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The Twilight of Democracy and the Rise of Authoritarianism

The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.

On this special episode, presented by the Bertelsmann Foundation and Humanity in Action, Twilight of Democracy author Anne Applebaum and international commentator Michael Ignatieff discuss the decline of liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarianism around the world.

From the episode:

Andrew Keen: Is that fair, Anne, that the main thesis in Twilight of Democracy is the seduction of authoritarianism on the right?

Anne Applebaum: I suppose the thesis is actually a little broader than the one you state, namely that I think authoritarianism and the idea of a one-party state or of a single-leader state can be attractive to any society in any group of people. My history books have all been about the far left and the attraction of a communist, totalitarian style authoritarianism. And now I see not a similar but a kind of parallel phenomenon happening on the right.

I do think there is always an attraction like that. I mean, I think that the founders of American democracy and the people who wrote the US Constitution and then many other constitutions that followed knew there always was this possibility that people would follow demagogues or people would lose faith in the system. A lot of our constitutions are written with that in mind, with the recognition that there could be a failure. That’s what the checks and balances are there for. That’s what the separation of powers is there for, to prevent democracy from collapsing into dictatorship, as it has done so many times before in history. So I would say the thesis is that, yes, that there is an attraction on the right and that there is an attraction to human beings. All societies can be pulled in that direction, including ours.

Andrew Keen: Anne, one of the things I loved about the book is the way that you use Julien Benda, the French intellectual’s very well-known 1927 book, The Treason of the Intellectuals, as the kind of intellectual axis of your book. You are, I think, suggesting that history is repeating itself, that it happened in the 20s and it’s happening again, but it’s happening in a different kind of way.

Michael, you’ve written a lot about the history of nationalism and the crisis of democracy. You’re living it now. You just moved from Budapest to Vienna, because your university was essentially thrown out of Budapest by one of the new authoritarians. Do you agree with Anne that this crisis is universal, that it extends beyond Central Europe, beyond Poland and Hungary, and is actually a challenge, this seductive allure of authoritarianism? It’s as relevant in the United States or the United Kingdom as it is in Central Europe?

Michael Ignatieff: Well, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Anne’s analysis because it’s so based in her deep knowledge, particularly of Poland but also of Hungary. And I am one of those who like the idea that what’s been happening in Poland and Hungary should give pause to anybody in supposedly stable Western European or North American liberal democracies, because there’s a kind of condescending tendency to say, oh, in Eastern Europe, they just don’t have the experience with democracy that other societies do. So I like the general drift of the argument that the authoritarian turn in Poland and Hungary should be of great concern in the West. But I do think there are very substantial institutional differences.

The guard rails of American democracy can break down. The guardrails of Canadian democracy can break down. The guardrails of British democracy can break down. But they’ve been around a lot longer. And there’s a part of me that resists a little bit when Anne says the authoritarian declension, the collapse of democracy itself, can happen anywhere. I think it is certainly happening in Poland. It is certainly happening, god knows, in Hungary. There are real threats to democracy in the United States. But I just don’t quite see the imminence of it perhaps that Anne does. And this may be, in other words, a disagreement of nuance rather than a disagreement of principle.

The other thing I would agree with her about, and I think her recent book is tremendously important in that way, is that something has happened to conservatism. There is a flirtation with a kind of authoritarianism on the conservative side of European politics that shocks me. And there’s a failure on the part of constitutional conservatives whom I know—I’m a liberal, but I spend my life dealing with constitutional conservatives. By constitutional conservative, I mean someone who understands what the rule of law is, likes a free press, understands that democracy is alternation of power, competition of elites. They’re at home with that. I’m at home with that. We’re in different political families.

What is amazing to me is the ways in which a certain kind of constitutional conservative doesn’t actually get that Kaczynski and Orban are not conservatives in that sense at all. They’re not constitutional conservatives. They’re anti-constitutional conservatives. And they are profoundly dangerous to everything a constitutional conservative believes in. I think she’s put her finger on that with stunning clarity. The future of conservatism across the world will play out on the question of whether conservatives decide, “We actually like political competition. We like majority rule balanced by minority rights. We like a free press. We don’t agree with those damn liberals about how big the state is, and minority rights and this, but we believe in the basic institutional framework of a liberal democracy.” Anne is seeing is that there are conservatives who’ve walked away from that consensus, and they are flirting with an authoritarianism, which, in my view and her view, is profoundly dangerous.

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Anne Applebaum‘s 2018 Atlantic article “A Warning from Europe” inspired her book Twilight of Democracy and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. After seventeen years as a columnist at The Washington Post, Applebaum became a staff writer at The Atlantic in 2020. She is the author of three critically acclaimed and award-winning histories of the Soviet Union: Red Famine, Iron Curtain, and Gulag, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Michael Ignatieff is President and Rector of the Central European University. Ignatieff comes to CEU after serving as Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. An international commentator on contemporary issues of democracy, human rights, and governance and a Canadian citizen, Ignatieff is also an award-winning writer, teacher, former politician, and historian with a deep knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe.

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