In 1960 Jacques Soustelle, a long-standing Gaullist disillusioned by his hero’s crabwise moves toward granting independence to Algeria, told the general that all of Soustelle’s friends were opposed to this policy. “Changez vos amis,” responded de Gaulle briskly. “Change your friends.”
Soustelle didn’t follow this advice (and spent years in exile as a result), but Anne Applebaum does in this readable and passionate curiosity of a book. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and staff writer for the Atlantic who has written extensively on Soviet Communism, Applebaum invokes the grand abstractions of democracy and authoritarianism with her title, which suggests an exploration of how Europe and America have gradually moved from the triumph of democracy after 1989 to its allegedly weakened and (in some cases) even suicidal state today. That is indeed the theme of the book. But it is explored in an oblique way by examining how some of Applebaum’s friends have contributed to this process of democratic change and decay, and how this process has in turn affected them and their friendships with her.
* * *
“Badly” is the simplest answer. Her account opens with a party on the last day of the 20th century at the provincial Polish home she shares with her husband, Radek Sikorski, then a junior minister in the first Law and Justice coalition government, and ends with a summer party almost exactly 20 years later in the same house. Much else has changed, however. Having switched parties in 2007, Sikorski was the senior foreign affairs minister for seven years in a Civic Platform government. And that’s only one reason why, as Applebaum herself observes, few of her friends at the first party are guests at the second, and almost none of those at the second had been present at the first. She has switched milieux.
Telling the story of democracy in the post-Cold War world through the making and breaking of friendships has advantages. It makes for a lively narrative and it allows for amusing anecdotes and clever pen-portraits. There are both here. Its serious disadvantage is that unless your close friends are people like Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson (Applebaum scores 33% on that test), there is likely to be a large disproportion between the historical facts being told and your method of telling them. The reductio ad absurdum of this approach is the title of comedian Spike Milligan’s autobiography—Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971).
Contrast this approach with the vastness of the topic—namely, the evolution of democracy, or the large number of parties that have risen, fallen, disappeared, and sometimes reappeared in Western democracies since 1989. To over-simplify, Europe’s mainstream social democratic parties have declined precipitously; its mainstream center-Right parties have been weakened; “populist” and Green parties have risen on Right and Left; and in order to keep power and resist them, center-Left and center-Right have increasingly been forming centrist “grand coalitions.” Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Denmark, Holland, the Irish Republic, Sweden, and the European Parliament (where last year the centrist grand coalition fell to 43% of memberships, and recruited the liberal bloc in order to retain its governing majority) all represent variations on this theme.
Look at France’s Fifth Republic more closely: an original Left-Right division has splintered into a multi-party system that includes Gaullist conservatives, Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist liberals, the neo-Jacobins of the Right in Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and the radical Left’s La France Insoumise under Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, these four parties split the vote so evenly that it was almost accidental that Macron and Le Pen went into the final round. Nor should we forget the once-mighty Socialist Party that shrank to 7% in 2017 but will probably recover by 2022 as others fail.
* * *
One might reasonably argue that these trends signify the high noon of democracy insofar as older parties that neglected their constituencies lost ground, new parties arose to champion their grievances, and the “Overton window” of issues it was legitimate to debate expanded. Aren’t such things usually seen as the marks of a vibrant democracy? But Applebaum sees these trends as the “twilight of democracy” in part because she concentrates mainly on countries where right-wing populists have won elections—on Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom, which all have stable majorities of the Right—on populism generally, on Brexit, and on Donald Trump. Whatever name we give these changes, however, they are certainly big and significant. What caused them?
Causes and effects are not always easy to identify in politics because some very dramatic effects, including some revolutions, have long-germinating causes. But here some causes push themselves on our attention: the 2008 financial crash and its long recessionary aftermath; the long-running Euro crisis that has devastated the economies of Mediterranean Europe and caused a still-recurring series of banking and financial crises; barely controlled mass migration, dramatized by the refugee crisis of 2015, resulting from the failure to control Europe’s borders; and the alienation of voters from an opaque governing system that transfers powers from national governments to Brussels and thereafter pursues policies European Union elites favor but electorates detest, and deep-sixes the opposite policies as quietly as it can.
