15) Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum
The subtitle to this book is ‘The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’, which gives a more accurate sense of the territory it covers. Anne Applebaum is a journalist and historian, and this book is her attempt to understand the rise of populist (and far-right) political movements in Eastern Europe, the UK and the US. She does this in part through detailing actual personal relationships she has that have fallen apart as a result of those former friends ending up (or choosing) to be in the realm of the populists. Thus the book starts at a New Year’s Eve party in Poland (Applebaum’s husband is a former high-ranking Polish politician) at which, broadly, everyone agrees about the way of progress, about democracy, and about facts. That broad consensus shatters in the subsequent years.
It’s a compelling and concise book. And it packs a punch, not just because of the thesis that the author pulls together, but because of the personal element: where the electricity flows most noticeably through the pages is when direct interviews and 1:1 meetings are documented and recounted. That is also where we start to try and understand the psychology of those who are intelligent, educated, (previously) rational thinkers who find themselves supporting positions, politics and people that would be anathema to where they were before. There is a mix of ego, opportunism, money, revenge and power that lies behind it (plus ca change) but also perhaps people whose starting point was relatively cynical or with a low opinion of humanity.
There’s plenty of food for thought here – not least you may learn (as I did) more about Polish and Hungarian politics than you knew before – and it feels like an important, if highly personal, contribution on the key topic of our age. The only slight drawback is that Applebaum herself isn’t enormously likeable; and the flipside of having many friends in high places to talk about is the fact that you had unparalleled access as part of an elite coterie in the first place – itself a sign of the inequality which populism feeds on. Nevertheless, I’d really recommend this for the reasons outlined above: it’s an important contribution on what I consider one of the most important subjects at the moment.
BUY IT NOW: Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends