scroll to top arrow or icon

Podcast: Authoritarianism’s Enduring Appeal

Authoritarianism’s Enduring Appeal -  image of Putin and Erdogan

TRANSCRIPT: Authoritarianism’s Enduring Appeal

Anne Applebaum:

Authoritarianism and the drive towards authoritarianism have resulted from people who feel some kind of disappointment with democracy. Sometimes it's a personal disappointment, but often it comes from a disappointment that's broader. My society isn't what I thought it would be. I don't see myself represented in it.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World podcast. Here you'll find extended versions of the interviews from my show on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today we're looking at the rise of authoritarianism around the world with a woman who wrote the book on it. Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, an author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

The 2019 Pu Poll of people in more than 30 countries found a majority, 52% were dissatisfied with democracy, jobs, immigration, and a growing sense their leaders don't really care about them. All were factors. What does this mean for the United States and the rest of the free world? That's the topic today. Let's get to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World podcast is brought to you by our found and sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain worlds. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

Ian Bremmer:

Pulitzer prize winning author and columnist at the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum. Great to be with you today, Ann.

Anne Applebaum:

Thanks for having me.

Ian Bremmer:

Why is authoritarianism so seductive in this environment today?

Anne Applebaum:

Authoritarianism and the drive towards authoritarianism have for the last a hundred years resulted from people who feel some kind of disappointment with democracy. Sometimes it's a personal disappointment. People who feel their political systems haven't delivered to them something that they want.

And in the book I published recently, I talk about people at the very high end of a number of societies and journalists and political analysts and philosophers who felt that their systems weren't delivering something for them. But often it comes from a disappointment that's broader.

My society isn't what I thought it would be. It's changed in directions that I don't like. I don't see myself represented in it. Of course, there are also, in every country, there are specific economic or political circumstances that drive people away from democracy or turn them against the system. But because this is now a pattern across so many countries around the world, I think we can also make some broader generalizations about it.

I mean, look, we live in a time when things are changing very, very fast. The economic situation is changing, there's sociological change. The role of women is changing, the role of marriage is changing, families are changing, demographics are changing. And for some people that means that something has been left behind or lost. And very often those are the people who are becoming disillusioned with their political systems.

Ian Bremmer:

You mentioned that a lot of things are changing and the one that is kind of noteworthy you didn't mention is the role of government. I mean, is that part of the problem, that so many things affecting people's lives are so different and yet government doesn't seem to be able to respond adequately to the pace of change?

Anne Applebaum:

Absolutely. I mean, one, of course one the greatest changes is the change in the nature of information, the kind of interactions that we're used to having, the way in which we can now respond quickly to so many things. And in a world when you know can express your like or dislike for something by clicking a button online or you can order a pair of shoes and they'll arrive tomorrow or maybe even this afternoon.

The idea that it takes months for the government to decide anything, that it takes weeks to form a government coalition. That issue after issue, and this is particularly a problem in the United States, is blocked in Congress because of procedural rules, because of the filibuster, because of the 50/50 split.

That creates a huge amount of frustration and the sense that we're not going anywhere. Everything else happens so rapidly, democracy requires all these compromises and changes and it's very slow. And so yes, the failure in many systems, sometimes it's about constitutional change. More often it's about change in the way government operates and its effectiveness and also in the way that government uses new technology.

With a couple of exceptions, very few governments have used the possibilities of online debate or consensus building software or other alternatives to social media, define ways to get their citizens to talk. And that means that the nature of conversation online and the nature of public debate are somehow out of joint. And I think that's a problem for most democracies.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, people could think we're talking about the United States primarily, but of course we're not. Some of the countries that have disappointed the most in their trajectories have been in Eastern Europe. You look at Poland today, you look at Hungary today. Could we even call those democracies in today's environment?

Anne Applebaum:

So as you know, I live part of the time in Poland and my husband is Polish, and I've been writing about the region and also about Russia for many years. I actually don't like the idea that what's happening in Eastern Europe is that different from what's happening in Western Europe.

