By Ennio Mos
An answer to why we should focus on the rise of authoritarian systems and the downwards spiralling of liberal democracies as the amount increases of politicians, journalists and intellectuals willing to influence society through conspiracies, political polarisation and nostalgia rather than democracy.
Today we touch upon a very relevant and interesting book for Euroculture students. Where politically engaged books sometimes might feel similar to your daily classes in political sciences that are part of our study, this book offers a beautiful addition full of personal experiences to the theories and systems that we are studying. Political structures such as national governments or the European Union are tremendously regulated, to the extent we might underestimate the influence of the people functioning at the top within these structures. As a historian and journalist with family members in politics, Anna Applebaum gives countless examples in her book of how she met politicians in official meetings and interviews, but also at house parties and in bars. Through these stories she explains how she witnessed a shift over the last couple of decades among the so called free-market liberals or Thatcherites or however they preferred to call themselves. Where democratic values used to be important among the followers of this political ideology, a change has occurred in countries like Poland, Hungary, Great Britain and the United States. Oversimplified ideas and sometimes plain lies about migration, climate change and economics have increased in popularity in these countries, but how is that possible?
Applebaum explains how in working liberal democracies people obtain their positions based on talent, skills and knowledge. Within the private sector, this is generally the case for the top positions within the big companies. In the public sector, this is the case for the high-ranking positions in the political system. However, in illiberal democracies the division of high-ranked positions is not based on skills or knowledge, but on support of the people who are already in power. If you are willing to tell the same story and offer your perpetual support for those who appoint you, the job is up for grabs. Applebaum illustrates this with the Polish politician Jacek Kaczyński, who did not have much success in his political career on spouting mostly black ‘PR’ (negative campaigns). He stated for a long time how the grandfather of Donald Tusk, Polish prime minister and later chairman of the European Council, had joined the Nazis during the Second World War. When Kaczyński was confronted by journalists about the fact that this was nonsense, he replied that ignorant farmers would believe it anyways. It was exactly this man who was appointed by his brother as the director of the state television Telewizja Polska in 2015.
Another example of the importance of support at the top is a Hungarian businessman who was asked by friends of Orbán to sell his company for a low price. After he refused, suddenly tax controls were introduced and an intimidation campaign was started that forced him to hire five bodyguards. In the end he sold his company and left the country. This illustrates how the Hungarian government tried and succeeded to create a business elite that supports them. Democracies do not become illiberal in one day – this is a process that starts with a few individuals and slowly spreads.
Nazism and fascism are ideologies that needed oppression and violence to keep their big lies about race and culture alive. In the 21st century polarising movements don’t always have fully developed ideologies, but they are based on semi-big lies. These semi-big lies do not need oppression or violence to remain important, only the support of intellectuals who are willing to propagate them via social media campaigns and marketing techniques. Examples of these semi-big lies include the accusation of Donald Trump that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and should therefore not be allowed to be president – a lie that was taken very seriously and was covered extensively in all the American media.
In Hungary, the billionaire George Soros was accused of trying to destroy Hungary by inundating the country with refugees. This was another lie that has a kernel of truth based on the comments Soros made about having a more humanitarian refugee system where Europe should help more asylum seekers from Syria. However, on many websites the conspiracy theory spread that Soros wanted to swap the white Christian population of Hungary with the non-white, Islamic population of Syria.
In Poland there are many conspiracy theories about the airplane crash of the president and many other politicians in 2010. Even though black box investigation has shown that it was the politicians themselves who pressured the pilots to land in very foggy conditions, many conspiracy theories about who or what was responsible for the crash spread. This was not only going on online, but even among other politicians who used it for political gain.
If you think about political lies, you of course think about Brexit – an example that Applebaum does not forget to discuss in her book. Boris Johnson repeatedly said that the National Health Service would have 350 million pound per week extra after Brexit, a made up number based on nothing. Also would Turkey be added as an EU member state if Brexit would not happen, a theory more bonkers than British politics itself one could say. In 2014 when Johnson was still the mayor of London, Applebaum met with Johnson who back then commented that nobody in Britain who is serious wants a Brexit, neither the business centres or the City.
But why would politicians like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg be interested in supporting these type of statements that are obviously untrue? Applebaum explains that the fear of change was the main reason that a revolution like Brexit was necessary to stop the political and cultural decay that was happening in Britain according to them. Everything was allowed from manipulating data to attack on the judiciary system to realise Brexit as long as that political revolution would be secured. All of these lies and conspiracy theories about migrants, politicians, the European Union and influential business people like George Soros or Bill Gates can only have impact when they remain influential thanks to the support of the media and other influencers and intellectuals.
Anne Applebaum is a historian and journalist who lives since 1988 in Poland but is spending much time in Washington and London where she works for American and British newspapers. Her 220-page book forms a very detailed and personal addition to the political developments of the last decades. The book has helped me personally notice the impact of lies and conspiracy theories in the political system. An interesting example was in September in the Dutch parliament, when one party leader, (Thierry Baudet), accused the minister of finance (Sigrid Kaag) of having studied at a British university where many spies used to be recruited. The entire coalition decided to walk outside the room to show their discontent with this conspiracy theory. Although party leader Thierry Baudet did not lie, his insinuation that a minister of finance could be a spy without having any proof is a prime example of why people lose trust in the democratic system. As democracy is a fluid state of being, we can all observe the positive and negative developments that our countries make in terms of democratic values. Applebaum gives many examples of how democracies can take a turn towards authoritarian regimes once skills, talent and knowledge are not the basis of selection; a development that we as Euroculture students should understand and recognize in order to prevent it from happening. If you are interested in politics, I can warmly recommend you pick up this small but insightful book.
Picture Credits: Google