Dan Walsh is a senior majoring in Politics and International Relations and minoring in Business


(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.)

Historian Anne Applebaum takes her readers to a society on the brink in her latest work Twilight of Democracy. Society, according to Applebaum, is on the brink of becoming more authoritarian and straying from the liberal democracy which has come to define the post-World War II order. Applebaum focuses on a series of events that have all occurred since the financial crisis of the late 2000s to warn of the behavior of various western countries. These trends reflect the subtitle of Applebaum’s book comes in “The Authoritarian Lure”- she sees democracy being lured away to a more autocratic system, a development that she presents by critiquing the rise of populism on the political right in places like Eastern Europe, The United Kingdom, and The United States.

Applebaum sets this thesis up by comparing two dinner parties in her home country of Poland. The first dinner party that takes place at the turn of the millennium is filled with hope and joy for the future of the world and Polish democracy. Applebaum then takes readers to today where another dinner party is taking place much more somber and with many new guests as the political developments of the last decade have destroyed many of the friendships of old.  Applebaum’s thesis that democracy is being lured away towards a more autocratic system has more hype than substance.

Several countries such as Poland and Hungary have made some steps that can be conceived as worrisome while places like Great Britain lack substance almost entirely. The steps that many states like Poland and Hungary have taken involve purging state-run media of dissenting opinions and making sure the media toes the party line (35). Perhaps the most disturbing bit of evidence from Poland supporting Applebaum’s central idea has been changes to the court system. The court system in addition to several other aspects of the administrative state has seen purges of those who have been unfriendly to the ruling party. (5) These events are worrisome and should be looked at under intense scrutiny especially if they continue as a trend. However, at this point, my agreement with Applebaum dissipates. My disagreement with Applebaum is two-fold, first, there are several events that she cites as worrisome for democracy that I do not believe are worrisome in the slightest, and second is the notion that democracy must be liberal.[1]

Applebaum’s claim that we should worry about a drift toward autocracy in Eastern Europe does not extend past this region – her complaints about Great Britain and The United States lack that same merit. (19-20) In Britain, the event cited as a worrisome drift is a referendum on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union otherwise known as Brexit. Brexit, a referendum decided by the people, was quite democratic. Brexit was supported by a variety of different political actors from the great philosopher Roger Scruton who wrote passionately about why England should leave the EU (81-83) Leaving the European Union allowed for Britain to set its own rules and regulations in areas previously determined by European Bureaucrats. This vote on Brexit itself was an expression of sovereignty for the British people, not one which inches towards authoritarianism but in fact, one which makes democracy and elections all the more important for British citizens. Applebaum mentions how some Brexiteers had more nefarious motives to undermine democracy as mentioned in the 2019 Tory platform, but does not convince her audience.[2] (103) In the United States, the lynchpin for Applebaum is the election of Donald Trump. The election of Donald Trump, like Brexit months before it, sent shockwaves through the political world. Despite this election shocking the world Trump’s presidency was largely typical for a Republican president, tax cuts were passed and a focus was on placing socially conservative judges onto the court.[3] In both the case of Donald Trump and Brexit the media fervor surrounding the event was large but any true institutional damage and inching towards totalitarianism was minimal at most.

For our author Anne Applebaum, the focus is on one particular strain of government, liberal democracy. There are various types of governmental regimes oligarchs, monarchies, republics, and democracies to name a few. Since the end of the Cold War one governmental style, liberal democracy, has been the dominant strain and been seen as the model to which all societies should mold.[4]  Poland and its fellow Visegrád Group country Hungary have been moving away from liberal democracy toward a more illiberal “Christian” democracy. This move has been done for the most part democratically with Hungary allowing Hungarians living abroad to participate in elections. It is clear that these societies have different values[5] than many of their western counterparts but that should not be of concern as long as it is done democratically. If the global community decides to attack these democracies because they lack the commitment to “liberal values”, then these countries may very well become autocratic and fall more in league with true autocracies like Russia.[6]

The past few months have been quite turbulent for countries like Poland and Hungary but have proven to the world their value. With a truly authoritarian regime attacking its democratic neighbor as is the case right now with Russia and Ukraine respectively, Poland has shown its values on a national stage. Instead of drifting towards its authoritarian neighbor Poland has stepped up taking millions of women and children from Ukraine in as refugees and doing what it can to support its neighbor with supplies. This is one of Poland’s finest hours in recent memory and shows to the world that it may not share some of the West’s liberal values, it is a strong bulwark against authoritarianism and what a fantastic ally they are to the United States and NATO.













[1] This liberalism discussed is not economic liberalism but Millian/Rousseau liberalism which is signified by an open, pluralistic society.

[2] My biggest problem with this section on Brexit is not some of the real concerns brought up by Applebaum but the failure to separate figures who seek to undermine democracy from figures I view more sympathetically that truly care about the United Kingdom like Scruton. In between the 20 or so pages between pages 80-100, I did not perceive any real delineation mentioned between the various pro-leave groups which I believe hurts her argument.

[3] This is reference to the presidency of Donald Trump specifically and not any events or attitudes expressed after his electoral loss in 2020.

[4] Here I am referencing Fukuyama and his work The End of History and The Last Man.

[5] Societies will have various beliefs and they should be allowed to as long those beliefs are not infringing on human rights like what has been seen in China with the internment of Uighurs.

[6] Russia is truly authoritarian state and if the E.U. and global community attack Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and other countries because they do not share a commitment to things such as “LGBT Rights” then these countries which our allies may well fall into the arms of adversaries like Russia and the self-proclaimed “lion of Christianity.


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