I mean, some of the argumentation that people make and so on is different, but it's more similar than you think. In Poland and Hungary, you have autocratic, authoritarian, populist political parties that have made arguments about, again, not so much about economic loss because the story of Poland since 1989 is one of unbelievable success.

Ian Bremmer:

Yes.

Anne Applebaum:

I mean, Poland never had a recession. Standards of living have doubled and tripled and quadrupled. Everybody in every political class, I mean, in every social class is better off now than they were. And yet there was a feeling of some that they had lost something or that something traditional about Poland was disappearing or that demographic change, which in this case meant people emmigrating rather than people immigrating, that young people were leaving.

My town isn't the same kind of place that it used to be. This created a sense of discontent. But I still think that the biggest difference between Poland and Hungary on the one hand and say the kinds of authoritarian, populist parties you find in Germany, France, Austria, and Italy is simply one of scale. I mean, they've won elections in Poland and Hungary.

They haven't won them yet in Italy or Austria, but they might. And if they did, we might find the trajectory was quite similar. So again, in Eastern Europe there you can certainly point to countries where you do have a sense that of something being missing. But I think it's a broader problem.

I mean, actually this will sound very bizarre, but the trajectory of events and the nature of political debate in Poland is amazingly similar in a lot of ways to the United States. The kinds of arguments that people make, the level of polarization, and it also has some, it bears some relationship to what you see, for example in Venezuela, the way that you had a left wing populist party take over the government and then institution by institution undermine it from within, so.

Ian Bremmer:

And Brazil, I mean, you could make the same arguments absolutely with the Supreme Court challenges and with the social media challenges and the structural racism even. I mean, it's all there.

Anne Applebaum:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and these are countries that have really nothing in common. I mean, historically or politically or sociologically or ethnically, nothing. And yet you can see similar kinds of language and you can see this impulse to destroy and undermine the institutions of democracy everywhere.

And you can see a certain amount of popular support for it. And that to me means that we must be talking about a phenomenon that has a broader base. It's not just the US and it's racist or a civil war legacy. And in Poland it's not just communism and the legacy of authoritarianism. There are other things going on that we all have in common that is causing, it's causing this phenomenon.

Ian Bremmer:

I mean, you do sound more structurally negative about the trajectory that Europe is on. Do you think that Europe is on a trajectory towards failure?

Anne Applebaum:

So I actually believe that pessimism and formal pessimism is irresponsible. I don't think someone like you or me is really in a position to tell lots of younger people that Europe is on a downward trajectory or Western civilization is in decline, or American democracy is finished because that's not really how history works.

History is radically open and many trajectories are still available to us depending on what people say. And there are ways actually in which Europe is in some, in some ways is in a better position than the United States. For example, I genuinely believe that democracies reinforce one another and that being part of tight relationships with other democracies and being forced to negotiate things together and watching closely what one another does solidifies democracy at home.

And there's an example of that. For many, many years, we always thought of the United States and its involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Alliance as being this kind of act of American generosity. We support democracy around the world, we support it in Europe and so on.

In retrospect, looking back now over the Cold War with some advantage of time, it's pretty clear that America's involvement and its sense of itself as the leader of the West, or rather the leader of the Democratic world, also solidified democracy at home. It created this kind of civic religion around democracy that it's something we need to protect. This is what our foreign policy's based on. This is who we are, this is our identity as a nation. This is what we're projecting around the world.

That was really important for keeping Americans together and blocking the spread of this kind of, the politics of identity in the United States, that what matters is not that I'm American and I share this set of values, but that I'm a white American or I'm a black American, and therefore I have a different set of views. The alliances of democracies, these international organizations that do still function in Europe, I think will help Europeans over the long term, even when they seem to stumble a lot from day to day.

Ian Bremmer:

What do Americans and Europeans least understand about each other, that if they got to a better degree they'd be able, these inter-linkages would be stronger?

