Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 5, 2021

Adelaide Writers Week: Twilight of Democracy, with Anne Applebaum and Sally Warhaft

The Twilight of Democracy is a rather depressing title for a festival session, but I’ll take any opportunity to listen to Sally Warhaft, especially when she’s in conversation with a Pulitzer Prize winner!

This is the session blurb:

Pulitzer prize-winning author and historian Anne Applebaum deconstructs the psychology and motivations of today’s crazed conspiracy theorists and populists in Twilight of Democracy, an incisive examination of the longstanding struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Drawing on experience and high-level relationships forged across Europe and America, and an exemplary understanding of contemporary and historical politics, Twilight of Democracy is a confronting and illuminating analysis of a polarised world.

Warhaft began by asking about Applebaum’s departure in style from her previous books.  She’s an historian, she said, but she could not write this book as a history because it’s not possible to be entirely objective when you’re living through the moment and you’re part of it yourself.  So she wrote it partly like a memoir with a bit of history added, together with reflections about what she’s read, and what’s happening in the world.

Her theme is the transformation of the centre right into the far right, and how she felt as watched some friends go there.  (Not all of those people are still her friends.)

The centre-right was always a coalition of anti-Communists, comprising a wide variety of people.  Some were anti-Communist because they were concerned about the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the balance of power; others because they supported democracy and humans rights; while others were religious anti-Communists because communists were atheists.  But whatever their reasoning, in 1999 post-Soviet Poland everyone would have said they were democrats who were committed to free politics, the rule of law, democracy, free markets in a broad sense, and a set of liberal values.

Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.  Applebaum writes about Poland, Britain and America but she says she could be writing about anywhere.  What was common to these three countries, however, was a similar experience, of winning the Cold War, and of experiencing a ‘high’ about the Centre Right being ‘right’.  After the Cold War ended there was a long period of rearrangement, when sensible people were in power (who she identified as John Major and Ronald Reagan).  The aim was to integrate the old USSR into the world.  But there were some who had thrived on the cultural war and they found the post Soviet world boring.  Things were not angry enough, and there was no path for cultural war politics.  There people liked ‘shouting politics’ and they were asking themselves, is there all there is?  Rebuilding roads in Eastern Poland??

At the same time there was also complacency about democracy in all our societies… There was an assumption that democracy could be taken for granted and we didn’t need to do anything.  We didn’t need to do anything about the institutions of democracy needing modernisation, and we didn’t think about the possibility of an anti-democracy backlash.  We thought we could leave politics to the professional politicians.  But successful democracies involve civic engagement and people who care about it.  Democracies need good people go into politics and it needs trust, and public life needs to be seen as a good thing to do.  But what’s happened is that good people went into business, and politics was shunned because it was ‘dirty’.  Disillusionment arose.

Most people don’t think much about the institutions of democracy at all.  But the nature of the institutions that you have influences the outcome.  If the votes in the recent US election were translated into the institutions of other countries there would be a very different result.  Biden and the Democrats would be more powerful, for example, if that vote took place in the UK.  In the US, however, Congress is basically powerless, and it wasn’t meant to be like that.  They need to restructure elections so they’re not so adversarial, but it’s hard to do that because Americans think their system is the best because it’s old.  The reality is that it needs reform.

Trump was basically elected on a fraud, i.e. the conspiracy theory that Obama was not American (the Birther Movement).  The vote for Trump signifies a fault line in American politics because millions of people really believe that the political system is fraudulent.  All through the election Trump questioned whether there could be a fair election, and has never acknowledged his loss.  he persisted with the constant message that the election was a lie, and now there’s a deep divide about the nature of knowledge and truth itself.

How did he succeed in that?  It succeeded because Trump identified, magnified and amplified levels of distrust and disappointment and cultural despair in America.

The same belief that politics is fraudulent occurs in Poland and the UK.  In Poland, the conspiracy theories are about the plane crash that killed the president, and in the UK it’s about Brexit.  The key component in undermining democracy is an invention of the system having failed and the political system being a lie, and then telling a plausible story that makes people ignore the rule of law and attack democratic institutions. The Capitol riot was not attacking the Democrats, it was attacking the system itself, to stop the new president being declared.  Aided and abetted by Fox News and Murdoch and social media, these forces are now opposed to the system.  

The Centre Right in the US seems short of allies. How can it build its strength back up? There are not many that we can identify as anti-Trump, pro democracy, and in favour of liberal values.  In fact, around the world, people know their names because there’s so few of them.  But there may be more than we know.  There may be republicans who are moderate and independent, and maybe they’ll emerge in the next elections.

Despite the title, Applebaum’s book is not really about democracy, it’s about the propagandists against it.  These are journalists working with intellectuals who work on behalf of extremist politics, who recognise public anxiety and exploit it.  They identify people who feel bombarded by disinformation and the chaos of modern politics, who just want a clear message.  These propagandists (often wealthy, and clever) have thrown in their lot with extremist politicians.  They flood Twitter feeds the way that the ancient Romans spread statues of Caesar everywhere.

