Democracy is in trouble, and everyone is casting about for someone to blame. Donald Trump’s grotesque incapacity to govern has made him an easy target, but the difficulties with democracy are subtler, wider, and deeper. One clue to their complexity is a blog post that appeared on the liberal website Daily Kos a month after Trump’s election in 2016. “Be Happy for Coal Miners Losing Their Health Insurance,” the headline blared. “They’re Getting Exactly What They Voted For.”
The dismissal is curt and callous: clearly, Trump’s victory provoked some of his opponents to double down on their hostility toward his supporters. But the blog post also shows—more broadly—that being a liberal Democrat no longer means what it once meant. Sympathy for the working class has, for many, curdled into contempt. By 2016 the concept of “liberal democracy,” once bright with promise, had dulled into a neoliberal politics that was neither liberal nor democratic. The Democratic Party’s turn toward market-driven policies, the bipartisan dismantling of the public sphere, the inflight marriage of Wall Street and Silicon Valley in the cockpit of globalization—these interventions constituted the long con of neoliberal governance, which enriched a small minority of Americans while ravaging most of the rest.
In 2020 the Democrats made little attempt to distance themselves from that calamitous inheritance. As early as 2019, Joe Biden himself made clear to the donor class that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected and reassured the medical-industrial complex by dismissing any discussion of single-payer health care. But he has made no substantial attempt to reassure the millions of Americans who have lost jobs or homes or health care in recent months. One might never have known, by following his campaign, that the US was facing the most serious and protracted economic depression since the 1930s. So it should come as no surprise that Trump maintained his support among rural and less educated voters and even improved it among African-Americans and Latinos. Despite Trump’s bungling, many ordinary Americans may have sensed indifference if not outright hostility emanating toward them from his Democratic opponents. And they would not have been mistaken. The Democratic Party leadership has become estranged from its historic base.
The spectacle of liberals jeering at coal miners reveals seismic changes in our larger public discourse. The miners were “getting exactly what they voted for”—exactly what they deserved, in other words. The belief that people get what they deserve is rooted in the secular individualist outlook that has legitimated inequality in the United States for centuries, ever since the Protestant ethic began turning into the spirit of capitalism. Yet visions of a nation of autonomous strivers always coexisted with older ideals of community and solidarity—and those ideals resurfaced in the Great Depression to become the basis, however limited and imperfect, of midcentury social democracy. During the last four decades, the autonomous striving self has returned to the center of the success ethic, but featured in a new narrative that has focused less on plodding diligence and more on talent, brains, and credentialed expertise.
The emerging outlook deployed a technocratic idiom but did not lack a moral gloss. Neoliberal meritocracy, it turned out, was perfectly compatible with identity politics; the party of Clinton, Obama, and Biden has depended on frequent rhetorical bows toward women and minorities as a crucial source of legitimacy.
With respect to political governance, the historical antecedents of the meritocratic ideal can be traced to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” of academic advisers, who despite their reputation as a Columbia cabal came from public as well as private universities and from various regions of the country. John F. Kennedy glamorized meritocracy by assembling advisers from Ivy League universities who may have genuinely thought of themselves as “the best and the brightest.” But that phrase was used ironically by David Halberstam, and the irony only deepened after Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest revealed highly educated men creating the catastrophe of the Vietnam War. Still, despite Halberstam’s damning indictment, during the post-Vietnam era policymakers increasingly turned toward meritocratic criteria as a means for organizing an entire society.
No one can deny the need for genuine experts to address public policy questions—the need, say, for well-informed epidemiologists in a pandemic. But when merit is institutionalized into meritocracy, it becomes an ideology that sanctifies its proponents’ sense of entitlement to run the nation, maybe even the world. The current ideology of meritocracy makes a further claim as well: that nearly all social goods can be distributed on the basis of reward for merit, which meritocrats have defined as technocratic, managerial expertise that depends heavily on elite academic credentials.
