Intro. [Recording date: August 21st, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is August 21st, 2020, and my guest is journalist and author, Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic. Among her many books is the Pulitzer Prize winning Gulag: A History, which I strongly recommend. Her latest book, and the subject of today's conversation is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Anne, welcome to EconTalk.
Anne Applebaum: Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: Your book is part memoir, part cultural, political, and historical analysis of the current moment. I would like you to start with a brief sketch of the history of the Conservative movement since the 1980s, that you've lived through--when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the faces of the Conservative Movement, a movement that was anti-Communist, that emphasized the rule of law, of free markets, and democracy. What changed?
Anne Applebaum: So, that movement, as you describe it--which by the way, had chapters and members outside of the United States and the United Kingdom--in Germany, in France, in Italy, and above all in Eastern Europe--that movement was always really a coalition. And there were people who were part of it for different reasons. And one of the things that held it together was anti-Communism. So, that the idea that the West stood for a particular kind of civilization, which was the opposite of Communist civilization, the opposite of totalitarianism. There was a set of ideas centered around freedom, but some people interpreted this as free markets, some people as political freedoms, some people as religious freedom, as opposed to the heavily regulated, state-dominated economies of the Eastern Bloc.
Looking back in retrospect, though, it's pretty clear that the reasons why people were part of that movement--that international conservative anti-Communist movement--the reasons were often very different. So, some people were part of it, because they were Realpolitik conservatives, or even Realpolitik centrists. So, in the United States, that included centrist Democrats. It included Republicans who were worried about the Soviet Union and its nuclear weapons and its threat to American allies in Europe and around the world.
It included people who were interested in democracy and human rights. Amnesty International was originally founded to fight for the rights of people living in the Soviet Union.
It also included Christians. People who were anti-Soviet or anti-Communist because communism was atheist, and they were motivated by Christianity, by religion, to oppose it.
One of the things that happened when Communism fell is some of the people who were inside that grouping began to realize they didn't have that much in common with the other people.
And I think this actually happened fairly early. It began to happen already in the 1990s, where people who had been sort of on the same side--in my book, I use the metaphor of parties. You know--going to the same parties. Seeing one another at the same events. People in that group began to already to drift apart.
I suspect the group was artificially kept together by 9/11, which seemed to pose a similar kind of threat to the West and to Western liberal democracy. But, over the last five, ten years, it has much more comprehensively fallen apart, as people who care about human rights and democracy have discovered that they don't necessarily have that much in common with people whose primary interest in foreign policy is Christianity.
And the--in different countries, this breakup has taken different forms. But, more generally, there's been a split between what you could describe as a kind of recognizable Burkean center-right, which remains devoted to state-instituted democratic institutions, to the rule of law, you know, and a much more radical right. Which isn't necessarily devoted to the democratic institutions and the rule of law. And which poses, describes itself as anti-immigration, sometimes anti-Islam, sometimes very much in favor of the state, and state interference in the economy, as for example the right in Poland and Hungary now are, and to some extent a part of the Trump alliance.
And, very often, against free trade, against markets, against globalization, against integration, international integration, and much more interested in state sovereignty than the Reagan- or Thatcher-era Right would have been.
You know, this breakup and this transformation hasn't been the same everywhere. You've got different nuances in different parts of the world. But, you can find some common trends.
And my book is not an attempt to say that, you know, all these changes were the same in every country, but it looks at some of the echoes and similarities, even between countries that seem as different as Poland and the United States.
Russ Roberts: And, there's been a large personal component for you , that you talk about in your book. Your book opens very powerfully with a party that, I can't remember, 20 or 30 years ago, a New Year's Eve party.
Anne Applebaum: 1999. Yes.
Russ Roberts: A New Year's Eve party. And, you write,
Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year's Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there.
And, I do think there is an enormously challenging and powerful personal component to this transition that you're talking about. Certainly in the United States, families have been split by the Trump Presidency. The first Thanksgiving of the Trump Presidency, I remember people talking about how they were going to deal with it, and the struggles they had.
But, for you, at a personal level, and your involvement in Poland, and England, and the United States, you felt this very strongly.
Anne Applebaum: Yeah, I felt it very strongly. As I said, I'm not at all unique. Lots of other people felt it, too. And, one of the reasons I wrote the book was it actually grew out of a conversation about that party with a friend of mine. And we were sort of laughing about who was there and who we wouldn't speak to anymore.
But the--you know, one forgets how much of politics is personal. You're involved in--even if you're not a politician, which I'm not, you would track people around you who agree with you. You feel like you're part of similar projects. I mean, I don't want to suggest that all of my friends agree with me about everything, or that they ever did.
