Over the last months I read Anne Applebaum’s ‘Twilight of democracy’. She is an American award winning historian on Soviet atrocities and was one of the first American journalists to raise the alarm about antidemocratic trends in the West.

In this well written book she explains the attraction of nationalism and autocracy. Along the way I learned a lot about democracy and why it is worth protecting.

Here are some of my main take aways of this book. I am sorry for the dryness. Anne Applebaum’s book is not dry at all and full of stories that illustrate her points.


Given the right circumstances any society can turn against democracy.

For an authoritarian leader to succeed he (how many female dictators were there?), he needs two types of co-creators:

  1. clerks -> these are people from the educated class; writers, meme-creators, scientists, journalists, vloggers, tv producers, intellectuals etc
  2. the many -> people with an authoritarian predisposition; who have low tolerance for complexity, and plurality, who are suspicious of people with different ideas and are allergic to fierce debates

The clerks are the people who give voice to and amplify the dictators ideas. They manipulate and direct the emotions of the people who are susceptible to the dictators message and they help them imagine a different future.

The illiberal one party state works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite. It’s easy: those who are loyal to the central lie and the false promises with loyalty being the keyword. You got vary good skills but also very good values? Too bad, the door is closed to you.

In contrast with this is western democracy where rules is granted through various forms of (imperfect) competition.

And here is another contrast:

In the 20th century it was the time of The Big Lie.

Communism, fascism: full blown ideologies that used prolonged violence, forced education, full control of culture, politization of journalism, sports, arts, literature.

The 21st century is the scene of The Medium Sized Lie.

Illiberal movements demand much less of followers, no full blown ideology, less violence and terror police, (wanna-be) dictators entice their clerks to defend them but don’t force it, encouragement of followers to engage with alternative realities, it is all very carefully marketed and the keyword is … conspiracy theories.

Liberalism = the exception (in human history)

Polarisation = the rule

Unity = an anomaly

The principles of competition in a democracy don’t satisfy our human desires for harmony and unity, let alone the desire to belong to a special community.

Another human desire is our wish for the final solution (utopia, enlightened despot).

Some people don’t want to or can’t admit that the fulfilment of some desires makes the fulfilment of other desires impossible. Unity is a chimaera (fantasy creature) that some of us will nevertheless always pursue.

We in the democratic West think ‘we are so open and tolerant to conflicting points of view’. And yes we are but the arguments where always within agreed parameters. (f.i.: we can disagree about how our country should be ruled but we agree about it being done through democratic means)

All the changes of our current day bother people who can’t stand complexity and cacophony.

Democracy has always been loud and raucous but when its rules were followed, let to consensus. Our present day debates do not.

In our western conscious is a fable about history. That its a linear line leading to progress. Therefor we fail to see the threat to our hard won freedoms through democracy. Given the right circumstances any society can turn against democracy.


That’s it for my main take aways of Applebaum’s book.

If there is one thing I took from the many hours of reading that I did of the last 9 months its that we have a huge blind spot in the west which makes us miss what’s happening right in front of our nose. And part of it is this belief in progress as an inevitable direction of our societies. Both Anne Applebaum and another historian Timothy Snyder both say this emerged in the generation that grew up after the second World War.

I recently did some digging into women’s rights and when we legally were allowed to do or have what. I was (1) shocked to find out that some rights were only legalised a few decades ago and (2) that many women’s rights had been much better in past times and other civilisations.

The fact that this shocked me means I actually did think that women having equal rights to men is an advancement of our modern day.

Anyway, I recommend this book.