Twilight of Democracy Summary

Twilight of Democracy is a nonfiction work of political and historical analysis in which Anne Applebaum, who once considered herself a “center-right” conservative, examines the recent rise of authoritarian regimes and parties.

  • Applebaum seeks to understand how authoritarian regimes in the US and UK have gained power and support, particularly among intellectual elites.
  • She concludes that authoritarianism appeals to those who feel left behind in the meritocratic system of liberal democracy.
  • Seeking power and a sense of belonging, these individuals abandon democratic values and throw their loyalty behind a single party, often trafficking in conspiracy theory and propaganda in the process.

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Last Updated on July 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

The book opens at a party that Applebaum gave in 1999 to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000. In attendance were many of her European friends who fell along the center-right and right of the political spectrum. She describes what she believed they had in common, in particular a commitment to liberal democracy—that is, rule by the people on the basis of personal freedom guaranteed by a constitution. She then explains that she is no longer friends with many of these people because they have since become servants of authoritarian regimes and parties. From center-right or right, her former friends have now become far-right and use their intellectual powers in the service of dictators and tyrants. Applebaum wants to know why.

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She describes the rise of the authoritarian Law and Justice Party in Poland, where she currently lives. Several of her former party guests are now members of the intellectual elite that serves this authoritarian party. Referencing the work of several philosophers and historians, she attempts to account for this rise in authoritarianism. In Poland, Applebaum argues, these intellectuals felt left behind in the competitive environment of liberal democracy that arose after the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe. As communism crumbled, these intellectuals had no desire to compete in a meritocracy; they wanted to be treated favorably by the government and gain special recognition for their loyalty. To gain this preferential treatment, they abandoned the tenets of liberal democracy and committed to serving the state at any cost.

In both Hungary and in Poland, authoritarian regimes arose in the twenty-first century. These regimes’ success depended on their intellectual elites—in particular, the propaganda that those elites created and spread. Conspiracy theories, Applebaum argues, serve authoritarian regimes by uniting their people. People who make good followers of authoritarian regimes tend to desire unity and fear diversity, which makes them feel they do not belong in their own countries. The conspiracy theories and propaganda created by a regime’s intellectual servants can inspire feelings of unity by making these followers feel like they have special knowledge and belong to a movement of superior people. 

After analyzing the rise of authoritarian regimes in ex-communist countries, Applebaum then turns her focus to the UK. She examines the figure of Boris Johnson, whose propaganda against the European Union was one of the primary drivers of “Brexit” (the informal name for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016). Johnson, Applebaum argues, is another example of an intellectual whose skill at creating convincing lies has been instrumental in the rise of an authoritarian party. In Britain, the Conservative party has not yet actually assumed authoritarian rule in a one-party state; however, Applebaum certainly implies that they would want to.

Finally, Applebaum turns her focus to her birth country of the United States, analyzing the election of Donald Trump. She examines the rhetoric that brought Trump to power and its roots in movements that have expressed disgust with America as a capitalist liberal democracy. Looking at formerly respected intellectual figures who now promulgate lies and Trumpian propaganda, Applebaum concludes that a “cultural despair” is at the root of their decision to turn their backs on liberal democracy.

In the closing chapters, Applebaum describes a 2019 party with different guests, many of them from the left. Noting her children's friends in attendance, Applebaum expresses optimism about the diversity and tolerance she sees in the younger generation and explains that this makes her hopeful for the future of liberal democracy. Yet she also describes the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent closure of borders and ponders whether authoritarianism will triumph in the wake of the pandemic. Ultimately, she calls on the reader to fight for the preservation of liberal democracy in the future.

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