Part of the problem with these assumptions is that allegedly meritocratic practices do not reliably transcend class privilege, as Ivy League admissions annually demonstrate. But in a market society where money and merit are conflated, even a fair meritocracy would implicitly affirm that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, and the poor have no one to blame but themselves for their plight. As Michael Sandel has recently argued in The Tyranny of Merit, one can hardly overstate the corrosive effect of this belief on democracy. By dividing the population into winners and losers, smart people and stupid ones, the meritocratic myth promotes hubris on one side, humiliation and resentment on the other.
Any complete vision of democracy includes vigorous, informed debate about what constitutes the common good and how to promote it. But the meritocratic focus on individual striving has converged with vestigial versions of the older work ethic to undermine any notion of the common good. Even during a pandemic, the notion that we are all in this together remains hazy, and the public interest continues to be defined as the sum of myriad private interests. And since the meritocratic definition of “smart” tends to focus on technical problem-solving, meritocracy impoverishes the language of governance—reducing public discourse to bland techno-talk.
Since the 1990s, cheerleaders for globalization on both sides of the Atlantic have further obfuscated political discourse by announcing that “the new divide in rich countries is not between left and right but between open and closed,” as The Economist put it. “Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?” These questions made clear which was the more enlightened choice. Elite thought leaders from Tony Blair to Fareed Zakaria to Paul Krugman espoused versions of that enlightenment.
The open or closed duality arrays the provincial losers in the backwaters, crippled by closed-minded mistrust of multicultural diversity, against the open-minded cosmopolitan winners—geographically and socially mobile devotees of open borders. Those left behind by globalization, who might have reason to question the beneficence of free-flowing capital, can simply be dismissed as bigots or failures. A complex subject deserving democratic debate is reduced to a morality play.
Ultimately, meritocracy melds with a providentialist outlook that is even broader than the one that legitimated inequalities in the nineteenth century. The winners not only deserve to win, they are on “the right side of history.” Faith in inevitable progress reinforces the renewed popularity of Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction”—all those factories closed, jobs lost, communities hollowed out are merely the temporary price the working class pays for entrepreneurial innovation that will eventually bring greater riches for all. The market’s in its heaven, and all’s right with the world.
The rise of neoliberal politics was not a uniquely American development. Meritocratic mantras justified widening inequality in other societies that embraced market-driven policies, notably the UK and France. But Americans, especially those left behind by globalization, faced a unique threat. Since many joined the military in search of economic security, they were the most likely to become enmeshed in the futile wars on terror, extended into a disastrous campaign to democratize the Middle East. The stage was set for Donald Trump.
Promising to end endless wars and rebuild American industry, Trump offered false hope to those who had been left jobless by the global flow of capital and damaged in body or mind (or both) by the idiocies of imperial adventure. He played shamelessly to racist, misogynist, and xenophobic fears, but he also gave his dispossessed supporters a chance to vent their rage against the architects of empire and the meritocratic elite who dismissed them as “deplorables” clinging to religion and guns. His election shocked Democratic Party leaders into a panicky, incoherent, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to explain their loss as a result of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. But the Democrats failed to provide any serious policy agenda, focusing instead on simply demonizing Trump.
They stuck to the same strategy in the run-up to the 2020 election. Even as the pandemic forced business failures, foreclosures, and mass layoffs, they remained mainly the party of “not-Trump”—inert to the needs and anxieties of the working class. Biden’s advice to coal miners, echoed by Rahm Emanuel in his advice to retail employees, was the technocratic toss-off: “Learn how to program, for God’s sake!” No wonder the coal miners responded with stony silence. A leadership void faced the American people as Covid-19 threw the crisis of democracy into high relief. But the crisis was present long before the virus appeared.
For intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, the first warning sign was the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election. The threat was magnified by the rise of right-wing demagogues in Eastern Europe and Brazil. The most common defensive strategy, especially among those who positioned themselves within a nebulous “center,” was to ignore the possibility that their own values, ideologies, and policies may have helped to provoke a populist reaction. Self-examination was not on the agenda; no one acknowledged how completely democracy had been undone by neoliberal policies and ideology. Instead it was time to sound the alarm: the barbarians were at the gates; civilization itself was imperiled.
Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy is a contribution to this narrative. Her career epitomizes the typical meritocratic blend of achievement enhanced by privilege and personal connections. For a would-be transatlantic intellectual, she was to the manner born. Her father is a partner in the Washington law firm of Covington and Burling, which represents a wide range of multinational corporations; her mother was a program coordinator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (before it was dissolved in 2014). She attended the elite Sidwell Friends School, then took a BA at Yale in history and literature and an MA in international relations from the London School of Economics. Her writing has frequently appeared in these pages, The Economist, The Washington Post, and now The Atlantic, where she is a staff writer. She has published a history of the Soviet Gulag, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two accounts of Stalinist crimes in Eastern Europe.* She is a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, which has been backing American interventions abroad since the Reagan years. And she has been a fellow at the market-friendly Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, where her husband, the Polish politician Radosław Sikorski, has also held an appointment.
Applebaum has been in the right place at the right time. Her rapid rise to prominence reflects her well-positioned start but also the resonance between the revived cold war atmosphere in Washington and her own geopolitical perspective. She associates herself with “the Republican Party of John McCain,” which means center-right on domestic policy and recklessly interventionist in foreign policy. Like McCain, Applebaum seems rarely to have seen a problem, at least overseas, that couldn’t be solved by bombing.
Applebaum is an ideologue in the service of a militarist foreign policy, and ideologues prefer the aerial view. This preference can have unlovely results, as was demonstrated in 2014. After the US-backed uprising removed the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine began agitating for secession, with some support from Russia. Applebaum, convinced that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, believed it was the summer of 1939 all over again, when Ukrainians should have been preparing for “total war” rather than innocently awaiting catastrophe. Gesturing darkly toward Putin’s alleged plans for a nuclear attack on Eastern Europe, she urged the Ukrainians to get it right this time. Fortunately, no one took her advice, but the episode reveals a cast of mind that has characterized militarist intellectuals in the US for more than a century—a breathtaking indifference toward the consequences of their own words. Few sights in Washington are more familiar than an intellectual urging “total war” from the safety of the keyboard.
Applebaum’s air of abstraction, her detachment from the details of life on the ground, are habits of mind that afflict Twilight of Democracy. It is a book that reveals the very malady it sets out to dissect, by showing how badly intellectuals can muck things up when they subordinate intellectual values to ideology. Her model would seem to be Julien Benda’s 1927 book La Trahison des clercs—usually translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda’s use of clercs was intended to be both dismissive (mere clerks) and descriptive (thinkers whose ideas served powerful interests). He offered a rationalist’s brief for transcendental truth and against what seemed to him the dominant tendencies of the previous several decades—the worship of force, the elevation of experience over thought, the “adoration for the contingent, and scorn for the eternal.” The indictment was scattershot and not always accurate, but what was most important to Benda’s later admirers was that he had seen the future—the rise of fascism, with its contempt for reason and its anti-intellectual cult of incessant action. Rarely have intellectuals been cast in such a prominent role in the drama of world events.
The problem for Applebaum as for Benda is that they are both clercs, and their focus on people like themselves leads to a neglect of everyone else’s experience. Twilight of Democracy shuttles back and forth between chatty, anecdotal accounts of encounters with big players at parties, restaurants, and bars and cloudy, abstract formulations about everyday life—“demographic change,” “wage decline”—which look and sound as if they have been formulated on the fly, in a first-class seat high above the Atlantic.
