Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum
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Part 6 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

Summary

Applebaum reminds the reader that dramatic shifts of the kind that the book addresses have happened many times in the past. Families and friends have found themselves divided by drastic political changes. Social classes have been reshaped as that landscape changes. Alliances that once held strong have often been shaken by such upheavals. As an example, Applebaum turns to the Dreyfus Affair.

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In 1894, the French army discovered a traitor in their midst. Someone had been passing information to the enemy army of Germany. When the military intelligence investigated the issue, they decided that the culprit was Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was Jewish. He was also from a province of France that had previously been German, so he spoke with a German accent. This made him an object of suspicion, as he was considered “not a real Frenchman.” However, there was no evidence. The prosecution created fake evidence, and Dreyfus was convicted and subjected to humiliating punishment. The controversy that followed divided French society along lines that are reminiscent of today’s political rifts.

In the nineteenth century, the French equivalent of the alt-right pushed the conspiracy theory that Dreyfus was guilty, and their followers believed this wholeheartedly, even when the fakery of the evidence was revealed. The elites who spread these lies attacked objective truth and science itself in their ferocious opposition to Dreyfus. It did not matter whether or not he was actually guilty.

The opposing side believed that it did matter and that some principles are more important than unthinking loyalty to national institutions. They argued that the French state had to treat all its citizens equally and to conceive of the nation “not as an ethnic clan but as the embodiment of a set of ideals.”

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Applebaum argues that this ideological split already existed and that the Dreyfus Affair merely revealed its presence within a France that was rapidly industrializing and modernizing. French society reorganized itself in response to those revelations. Dreyfus was ultimately pardoned, but the division in society remained. In every nation Applebaum discusses, she argues, underlying divisions in society, based on divergent ideas of national identity, emerged at a time of crisis. In each case, they led to polarization and the rise of authoritarian nationalism.

Applebaum describes another party she gave, parallel to the 1999 party discussed in the first chapter. In 2019, many of her old guests were no longer invited, and some people whom she did not invite in 1999 because they were “on the left” are now her friends. Despite the wide range of backgrounds and identities present, everyone at the party came together to celebrate. Applebaum noted in particular her sons and their university friends, cosmopolitan and optimistic young people who were not divided by their differences. She felt optimistic herself.

Yet, she suggests, that optimism may not have been justified, judging by the events of the coronavirus pandemic. She relates the experiences her family had, with one of their sons having difficulty crossing the Polish border to get home to them and the other stuck in the United States for some time. The state chose to close the border to show that they were doing something, and the Polish people approved. With the coronavirus pandemic still unresolved at the time of her writing, she wonders whether government responses to COVID-19 will be a turning point toward increased authoritarianism or a new opportunity for liberal democracy. Applebaum exhorts her readers to be part of the latter.

Analysis

In this chapter, Applebaum zooms back from the immediate movement she has been analyzing to talk about the larger nature of societal transformation. She uses the historical example of the Dreyfus Affair to show the divisions in society that regularly emerge under authoritarian rule and the long legacy of manipulation by authoritarian intellectual elites. The rise of modern authoritarianism may involve unique tactics and new tools, but Applebaum argues that essential patterns of authoritarianism remain the same and have existed for a very long time. Such patterns will continue to shape our societies, she contends, even if liberal democracy manages to re-emerge.

The framing device of starting with one party and ending with another (twenty years later) allows Applebaum to zoom back in and show how much things have changed in her personal world with the recent rise of authoritarian nationalism. Throughout the book, Applebaum has frequently referred to her own friends and experiences to highlight the personal cost of authoritarianism, as well as the broader social cost. That engagement with personal experience becomes most poignant in this chapter, as Applebaum discusses the effects of an authoritarian response to the coronavirus on her family—the same people who so recently made her optimistic about the future of democracy.

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Part 5 Summary and Analysis