But, there was a sense, in 1999, which is the year I had this millennium New Year's Eve party, there was a sense in which I certainly felt then that people that I knew were more or less on the same side, in the most general way. So, we were all in favor. This is a party that took place in Poland, at a house that my husband and I bought as a ruin and renovated. It was an old house. A 19th century house that had fallen apart. And there was a feeling--generally the house felt for us like a metaphor for what had happened to Poland. You know, we were renewing it. We were fixing it. Poland was returning to the fold. It was going to be part of Europe. It was going to be integrated. Most of the people who came to our party seemed like they would have agreed with that. And that includes the Americans and British guests, as well as the Poles. It really felt like an international project: The reintegration of Europe, the reconstruction of, you know, ties between different nations.
And it is true that 20 years later, some of the people who were there don't share that kind of vision anymore.
One or two of them have become really quite virulent anti-Semites. One of them is sort of Poland's most famous anti-Semite. He writes--I describe him in the book--it's not a secret--he writes about, openly, the damage that he thinks Jews are doing to Poland.
And, one of them has become a very close friend and former close friend of mine has become an insider in the Law and Justice Party, which is the far Right party that is now the ruling party in Poland, and which has, and whose kind of television propogandists have featured me as a sort of hate figure. They put me on television as someone who is trying to destroy and undermine Poland.
And, you know, part of the motivation for the book is to try and--my attempt to understand how this happened, and what motivates some of my former friends, not just in Poland, but in England, the United States, and elsewhere.
And I come up with a series of answers. This is not a political science tract, and I don't have a schematic explanation that applies to everybody.
But, there's a series of answers. Some are personal, some are political.
Most of them have to do with disappointment. So, whether it's disappointment in what happened to their society. So, you know, some people, disappointment in increasing secularization, for example. That Western societies have become more and more secular every year, or less Christian. Fewer people go to church. Some people feel disappointed by demographic change. They're angered by, whether it's immigration, or whether it's the change in the nature of the population. That's another source of disappointment. Fear of some kind of moral degeneracy: that we aren't what we used to be. Fear of some kind of loss of leadership: that the West was leading in the past, and now it's not, and that's because of some kind of degeneracy in our societies.
And then sometimes it's personal disappointment. So, there are a couple of examples that I write about of people who were resentful that the political changes that took place in the 1990s, in the first decade of the 2000s, weren't particularly good for them. They weren't doing well in their new societies, if it was Eastern Europe. Or, they weren't quite as successful as they wanted to be in the Conservative Parties, as they then existed in the United States and Great Britain.
And they saw that radical changes and different ideologies could possibly propel them to power.
And I write about several examples of this in the book: People who saw that the adoption of something radical could be a--could be personally useful to them.
And so, that's another theme of the book is the way resentment and in some cases anger at their milieu, or at their societies has propelled people to make really quite dramatic political changes.
Russ Roberts: I want to start--there's so much to talk about there. Let's start with the political. Certainly, in a time when religion is less prominent in people's lives and religious community is less prominent in people's lives, people--as David Foster Wallace said, and I like to quote him. 'Everyone worships.' It may not be God, but we worship other things. And it seems to me that as religion has receded somewhat in the West, people have turned to politics as a source of meaning, source of identity.
And, if people don't respect your identity, whether it's religious or political, it's hard to form community with them. And they naturally look for a tribal connection to people who are like them. And it seems to me we've shifted some of that. It's always been true, of course, that people have found political community. But it seems that's increasingly the case that it has a religious aspect. And by that, I mean, not necessarily prone to empirical tests. It's more a matter of faith. That it's an important part of our identity. It's part of how I see myself, the hat I wear politically is part of my garb.
And it seems that that's a big part, as these tectonic plates of political ideology have shifted as to what a Conservative means. And, we'll talk later, I hope, about how the Left has also had changes along similar lines. It's not surprising that the communities that we had--whether it's your party, your New Year's Eve party or just the people I have coffee with on a semi-regular basis--that that has changed.
Anne Applebaum: I really, I do agree with you. I think it's not only the disappearance of religion. It's also the disappearance of other kinds of communities.
People have been writing about the disappearance of civic organizations and civic institutions for some years now. But, I think we forgot that there's a political aspect to this, too. Even if you just look at European politics. What was Christian Democracy, which was this sort of main kind of Conservative movement in Europe over the last several decades?
It was based on organizations that weren't necessarily religious, but they were often close to the Church. They were sort of church tea-groups. Or in England there were this series of conservative associations that were, sometimes, famously ladies serving tea in the afternoon; and there would be conservative associations, meaning there were clubs for people.
And on the Left, what was social democracy based on in Europe? It was based on trade unions. Which were also real organizations that people were really part of, and had real meetings in real life, and gave people, I don't know, in England, again, working men's clubs, and institutions and things to be part of.
You know, as unions got weaker, as the Church got weaker, as these other kinds of conservative, countryside institutions got weaker, then the parties that had sprung from them also, I think, lost some of their base in real life. And they became much more theoretical, much more professional. It began to feel to people like politics was something that took place, you know, somewhere far away. It was something that specialized people dealt with. It wasn't something that you were necessarily involved in.
