Twilight of Democracy: scapegoating les clercs

In blaming intellectuals, Anne Applebaum ignores the social and economic reasons for the rise of populism.

David Hutt


In 1927, the French philosopher Julien Benda published his most famous work, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). Written a decade after Communists came to power in Moscow, and five years after Benito Mussolini’s fascists marched on Rome, but six years before Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor, Benda’s polemic was an attempt to explain why so many intellectuals in the 1920s embraced political partisanship. It was, as Benda put it, an ‘age of the intellectual organisation of political hatreds’.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism aspires to be a 21st-century rendition of La Trahison des Clercs. For Applebaum senses intellectual betrayal in our own times.

Her story begins with a raucous New Year’s Eve party in Poland at the close of the 20th century, and proceeds through various New York dinner parties and garden bashes in London, populated by high-society friends, from world leaders to intellectuals. Why, she wonders, did so many of these friends, these Cold War warriors and social conservatives, who, in the 1990s, shared her belief in liberal democracy, suddenly perform what she sees as a collective volte-face? Why did they fall in line, as she characterises the situation, behind authoritarian politicians in Europe and the US? And why do her former friends and acquaintances no longer talk to her?

Autocrats, she argues, ‘need members of the intellectual and educated elite… who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends’. Many of Applebaum’s explanations for this volte-face – for her friends’ betrayal of their once-held ideals; for our cultural clash between intellectuals – would be obvious to any observer of our current political dialogue: polarisation; social networks; economic and migration crises; and a shift from social conservatism to ‘nostalgic conservatism’. The new political right is ‘more Bolshevik than Burkean’, she concludes.

Twilight of Democracy is more interesting when Applebaum gets personal, which is more in keeping with her diarist-style recording of parties and friendships gone astray. One plausible explanation she offers for her former friends’ political shift is self-advancement. Many of the politicians and thinkers she knew were just middling and idling their way through the political arena in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through embracing what she sees as authoritarian politics, however, they have now risen to some level of prominence within authoritarian parties and governments.

Applebaum criticises, for instance, Mária Schmidt, the Hungarian historian who has become one of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s chief supporters, and Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s fastest growing party, the right-wing, populist Vox – Abascal once served as an adviser to former centre-right prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, in the 2000s.

Today’s soft dictatorships, as opposed to their 20th-century totalitarian cousins, rely not upon mass violence to remain in power, Applebaum writes, but instead ‘a cadre of elites to run the bureaucracy, the state media, the courts, and, in some places, state companies’. She adds:

‘These modern-day clercs understand their role, which is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, and however disastrous their impact on ordinary people and institutions. In exchange, they know that they will be rewarded and advanced.’

Applebaum offers no easy answers. Some of these intellectuals, she writes, are merely in it for themselves – and most likely don’t personally agree with the views they are tasked with propagating. Others fervently believe in the policies of the parties they support, from opposition to open borders to support for the nation state. But, no matter – the effect of their involvement, it seems, is the same.

Yet little explanation is actually needed as to why the masses either support or put up with authoritarian regimes; history simply shows it to be the case, as her previous books make clear. Indeed, for the most part, the public does not feature in this book. This ‘from above’ approach contrasts with her Pulitzer-winning history of the Soviet gulag system, Gulag: A History, as well as her immensely readable histories of the former Eastern bloc, such as Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956.

In Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum owes a great debt to Karen Stenner’s concept of the ‘authoritarian predisposition’, in which a third of population, Stenner estimates, favours homogeneity and order over complexity and pluralism. Following Stenner, Applebaum says that people’s ‘authoritarian predisposition’ is driven not by ‘narrow-mindedness’, ignorance or hatred, but by ‘simple-mindedness’. The masses, she writes, ‘are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – makes them angry.’

Applebaum then argues that it is the role of her treasonous clercs to absolve the concerns of those with this ‘authoritarian predisposition’. They are tasked with making events seem as ordered and simple as possible. Hence the focus of some populists on conspiracy theories, which Applebaum investigates in detail; they make complex events appear straightforward and predestined.

As for what the future brings, Applebaum tips her hand in her title. Like Benda writing in 1927, when world politics could have easily swung towards liberalism rather than tyranny, Applebaum sees herself, in 2020, at a similar point in history, when the political pendulum could swing, once again, in either direction.

David Hutt is a Czech Republic / London-based journalist, covering Europe-Asia relations and European politics.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum, will be published by Penguin Random House. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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Gerry Mander

23rd July 2020 at 7:18 pm

Depends what you mean by “intellectuals”. Do you mean philisophers or historians or scientists? I bet it’s not the latter. As a medical consultant with a variety of qualifications, I consider myself intelligent but not a theoretical philosopher, but would never accept that any university creature is brighter than I.
My qualifications are MD(Gold Medal), LLM, PhD, FRCP which I am sure is rather more comprehensive than most of those you refer to as “intellectuals”, a nebulous, silly term. Please DEFINE or don’t use the term.

Bastard Man

23rd July 2020 at 9:35 pm

One of the most intellectual, well read and educated people I ever met was a French punk who draw fetish pictures and never went to any institution (unlike me). Intellectual don’t have to have qualifications. But yeah, those people are nutters and poorly read at that.

Jobley Jobley

23rd July 2020 at 2:14 pm

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23rd July 2020 at 2:13 pm

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23rd July 2020 at 2:14 pm

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23rd July 2020 at 1:27 pm


fret slider

23rd July 2020 at 10:56 am

“people’s ‘authoritarian predisposition’ is driven not by ‘narrow-mindedness’, ignorance or hatred, but by ‘simple-mindedness’. ”

Back to the thickie voter idea. Oh dear.

