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Anne Applebaum’s Dinner Party, and Mine

Liberal dinner parties are missing a key menu item - an honest assessment of populism.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 224 pages

I wanted to review Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy because it starts with a description of a party. Virtually every review of Applebaum’s book leads with this glamorous dawn-of-the-millennium bash held by Applebaum and her husband, Polish politician, “Atlanticist” journalist, and think tanker Radek Sikorski, at their newly renovated manor house in the Polish countryside: the romantic setting, the zany antics of the guests, and then the upshot—the author is no longer on speaking terms with roughly half the attendees. 

That moment of celebration—the end of communism, the opening of Eastern Europe to the West, that Fukuyamist sense that the ideological wars were over and a dynamic and tolerant neoliberalism would sweep the globe—is long past. Since that evening, Applebaum relates, many of the Sikorskis’ guests have been active participants in or supporters of the anti-liberal authoritarian governments elected in Hungary and Poland. Other former friends from England and America have anti-immigration views or supported Brexit or Donald Trump. Applebaum seeks to supply a comprehensive theory to explain what she views as the intellectual and moral descent of so many she once felt in sync with. 

The story resonated because, like many conservatives, I have ideological ex-friend stories, and like Applebaum, I could point to a party as one of several revelatory turning points. It took place in February 1996, not in a restored manor house but in our low-ceilinged white brick apartment building in Manhattan, modest but a short walk from tonier addresses. Probably three quarters of our 40-odd guests were journalists and authors of one sort or another; our kids were pressed into drink-serving duties. As a group we were then still mostly neoconservatives, but the conservative crackup was underway. 

My wife and I had planned to hold a brief straw poll after dinner, since five days earlier Pat Buchanan had won the New Hampshire primary. I guessed there would be five to seven Buchanan votes (including my own) from social conservatives or immigration restrictionists among the guests. Dinner had gone well, with makeshift tables in the living room, and a lot of Barbaresco had been consumed. My late socialist friend Jim Chapin was engaged in friendly animated conversation with Midge Decter. Peter Brimelow’s late wife Maggie cheerfully announced that she always voted her pocketbook and would go for Forbes. Then, as we were about to pass out ballots, Peter Brimelow approached me. Don’t do this vote, Scott, it will wreck the party. Mmmm, I thought. Two minutes later, Neal Kozodoy came over. Don’t do this vote, Scott, it will wreck the party. We didn’t pass out the ballots. 

Applebaum would have her own understanding of this evening, but despite her talents (she is a good stylist, energetic researcher, and author of several highly acclaimed books on the Soviet era) and impressive range of acquaintances, her arguments are reductive and familiar, variations of which have been presented many times before. 

They go roughly like this: conservatives, or at least the non-neoliberals among them, fear complexity; they yearn for certainties, and thus are perennially tempted by authoritarianism or outright fascism. If this sounds redolent of the famous diagnosis of the “authoritarian personality” supplied by Theodore Adorno and his fellow Marxist emigres of the Frankfurt School, it is because that is the template she embraces. Not in its pristine original form, though she gives a gracious nod to Adorno and mentions his belief that authoritarian attitudes are rooted in repressed homosexuality, but in the work of the Frankfurt School’s many imitators and offshoots. Since The Authoritarian Personality took American universities by storm in the 1950s, the psychopathologizing of conservative attitudes makes fair claim to be the most exhaustively overworked mine in American social science of the past 60 years. 

Applebaum leans particularly on Karen Stenner, “a behavioral economist who began researching personality traits two decades ago.” Stenner believes in something called the “authoritarian predisposition,” which is “not close-mindedness so much as simple-mindedness.” Some people are “bothered by complexity.” They prefer “unity” to “divisiveness” and accordingly “seek solutions in a new political language which makes them feel more secure.” 

Applebaum has led a rich professional life, with jobs at top media organizations in England and the U.S. She has close ties to Poland and seems to travel widely and often. Her book slaloms between the personal and historical excursions designed to illustrate the psychological deficits and pathologies underlying illiberalism. It’s a technique made to erode distinctions. The people she knows who support Victor Orbán in Hungary are of a piece with the anti-Dreyfusards, who are the same ilk as the Tories who backed Brexit, who lie in the same bed with the German popularizers of “cultural despair” (as depicted in the renowned work of historian Fritz Stern), who helped make German intellectual soil more receptive to Nazism. The implicit message is unavoidable: The type of conservatism embraced by her ex-friends leads inexorably to fascism at best, if not Auschwitz. 

