Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum
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Part 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

Summary

Those who study revolutions, Applebaum writes, have often tried to predict what causes them, typically focusing on economic suffering. She argues that the economic situation in the countries she discusses is not bad enough to explain the rise of authoritarianism. Rather, it arises in response to a perceived threat from increasing diversity, both of people and of opinions, that angers those who are only comfortable with unity and simplicity. Immigrants are often, but not always, blamed for this perceived problem, whether or not there are many immigrants in a country at all. However, the actual root of the problem is the fear of a complex society with many different groups holding many different opinions.

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That fear is heightened by modern media, which makes those differences of opinion much more obvious, dispersing the common narrative that once held societies together. The current state of the media makes it difficult for citizens to distinguish true news from falsehoods and conspiracy theories, especially on social media, whose algorithms make people more likely to find fake news that supports their own beliefs. The result is a polarization of the political scene, in which partisanship becomes more and more virulent, while respect for neutral institutions, like science, rapidly decreases. These conflicting messages anger the people who seek unity and make them more likely to fall for a unifying conspiracy theory. 

The rise of the nationalist political party Vox, in Spain, represents a break in the democratic consensus that governed the country until the 2010s—a break that is reminiscent of the dictator Francisco Franco’s nationalist regime in the mid-twentieth century. The consensus government was an attempt to heal the breaches caused by that dictatorship. Nationalism’s return began after the economic crisis of 2009, when the center-left and center-right parties started to veer left and right respectively. Then, the province of Catalonia attempted to secede from Spain, an attempt which Spain forcefully suppressed. The Spanish nationalism that ensued brought the authoritarian Vox party to prominence. Vox used social media to create a feeling of unity among its followers and employed targeted marketing to create a coalition of people who cared about loosely related issues that could be packaged together. In doing so, Vox offered a sense of unity that no other Spanish institution could provide.

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Applebaum again refers back to an event that took place before authoritarianism’s new rise: a dinner at the American Enterprise Institute to promote the strength of NATO and the transatlantic alliance between the US and Europe. There, she met Rafael Bardaji, who would later become a leader in Vox. He felt himself left behind as, in his perception, the Spanish establishment moved to the left. When nationalism rose, Bardaji saw ways to exploit it, particularly by copying the methods of the US alt-right. Spain could make common cause with Trump’s America over the battle against radical Islam, so Bardaji used anti-Muslim xenophobia to unite the new party. Upset by polarization and diversity, Vox’s followers were desperately seeking the unity it offered.

While nationalist parties in Europe have not tended to work together in the past, the most recent wave of authoritarian elites have begun to unite across borders and against certain perceived common enemies, particularly those who make society more diverse. Applebaum describes what she learned from a Spanish data analyst, who discovered that materials from a conspiracy website, framed like news, had been used to shape the opinions of the Spanish public, particularly to make them angry and afraid. Nationalist parties in other countries have used the same tactic, creating websites for imaginary newspapers that spread misinformation, fear, and anger.

Applebaum describes a 2020 conference held in honor of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, who shared a vision of a transatlantic, democratic civilization that would unite the West. Yet the speakers at the conference continually expressed a sense of being persecuted by those putting forth liberal ideas. They wanted to get back the idea of the nation, expressing a sense that a shared ethnic identity had been lost. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban gave a speech stating that to rule, one must not have to share power with other parties, and one needs the support of the media. Most of the audience tacitly approved of Orban’s blatant authoritarianism.

Analysis

In this chapter, Applebaum addresses the role of social media and fake news in the recent rise of authoritarian parties. The elites she writes about are often responsible for the creation of conspiracy theories and fake news sites, which then spread due to social media algorithms that are designed to connect viewers with content that evokes strong emotions—like fear and rage—in order to encourage them to look at more articles. Parties like Vox, as well as the alt-right in the United States, use social media and targeted marketing tactics to sell a vision of unity to those who are disturbed by a diversity of opinions and identities. These tactics and a general opposition to diversity of any kind unite these movements across international borders, even though they are nationalist in themselves.

Applebaum’s analysis of the relationship between Vox and the Franco regime also continues the theme of elites finding themselves feeling left out of a liberal democratic consensus that emerges when an authoritarian regime is deposed. Those who felt united under the regime (whether within or against) lose that unity when the dictatorship ends. In the democratic consensus that follows, those who perceive themselves as special but are not recognized as such begin to seek ways of feeling special and end up promoting authoritarianism as members of the elite class under an authoritarian regime.

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Part 5 Summary and Analysis