Mor Vir

23rd July 2020 at 10:48 am

It sounds like she is having a massive hissy because Poland and Hungary did not vote for parties that she prefers. That is called democracy and she needs to suck it up and cope with it. Instead she ‘outs’ all of her old acquaintances and basically labels them as ‘fa scists’. Somehow they are the ‘failures’ and their personalities are just ‘wrong’. Charming, and pretty childish.

Perhaps she should take a look in the mirror, likely the charges she spray guns around could just as easily be applied to her. Instead she has a contrived, one-way symbol system in which she is practically an angel of light and everyone who disagrees with her is a ‘bad guy’ in 20 socio-psycho-political synonyms as if ‘virtues’ are ordered toward the adherence to particular political opinions.

It is ‘faith, hope and charity’ ordered toward submission to the church and its dogmas. China concocts its own ‘virtuous citizen’ who is on board with the ‘values’ and objectives of the CCP. At least CCP understands what it is doing, but she comes across as naive and a ‘true believer’. She actually thinks that human ‘virtue’ is ordered to the specific sort of society and all of the policies that she prefers.

There is nothing ‘pluralist’ about it. Politics as righteousness and slander. True believers – with poison pens.

Philip Humphrey

23rd July 2020 at 10:01 am

I would argue that populist leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are not authoritarian, if anything they are true liberals. Both believe in freedom of individuals to live whatever lifestyle they wish as far as is reasonably possible, both believe in freedom of speech etc. It was the centre and left that wanted to deny people the vote on the EU, it was the centre and left that wanted to deny any debate on immigration etc. It was supposedly liberal Angela Merkel that decided by fiat that Germany (and Europe) should open its borders to the whole of the world, and if her citizens or other EU member states didn’t like it, too bad. So it seems a bit strange when they accuse populists of being authoritarian.

Andrew Mawdsley

23rd July 2020 at 10:33 am

An excellent point well made Philip. By no metric is Boris Johnson an authoritarian. He is a dilettante who is unable to make up his mind, hence the constant changing of position on C19. Trump, as well, would seem to be far more small L liberal than many of the Republicans and Democratic party.

The EU are proving to be thoroughly unwilling to allow power to dissipate through to sovereign governments (obviously that is the entire point of the EU) and showing themselves to be totally undemocratic (despite their protestations to the contrary).

As you state, it is not the right, or right of centre that is denying people an opportunity to express their opinion but, the so called progressive left and centrists that seem to be controlling the narrative and closing down any discussion on topics much of the peoples of Europe (Britain included) wish to debate.

Until there is a seismic shift in the controlling authorities (academia, judiciary etc) within many of the major western nations I fear it will remain the same and may even get worse.

Gareth Roberts

23rd July 2020 at 9:20 am

It’s the usual story. There’s nothing wrong with the utopian visions of the globalists, globalisation is failing because the People are not living up to expectations.

Mor Vir

23rd July 2020 at 11:25 am

So, Western ‘liberal democracy’ turned out to be not so much about the voters changing the governments as about the governments changing the voters. It is an exercise in how to maintain a pretence of freedom and democracy while imposing the ‘values’ and objectives of the state.

Stef Steer

23rd July 2020 at 8:17 am

The whole from above thing is the issue though isn’t it. She sounds like a technocrat who thinks they know best. The problem is the technocrats record is crap, people’s living standards have stagnated, there is virtually no social mobility and there is mass migration for the convenience of mega corporations who pay less than there fair share of tax.

To put it bluntly the liberal elite are at best awful at keeping society together and they are the ones (the blair’s and the Clinton’s etc) who were corrupt and in it for the money and probably even more deviously deliberately fostered division (rub the right’s nose in it) to try and cause a revolution and in the meantime line their own pockets.

Melissa Jackson

23rd July 2020 at 7:54 am

Applebaum misses a critical point, even within her own chain of logic – Her chums are not necessarily “traitors” or lying for advancement. They have grown somewhat older and seen decades of neo-liberal policies impact the world in negative ways. They have, as a result, changed as people. The circumstances which led to such consensus in her colleagues have also changed. As a result, it is unlikely that she would see them all sticking to the same position.

Even if one is extremely cynical; if you provide professional political advice for a living, you are not going to make much money by dolling out basic Blairite multi-culti ideas. This is because the results of these policies have been seen, and the public are not voting for them. If your policies seem to come with bad side effects, and also are not popular any more, then no-one will pay you.

Stephen J

23rd July 2020 at 7:44 am

It seems that she is looking at the other side of George Orwell’s coin? The one where “intellectuals” would sooner steal from the poor box than stand to attention for the national anthem.

Mark Houghton

23rd July 2020 at 7:39 am

“Through embracing what she sees as authoritarian politics, however, they have now risen to some level of prominence within authoritarian parties and governments.”
If the politicians in question have been voted in democratically and they abide by the rule of law then it’s not ‘authoritarian politics’ it’s just ‘politics’. Throwing in the word ‘authoritarian’ is just an attempt to demean. It’s the same as calling a person or their views ‘controversial’.

Tom Joad

23rd July 2020 at 6:38 am

These modern day liberals seem to find evil without reason from the soul of a western man so easily. Even priests before reformation were more into structures than these globalist witch hunters.Things just happen, and good men just go bad like that because something in their souls. It is hard not to hear refined smirking pleasure between the lines when they say “oh, they are just angry!”, feeling they have made the most revolutionary notion of the century. Somehow if you then say that them woke protesters are “just angry”, with that liberal soft spoken pity, it somehow does not seem to stick the same way. I have started to view wokeness as a revolt against old sociology. Intersectionalism replaces class theory and this “they are just angry”- psychology replaces sociology.

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