Why do elites find authoritarianism attractive?  Sometimes it derives from a philosophy about rejecting the modern world, or a sense of disappointment about how things are.  It can be a dislike of demographic change, and a nostalgic desire to restore an old secure world and the economics that they understood.  But such ‘restorative nostalgia’ needs to be understood for what it is: it involves as act of violence because you have to destroy what exists, and for some people it’s that excitement of wrecking something that appeals.  And for some people, radical politics offers a career path, (such as the example of Lenin, blocked by the establishment and moving to a counter-establishment.)

The pandemic has brought the issue of authoritarianism to the fore.  Everyone wants to have sweeping statements about it but the nature of the pandemic has changed over time.  Early on it did seem that shutting borders and ending international travel might be conducive to the rise of authoritarianism.  (This has happened in some places with previous pandemics which have ended with rulers getting more power).  But it has turned out that countries doing the best at controlling the pandemic achieved it because there was public trust in the leadership, in bureaucrats and in public health officials .  That trust is more often found in democracies.  Populist governments like Trump’s did badly because there was no public trust.  Long term we may learn that in preparing for other disasters to come, building public trust and social solidarity is going to be as important as being wealthy.  Money and science aren’t enough, you need a political system that builds trust.  You also need ‘localness’, i.e. awareness of and connection with your neighbours and the community.

This was such an excellent session!








  1. I would contest the opinion that sensible people were in power after the Cold War. Several of Adam Curtis’s documentaries suggest the exact opposite, notably “Hypernormalization”, which I have just been watching. Many of his films can be watched on the Internet at (search for “Adam Curtis”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, bikerpaul beat me too it. I was going to ask if you have watched any Adam Curtis BBC docs. He’s brilliant. I’m currently midway through watching his brand new 6-part series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” which is about many of the issues you have mentioned here. You can find them on YouTube here:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m watching Hypernormalisation at the moment. (Well, listening to it, while I do an online jigsaw.)
      I keep thinking, I cannot imagine the ABC screening this…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lol. Well, the BBC now stick his stuff direct on iPlayer because they reckon a broadcast audience won’t be able to deal with the length of his docs. I’ve watched them all over the years. I loved the one about the medicalisation of the human condition which is essentially the history of psychiatry and big pharma. And his series The Power of Nightmares, from 2004, changed the way I viewed the world.

        Liked by 1 person

        • LOL You mean that viewers can’t cope with a doco on TV if it lasts for two hours? (And we are talking about a BBC audience here, which is like an ABC audience, well-educated and interested in current affairs, right?)
          Does that tell us something about the British polity, its education system and dumbing down? Or is it just that they have to chase ratings?


          • That’s the line the BBC use, but Curtis himself says that going straight to iPlayer frees him from “editorial constraints”. I suspect that’s because a lot of what he does is opinion / editorialising and isn’t necessarily verifiable. His stuff used to go out on BBC4, the arts / doc channel, which was perfect place for his work, but that got killed off through funding cuts years ago.


        • Now I’m going to have to watch The Power of Nightmares kimbofo! Why haven’t I heard of Adam Curtis before now I wonder? I just love discussions like this where I get to know about all these interesting things!

          Liked by 1 person

          • He’s a cult figure in the UK (where I lived 1998-2019), especially in journalistic circles (I’m an ex-journo). He’s a BBC journalist, but I regard him as an artist / editor because what he does with film & music is extraordinary. They are mood pieces that make you look at the world afresh

            Liked by 1 person

    • What an interesting conversation Lisa! Thank you kimbofo for the link to Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I just watched the first episode and need to watch it again. I had not heard of this at all. I will recommend it to friends!

      Liked by 1 person

      • LOL We’re not going to get any reading done for a while!


      • I’ve spent the best part of 20 years following his career. He is a VERY interesting man. I love his ability to tell a story and marry it with music and then use archival footage as a kind of filmic collage to pull it all together. A genius of editing. He has access to the world’s biggest film archive (the BBC) but the stuff he finds never ceases to amaze me.


        • Hypernormalisation was certainly well worth watching.


        • I found the first episode I watched last night fascinating and I need to watch it again! My music practice and reading are going nowhere! I love it when I find something as interesting as this thanks kimbofo!

          Liked by 2 people

  4. 1. You can’t find the Centre Right because it is mostly in the ‘Left’ – in the Democrats and Labour (and Labor)
    2. Trump did badly with Covid not because he wasn’t trusted but because he didn’t try

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, it’s not as simple as that. Trump read his electorate correctly: Americans don’t trust their government and he knew that government telling them what to do wouldn’t work. Trump gave them what they wanted, and anarchism is what they got.
      Biden knows the reality too but isn’t exploiting it. He’s trying, telegraphing the number of deaths and so on, but individualism=selfishness, so unless they’ve been directly impacted, people don’t care and they won’t follow orders. Don’t forget, they’ve seen both Trump and Boris flout the rules, get Covic and survive nicely thank you very much. What this author has to say about the loss of trust is really important. I’m no Pollyanna as you know but IMO it’s poisonous, whether it comes from the left or the right.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chaos is what they got, Anarchism is self-organization not no organization.
        And I don’t believe Trump had the slightest idea about governing except as an opportunity to siphon money towards himself, but that of course is a very deep rabbit hole.


        • Well, this author would say you are wrong about that. The enablers of people like Trump know exactly what they’re doing and why, and that includes his style of governing.


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