One of the questions that I have been hearing the most is: Does democracy work for the benefit of all, or for the benefit of a few elites?

Basically, does Democracy work for politicians and those who are politically connected to the exclusion of everyone else?

In South Africa for instance, there are those who believe that democracy seems to benefit politicians and those who are politically connected only.

In the face of rising unemployment and inequality, there is a popular phrase in the country: “We fought for freedom, they gave us democracy.”

Those who believe democracy is working are those who are benefiting from it, and those who don’t believe it is working are those who are not benefitting from it. It turns out that those who are benefiting from it are outnumbered by that who are not benefitting.

“We fought for freedom and they gave us democracy” suggests that freedom [physical and economical] is what matters the most, not the perks brought by democracy such as voting for a political party every 5 years.

Basically, it means democracy is useless unless it delivers tangible economic benefits for all, not the elites and politically connected.

Applebaum starts the book by discussing the New Year’s Eve celebration she and her husband, Radek Sikorski, threw on December 31, 1999, to welcome in the new millennium. Her husband was a deputy foreign minister in a Polish administration that was in the centre-right at the time, and most of their acquaintances were conservatives.

Applebaum claims that the political climate has become so tense in the intervening two decades that some of her former party guests would now refuse to attend a party at her house and that she herself would cross the street to avoid speaking to some of them.

Applebaum examines this division and its political implications, including Brexit, and the current political climate in Europe, the United States and the rest of the world.

One of the things that seem to be prevailing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of authoritarianism. Most countries that held or were supposed to hold elections during the pandemic seemed to use the pandemic as an excuse to postpone [or even rig] elections in order to hold on to power for as long as possible.

In this book, Anne Applebaum makes a case that democracy or democratic principles are under attack. She asserts that the war in Ukraine is not just a war between two countries, but a war between authoritarianism and democracy.

The rise of Communist China as an economic superpower, the fight by Russia to annex Ukraine, Putin’s vision to recapture the old days of the USSR, the rise in coup de tar in most countries, sitting presidents changing their constitutions to abolish term limits are some of the examples that Anne is raising in the book. Basically, she is warning us that Communism [and Authoritarianism] is making a comeback.

Basically, she is saying that ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold War in 1989, Democracy went to sleep assuming that Communism has died. In that hubris, communism is slowly gaining momentum to stage a resurrection.

Initially, after the end of the Cold War, former dictatorships tried to copy the West by adopting democratic principles. Some succeeded more than others. Disillusionment resulted from not just a sense of being told what to do by the West, but also from the realisation that the masters weren’t actually that good at the job of Democracy. The financial crisis of 2008 shattered any remaining illusions.

China tried to term limits for their presidents, until last month when they changed the constitution to allow for the president to stay longer. Russia did the same, Belarus did the same, Myanmar did the same, Nicaragua did the same and some African presidents did the same.

Some countries have had the same presidents for more than 20 years. They suppress opposition leaders, and media freedom and rig elections to stay longer in power. They make it look like they are democratic, but in effect, they are not.

In another sign that international deterrents against antidemocratic behavior are losing force, coups were more common in 2021 than in any of the previous 10 years.

Myanmar in February 2021, just before a new parliament was to be sworn in, after imperfect but credible November 2020 elections in which the military’s chosen party was soundly defeated, the military, which drafted the 2008 constitution, ruled the elections illegitimate due to fraud and placed commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing as acting president.

The Sudanese military seized power in October 2021, weeks before the transitional government was to become fully civilian. Though Abdalla Hamdok was eventually returned as prime minister, the military retained authority and urged elections be delayed until 2023.

Guinea and Belarus, are some examples where election results seemed to be massaged to favour a certain outcome.

According to Anne Applebaum, the number of such incidents is rising, and democratic nations have been oblivious to the trend.

China’s economic success demonstrates the viability of communism. Developing your economic might doesn’t require democratic rule. It sends the message to the leaders of some countries that they can remain in power indefinitely as long as they bring about economic growth.

