Democracies are cherished political systems only when they uphold liberal credentials. Freedom of person and speech are an essential acid test for any democracy. That includes free speech, free media and political freedom. Only in such societies where liberty and freedom are respected will the human creativity blooms and blushes. Such societies become home to artists, writers, thinkers and craftsmen, the ‘creative fringe’ of any society. Culture and creativity thrive in open societies only. Where criticism has no place, there creativity cannot survive. Democracies can potentially degenerate when they become illiberal. Plato feared that the “false and braggart” words of a demagogue can turn democracies into a staging point for tyranny. Gandhi worried that in the absence of enlightened citizenry, democracies can turn into mobocracies.
All liberals – they are on both sides of the spectrum, among the Liberal and Conservative sections – have a common concern today and that is the radical degeneration of democracies in many countries into authoritarianisms and autocracies. Global catastrophes like the pandemics, that cause severe human distress, also provide an excellent opportunity for leaders to appropriate more and more powers into their hands. People themselves want it sometimes; they want their leaders to become super-human to safeguard their interests in such contingencies. A true democratic leader will resist that temptation, but such leaders are scarce. Makers of modern America like Alexander Hamilton believed that “rational debate, reason, and compromise” should be at the root of its democracy. But they also feared that men could succumb to ‘passions’ – the old-fashioned word they used – and irrational men can inverse the democratic system into an illiberal autocracy.
Anne Applebaum, a renowned scholar and author, who teaches at the John Hopkin’s University in Washington DC, throws light on this travesty taking place in several countries in Europe today in her latest book “Twilight of Democracy”. Her essays in this though-provoking book are based not only on political developments in those countries but also on her personal experiences. This book is not so much about the known authoritarians and dictators in history and the present, from Lenin to Putin, and Mao to Xi. It is about the current leaders in democracies like Hungary, Poland, Spain; about the Brexiteers in UK and other ultra-Right conservatives in Germany, France and Italy… It is also about the growing illiberalism at home in the USA, whose founders had envisioned that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal’.”
This growing illiberalism, irrationalism of QAnon type, extreme intolerance of the far-Right and far-Left groups, and rising authoritarian regimes across European democracies – is all this symptomatic of the decaying of democracy? Are we at its twilight hour? Abraham Lincoln called America as the “last, best hope of earth”. Is that hope fading away with the slow death of democratic liberalism in America? Applebaum poignantly discusses these issues in different essays based on her observation into the situation prevailing in different countries.
“Given the right condition, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will”, she concludes. Before anyone dismisses it as the rant of a disillusioned liberal, it must be remembered that Applebaum began her journalistic career in mid-1990s with Conservative magazines. Although the book is entirely about a select few countries in Europe and America, rest of the democratic world, including India, can also learn several insights from Applebaum’s book.