Applebaum’s narrative moves from wholeness to fragmentation, concluding with an ambivalent coda. The bookends of her tale are two parties she and her husband gave, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, at their dilapidated country estate in Poland, and another in August 2019, the estate now considerably spruced up. The first event occurred in a time of hope amid lingering poverty; market economies were beginning to sputter into life across Eastern Europe, and dreams of a new, prosperous liberal order buoyed the spirits of the guests. “You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right—the conservatives, the anti-Communists,” Applebaum says. “But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.” Even those less committed to right-wing economics believed in democracy, which she links with belief in the rule of law, NATO, and the EU—an odd assemblage, as the last two institutions are hardly democratic. “In the 1990s, that was what being ‘on the right’ meant.”
But the Polish center-right consensus soon fractured, Applebaum reports: some of the party guests maintained their center-right views, a few still occupied the center-left, but a good many embraced the nativist Law and Justice Party. Once it came to power in 2015, Law and Justice created a one-party state—dominating public discourse with state-run media, replacing civil service professionals with party hacks and independent justices with pliable cronies, identifying old and new pariahs (Jews, homosexuals) to reaffirm the rightness of the dominant social order. This, for Applebaum, was the grim denouement of the fragile consensus of 1999—ended friendships, splintered families, and a nativist movement in charge of the state.
Yet the second social gathering, twenty years on, gave her some grounds for resurgent hope. The most encouraging sign, she says, came from
one group of guests [who] hadn’t been born at all, or had only recently been born, in 1999. These were our sons’ friends from school and university, an eclectic mix of Poles, other Europeans, and Americans—from Warsaw, Bydgoszcz, Connecticut, and south London…. They mixed English and Polish, danced to the same music, knew the same songs. No deep cultural differences, no profound civilizational clashes, no unbridgeable identity gaps appeared to divide them.
Maybe these teenagers are “harbingers of…something better, something that we can’t yet imagine,” she muses. Or maybe not.
What is most remarkable about these two social gatherings is the level of economic privilege—mobility, opportunity, choice—that Applebaum assumes is a given among her guests. The book is largely about highly educated, comfortable Europeans, well fed and well read. Those Poles who embraced Law and Justice after 1999 do not fit into the conventional explanations for the resurgence of the European right, according to Applebaum; they were unaffected by the recession of 2008 or the refugee crisis of 2015:
They are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be, but they are not poor and rural. They have not lost their jobs to migrant workers. In Eastern Europe, they are not victims of the political transition since 1989, or of politics in any sense at all. In Western Europe, they are not part of an impoverished underclass, and they do not live in forgotten villages…. On the contrary, they have been educated at the best universities, they often speak foreign languages, they live in big cities—London, Washington, Warsaw, Madrid—and they travel abroad.
These are the clercs who are fomenting unrest against the centrist consensus. One can get no sense, from Applebaum’s account, of why the population might be ripe for unrest.
For a book about democracy, Twilight of Democracy contains surprisingly few ordinary citizens. On the rare occasions they appear, they are casually dismissed. Applebaum reveals little interest in or knowledge about American politics, but that doesn’t stop her from making sweeping assertions regarding the people she is writing about:
In the United States, they do not live in communities ravaged by opioids, they do not spend much time in midwestern diners, and they do not, in fact, match any of the lazy stereotypes used to describe Trump voters at all—including some of the lazy stereotypes they have invented themselves.
The question “How does she know?” comes to mind, especially when one realizes that she has not produced a single concrete example. Nor, transparently, has she spent much time in midwestern diners.
To be sure, it is possible to exaggerate the size of Trump’s working-class base; much of his support came (and comes) from traditional country-club Republicans. Yet Trump’s promise to end our endless wars, however misleading, tapped into a deep vein of popular resentment—as poll results reveal. Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota and Douglas Kriner of Boston University analyzed election results from the 2016 election in three crucial states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—and concluded that “even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.” Many of those communities, moreover, voted for Obama in the two previous elections.