And that was--it was really, that professionalization of politics meant that there was a gap opened up. And, as people were no longer members of trade unions, as they were no longer going to church, they began to look for alternative communities.
And, one of the arguments in the book is that one of the places in which they found these new communities was on the Internet. And, there were, and particularly over the last decade, there have been, sort of, political entrepreneurs who have been learning how--for better and for worse, by the way, I should say. This is a neutral statement--who have been learning how to gather, and organize and pull together people online. And to give them that sense of identity and community that they weren't getting in other places.
And one of the reasons politics has been so profoundly, you know, shaken by this change is that the new communities that people are part of online, and that, you know, are now are part of their identity, are not necessarily the same as the old ones. And they don't fit neatly into Right, Left, or Republican, Democrat, or Christian Democrat, Social Democrat boxes.
And, so, that's how you have the emergence of new parties and new movements, both on the far Right and the far Left.
The Greens in Europe are another phenomenon. The Green movements in some countries have suddenly become, you know, hugely popular. These are, I think reflective of exactly what you're talking about. This shift. People searching to be part of something, something that gives them an identity and a sense of community, and which they are often now finding in politics, and particularly often in online politics.
Russ Roberts: As you point out, and others have as well, the invention of the printing press, radio, those two communication innovations had tumultuous results that today we don't think about, because it was long ago, and we're thinking about other things. And we think, radio. What's radio? It's just some fun thing you have in your car. Maybe it's dead, more or less, in many ways. And, the printing press--yeah, people had more books. But, they also brought enormous political changes.
Anne Applebaum: Absolutely. Every time there's been a major change in the way in which people get and process information, there has been a political revolution that followed.
Famously, in the case of the printing press, the printing press removed the monopoly that monasteries and religious communities had on the production of literature. It meant that anybody could produce literature, and had all kinds of spectacular benefits--the spread of literacy, and knowledge, and so on.
But, one of the other effects was that it made possible the growth of Protestantism, which in turn, led to 100 years of terrible religious wars in Europe, which we've mostly forgotten. But, there were--in England, in Central Europe, in Germany, people murdered one another for decades in this conflict between Catholic and Protestant. And that was the dominant political issue, the dominant political competition in Europe for 100 years. And it was made possible, again, as I say, by the printing press.
Radio as well. Look, the first people who really understood radio, and how radical it was--you could get your voice into someone's house, and you didn't have to go through the means of a journalist. This was sort of Twitter of its time. You could speak to people directly.
The first people who really understood this were Hitler and Stalin, both of whom were fanatically interested in radio. Stalin so much so that--I wrote about this in the book I wrote called Iron Curtain, that was about the Stalinization of Eastern Europe--so, much so that when the Red Army arrived in Berlin, and in Warsaw, and Budapest in the first days after the Second World War, absolutely the first thing they did was set up radio stations, and made sure that the radio stations were run by reliable communists who were loyal to them. And that was their first thing they did, as a form of political insurance.
Stalin was obsessed with radio. And, of course, FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] was also a great user of radio, and somebody who also understood how to use radio as a response to that kind of propaganda as a unifier and so on with his famous Fireside Chats.
So, radio also changed the nature of politics when it was invented; and TV as well.
Russ Roberts: Sure. I'm thinking about Martin Gurri, guest on this program fairly recently talking about his older book, The Revolt of the Public. And, one of his themes, which I think was quite prescient--the book came out in 2014--one of his themes is that the Internet has democratized information, and is an enormous threat to the elites. And as the elites fall apart, which I see them doing all around me, the institutions are falling apart. Yuval Levin, Levin has written on that quite eloquently, as well. As they fall apart, it creates opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities in the political space for, ironically, authoritarians.
Anne Applebaum: And, for new elites. What we're talking about is replacing one elite with another. Let's be clear.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's also true. But, there's a certain irony in that all of these inventions that we're talking about--these communication innovations--promise the democratization of information. And, idealists and romantics everywhere see that as universally good.
And, yet, they are, at least at first, exploited heavily by anti-democratic forces to create a more authoritarian approach.
Your book is in many ways a warning bell that we are going down a dangerous path in the West, everywhere. Not just in one country. This is a worldwide phenomenon among democratic countries, that they are suddenly prone to becoming much less democratic. Is that a good summary of what you're doing?
Anne Applebaum: Yeah, that is certainly one of the themes of the book. I mean, one of the--I got very interested while I was writing it, and I write about her and the work of a behavioral psychologist called Karen Stenner, who has spent a lot of time pursuing something that has been vaguely kicking around in political philosophy for decades, which is the idea that there's such a thing as an authoritarian personality. Right.
And this is something Hannah Arendt wrote about in a very sort of unsystematic way. And then, some of her later followers tried to follow it up, and there were sort of Freudian attempts to establish whether there was such a thing, and so on.
Karen Stenner has done a lot of research that shows something that's a little bit more interesting and more flexible. Namely, that there's something like an authoritarian predisposition, by which she means that there are people who are bothered by certain kinds of changes. They don't like rapid change. They don't like rapid economic change. And they also don't like cacophony. So, they're bothered by the noise of argument, and the shouting at each other that people do online. And it leads them to kind of shut down and to prefer some simpler answers or some clearer explanation, or just the impulse is to shut out, or ignore, or crush everything that seems contradictory to what they believe in.
And very often, these are people who also have a--who miss some kind of traditionalism, who feel that something has been lost in rapid change, who are bothered by modernization; and of course who are bothered by demographic change.
And, she sort of identified people like this. And you can also see that there are now political movements and kind of political strategists who seek to appeal to that kind of person, and who are sending messages, and creating pictures, and creating videos that are aimed at them, to make them feel better.
So, there was a recent example. When the Trump Administration sent Federal troops to Portland, Oregon--again, this is regardless of what you think is happening in Portland. But, when those troops were sent there, photographs and video of that moment was immediately used, first on Fox News, but then in President Trump's reelection campaign material. And, the reason why is that that's an image that these people with an authoritarian predisposition want to see: 'Look, finally the government is cracking down. Finally, we're going to make these people shut up and go away. We're going to lock them up.'
And that impulse is sort of deep in a part of the population; and we now have people who are seeking to strengthen that impulse, to appeal to it, to assuage[?] it, and to kind of mold that into a political movement. And that is a proto-authoritarian movement.
And by the way, it is not accidental that there is a very similar kind of propaganda that gets used in Russia. Very similar, right now in Belarus. The photographs and pictures of chaos, disaster, all these things designed to bother and upset people, with the message that, 'I can fix it,' or, 'We can fix it,' or, 'Our party can shut all this down and shut everything up.' This kind of messaging is this proto-authoritarian messaging, which has been made possible by the nature of new media.
Russ Roberts: Arnold Kling, who I quote a lot on the program and his book Three Languages of Politics, talks about how the progressive lens--the left-leaning lens--is to see the world as divided between oppressor and oppressed; and the conservative lens is civilization versus barbarism.
And certainly, what's going on in Portland is a perfect example of that difference. The Left sees it as the oppressed rising up to take on the oppressor. The Right sees it as civilization under attack from barbarism, disorder, chaos, and so on.
But, I have to say--maybe I'm too simplistic, and I'm either very ignorant--well, I am ignorant of the literature on this authoritarian personality issue. But, it seems to me that there's a much simpler aspect of human nature that is at play here. And I'd like to get your reaction.
There are two tensions--there's a tension in our lives. We start off as children. Our parents protect us, and they control us. They are paternalistic, and maternalistic, by definition.
And then we reach adulthood. And we want to do what we want. But, we can't really leave behind our childhood.
And, it seems to me that our ideologies are a tension between those forces. We're afraid, often, in life. We look for our parents to protect us. But, we're adults. They can't protect us anymore, so we turn to a surrogate parent, or a dictator, or a president, whoever it is. It doesn't have to be authoritarian. But, they'll take care of us.
And so, fear, that comes from the nature of life and the uncertainty of life, is always exploited by politicians to take power. And, not necessarily to exploit us, but often, but often sold and marketed as, 'They will protect us.'
And of course, they'll protect other people from their mistakes. Not only do I want the authoritarian to protect me, but I'm happy to see them make sure that other people lead the lives they should be leading, whether it is morals, or values, or their own personal choices that might endanger them.
And so, it seems to me these kinds of--there's a tension between the child that wants to be taken care of, that longs to be taken care of. We never fully escape that. And at the same time, we want to be free to make our own choices, because we want to be adults. Politics, to some extent, is just the interplay between those two forces.
Anne Applebaum: So, I think--it's quoted in my book, and I'm not going to remember the exact wording of it--but there's a famous Isaiah Berlin quotation and sort of explication about the problem with human nature is that we want a lot of things that are contradictory, and we can't have all of them at the same time. And, politics is about negotiating between those things.
So, yes, I think you're right. Everybody wants security. Everybody wants freedom. Sometimes those come into conflict. You know: Everybody wants safety. You know, at the same time, everybody wants to be able to do what they want to do.
There's a tension between community and individualism. The balance can go too far one way or too far the other way. In either case, society can get out of wack. The sort of utopian totalitarians, utopian thinkers, have often posited that you can avoid these choices. In other words, you can come to some solution that harmonizes everything and gives everybody everything that they want.
But, the reality is that human beings want things that are incompatible, and will always be incompatible. And it's just that at different moments in the cycle of history or at different moments in politics, one desire or the other comes to dominate.
I mean, one of the things that I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, and it's very interesting actually how the pandemic has--people's attitudes sort of have altered in the past several months. But, at the very beginning, I noted that, historically, it's very often been the case that when people are very afraid of death--which they are during pandemics--it will very often give away freedom to the state, or to their rulers in a way that they would never even consider doing in other times.
