Even at Twilight, Optimism Endures

During a recent Conversation with Friends, journalist Anne Applebaum ’82 joined Elsa Walsh (P’ 94, ’15) to discuss “the seductive lure of authoritarianism,” current political disenchantment, and political polarization across the globe. 

Twilight of Democracy opens in Poland on December 31, 1999, at a party that Anne Applebaum ’82 and her husband hosted for journalists, junior diplomats, civil servants, and friends. Applebaum reflected on the “great optimism and cheerfulness” of that moment on the cusp of a new millenium, ten years after the Cold War had ended and with Poland on its way toward joining the EU and NATO. Her party-goers seemed unified in all but their tastes in dance music, yet upon reflecting on that night twenty years later, Applebaum realized that she no longer speaks to half of those friends and colleagues. There was no great falling out in the group, which once united around democratic, center-right, anti-communist beliefs; rather, they fractured over the next two decades along a deep political divide, with half the group becoming part of a radical, nationalist right.

Applebaum and Elsa Walsh (P ‘94, ’15) joined over 100 guests for a lunchtime Conversation with Friends on November 18, 2020 to discuss Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum’s attempt to explain why those individuals and others have gravitated toward populist authoritarianism: “What happened to them, what was their trajectory, and how did they become disillusioned with the democracy that so many of them had fought for?” 

During a career primarily spent in the world of conservative journalism, Applebaum has had a front-row view into the split inside the conservative movement. From that vantage, she was able to offer key insights to those who attended this Conversation with Friends. In a wide-ranging exploration with Walsh, Applebaum discussed ways Reagan and Thatcher cultivated national identity during their tenures; the deliberate construction of Spain’s Vox as a party of identity rather than ideals; whether Boris Johnson is an “accidental leader”; and how Donald Trump is a “product of growing American distrust and loss of faith in American democracy and the growing use of disinformation as a normal part of politics.” 

Applebaum also offered her perspective on the 2020 election as an American journalist living in Europe, noting that for those outside the United States, the days post-election looked like an attempted coup d’etat. While she did not imagine Trump’s post-election efforts would succeed, she noted their long-term, destabilizing effect: “The attempt is to create a political base that will always believe that the election was stolen, and whose voice, votes, energy, and anger can be used in the future.” 

Through the process of writing Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum realized that it's irresponsible for her generation to be pessimistic. She encouraged those in the conversation to join in and be involved in the process of democracy to make sure good people remain part of the system. 

“We are neither condemned to become an autocracy nor are we guaranteed to remain a democracy. History doesn’t give us any guarantees. I find that to be optimistic. That means that there’s always space for a new generation of leaders and thinkers to come up with new solutions.” 

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