This inattention to detail weakens Applebaum’s interpretation. She reduces a complex populist ferment in the United States especially, but also in Britain and France, to a creation of conniving politicians manipulating an illiberal population. How does one explain the center-right clercs’ turn to right-wing nationalism? she asks. Were they “always closet authoritarians”? Or did they “somehow” change during the first decades of the new century? Avoiding “grand theory,” she offers “a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” But Applebaum does not specify what the “right conditions” are or might be; instead, she turns to a discussion of the universal, timeless habits of mind that ensure that “the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.” So we are back at 35,000 feet, maybe higher.
Our guide on this celestial journey is Karen Stenner, a behavioral economist whose term “authoritarian predisposition” does a lot of interpretive work for Applebaum. Ideological differences, in Stenner’s view, are merely reflections of varying cognitive styles. “Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity,” Applebaum writes; “there is nothing intrinsically ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ about this instinct at all.” This is the rarefied atmosphere of the meritocratic elite, where political disagreements evaporate into elusive distinctions between those who can tolerate complexity and those who cannot.
For Applebaum, the bland formulations of behavioral economics justify contemptuous dismissal of the supposed authoritarian social type. As in the upbeat narrative of globalization, for her left and right have been displaced by open and closed—but not quite. The authoritarian disposition is “not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness. It is better described as simple-mindedness,” she says. Authoritarians “dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences—therefore makes them angry.” So it should come as no surprise, she says, that immigrants and refugees inflame the authoritarian impulse.
But in her view neither hostility toward immigrants nor increasing economic inequality explains why so many countries took illiberal turns in 2015–2018—“why, at that exact moment, everybody got very angry.” Yet she does not really explain it, either. She gestures toward how the clercs helped manipulate the popular longing to belong, and she acknowledges the divisive and fragmenting effect of social media. But she ignores the equally fragmenting and divisive impact of a meritocratic neoliberal ideology that implicitly tells people they are falling behind because they deserve to. And she remains persistently indifferent to material issues—the widening class divide, shrinking safety net, and stagnant wages promoted by the neoliberal commitment to austerity, as well as (in the US) the race-based carceral state that polices the shambles created by those policies.
This blind spot becomes apparent in Applebaum’s misinterpretation of the gilets jaunes in France. Originally an outbreak of popular protest against a regressive fuel-tax hike, the yellow-vest movement widened its platform to urge the revival of a tax on large fortunes, to oppose the privatization of flourishing public institutions, including hospitals, and in general to put questions of fiscal, social, and environmental justice onto the public agenda. It also provoked violent repression by the police and crude oversimplification by the media, which characterized it as homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, and fascistic—even while the yellow vests continued to win the support of well over half the population.
Applebaum sees the social ferment in France as an episode in intellectual history, casting the technocrat Emmanuel Macron as a defender “of a Republican France that still stands for a set of abstract values, among them impartial justice and the rule of law,” and pitting him against the xenophobic nationalist Marine Le Pen, the social conservative Marion Maréchal, and the gilets jaunes. “Sometimes the struggle becomes violent,” Applebaum writes. “When the gilets jaunes—yellow-jacketed, anti-establishment anarchists—rioted in Paris in the spring of 2019, they smashed a statue of Marianne, the female symbol of the Republic, the embodiment of the abstract state.” Apparently the violence done to the protesters was less significant than the “violence” done to a symbol of republican France.
The world of abstractions is where Applebaum lives. Democracy, free markets, and meritocracy all get the aerial view. This is evident in her uncritical perspective on meritocracy—beginning with her inability to see how this idea conceals and legitimates unequal access to elite credentialing institutions. Anyone who has spent any time at those institutions (as Applebaum and I both have) knows how they can foster exceptionally inspired teaching and vibrant intellectual communities—but also how they can function as sluiceways for the already privileged to take positions in elite economic and cultural institutions. Furthermore, the problem is not only the unfair implementation of meritocratic ideals but their inherently corrosive impact on democratic fellow feeling—their tendency to sanctify the successful few and disparage the struggling many.
