Colleen Quinn is a senior studying Politics & International Relations as well as French.

(This post offers the a second student analysis of Twilight of Democracy. Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

In a time where our government seeks to promote democracy across the world, Twilight of Democracy is a warning not to forget about protecting domestic democracy. In this book, author Anne Applebaum informs readers of the dangers of authoritarianism and populism, and how a country that described itself as democratic can fall under the control of a right-wing party that has taken away safeguards to ensure a democratic process in a short amount of time.

Anne Applebaum wrestles with the idea of why individuals allow authoritarian leaders to take control. She discusses the fall of Poland into right-wing, controlled state. She voices her concern with the state of the nation with a populist leader in control, and the subsequent loss of checks and balances that prevent one party from taking control. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party is in power, a Right-Wing party dismantling the checks and balances of democracy in Poland, and promoting a homogenous society. These checks would protect minorities and immigrant populations from the nationalistic tendencies of right-wing populists. Although factions can cause some tension and divide among the electorate, diversity of ideas, as well as a platform for that diversity is one of the best protections against an authoritarian state.

Although Applebaum successfully covers Polish democratic backsliding, I think she misses the presence of resilient established democracies in her writing about America. While our democracy may not look the same as it did one hundred years ago, or even twenty-five years ago, as our world evolves, democracies need to evolve with it, or they risk extinction. After 9/11, when American democracy was tested, America rose to the occasion and demonstrated that an attack to democracy would not go without response. While the America of the twenty-first century may be different than the founders imagined it to be, the people are still in control of who holds the power.

The danger of scapegoating is one aspect of the book with which I particularly resonated, because I have seen leaders use this tactic to gain support throughout history. To highlight the danger of scapegoating, Applebaum uses the example of the brother of the deceased Polish president, who spun a tale that his brother (the president) was taken out by the opposing party, which somehow allowed him to become the next president. The people were desperate for leadership and in a vulnerable state, so they accepted whatever information was given to them (43). Even though the story of the president being taken out by the opposing party was completely fabricated, a scapegoat provides a simple answer to a large problem: who should succeed the previous leader? (11). If the public was allowed to think for themselves and process the death of their leader before choosing a new one, they might have elected a more democratic leader, instead of the man who fed them lies to gain their sympathy.

In her book, Applebaum also shares her perspective on how the new Law and Justice government quickly replaced members of the government with individuals who supported the right wing leaders. She emphasizes how easily and quickly a nation can go from democratic to authoritarian, and how the citizens will even support authoritarianism, given proper persuasion and circumstances. As I read Applebaum’s findings, I was greatly reminded of my research into French politics and government. I have found that much of the polarization and divide between immigrants from Muslim-majority nations and the native French is caused by laïcité, or secularism, leading to a populist right-wing movement that seeks to keep out Muslims, or more support for right-wing parties, spanning the past two decades. This exclusion seems similar to what Applebaum was describing in Poland, as well as the Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s (172-78). If we do not promote diversity of political opinion, we will see a rise of right-wing administrations and parties as we have across Europe, and a return to nationalistic ideals that seek to exclude certain populations from the national identity.

Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy is a valuable warning for all democratic nations. It may be difficult to catch the signs of authoritarianism in real time, but Applebaum’s observations give readers a glimpse into how a seemingly invincible nation can deteriorate into a state that hardly resembles a democracy.  Maintaining awareness for these shifts, and developing strategies to respond to the underlying issues that often lead to support for them, requires persistent vigilance.


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