Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum

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Part 2 Summary and Analysis

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Applebaum describes the twentieth-century rise of a new form of political organization, the illiberal one-party state. Attributing its creation to Vladimir Lenin in Russia, she describes how his Bolshevik state, in direct opposition to meritocratic democracy, advanced citizens in proportion to their vocal loyalty to the Communist Party. Lenin also undermined the free press and politically neutral institutions by playing on left-wing cynicism about their objectivity. But, she writes, illiberal one-party states work just as well with right-wing fascism as they do with authoritarian leftism. Such states must rely on elite intellectuals to run the institutions that the state has taken over, such as the press, the government bureaucracy, and the courts. The role of these intellectuals is to defend the state leadership no matter what, and their reward is power.

Applebaum points out that it is possible to describe such a system in positive terms. If one believes that meritocracy and the free market oppress the people and that patriotism is the best qualification for having power, a “rigged and uncompetitive system” might sound like a good thing. Such people regard a one-party state as more fair than a competitive democracy, because those who deserve power are granted it by the state. Believing that the democratic system is unfair thus creates a resentment that molds the “authoritarian disposition.”

The next part of this chapter tells the story of the Kurski brothers, both Polish journalists: one worked for the state-run media and one for a liberal opposition newsletter. Applebaum uses this anecdote to show how a resentful person (Jacek Kurski) who feels he has been denied power and fame can become a central part of an authoritarian system if playing that role provides him with what he feels he is owed. Under Jacek Kurski, the state-run media in Poland not only twists facts but seemingly revels in doing so.

Applebaum contrasts today’s authoritarian political movements with those of the twentieth century. The latter required extensive violence to force the public to believe in the “Big Lie,” or the belief systems that undergirded fascism and communism. By contrast, today’s authoritarian movements use modern marketing techniques and social media to present citizens with alternative reality on a smaller scale—what Applebaum calls a “medium-size lie,” or conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory undergirding state power in Hungary is the belief that Jewish billionaire George Soros plans to bring immigrants into Hungary to destroy its society. In Poland, the government’s power is supported through the conspiracy theory that the fatal 2010 crash of a plane carrying the Polish president was the result of sabotage. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s Law and Justice Party and brother of the dead president, used this conspiracy theory to consolidate his political power. Those who profess belief in this “medium-sized lie” are held to be loyal and promoted in government.

Conspiracy theories appeal to the public, Applebaum says, because they simplify complex situations and allow people to believe they have “privileged access to the truth.” They also provide a source of power for the elites who spread them. In Hungary, the government has gone even farther than the Polish government, using state propaganda to blame a nearly nonexistent immigrant population for Poland’s problems.

Applebaum writes of her meeting with Maria Schmidt, a historian and former member of the anti-Communist opposition who saw the benefit of supporting the illiberal one-party state. Schmidt became one of the people who created and spread the “medium-size lie” of a Soros-supported plan to flood Hungary with immigrants. In her interview with Applebaum, Schmidt was confrontational and contemptuous, forcing the conversation to focus on...

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the truth or falsehood of conspiracy theories rather than substantive political issues.

Using the ideas of Ivan Krastev, who argued that some European intellectuals have something of a post-colonial mindset about Western institutions, Applebaum claims that Schmidt and other intellectuals despise liberal democracy because they see it as a Western import. This perception leads them to prefer supporting an illiberal one-party state. After the interview, she discovers that Schmidt has published an edited version of their conversation, revealing that the interview was a performance to show the Hungarian public Schmidt’s loyalty to the state.


This chapter introduces Applebaum’s theory of the relationship between illiberal one-party states, resentful elites, and conspiracy theories. She contends that such states require their citizens to believe in “alternative realities,” which, in the modern European states Applebaum has discussed up to this point, take the form of conspiracy theories. Elite intellectuals, who join the party establishment because they feel that a meritocratic competitive democracy has left them behind, are responsible for creating and spreading such conspiracy theories. These elites do not necessarily believe the conspiracy theories, but they use their skills and influence to make sure that ordinary citizens are flooded with such claims.

The focus of Applebaum’s book is on the type of intellectuals that she, as a center-right historian and journalist, was once friends with—before they became supporters of fascism. This chapter continues to explore how that disturbing transformation takes place. Her analysis of Jacek Kurski, particularly the intriguing comparison between Kurski and “literary antiheroes” such as Shakespeare’s Iago, provides an account of how intelligent and well-educated people become servants of a state that depends on ignorance to function. The conversation with Maria Schmidt follows a thread from the previous chapter by putting a personal face to the descent of these intellectuals into fascism; Schmidt, whom Applebaum once admired for her intelligence and bravery, is now a petty, vitriolic servant of authoritarianism.


Part 1 Summary and Analysis


Part 3 Summary and Analysis