to start claiming it’s also inevitable. There are no straight, uninterrupted, fatalistic lines from John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, to Lehman Brothers or Seattle’s CHAZ.
This is part of the reason why when Western people argue they are post-liberal or illiberal, I really have no idea what they’re talking about – and sometimes suspect the same is true in reverse. Do we really mean a suspension of human rights, of competitive party democracy, of freedom of association and religion?
Some religious voices say they are post-liberal because they don’t believe in secularism, which is bafflingly naïve, since most classical liberals were deeply religious. It is a bit like when we used to say religious fundamentalists were anti-modern, when in fact there was nothing more modern in character than the form of their spirited counterreactions. There are, of course, real alternatives to being a kind of liberal and a kind of modern, and if we keep on this track, we may yet find them, and very much live to regret it.
But the main problem, as Applebaum repeats a bit over indulgently, is not one you’ll find in “political science textbooks.” Ours is not mainly a problem of theory. It is a problem of mood.
“Fear,” said the great historian Herbert Butterfield, “is a thing which is extraordinarily vivid while we are in its grip; but once it is over, it leaves little trace on our consciousness.” The historian has to work especially hard, argued Butterfield, because it is almost impossible to capture feeling in history: how to understand and interpret the terror Napoleon inspired, or the German dread of Russia, the atmosphere of Robespierre and his reign of terror?
“Through such pinholes there leaks evidence of a terror which clearly underlies a wider area of the narrative than the single episode that drew our attention to it,” he wrote.
“We do not always realize – and sometimes we do not like to recognize,” said Butterfield, “how often a mistaken policy, an obliquity in conduct, a braggart manner, or even an act of cruelty, may be traceable to fear.”
Alas, the confident liberal utopia of open information and free markets, sped on by our digital revolution, produced not educated and tolerant citizens, but instead anxiety-fueled information overload. Traditional, ancien regime, sources of authority and stability were undercut, from priests to professors, but nothing but marketing and preference replaced them. And we were left alone. And we are afraid.
“Given the right conditions,” Applebaum argues, “any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
Authoritarianism answers this anxiety in part because it appeals to people who have lost a tolerance for complexity. It is anti-pluralist. “It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.”
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Conspiracy theories organize information in a similar way; a key tool for aspiring authoritarians.
The authoritarian predisposition is not the same as close-mindedness, she reminds us, quoting Karen Stenner: “It is better described as simple mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they… dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in a new political language that makes them feel safe and more secure.”
So, we embrace the soft mindedness of moral equivalency – the United States has done terrible things, how is our democracy different or better than the Soviet Union? – arguments prepared and waiting since the Cold War. There is nothing new.
“To destroy a society,” Jean Kirkpatrick – Reagan’s UN ambassador – wrote, “it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions.”
If you believe that American institutions are really no different – no better – than others, why defend them? Better, I think, to tolerate them while you must, and undermine them when convenient.
“There can be no system,” – Butterfield again – “until somebody finds a way of relieving the pressure and begins the task of creating confidence.” Can we, “together” – as Applebaum concludes – “make old and misunderstood words like liberalism mean something again?” Can we “fight back against the lies and liars… rethink what democracy should look like in a digital age?” (188). Together, she says, “we can resist them.”
A certain kind of political animal will find Applebaum’s book a tasteless memoir of the degradation of neo-liberal privilege, a sad lament from a discredited elite about the collapse of their once fine dinner parties. Many stories of parties do recur, several thick with name dropping, all with guest lists that crossed oceans just for “summer sunbathing” or “winter sleighrides.” These are, perhaps, not the most relatable moments in the book.
Can our dinner parties resist the authoritarians at the gate? From Hungary to Poland to Brexit to Trump, Applebaum’s memoir runs through a huge swathe of nationalist anxiety, the conditions for which seem ripe, the catalysts convincing, that we are pregnant with an authoritarian renaissance. The sources of hope seem thin, the salve for our fears vaporous: wherefore Burke’s little platoons on the horizon? I don’t see them. And even if they once did, I don’t think they attend Applebaum’s dinner parties anymore.