Yet for Applebaum, the notion of meritocracy simply means rule by the talented; any departure from it means government by losers. The cronyism practiced by the Law and Justice Party “represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy, political competition, and the free market, principles that, by definition, have never benefited the less successful.” The successful are successful because the principles they live by benefit the successful: there is some truth here, but there is also the meritocratic fantasy common to the entitled, the faith that competition always rewards the most “fit.” Still, Applebaum concedes, competition is not for everyone: “A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, what’s wrong with it?” To describe pre-Trump America—say, during the Bush-Cheney years—as “a society run by the talented” is to descend to absurdist farce.
But ultimately Applebaum is less interested in talent than she is in ideology. She pines for the “idealism” that inspired the “young conservatives” who were preparing for power in the US in the 1990s:
This wasn’t the nostalgic conservatism of the English; this was something more buoyant, more American, an optimistic conservatism that wasn’t backward-looking at all. Although there were darker versions, at its best it was energetic, reformist, and generous, predicated on faith in the United States, belief in the greatness of American democracy, and ambition to share that democracy with the rest of the world.
Yet the “optimistic conservatism” of the fin de siècle was the outlook that brought us the invasion of Iraq, the legitimation of torture, and the unprecedented, unconstitutional expansion of executive power under Bush and Cheney. In league with liberal interventionists, these “energetic, reformist, and generous” conservatives ushered in the calamitous policy of regime change—a euphemism that conflates imperial ambition with the “ambition to share [American] democracy with the rest of the world.” In this context, sharing is a bad joke. The regime changers are in effect saying, You know you want to be like us, and if you don’t, we have the guns to persuade you.
Applebaum’s ideological fervor animates her attack on two familiar targets—familiar, at least, to defenders of American empire. One is “moral equivalence”; the other is “whataboutism.” They are closely related; both depend on the exceptionalist assumption that the United States is on the right side of history—a uniquely virtuous nation immune to the moral standards used to judge other countries’ conduct.
This worldview surfaces most plainly in her assault on Trump’s amorality:
Since he doesn’t believe American democracy is good, he has no interest in an America that aspires to be a model among nations. In a 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, he expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, using a classic form of “whataboutism.” “But he’s a killer,” said O’Reilly. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump replied….
This way of speaking…is an argument for moral equivalence, an argument that undermines faith, hope, and the belief that we can live up to the language of our Constitution.
It is also an argument, she charges, that allows Trump to believe that he can do whatever he wants, “just like everyone else.”
Trump’s amoral embrace of pure power politics is indeed a menace. But his nihilism is not the only possible consequence of an honest reckoning with the murderous and antidemocratic history of American foreign policy since 1945. The list of democratically elected governments overthrown and leaders assassinated by the CIA, not to mention its failed attempts to accomplish those goals, is long—consider Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, Venezuela. Then there is a shorter but still impressive list of countries that the US has reduced to rubble and social chaos—North Korea, Vietnam (again), Iraq, Libya. Everybody does not do this; the United States does, which is why global surveys repeatedly have shown that the US is widely believed to be the greatest threat to world peace.
To recognize the bloody history of US foreign policy is not to equate this nation with amoral oligarchies but to call it to account for violating its own professed ideals and aspirations. If “American democracy is good,” as Applebaum believes, if its public figures truly aspire “to be a model among nations,” then they should be willing to grapple with the significance of their own history, including the many crimes committed in the name of American democracy. That would be a fundamental departure from the exceptionalist faith in America’s unique virtue, a heresy unthinkable to the foreign policy establishment and the intellectuals who legitimate it. Deliverance from exceptionalism is not likely to happen anytime soon, but it is crucial to keep imagining it—if only to sustain the idea of international cooperation required by climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. For American democracy to survive, its clercs are going to have to disengage from orthodoxy, stop talking only to one another, and start listening to heretics.