And you saw this. I mean, you saw it in France, in Italy, and one or two other places. People adhere to really strict rules about who is allowed to leave the house. And you needed permission to go to the grocery store, and so on. And people agreed to it out of fear, and out of, you know, out of fear of death.
Later on in the pandemic, I think the mood shifted, and people became more critical and more skeptical about whether these measures were necessary, and so on. Not just in the United States, but in other places.
And also, it became clear that the best ways to deal with the pandemic were not simply restrictive. They were also to do with intelligent use of testing, and bureaucracy; intelligent, scientific communication. The governments that had good bureaucrats, and good advisors, and good communications, whether in Germany or in South Korea, were the ones that sort of pulled ahead of the pack and began doing better.
So, it wasn't just about restricting people's movements.
But, it was a really good example, and it was a good reminder that pandemics have often changed history, because they've changed the relationship between the individual and the state. And wars do that, too. So, moments when people are very afraid or can change their sense of balance. In other words, what they're willing to trade off. What freedom they're willing to give up. And, they will often do things that they wouldn't do in normal times.
But, so, I'm not disagreeing with your point. I think it's right. It's just that it's important to keep--the broader context is that we want a lot of different things at once.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about nationalism, which we've talked a little bit on the program with Jill Lepore and with Yoram Hazony. I've mentioned on the program before that one of the things I really enjoy about walking the TV series The Crown is that it grapples with the fact that England, in the aftermath of World War II, is not what it once was. As you point out, it's not so much that people long to have India back as a colony, but that--on the conservative side. But, that, what does it mean anymore? What is the role for England in the world, if any?
The United States is facing similar issues, both in foreign policy, obviously; but more importantly I think in just what our sense of national identity. As you say: How is a nation defined? Who gets to define it? Who are we?
I think that question, those questions are up for grabs in a way they haven't been before in many places. And, I don't know how nations go forward without that narrative--how they go forward peacefully.
I think we're--I'm increasingly worried about a civil war in the United States. I was talking to a prominent journalist yesterday who said what I've been feeling, having said that, which is, 'How'd we get here?' I feel like an idiot saying that. It sounds absurd. It sounds paranoid. But, I don't see either side in this coming election in the United States being very content with the outcome. The opposite side, the losing side. I could see it easily spiraling into violence.
But, I think that's more of a symptom of this underlying problem that who we are as a nation is no longer well-understood. There's no consensus. We're either irredeemably--
Anne Applebaum: I mean, look. This is how civil wars always begin. This is how our Civil War began--by people having a different definition of what is the nation. The Confederate States that seceded had a different idea of how they wanted society to be run. And they had a different vision of their future. Different from the rest of the Union. And I think we are at that pointed moment again where there are very deep differences in what kind of country it is.
I mean, the complicated thing now is that those differences don't follow the borders of any particular state. I mean, they are--they run through almost every society. Almost, even--there is a rural/urban split, but even that's more complicated. If you looked closely at any urban community, you would find people on both sides of the split. If you looked closely at most rural communities, you would find that, too.
All the attempts to stereotype and kind of categorize, I don't know--the red-blue division--are, by definition, over-simple. This idea that the white working class is responsible for the vote for Trump ignores the fact that lots of rich people voted for Trump, and that the poorest Americans didn't. So, you need a more sophisticated way of understand what it is that divides people.
But, look, I agree with you. I think violence is very possible. And so, yes, I agree with you. I can imagine--it's hard to see how you get a war. In other words, how you get organized armies fighting on both sides. I mean, that seems to be quite different from the 1860s. But, I can imagine political violence breaking out in the first week of November.
Russ Roberts: The main criticism I have or critique I have of your book is that you speak of the Right--which I find certainly as frightening as you do in Poland and Hungary, and some of its manifestations here in the United States and in England--but, you speak of the Right as if the people in that coalition we spoke about in the very beginning of our conversation, after the Cold War got bored and they had to find another cause.
And I think there's something to that. But, what I felt was missing from your book, and I want you to react to this now, if you can, is what's changed on the Left; and why the Right, why nationalism is on the rise, and why populism is on the rise.
And, part of that reason is that, on the Left, there is a move towards global community, one world. The idea that we should have international institutions, not national institutions. That Brussels is better than London, that the international criminal court is where we ought to make our judgements.
And I find that--and Yoram Hazony I think is very eloquent about this--that's also extremely dangerous. And I see the rise of nationalism as a response to that. What are your thoughts on that?
Anne Applebaum: There are two different things that people have said about the book. I mean, there are some people who think I didn't write enough about the--I don't know what you want to call it--cancel culture, or the sort of authoritarianism in left-wing academia, which is now turning up in newspapers, and in other parts of American public life.