Furthermore, democracy has not exactly set a good example for itself. As a result of democracy, we now have widespread poverty and income disparity, with a privileged few enriching themselves at the expense of the working poor. Due to corruption and a lack of responsibility, the CEOs of major banks were not punished for their roles in causing the 2008 financial crisis. Some point to the victory of Donald Trump and the behaviour of his supporters after he lost the election, when they stormed the Capitol, as evidence of the problems with the democratic system.

Authoritarian powers have taken careful note of fractures in and among democracies and moved to widen them whenever possible.

Despite the overwhelming justifications for democracy, the past 16 years have proven that neither the popularity of democratic beliefs nor global progress toward democratic administration can be assumed. Autocrats are determined to maintain and grow their authority as long as democracy’s supporters let them. Everyone who understands the stakes must rebuild and improve the international norms championed by democracies and push authoritarian tactics to the edges of human experience.



I’ve never read anything by Anne Applebaum before, but after finishing this book, I feel like I have a lot better grasp of democracy’s inner workings and the reasons for its current precarious position.

This book opened my eyes to how similar politics are on a global scale in different countries all over the world. The challenges that face politics in Europe are not dissimilar to those that face politics in Africa.

The Twilight of Democracy examines western authoritarianism. While her analysis of psychological and cultural aspects is solid, she ignores the economic conditions that lead to this problem, which is the book’s main flaw.

As they say in South Africa, people don’t eat democracy. If the majority of a country’s population does not experience noticeable improvements in their standard of living as a result of democratic rule, then perhaps the democratic system ought to be re-examined. This is why many people say they don’t vote because they don’t think it will make a difference in their lives.

It would have been great if Anne had gone into further depth regarding the shortcomings of democracy and how it fails to provide tangible benefits to the vast majority of its people. In my opinion, this is the most significant danger that democracy faces.

If democracy fails to offer economic gains for everybody, it will gradually lose support. This does not imply that authoritarianism is the solution either.

The time I spent reading this book was quite rewarding. Currently, I’m reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History of Soviet Camps. This book is challenging to read because it details the atrocities of the Gulag. The Soviet Union’s concentration camps known as the Gulag system operated both during and after Vladimir Lenin’s rule. Like Robben Island during apartheid South Africa, the Gulag system seems to be ten times worse.

Favourite Quotes

  • “People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.”
  • “Unlike Marxism, the illiberal one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power, and it functions happily alongside many ideologies.”
  • “Democracy itself has always been loud and raucous, but when its rules are followed, it eventually creates consensus. The modern debate does not. Instead, it inspires in some people the desire to forcibly silence the rest.”
  • “When people say they are angry about “immigration,” in other words, they are not always talking about something they have lived and experienced. They are talking about something imaginary, something they fear.”
  • “Confidence that the political economy of the west was a model for the future of mankind had been linked to the belief that western elites knew what they were doing.”
  • “We have long known that in closed societies, the arrival of democracy, with its clashing voices and differing opinions, can be “complex and frightening,” as Stenner puts it, for people unaccustomed to public dissent.”
  • “This form of soft dictatorship does not require mass violence to stay in power. Instead, it relies upon a cadre of elites to run the bureaucracy, the state media, the courts, and, in some places, state companies.”
  • “in most Western countries, most of the time, there was a single, national debate. Opinions differed, but at least most people were arguing within agreed parameters. That world has vanished.”
  • “Modern democratic institutions, built for an era with very different information technology, provide little comfort for those who are angered by the dissonance. Voting, campaigning, the formation of coalitions—all of this seems retrograde in a world where other things happen so quickly.”
  • “Law and Justice took over the state public broadcaster—also in violation of the constitution—firing popular presenters and experienced reporters. Their replacements, recruited from the far-right extremes of the online media, began running straightforward ruling-party propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers’ expense.”

One thought on “Book Review: Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum

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