* * *
Applebaum considers the possibility that these crises had caused the upheavals of European politics above, but rejects it:
The recession of 2008–2009 was deep, but—at least until the coronavirus pandemic—growth had returned. The refugee crisis of 2015–2016 was a shock, but it has abated. By 2018, refugees from North Africa and the Middle East had mostly stopped coming to Europe, thanks to deals done with Turkey by the E.U. and its mainstream politicians.
But why were the changes in electoral politics unrelated to the major crises that had occurred in the previous decade? Is Applebaum arguing that they couldn’t have done so because the voters are too short-termist to connect dots separated by a year or two? If so, she’s unwisely condescending to them. Or is she reproving the voters for not being short-termist enough and moving on contentedly when their betters have solved the crises? In which case she underrates the good sense and seriousness of ordinary people about public matters that touch their lives deeply.
Whichever it is, the more important point is that the voters have proved wiser than the E.U. leaders and Ms. Applebaum. For the refugees have not stopped coming; there’s an Italian political crisis over the latest surge of migrants as I write; European courts are still trying to weaken Hungary’s border restrictions; and Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has not only threatened to allow refugees to cross the border into Europe if his wishes are thwarted but has also demonstrated his power to do so by ordering Turkish police to knock down fences at the Greek border. As long as people continue to see these things as threats, they’ll vote to prevent them.
* * *
If Applebaum can’t quite identify the causes of upheaval, she’s still more puzzled over why some friends ended up on the wrong side of the barricades. “What, then, has caused this transformation?” she asks. “Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?”
The rest of her book is an attempt to discover the explanation mainly by interrogating the careers and opinions of those of her friends who have transformed so mysteriously. These interrogations are interrupted from time to time with her own reflections on politics and political theory that may throw some light on the problematic biographies. For example, she sees parallels to some of the new “authoritarians” in the French intellectuals of the interwar years whom Julien Benda criticized in his classic study, The Treason of the Intellectuals (1928), for subordinating the love of truth and beauty to partisan ideologies. These reflections are interesting, and I generally agree with them (though I have always thought Benda could have made a good living using a steamroller to crack Brazil nuts), but they don’t seem to fit, let alone explain, the very different personalities who are the mainstays of the narrative.
That is especially true of the chapter describing the writers, columnists, and politicians around the London Spectator, where Applebaum was their colleague for some years, many of whom were also active supporters of Brexit. They are an exceptionally distinguished bunch, as it happens, including Boris Johnson, Simon Heffer, Roger Scruton, and, ahem, me. I can’t really complain about the portrait of me which suggests a combination of boulevardier (jovial, witty, fond of champagne) and James Bond villain who emerges from behind the scenes occasionally to cast Scotland aside unsentimentally or to move Viktor Orbán around on the international chessboard. But the glaring difficulty about my assistants, Johnson, Heffer, and Scruton, is that there doesn’t seem to be an iota of evidence that they are in any way “authoritarian.” Or that Brexit was an essentially authoritarian idea or development in British politics. Quite the reverse. It was plainly a campaign to restore Britain’s status as a self-governing democracy.
* * *
Applebaum finds it hard to see this, perhaps because she lived in Britain on a small island of Brexiteer opinion set in a silver sea of establishment Europhilia. She points out that she never heard anyone in this wider London who thought that leaving the E.U. was a political possibility. I don’t doubt her. This general Europhilia meant even strong Brexiteers rarely bothered to make the case for Brexit. It seemed futile. We assumed that the best we could hope for was a decentralized “E.U. à la carte.” But opinion polls since the 1975 referendum show that in Britain, uniquely among E.U. member-states, there was always a substantial percentage of public opinion—sometimes a majority—that wanted to leave the E.U. That percentage grew gradually in the decade running up to the referendum as the E.U. adopted greater political integration under E.U. rules of qualified majority voting, and as the Euro, refugee, and Greek crises dominated the headlines. So when the referendum campaign kicked off in February 2016 with its strict rules of media impartiality, these revealed many intelligent people making reasonable arguments in favor of “Leave.” That percentage soon became a modest majority—and also a self-conscious and more confident one. That helps to explain why it remained stable and determined in the face of powerful media, legal, and parliamentary campaigns to reverse Brexit or at a minimum to dilute it in the three years following the actual referendum.
Because Applebaum doesn’t accept this reality (as I see it), she has to find other reasons why Brexit won and—an even more difficult task—why her friends supported it. Her answers on the first topic are that it was a moment of madness achieved by lies, manipulation, and misuse of campaign funds on the part of unscrupulous demagogues. Lies there undoubtedly were, but they were told by both sides. Those told by official sources in the form of economic predictions (a.k.a., Project Fear) have proved astoundingly wide of the mark; those told (allegedly) by Leave campaigners were standard election exaggerations. (I have to write “allegedly” because recent court cases have ruled both that Leave campaigners were falsely accused by the official U.K. elections agency of misusing campaign funds, and that Leave’s most famous “lie”—the cost to Britain of E.U. funding—would have been completely inoffensive if it had made explicit that a weekly U.K. loss of £350 million gross translated into one of £250 million net. Case dismissed!) Altogether, the “Remain” side had the weight of money, international opinion, and establishment authority on its side. If Viktor Orbán were to win an election on the back of such support, Applebaum would declare it rigged. But Remain lost; Leave unexpectedly won.
* * *
In dealing with the more intractable problem presented by Scruton, Heffer, and Johnson, Applebaum makes the argument that their desire to leave the E.U. was really about something else entirely. In Johnson’s case it was personal ambition and the desire to get into 10 Downing Street. Suppose that to be so—which I don’t. Such an ambition is the incentive democracy employs to get politicians to offer what voters want. It probably played a part in the calculations of all the leading politicians in the Brexit debate. We can’t know what Johnson would do if he were to follow his secret heart. But we can know what politicians write for the public record in the light of all factors in any case. My guess is that when he wrote two Telegraph articles—for and against Brexit—on the eve of his personal decision, Johnson realized that since the curse of political impossibility had been lifted, Leave actually had the better of the argument. He has certainly made good on that decision in the last five years, if not yet on other hopes for his premiership.
Scruton and Heffer are explained in the book as people who supported Brexit from an odd distorted nostalgia. They heartily disliked what Britain had become during their lifetimes, and though they did not believe that the U.K.’s membership in the E.U. had brought this decline about, they nonetheless voted for Brexit in the hope that Brexit would somehow reverse it. Now, Heffer and Scruton undoubtedly have nostalgia among the other strings on their bows and employed it very effectively in some of their writings. Scruton’s England: An Elegy (2000) is a moving lament for the lost England of his childhood, as Applebaum happily concedes in what for a moment becomes a tribute. As Roger’s friend and exact contemporary, what he wrote spoke powerfully to me. But both men knew that it was we ourselves who allowed this decline to happen, and it is only we who can reverse it—or, more accurately, chart a course to a better country that we can’t fully imagine but that will reflect in part the spirit of what we have lost or, with luck, merely mislaid.
* * *
Roger and Simon were both fully aware that Brexit itself can’t do that or anything like that, but that the opposite of Brexit—continued E.U. membership—would mean that we can’t even attempt such an enterprise because we would then be a subordinate part of another country with its own destiny. That’s why Roger, Simon, and many other, less-talented advocates of Brexit stressed the vital importance of democratic sovereignty. Without sovereignty and the democracy it protects, ordinary people cannot shape the future of the country in which they live. If you doubt that, try amending a bad E.U. law.
Throughout the Brexit campaign, Remainers simply refused to listen to this argument or to give any weight to democratic sovereignty in their cost-benefit analysis of E.U. membership. That’s why they lost both the referendum and the long three-year constitutional struggle about it afterward. My feeling is that Applebaum makes this mistake on the larger canvas of European democracy. She interprets the ideological battle being waged across the continent as one of “liberal democracy” versus “populism” or, better, “authoritarianism.” That is certainly how Europe’s political establishments in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc., wish to frame the debate.
