On the surface, this is a timely and readable assessment of the disturbing situation in which many Europeans and Americans now find themselves as the solid ground of democracy, rule of law and free press they had come to take for granted begins to give way, and prove disappointingly short-lived in countries like Poland and Hungary which had the chance to regain it after the collapse of Communism.
Readers with draw different insights. I was struck by the ominous parallels between the Polish Law and Justice Party and the Tories under Boris Johnson since 2019: the former has undermined the independence of the judiciary, forced out experienced civil servants in favour of loyal party stooges, and appointed as director of state television a crony of the President who proceeded to fire respected journalists, replace them with those supporting the far right, and soon abandoned “any pretence of objectivity and neutrality” in news broadcasts. One thinks inevitably of the attempt in the UK to prorogue Parliament in order to force through the Government’s will on Brexit, the criticism of judges who tried to take a stand, the replacement of experienced, moderate senior civil servants and ministers, and the rumours (at the time of writing) of government pressure to appoint a right-wing Director of the BBC to muzzle justifiable criticism which is seen as too “woke” and left-wing.
Anne Applebaum describes how democracy may be undermined by the “authoritarian predisposition” of some leaders, “that favours homogeneity and order” and the way it may appeal to people who are “suspicious of those with different ideas”, and who latch on to simple messages because they cannot cope with complexity. She made me aware of the different types of nostalgia, the more common “reflective” kind, for those who miss the past but don’t really want it back because they know it wasn’t perfect, and the “restorative nostalgia” of those who set out to recreate the past in “nationalist political projects” based on a simplified “cartoon version of history”, in which they may either believe, or see cynically as a means of control.
In what I found one of the most interesting chapters, “Cascades of Falsehood”, she reminds us forcefully how the Internet has created an uncontrolled “information sphere” with no easy way to know what is true: “People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts…People click on the news they want to hear”, and social media uses algorithms to feed them yet more of what they may have been conditioned to want. “Make America Great” and fake news obviously comes to mind.
As the wife of a former leading Polish politician, with her own experience as a high-flying journalist and respected academic, the author should be well-equipped to analyse the situation. I was prepared to accept that an outlook likely to be to the right of mine would at least give understanding of a different viewpoint. I was therefore disillusioned to find so much of the book quite superficial (as reflected in the lack of an index), and anecdotal, periodically digressing into an overly gossipy focus on some former friend or acquaintance who has become too extreme, like the US television presenter Laura McGraham.
With an analysis which could have been covered in an extended article, this works less well when padded out to a possibly hastily written book. The name-dropping, the glamorous boozy parties with former friends who have now swung even further right than they were before becomes somewhat tedious. I began to feel her analysis was limited by her apparent membership of a bubble of elitist privilege, such that she was out of touch with some of the real reasons why ordinary people might vote for right-wing autocrats against their best interests.
Suggesting at one point that people in the Western world feel themselves deprived if they lack air conditioning or WiFi, she overlooks the widening inequality indicated by the rise in UK food banks, the large number of families two pay cheques removed from poverty. Perhaps because, living in the UK, I have a good understanding of the Brexit saga, her coverage of this seemed particularly weak, partly since her reasons for the Leave vote seemed based on conversations with a small number of fogeyish, highly conservative former friends.
She herself shows continual flashes of bias, condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of socialism out of hand without justification, condoning Israel with never a flash of criticism and no sympathy for the Palestinians. A self-confessed rightwinger, she does not show any awareness of how this might be distorting her own arguments.
Her conclusion that “uncertainty has always been there” but we should live in hope, “picking our way through the darkness” seems true, yet too lame.