Anne Applebaum:

I'm not sure it's a question of understanding. I think it would help if we knew more about one another's political systems. I'm always struck by how rarely Americans understand, for example, how proportional representation works and how politics functions differently in countries where there's a need to create a consensus where there's not a majoritarian system where one party rules.

And that's because often Americans assume that by democracy, by definition is American democracy, and we have the best of all possible systems, and we have more trouble dealing with countries that work and think in a different way. Their democracy operates in a different way. So maybe understanding better that there are different kinds of democracy.

I do think it's in a lot of ways, we all still have much more in common than we usually think. We still share very basic values. We share the belief and rule of law, for example, which sounds very obvious. But I mean, given that we are rule of law societies and increasingly we are in competition with countries with Russia and with China, which are not rule of law societies, which are ruled by law societies where law is what the ruler of the moment says it is, we're going to find, I think the need to stick together and work together a lot more closely than we have done in the coming decades.

Ian Bremmer:

Playing off of that, how much does it matter that the soon to be largest economy in the world that thus far at least seems to be succeeding in terms of economic and political stability with a very different model is China, for the arguments that you're making?

Anne Applebaum:

Enormously important. In the long list of reasons why people are disillusioned with democracy, not just in the United States, but in other places, is that there is now a successful counter model. The fact that there is now a Chinese system which can at least point to this record of continuous growth, and which looks at least for the moment, very stable offers, I mean, and particularly, it's a model for developing countries and who seek similar growth rates.

But it's even a challenge to Democrats in stable democracies like the United States and in Western Europe simply because of its unquestioned success. I mean, there's another aspect of this that we haven't touched on yet, which is, and this is less China and more Russia, but the degree to which the big autocracies, and you can maybe throw Iran in there as well now see it as part of their foreign policy, the need to undermine Western democracy.

And so Russia has a, I mean, it's not even secret anymore. I mean, it uses disinformation, it uses corruption, it uses business deals, it uses funding for radical political parties tailored to particular countries, whether it's support for Catalan separatism or the German far right.

Ian Bremmer:

Or Brexit, yeah.

Anne Applebaum:

Or Brexit. It looks for whatever are the breaks or disagreements in any given country, and then seeks to deepen those breaks. And that is a, I can't quantify how important that is, and it sort of matters more in some countries and less in others.

I mean, I think it matters a lot actually in Eastern Europe and one or might even matter a lot in Italy, but there are now active forces seeking to undermine democracy from within. And they are, I don't want to say that they're the only thing that are important, but that also didn't exist 10 years ago.

The Chinese don't do that for the moment, although they do have anti-democratic language and they do have anti-democratic propaganda, which they do use around the world. I mean, they don't play the game yet of picking and choosing political parties inside our systems, but they might eventually get there.

Ian Bremmer:

I mean, there certainly is this feeling of promoting moral equivalence amongst systems. And in the case of the Russians and Iranians leaning into that and helping the process along as it were.

Anne Applebaum:

Yeah, no, no. I mean, the Russian argument is even a little more subtle. I mean, the argument of the Putin regime to its citizens is, okay, we're corrupt, but look how corrupt they are. They're just as corrupt as we are. Things are just as unfair over there.

And everything, believe me, everything that goes wrong inside the United States or in Scandinavia or in Southern Europe is immediately beamed back to Russians in the form of state propaganda. And whether it was the attack on the Capitol or whether it's problems absorbing immigrants, whatever is the thing that doesn't work, it's shown on Russian television. So it's used, so the Russians use it in both directions.

Ian Bremmer:

And that's increasingly equivalent with Chinese state media as well.

Anne Applebaum:

Yes. And here's the paradox actually, and this gets us to a more interesting point, which is that even inside those systems which both look actually pretty stable for the moment, the appeal of democracy and the kind of siren call of rule of law and the attractiveness even of Europe that we think is going so badly and it's all falling apart, even that is still strong enough that the governments in those countries feel the constant need to denigrate it to their own people.

