Sleeping Beside an Elephant

Canadians often talk about ‘sleeping beside an elephant’ in terms of our relationship with the United States. As in, there can be dire consequences if the elephant rolls over. For the past few years, I’ve read and watched US news with increasing alarm as our friend and neighbour to the south experiences deepening divisions and groups intent on undermining democracy.

To develop a deeper understanding, earlier this year, I read Madeleine Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning (published 2018), and more more recently, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Both deal with the conditions that lead to authoritarian governments. In November, I wrote about Albright’s book. Today, I’m delving into Twilight of Democracy along with the big question of what is happening in the Unites States. [Apologies for taking a political perspective – not something I normally do.]

Anne Applebaum is a long-time conservative, a journalist and a historian. In Twilight of Democracy she considers the wave of authoritarian rule that threatens democracy and shows the conditions that can lead to it.

In the early pages of Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum writes: “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

What are those ‘right conditions’?

  • “Authoritarianism appeals to people who cannot tolerate complexity.”
  • Authoritarianism “is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates.”
  • Authoritarians appeal to those who resent the existing democratic government, who envy the successful and who believe that the ‘system’ is unfair. And to those who want “the power and fame that they feel they have “been unjustly denied.”
  • Authoritarians “need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup.”
  • They also need “the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do.”
  • Authoritarians “need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need members of the intellectual and educated elite … who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite.”
  • Applebaum calls the people who operate in behind an authoritarian regime clercs. Their role is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, and however disastrous their leadership.
  • All of them – authoritarians and their clercs – seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes, to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.
  • Authoritarians undermine public media, curtail or limit the courts, purge civil servants, change the structure of decision making.
  • Authoritarian rulers and regimes “divide, polarize, and separate people into warring camps.” They revive nostalgia and fan the flames of disappointment with meritocracy. They lie.

The “illiberal, one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power.” And it works because “it clearly defines who get to be the elite – the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite.” In such a state, well-known journalists are fired and replaced by those who support the regime such that “news broadcasts cease to make any pretence of objectivity or neutrality.”

In her analysis, Anne Applebaum considers Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain, Pinchet’s Chile, apartheid South Africa, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. She also looks at UK’s Brexit vote (a hankering to restore Britain to its old position of power and influence) and the pandemic that enabled countries like Hungary to curtail citizens’ rights. She also examines closely the forces at play in America.

Applebaum highlights social media as part of the problem. “False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives now spread in digital wildfires.” “The social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world.” “Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favour emotions, especially anger and fear.”

Towards the end of the book, the author describes a set of issues would-be authoritarians can unite around: opposition to immigration, “promotion of a socially conservative, religious worldview”, and “opposition to international institutions.”

Applebaum asserts: “No political victory is ever permanent, no definition of ‘the nation’ is guaranteed to last, and no elite of any kind … rules forever.”

As an aside, in Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From an American of April 28, Heather reflects on an interview with William Barr (former attorney general under Donald Trump) and on President Biden’s appeal to the press at the White House Correspondents dinner to stand up for democracy. According to Heather, George Stephanopolous of ABC’s This Week took Biden’s words seriously.

“Until now,” he [George] said in the show’s opener on Sunday, “[n]o American president had ever faced a criminal trial. No American president had ever faced a federal indictment for retaining and concealing classified documents. No American president had ever faced a federal indictment or a state indictment for trying to overturn an election, or been named an unindicted co-conspirator in two other states for the same crime. No American president ever faced hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments for business fraud, defamation, and sexual abuse….

The scale of the abnormality is so staggering, that it can actually become numbing. It’s all too easy to fall into reflexive habits, to treat this as a normal campaign, where both sides embrace the rule of law, where both sides are dedicated to a debate based on facts and the peaceful transfer of power. But, that is not what’s happening this election year. Those bedrock tenets of our democracy are being tested in a way we haven’t seen since the Civil War. It’s a test for the candidates, for those of us in the media, and for all of us as citizens.”

Who are the ‘elite’ supporting this kind of change in America? Check out the Federalist Society, those behind an organization called Teneo, the Action Institute, Alliance Defending Freedom, Donors Trust, and others. But I digress. This is supposed to be able books I’ve read!

Returning to Madeleine Albright, she ends her book, Fascism: A Warning with several questions to ask when considering who will lead your country:

  • Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed, or party as unworthy of dignity and respect? 
  • Do they want us to nurture our anger toward those who we believe have done us wrong, rub raw our grievances, and set our sights on revenge? 
  • Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process? 
  • Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy such as an independent press and a professional judiciary? 
  • Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism—the flag, the pledge—in a conscious effort to turn us against one another? 
  • If defeated at the polls, will they accept the verdict or insist without evidence that they have won? 
  • Do they go beyond asking for our votes to brag about their ability to solve all problems, put to rest all anxieties, and satisfy every desire? 
  • Do they solicit our cheers by speaking casually and with pumped-up machismo about using violence to blow enemies away? …
  • Or do they invite us to join with them in building and maintaining a healthy center for our societies, a place where rights and duties are apportioned fairly, the social contract is honored, and all have room to dream and grow?” 

Twilight of Democracy and Fascism: A Warning have left me with a very uneasy feeling.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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