But the E.U. itself has conceded the existence of a “democratic deficit” since the mid-1970s, and it makes periodic attempts to get around it. The deficit persists because it’s the result of institutional arrangements and philosophical beliefs thought essential to “building Europe” out of a multilingual association of 27 countries with their own histories and identities. For instance, the European Commission, an unelected body, has a near-monopoly on proposing legislation which amounts to an advance veto. Legislation that doesn’t get proposed can’t get passed. The spirit of such E.U. law- and regulation-making, moreover, is that movement toward ever-closer union is inevitable and irreversible. Or as Jean-Claude Juncker, then-president of the Commission, said during the Greek crisis: “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.” And when countries have exercised choice against European integration in referendums that were allowed under treaty rules, the E.U. has insisted that second referendums be held to reverse an unwelcome vote, or simply ignored supposedly binding results, or in a few cases allowed opt-outs from the treaties in return for their being passed.
That approach to building Europe has depended on the support of national political parties placing the cause of European integration above the interests and sympathies of their traditional constituencies. Thus, as Pierre Manent has argued in a French context: the Right put “Europe” ahead of nation, and the Left put it ahead of class. That explains the disaffection of their electorates, the rise of new parties, and the gradual retreat of the mainstream parties into grand coalitions marked by a pro-European “fanaticism” (Manent’s term) that hopes the electorate will eventually consent to what is imposed on it in the form of “More Europe.” Not only did the political upheavals above emerge in response to this “authoritarian” form of politics, but the “populist” form they took was an expression of liberal democracy rather than an attack on it.
* * *
In a penultimate chapter Applebaum returns to America to find this same conflict between those with an abiding faith in “American Exceptionalism”—America as both a shining city on a hill and a militant democratic missionary to the world—and those who cling to darker images of the United States as a corrupt, decadent, brutal, greedy, and hypocritical power—erected on class, race, creed, or some other domination; a fallen nation as unworthy as any other behind a veil of high ideals. The first camp contains Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol, and Mitt Romney; the second, and more heterogeneous, camp includes Emma Goldman, the Weathermen, Howard Zinn, Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Pat Buchanan, Laura Ingraham, Roger Kimball, and of course Donald Trump. Does this seem an unfair summary of her case? Here is her account of how this camp gave succor to Pat Buchanan and birth to Trump:
By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left—their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change—met and mingled with the Christian right’s despair about the future of American democracy. Together, they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Now, even if the president’s campaign rhetoric is overheated or Buchanan’s pessimism extreme, shouldn’t we ask other questions of them first? When Trump says that American institutions such as the FBI leadership are corrupt, shouldn’t we ask: “Is that true?” And if the FBI leadership has conspired to spy on his campaign to portray him falsely as a Russian “asset,” wouldn’t that excuse some overheated rhetoric from him? And if Buchanan laments the loss of the “popular culture that undergirded the values of faith, family, and country, the idea that we Americans are a people who sacrifice and suffer together, and go forward together, the mutual respect, the sense of limits, the good manners; all are gone” (emphasis added), shouldn’t we ask not only “Is it true?” (it seems to be so) but also “Why is he saying that?” For there is a difference between criticism, however nostalgic, that is meant to shame, improve, and reform, and criticism intended to defeat or overturn. A little exaggeration in the former might not be a bad thing.
* * *
That’s an obvious distinction, of course, but suddenly it’s also a relevant one for Applebaum as least as much as for Buchanan. For there is now a third team in American politics. Certainly, the current upsurge of woke antinomianism and anarchy, fueled by a racist anti-racism, is a sorrowful challenge for Buchanan. But is it any less of one for Applebaum? Reverence for the Constitution of the United States is integral both to his cultural loyalty and to her propositional patriotism. That cannot be said of the Black Lives Matter movement, or of Antifa, or of the woke Ivy League graduates who now staff the newsrooms, NGOs, law firms, corporate boardrooms, courts, and bureaucratic agencies of the United States. Their vision of America is of one of systemic racism whose institutions of white supremacy must be overthrown and replaced, like the statues of Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce who until recently were heroes to all races. And many of them are her friends and professional colleagues.
It’s early days but another vista of broken and renewed friendships may be opening up. Will Anne Applebaum be making new ex-friends? Or making up with old ones?