They are afraid of the appeal of these systems. And maybe their right to be afraid. I mean, we've seen huge demonstrations in Minsk, in Moscow, actually all over Russia, not to mention Hong Kong, and those were pro-democracy demonstrations. So even in places where autocracy is the strongest and apparently more successful, this appeal of democracy continues. I mean, and that's why I think talking in terms of inevitable decline or pessimism is a mistake.

Ian Bremmer:

I wanted to ask you about Navalny. What was your first thought when Navalny gets on that plane to go back to Moscow knowing surely what he faced? Just tell me both emotionally and intellectually how you immediately responded to that.

Anne Applebaum:

So first of all, just so that everyone watching and listening knows. When Navalny was getting on the plane to go back to Russia, not only did he know he would be arrested, he also knew that he was about to publish a two-hour-long documentary accusing Putin personally of massive corruption. It appeared as he was landing in Moscow.

It went online. And it immediately had tens of millions of viewers. I mean, tens of millions of people have seen the video. And it's a long video, but it's very well done. I recommend everyone look at it. So his bravery wasn't just that he was returning, he was returning while making this statement about the regime. And it was an extraordinary act.

And it seems that what he was trying to do was show with his personal bravery. He was trying to give Russians some kind of hope for change, that they too could be brave, that it was possible to be brave, that there is something that can be done. One saw him on the plane and one wanted to shout, "Get off, go back. It's futile.

You can't, you're not going to achieve anything." But I think his goal was maybe not even to achieve something politically right now, but just to offer Russians something to think about into the future. It was something that we haven't seen a lot of in recent years, that kind of personal bravery. His decision, "I'm going to make my life into a metaphor, into a parable.

I'm going to do something that harms me personally, but it's going to be a lesson for Russians. I'm going to teach a generation of Russians how to be brave." I mean, not very many people would have the guts to do that or would want to do that. So you have to, whatever you think of him, and he's got plenty of critics, I mean, you just have to, you have to take your hat off and admire what he did.

Ian Bremmer:

It just seems like you're going up against state power in Russia as one individual in this environment is an almost inconceivable, it's more than Herculean as a task.

Anne Applebaum:

And they were joking about it. He and his wife were sitting together on the plane and telling jokes and taking pictures of themselves, and it seemed even to be genuine. I mean, there was this kind of fatalism coupled with courage that was very unusual.

Ian Bremmer:

Let's talk a little bit about the United States before we close. Do you think any lessons have been learned from this last election and specifically from the events culminating in January the sixth?

Anne Applebaum:

In a way, the events of January the sixth were useful because they gave us a picture to illustrate something that we'd seen before but hadn't been manifest that clearly. What was the attack on the Capitol? That wasn't Republicans attacking Democrats, that's not what was going on. What you saw was a group of people who were attacking the system itself.

They were attacking Congress and they were trying to prevent Congress from doing its constitutional duty, from naming and certifying the results of the election and declaring who the next president would be. And they went there with the intent of arresting or killing, we don't really know, the vice president, the speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

That's what the crowd was shouting for, and that's what the president was in, the then President Trump was encouraging them to do. And the existence of that group, which is by the way, not the whole Republican Party, and it's certainly not the whole conservative movement, but the existence of a anti-systemic group, a group of people who don't believe in the system.

Suddenly they were there, we could see them, and then afterwards we could measure support for them. In the days immediately after the events, there was a poll taken that showed, I believe it was 21 support, 21% of Americans supporting the attack on the Capitol. Maybe that number's gone down since then, as people understand more about it, even if it's 10%, even if it's 10%, this is a large number of people.

This is a large number of Americans who don't respect the neutral institutions of our democracy. It's not that they don't like their political opponents. This isn't just polarization. This is dislike of the institutions themselves. And that I hope will give our political leaders pause to consider whether some more dramatic changes don't need to be made in the way our democracy functions, maybe in the way our economy functions.

Ian Bremmer:

And I'm glad you took the conversation in that direction because when you talk about 10, 15, 20 percent of the population that actively supports sedition, insurrection, overthrow of the government, it can't just be about, "Oh, we hate these people. We have to defeat them." There also has to be questions about what's wrong with government? What's wrong with the political parties, with the leaders that engenders that kind of a reaction? And so I mean, when we talk specifically about the United States right now, how would you answer that question?