And, I do acknowledge that that's true, and I have recently acknowledged it in other ways. I wrote three books about the dangers of Soviet Co mmunism, and how evil it was, and how Marxism led to mass deaths. So, believe me, I'm aware of the bad directions that the Left can go. I'm not naive about it.
What I do find problematic is the idea that the nutty issues in academia, and as I say to some extent in left-wing media, are somehow equivalent to the destruction of institutions and the destruction of politics that are coming from the Right. I am much more afraid of the authoritarian Right right now than I am of the authoritarian Left.
This question about international institutions, we would have to spend more time, and I would have to go through exactly what you mean. I don't think there's really anybody who says Brussels is better than London, or ever said that. The European Union is one of a number of institutions that exists because it improves the lives and the economic future and maybe even the political power of the people who live in Europe.
Europe is divided into 27 countries, depending on how you count. When they speak as one, they get better trade deals. When they speak as one, they can stand up to China, or Russia. When they're divided into 27 small countries, they can't. So, there are sort of reasons why the European Union is useful, and it's empowering for people who live in the nations of Europe, none of whom are being told they aren't allowed to be Belgian, or Italian, or Greek or, I don't know, or French.
So, it's not taking away anyone's nationality. It's providing them with--you know, most people have more than one identity. I'm capable of being American. I'm capable of being Polish. I have a Polish citizenship as well. I'm capable of being female. I'm capable of being, I don't know, a writer. I'm capable of having multiple identities. And I think it's not beyond human capacity to imagine that you could be both Italian and European, and you can feel loyalty to some European institutions and to some Italian institutions. They wouldn't be in conflict.
And so, the idea that everybody has to choose and that there's no need for that is unbelievably simplistic.
I mean, international institutions are more complicated. Funnily enough, I'm writing something about it right now. Some of them are valuable and useful. It's useful to have fora in the world for international discussion.
The WHO, for example--the World Health Organization, which has come under a huge amount of justified criticism recently--is also something that has, when it functions well, particularly when it's had in the past, when it's been dominated by the United States as opposed to China, has done incredible things for the world. Eliminating smallpox. Bringing medical technology to countries that don't have it.
And so, these are institutions that are useful and have important functions. And I just don't see that they need to harm our sense of pride in our nations and who we are.
I mean, you know, some people have given too much weight to the UN [United Nations], or they have been naive about what they think it can achieve.
But, other than, I don't know, maybe there's some disparate cranks in a few places who think that the UN is going to be the world government, but nobody in power anywhere does. So, I'm not worried about that.
So, these sort of so-called New Nationalists, they set up these kind of strawmen: that it's as if there is this international community that we need to defeat, because it's taking something away from us.
I mean, actually, most of these international institutions, most of their problem is not that they're too powerful. It's that they're too weak. They don't have sufficient money, or sufficient clout, or sufficient ability to do anything or achieve anything. UN in particular is one that has had less and less impact and less and less influence, particularly in recent years.
Russ Roberts: For me, it's a question of power, politics, and incentives, and accountability. So, the urge to broaden institutions to an international level, which is a human natural urge, because it's nice to think we're all one, is an illusion in my view. Because, you said something like: the EU [European Union] is good for all 27 countries. But, that's usually not going to be the case. In fact, we know that a lot of people resent the role that Germany has played in shaping European economic rules. They think it's not fair. They don't think it's balanced. There's--certainly the accountability of who gets to vote and decide is up in the air. I guess--
Anne Applebaum: So, the alternative would be that we didn't have a European Union, and then Germany would just decide by itself. What the European Union does is it tempers Germany's power by forcing Germany to agree rules with other countries.
Russ Roberts: Perhaps.
Anne Applebaum: So, the European Union controls Germany. This is a kind of Brexiteer fallacy. It is a grotesque misunderstanding of what the European Union is and how it works.
Russ Roberts: I just don't think it's easy to describe it as having a single goal. There's farmers versus non-farmers. There's lots of politics that are happening below the surface.
Anne Applebaum: Sure. And, there are elements of it that work better than others.
Russ Roberts: Why would we think--
Anne Applebaum: But, the main problem with most European institutions, with one or two exceptions, is not, as I say, it's not that they're too powerful. It's that they're too weak. That countries haven't given up their sovereignty, or they don't want to concede. They don't want to let decisions be made in Brussels. And, so Europe appears sometimes as incapable of deciding things, and that's because its members don't want it to decide.
Who runs Europe? Europe is run by the Prime Ministers of Europe. So, the European Council is the executive branch, and that is literally the council of the Prime Ministers. There is no law, there's no decision that is taken in Brussels that was not originally agreed upon there. Brussels is a reflection of the desires of the member states. That's all it is. It is nothing else.
Russ Roberts: But, don't you think that's like saying that when Trump bans, say, Muslim immigration, that, since that's the result of a democratic process and he won an election, it's somehow expressing the will of the United States? I don't even think it's a meaningful--it is a meaningless statement to say anything expresses "the will of the United States."
Yes, there is a process by which the European Union and other international organizations make their decisions. But, in what sense are they accountable?
Anne Applebaum: But, the European Union is the member states.
Russ Roberts: So, what?
Anne Applebaum: That's who it is.
Russ Roberts: Who are they accountable to?
Anne Applebaum: Their voters.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Anne Applebaum: Those are prime ministers--
Russ Roberts: And, as we push decision-making farther from the local level, the influence that you have, or I, or a farmer in France becomes smaller and smaller, and it becomes prone to--
Anne Applebaum: So, your--I don't know. Do you know how the European Union--so, you know that Europeans also elect a Parliament. They vote for people who represent them at a European Parliament in Brussels. So, it's not merely that they're represented through their leaders. They're also represented through members of the European Parliament. It's simply not true that they're cut out of the decision, or that they have no way to make a--
Russ Roberts: Because they have one vote?
Anne Applebaum: [crosstalk 00:51:26] have any influence.
Russ Roberts: They have one vote?
Anne Applebaum: Well, you only have one vote in any democracy.
Russ Roberts: Yes. And democracy--and, by the way, you're pushing me in a direction I don't want to go. And, I'm not going to go there. I'm not an anti-democrat. I think it's the only system we have.
But, I think it's really important for democracy to work well--that the incentives that are in place tend to be local. That they mobilize information. And, as decisions get further and further away from the voter, and as the amount of information that a voter is supposed to have to make a wise and thoughtful decision, the more likely they are to be taken advantage of. Doesn't make me an anti-democrat.
Anne Applebaum: No; I agree with that. I also agree with that. And that's one of the reasons why I think local media is so important and why local politics are so important.
But, there are some things, there are some kinds of decisions that need to be made, you know, at a broader level. We agree in the United States of America that some decisions should be taken in Washington, by people that we voted for. And that's no different from Europeans who agree that some decisions are taken by their leaders when they meet in Brussels, as part of a negotiation.
There's nothing undemocratic about it.
Russ Roberts: No, the question is what should those--
Anne Applebaum: You can argue that pieces of it don't work. But I mean, there are some problems that face the world that cannot be decided at the local level. I'm sorry, but climate change, we will not find a resolution to that in local politics. Flows of international trade cannot be regulated by local politics. Resistance to Russia and China cannot be done simply through local politics. So, there are some elements of our political lives that have to be taken at a higher level.
I mean, that's something that we agreed when we wrote the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century.
Russ Roberts: Of course I agree with you. The question is how broad ? And, which issues? Those are the two fundamental questions.
Anne Applebaum: Sure. And as we've discussed, these things are, we all have incompatible desires. We want politics to be local, but at the same time we need it to be international. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in one direction. Sometimes it swings too far in the other direction.
But, the idea that decisions taken at the level of the nation-state are always better than the ones taken at an international level or at a local level is simply incorrect. I mean, there's a different place for different kinds of conversations.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I agree with that. I think the question is what's the role of competition. And, decentralization, as much as possible, often fosters competition.
Anne Applebaum: Sure. Well, the European Union is one of the most important sources of competition in Europe. And, I think another thing that outsiders don't realize is that the European Union's anti-monopoly function, and its pushback against state subsidies for European companies that would make them uncompetitive is one of the most important roles it's had in making Europe a more competitive market. And that's something that you could not do if you had each country making its own decisions.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't mean to suggest there aren't benefits from making decisions at a higher level. Obviously, it's true in many cases. The question--I think the hard-to-face question is then which ones, and how are those decisions made.
Russ Roberts: What's clear from our conversation: I think I'm more worried about the Left than you are. I'm equally worried about the Right; we agree, especially the way it's manifesting itself in Eastern Europe.
Give me some grounds for where we ought to go. Some optimism, and where we ought to go. I don't have any reason to be optimistic. I see this informational landscape--now, it's true that the printing press and the radio, we eventually figured out how to cope with them; and I think on net they've been pretty great, if you didn't die in the 100 Years War, and you didn't live under Stalin or Hitler.
But, we'll figure this out, maybe, this Internet thing and social media, so that it's less destructive. We'll develop--may be regulations, maybe it'll be norms.
In the short-run, though, I don't see this ending well. I see the use of the Internet right now to be extremely destructive. I think the media is in total disarray. Journalism is in disarray. The journalists I follow on Twitter are openly advocates for various political positions. We're going back to the 1790s or so, when that's the way American media was.
How are we going to get out of this? How are we going to--I mean, I don't see it ending well, right now. Do you have any grounds for optimism?
Anne Applebaum: So, first of all, I should say that I think it's actually irresponsible to be pessimistic. Because, we owe it to our children, or to the younger generation not to be. You know, telling them that there's no future and everything is terrible and it always will be seems just unfair.
So, even though I am actually a natural pessimist--I mean, look, I write books about crimes, and mass, murders and tragedies; so there's a reason I was attracted to those subjects--I try hard now not to be all the time.
And I would say, actually, one of the sources of optimism is younger people, many of whom look at the sort of wasteland around them, and this, as you say, this very partisan political debate, and this deep polarization in all of our societies, actually. And they say, 'What's that about? Why do we have that? Can't we have more sensible politics?'
I mean, I know lots of younger people in their 20s with very moderate politics, who just will not fall for either the far Left or the far Right, because they see what damage both are doing.
So, I'd say that's one advantage.
And then, I think some of these problems are solvable. I mean, I think there are forms of regulation that could change the way the internet works. Again, if we had a White House that was interested in thinking about what the democratic internet should look like. So, as opposed to, we know now what the Chinese internet looks like, right? We know what an authoritarian internet looks like. It's fully controlled. But, we haven't really had the conversation about what we want our internet to look like, and how it can have rules that foster free speech without fostering extremism.
We've so far kind of farmed all those decisions out to the big social media platforms. But, at some point, I think it's going to be important for democracies to take those, begin to change the way those decisions are made, and have some of them made at the level of states--or indeed, dreaded international institutions.
And I think it's possible. I think there are a lot of ways in which our politics have become distorted by money. Famously in the United States, through the use of lobbying; but also these international flows of dark money through tax havens, and through the use of shell companies and anonymous companies.
All of that, you know, we created those. I mean, in the sense that those things exist because of the way our legal systems works. And we can end them as well.
We could stop the flow of dark money around the world tomorrow by changing the laws around them. And I think that would have also a really important impact on politics. You know, more generally, there are possibilities: The internet offers so many possibilities for more, for greater transparency around how money is used in politics, and how it distorts politics.
And, I'm hoping that this generation of clever younger people who understand these tools better than older people will begin to make some of that work.
I mean, there are--you know, at any moment in history, people have choices, and they can choose to try and keep working to try and make the world better, or they can choose to give up, or they can choose to become apathetic and nihilistic, or they can join the dark side. I mean, there are always choices available, and those choices exist now. We have to keep working on understanding what the better ones are.
Russ Roberts: I like to be optimistic. I'm just still struggling with it, I think.
Anne Applebaum: Sure. We all are.
Russ Roberts: I've watched--in our lifetime--I'm a little older than you--but, in our lifetime, we've seen increasing power accrued to the President. And, when it's your guy in office--I don't have a guy; I want to make that clear. But, when it's your guy--one person, your side's got the power--people will say, 'Yeah, go! Fix all this stuff. Don't pay attention to these democratic institutions. Use executive orders.' So, as that has increased, people always forget, somehow, that'Yeah, but then the other guy comes in,' or woman perhaps--this time; and says, 'Oh, yeah, that's horrible.'
And I feel we're moving increasingly to a winner-take-all situation, where, again, if you think the country's hanging in the balance, anything goes.
And the thing I love about your book that's so provocative is that it forces you to think about the nature of democracy. Obviously, democratically elected leaders feel democratic. But, if they don't act like democratic leaders--they act like authoritarians--we're heading down that dark path.
And I see this idea that somehow when our person is in the Office we've got to take everything we can--the lack of respect for the other side. I don't see that changing. I just see it getting worse. And I see the informational landscape--the Internet and social media--just ratcheting that up. I think this will be--well, it's going to be a weird election because of the pandemic. The campaign is going to be different, obviously.
But, I see the role of social media as deeply troubling. I love social media. There are many things I love about it. It's wonderful, educationally, in many ways.
But, it's just like the printing press: the downside in the short run is going to be kind of tough to deal with.
And, I don't have your optimism that, quote, "we can rein in" the excesses of, say, the Left or the Right. There's no "we." There's no one in charge to take care of that.
And I see both parties, instead of moving toward the center--which was the standard view of political life for decades--I see it moving each to the extremes. And when they get in office, they're going to please their base. So, that's my pessimism. I hope I'm wrong. You got anything optimistic to say to that?
Anne Applebaum: As I said, the only optimism I can offer you is that history is unpredictable, and you can be just as wrong predicting decline as you can be predicting a boom.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'll close with a James Buchanan quote I've maybe mentioned once before, which is the economist who said, 'When I look to the future, I'm a pessimist. When I look to the past, I'm an optimist.' And what he meant by that was: Sure, the future looks scary right now, but think how scary it looked in, say, 1933 in the United States, when unemployment was 25%. Fascism was on the rise in Europe. A World War was about to happen with mass murder, and maybe 100 million deaths overall over the next 50 years, or 20 years.
A horrific scenario that somehow it got better. So, perhaps through our optimism, your books, podcasts, and other things, we will head in a more civilized direction. We can hope so, I guess.
Anne Applebaum: I hope so, too.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Anne Applebaum. Her book is Twilight of Democracy. Anne, thanks for being part of EconTalk.