If one finds this a bit much, it is not because personality traits which correlate with predispositions toward conservatism and liberalism don’t exist. Jonathan Haidt’s exploration in The Righteous Mind shows that it is possible to tease out such correlations without treating any of them as evidence of psychological pathology. Furthermore, the extensive history of the squalid embrace of murderous authoritarian regimes by prominent Western intellectuals and public figures shows that it has been, as Applebaum probably knows, overwhelmingly the vice of progressives. 

If the Adorno-speak in Applebaum’s argument is reductive and overly familiar, one of its analytical weaknesses is that it is oblivious to the real-world events that undermined the neoconservative/neoliberal worldview that seemed so ascendant in 2000. One could begin with the Iraq war, a strategic disaster the cost of which in blood and treasure can hardly be overstated. Applebaum never mentions it, perhaps because some of the people she touts in her book as (still) very close friends, or politicians she especially admires, were among its principal propagandists.

Then there is the economic cost of globalization, which she raises only to dismiss. In an early and important passage, she notes that her ex-friends had undergone “authoritarian” transformations away from neoliberalism “without the excuse of an economic crisis.” They “have not lost their jobs to migrant workers,” “do not live in communities ravaged by opioids,” she explains: “On the contrary, they have been educated at the best universities, often speak foreign languages, they live in big cities.”

It’s an enormously revealing paragraph. Applebaum is saying that those who have not been personally harmed by an economic transformation—one which in the United States has gutted its manufacturing sector and created, for the first time in this country’s history, a situation where a large segment of the population, high-school-educated whites, is dying younger than their ancestors—should not really worry. I am ready to believe that Applebaum is herself unconcerned that huge numbers of Americans have lost their access to meaningful and decently compensated work, but she might realize that for others, concern for one’s fellow countrymen is a fairly normal sentiment, a plausible part of the vocation of any individual in public life, and an attitude sanctified and encouraged by every major religion.

Applebaum offers a similar “what is their problem?” retort to Europeans who worry about immigration. She mocks Hungarian concerns by noting that there is now little immigration to Hungary. Drawing again on the work of Karen Stenner, she notes that in Western Europe, where immigration rates are high, many are “bothered by complexity … a sudden onslaught of diversity, diversity of opinions, makes them angry.” Major demographic change, she continues, “is a form of complexity that has traditionally inflamed the authoritarian impulse, and still does.” 

She does not mention that in France, for example, one of the diverse opinions that arose in immigrant communities was that the shooting up of the periodical Charlie Hebdo was no big deal (so teachers reported of their students in the Paris suburbs) or that there was no need for residents of an immigrant apartment complex to inform the police when a young Frenchman was being tortured to death over a period of days, or that a Jewish kid ought not to be able to wear a kippah outdoors without being beaten up. Thousands of young “assimilated” immigrants expressed their “diversity of opinions” by joining ISIS. It is true that many Frenchmen are troubled by these new opinions, enough of them to make Éric Zemmour the most popular public intellectual in France. 

I mentioned, in my own recollection of a dinner party, that I supported in Pat Buchanan in 1996, before any of these great trends had really born fruit. To be a pro-Buchanan New York City journalist was then an eccentric position. One can imagine an alternate universe where things turned out differently—where the Iraq war went swimmingly and unleashed democracy throughout the Mideast, where the broadly shared economic growth that had characterized all of American history continued, aided by the numerous free trade deals that governments entered into without their voters’ consent, where high rates of immigration did not lead to sporadic waves of terrorism and urban violence before a backdrop of unrelenting and seemingly irresoluble conflicts of identity politics. 

If such things had come to pass, I might look sheepishly on my Buchanan support of 24 years ago. But events did not turn out that way. Rather than subjecting her ex-friends to musings about psychopathology, Applebaum might have found better explanations as to why they turned away from her by looking at what has happened in the real world.  

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches from the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.