Anne Applebaum:

So it's a big question, and there's a range of answers ranging from these kind of technical sounding answers like, shouldn't we think about ranked choice voting? This is a form of voting that in which you don't just choose one or one out of two candidates, but instead you rank several. And that's a way of creating more consensual elections to looking at the operation of Congress.

Is it really efficient? Is it working the way it's supposed to work? Should we think twice about the filibuster? Should we think about making some bigger changes? Is the Senate, which is such an important organ, really representative? Rural and small town voters, have four or five times the amount of voting power in the Senate that urban voters do.

Should we admit Washington DC as a state and give urban voters a larger voice? Would that force the Republican Party, which right now has become this, which was, by the way, never the case historically, but has become more and more the party of rural America? Would that force them to craft messages that are more inclusive?

So there are a number of big, I think, and this is by the way, without even getting to constitutional change, which I'm guessing right now is impossible, but these are all big ideas that I think we're all now ready to hear. And then of course, there's another area of major reform that we haven't really touched on yet, which is thinking again about the internet and social media.

The internet isn't, as it exists now, does not reflect the values of democracy. The kind of debates and conversations that take place online aren't imbued with, the internet is not a place where the values of openness and transparency and personal responsibility are rewarded. There is a Chinese internet, and we know what that looks like, an authoritarian internet, and it's where the values of censorship and surveillance prevail.

But we don't have an answer to that yet. We don't have an internet that is where better kinds of conversations take place. And beginning to talk about internet and social media regulation, which can include by which I'm not talking about taking down content or restricting who can use Twitter.

I'm talking about thinking harder about the algorithms and who gets to design them and who gets to oversee them, that the algorithms that monitor and organize online conversation don't just favor anger and emotion and division, but also favor consensus and good conversation, which is something that can be measured.

Or should we be talking about public service or public interest, social media, other fora, other places where there could be debate that people could use in a way that made them less angry? I mean, going from those kinds of things all the way up to some of the antitrust ideas, not necessarily breaking up Facebook or Google.

I mean, I actually think having 12 different Facebooks each one where you've got lots of disinformation isn't really a solution to the problem. But thinking harder about how those big platforms control the, or limit the contributions of other kinds of organizations, online organizations and institutions. Anyway, that whole category of thinking, which we really haven't started yet.

Ian Bremmer:

No.

Anne Applebaum:

I mean, actually the one group that's gone the farthest is the European Union, which is beginning to formulate some legislation along these lines. But thinking about that, I think going in that direction would also help a lot too.

Ian Bremmer:

And of course, the idea that there's state television and NPR, but what do you have in the social media space that's actually public? And that is part of the issue. Right? I mean, the world moves very quickly. The tech companies are solving for some serious challenges, but they're not about civil society. They're about consumption and maximizing eyeballs and all the rest. This question that you bring up is not yet one that is being addressed in the public sector.

Anne Applebaum:

No. I mean, the question, the point is that their interests are not necessarily interests of democracy. And look, historically, big companies have often not had the interests of democracy at their core. And why should they? They are companies, their obligations are their shareholders, not to everybody. But that's why we've had regulation. That's why we have pollution regulation. That's why we look at food additives.

That's why we broke up big monopolies at the beginning of the 20th century because it wasn't in the public's interest for companies to behave that way. And there's absolutely no reason why we can't think of the social media platforms in that way too. How do we regulate them so that their actions, so that we're able to use what, the things that they produce that are good and useful, but so that their actions don't harm democracy? I mean, we haven't really had that national conversation yet.

Ian Bremmer:

And that was Anne Applebaum. Always wonderful to see you. Thanks so much for joining.

Anne Applebaum:

Thanks.

Ian Bremmer:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at GZEROmedia.com and sign up for our newsletter signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World podcast is brought to you by our found and sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Previous Page

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter