This is an illuminating political memoir about the break-up of the political tribe that won the Cold War. It can be read with profit even if you disagree, as I do, with the thesis it is wrapped up in. The author, Anne Applebaum, is a distinguished American journalist and a historian of, in particular, the Soviet Union and its horrors. She is married to Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister of Poland. She has had a front-row seat observing political events in America, the UK and Poland over the last three decades and uses her insider knowledge to good effect.
As this is, in some of its best moments, a very personal book about political friends falling out, I ought to declare a connection. I know Anne, though not well, from the London political and journalistic scene. And one of my most vivid memories of her stretches back to probably the first time we met, at a north London dinner party, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. She was with Radek, who in this genteel, left-liberal environment was an exotic, bullish figure. He had fled communist Poland for Britain, where he studied PPE at Oxford (joining the Bullingdon Club at the same time as Boris Johnson) and became a devoted Thatcherite. After graduating, he travelled to Afghanistan as a war reporter and took up arms against the Russians. I remember he enjoyed teasing us for our unreflective bien-pensant views while Anne looked on awkwardly, not wanting to take sides.
She’s taking sides now. This is an angry book, a denunciation of fellow anti-communists, liberal and conservative, who, she believes, have betrayed liberal democracy and gone over to the populist dark side. It is loosely modelled on Julien Benda’s 1927 book, La Trahison des clercs (usually translated as ‘The Treason of the Intellectuals’), about members of the cultural elite who were drawn to the political extremes in the years after the First World War.
The book starts and ends with accounts of two parties she hosted, both in a small manor house in northwest Poland owned by the Sikorski family. The first party, on 31 December 1999, was attended by friends from London, Moscow and New York, but most of the guests were Poles from the broad anti-communist alliance. They all agreed about democracy, the rule of law and the route to prosperity. Nearly two decades later, Applebaum says, she would cross the road to avoid many of the Poles at that party, and they would do the same to avoid her, because they have ended up as supporters of the Law and Justice party that currently governs Poland. She describes Law and Justice, the main rival to Sikorski’s more moderate conservative Civic Platform party, as populist and nativist. She provides an alarming sketch of how the party, in power since 2015, has been behaving in a thuggish way and undermining the independence of the judiciary and media.
There is a less angry but almost equally censorious sketch of the nostalgic conservatism and cultural despair that she believes became fashionable on the Right in London in the early 1990s, when she was working at The Spectator. These sentiments, she thinks, formed the signature tune of the Brexit cause. There are shorter reflections on authoritarianism in Hungary and the rise of the populist Vox party in Spain.
Woven around this are various explanations of why individuals and larger groups are seduced by populism. These include authoritarian predispositions, the poison of social media, the sophisticated machinery of the political lie, conspiracy theories and the yearning for a unified and tidy society. But Applebaum’s favourite explanation, at least for the rise of deviant populist leaders, is personal inadequacy and resentment of the successful, competent meritocrats of mainstream politics.
This is all lively and entertaining but rather too black and white. Her account of British politics and the success of the Brexit campaign verges on the cartoonish. She details the lies and exaggerations of the Brexit camp without mentioning the lies and exaggerations promoted by Remainers – most conspicuously, forecasts of economic collapse – which had the backing of the state machine.
She also promotes that old canard that Brexit was driven by imperial nostalgia and a longing for ‘a world in which England made the rules’. That may have been true of a few eccentric figures hanging around The Spectator in the 1990s, but one of the striking things about postwar British history is precisely the lack of nostalgia for empire on the Right, thanks in part to the absence of significant settler populations in Britain’s colonies (unlike in France’s).
I am less familiar with Polish politics, but it is clear that the country is afflicted by a deep psychological division in which Civic Platform gives as good as it gets. A recent study by the University of Warsaw on the dehumanisation of the political ‘other’ found Civic Platform voters more likely to dehumanise Law and Justice voters than the other way around. Law and Justice’s leaders are not angels, and some are obsessed with conspiracy theories, but neither are they an anti-system populist force: they are pro-parliament, pro-NATO, pro-EU. They are Christian conservatives, and the party they lead is a more strident version of the CSU in Bavaria.
Twilight of Democracy is a highly readable example of the new genre of liberal catastrophism. Like others who write in this manner, Applebaum is not careful enough to distinguish between genuine social conservatives and the authoritarians and bigots who inhabit the fringes of the new conservative movements.
She also turns a blind eye to the failings of her own tribe. The measured, reasonable, centre-right or centre-left meritocratic elite she celebrates, maybe a wee bit smugly, must bear some responsibility for the populist backlash. The promoters of ‘double-liberalism’ (market and social-cultural liberalism) presided over a radical opening of Western societies after the end of the Cold War that discomforted and disadvantaged many. Things that would have been considered extreme only a few decades ago, like adopting the euro, unqualified free movement across borders or gay marriage, became the norm.
The meritocratic elite pursued its own priorities – relatively open immigration, the expansion of higher education, a focus on all inequalities except socioeconomic ones – with insufficient regard for how this was impacting the economically or educationally left-behind or the socially conservative. The competent, reasonable old establishment that Applebaum identifies with was also partly responsible for the policy errors that contributed to the Iraq War mess, the financial crash, the euro crisis and, maybe one should now add, the failure to respond to the ‘woke’ drift in higher education and other institutions.
The challenge to the status quo has sometimes been ugly and incompetent – look no further than Donald Trump. But to dismiss this as the resentment of the little people is to miss the point. Where did so much resentment come from? And isn’t the point of democracy to channel and give voice to such resentments? The push-back against the consensus of the past thirty years is politics working, not failing. According to Pew surveys, support for democracy is holding steady in the West. And in polarised Poland, trust in democracy, the EU and public institutions has actually been rising in the four and a half years since Law and Justice took power.
It is one thing to oppose the more populist and socially conservative strands of politics; it is quite another to rule them illegitimate. Yet this is what too many illiberal liberals are now doing. They include the senior Conservative who told me at the height of the no-deal Brexit row last September that the new Tory government was not just wrong but led by ‘really bad people’, and the US-based German commentator Constanze Stelzenmüller, who has accused the leading CDU politician Friedrich Merz of promoting far-right policies by saying that not all refugees can come and live in Germany.
Applebaum ends the book as she starts it, with an account of a party in the same house in the Polish countryside in August last year, twenty years on from the first. And she uses the social mix at the recent party as a rebuke to the distinction I drew in my 2017 book The Road to Somewhere between ‘Somewheres’ (the less well educated, who value security and familiarity and have strong attachments to group and place) and ‘Anywheres’ (better-educated, mobile people who tend to favour openness and thrive in the cognitive meritocracy), a divide she calls ‘false and exaggerated’.
If Applebaum were to read my book, she would find that, while those labels are invented, the value groups they describe are real, as a close reading of British attitude and opinion surveys will show. I stress in my book that both ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Somewhere’ world-views are equally valid and that the principal aim of modern politics is to mitigate the divide between them. Some people have found the value divide (and its many subdivisions) useful for thinking about big social trends, but most individual lives are too idiosyncratic to fit neatly into one category or the other. The fact that at her 2019 party, local Polish friends were able to mix happily with well-known journalists and politicians from across Europe does not, alas, prove the non-existence of a divide which stands behind much current political discontent.
But if liberal conservatives practised a bit more of what they preach about toleration and accepted that it is possible to hold socially conservative attitudes towards European integration, immigration or abortion and still be a decent person, then maybe there would have been more overlap between the guest lists at Applebaum’s two parties.