Centennial Speaker Series Session 2: Can Democracy Survive?

Tuesday, May 4, 2021
Leah Millis/REUTERS

Staff Writer, Atlantic; Author, Twilight of Democracy; CFR Member


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction; @RichardHaass

The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Anne Applebaum discusses the prospects for democracy in light of emerging challenges and alternatives.

This meeting is the second session in CFR’s new speaker series, The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas, which will feature some of today’s leading thinkers and tackle issues ​that will define this century. Our first session on April 13 featured Margaret MacMillan on “What Are the Lessons of History for Our Era?”  

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

This event series was also presented as a special podcast series, “Nine Questions for the World,” in celebration of CFR’s centennial. See the corresponding episode here.

HAASS: Well, thank you and welcome, one and all, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, which, as was stated, is on the record and, indeed, it will even be released as a podcast later in 2021.

I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and just to make sure everyone knows who we are, CFR is an independent nonpartisan membership organization. We’re also a think tank and a publisher.

We were founded in 1921 by a small group of men in the northeast and, today, a hundred years later, our membership is diverse and now includes over five thousand women and men all over the country and, in some cases, around the world, dedicated or what they have in common is their interest about foreign policy and international relations. Our mission is to inform the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and the world.

Today’s meeting is the second in our new series, The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas, which will commemorate CFR’s centennial and is set to feature some of today’s leading thinkers and tackle issues that will define the 21st century.

Today, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have Anne Applebaum address the question of democracy and whether it can survive for the next eighty years or even beyond, and writes regularly for The Atlantic, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who also teaches at Johns Hopkins. Her most recent book is called Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She’s also written about Stalin’s war on Ukraine; and interestingly, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book titled Gulag: A History; and most intriguingly, she’s the co-author of a cookbook, From a Polish Country House Kitchen.

Anne, welcome, and thank you for being with us today at the Council on Foreign Relations.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you so much for the invitation.

HAASS: So let’s set the table. Since you wrote a cookbook, let’s set a table. What is the definition that you believe most captures the word “democracy?”

APPLEBAUM: It’s really useful for you to start with that question because far too often, both in political shorthand and in our—in our way of talking about the world, we assume that democracy is about elections; countries that have elections are democracies.

More recently, it’s become clear that to have a real democracy, you need something a little bit more than elections. You also need a political system and a set of institutions that can ensure that those elections are fair, that every time they’re held they’re held on a kind of level playing field, and in order to ensure that level playing field you need a whole set of institutions that we refer to, roughly, as liberal institutions or the institutions of liberal democracy.

They include freedom of the press. They include an independent court system. Increasingly, it’s clear that they include an independent and apolitical bureaucracy. There have to be a few building blocks in place to ensure that elections are fair.

And when you have enough of those institutions in place, you’re a democracy. But I should say that nowadays it’s become clear that it’s a sliding scale. There are—there are countries that are—that are imperfect democracies or semi-democracies. There are countries that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.

There’s quite a lot of space in between the best democracies and the worst dictatorships, and those are filled in different ways by different country. But I think—I think a democracy requires elections. It requires the institutions that ensure the elections are fair. It requires the rule of law, which is a—which is equally fundamental.

And I should say one other thing it requires is a level of political consensus, so enough consensus so that the people who live in the democracy agree that when an election is held the winner is allowed to hold power and, conversely, when they lose an election, they are happy to—you know, they agree that that person has won. That’s another—that level of consensus, which is, you know, hard to define is also absolutely critical for a country to be a true democracy.

HAASS: So implicit in our conversation is that there is value in democracy. And, again, in my effort to make everything explicit at the outset, just why do you believe democracy is desirable and valuable?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, I think it’s been said more than once, I mean, usually this is attributed to Churchill or somebody else who said these—you know, who said these, you know, weighty and epigrammatic things, you know, that democracy is the worst political system except for all the others.

But in—the one thing that democracy has that no other form of politics has is a way of ensuring peaceful succession. And so democracy is the—is the one political system that’s flexible enough to incorporate change and to incorporate change of leadership and change of power. It’s also the one system that guarantees the most—the highest level of political rights and freedoms for the most people.

I mean, it’s not the only system that does that, but it’s the one that has—that’s the most—where those rights and freedoms are most explicitly declared and most—you know, and most usable. So yes, I do think it’s—you know, it’s morally a better system to live in. It’s a—democracies are not always but usually more fair. You know, not always, but usually more free. You know, not always but usually more peace loving.

HAASS: Do you also think democracy in any way is correlated with well-being, either economic or health or anything else? Do you—you know, is there a case for that?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, there’s a case for that. Then you have to go and define well-being. And whenever people have tried to do that, usually the countries at the top of the list are all democracies.

I mean, when you do happiness indexes or well-being indexes or prosperity indexes, the leaders are, invariably, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, in some order, followed more or less soon after that by, you know, Britain and Germany.

So I do believe there is—historically, there has been a correlation between democracy and prosperity in the broadest defined self and between democracy and well-being. So yes, that’s another—that’s, you know—and, I should say, not all democracies are wealthy and not all authoritarian states are poor. But more or less, yes, I think there’s a correlation.

HAASS: Let’s talk about what I think is one of the more controversial subjects, which is, is every country or every society a potential democracy? Is democracy, if you will, potentially, a universalist political system or is it particular in certain ways in terms of prerequisites and that aren’t always present, in some cases can’t always be present?

APPLEBAUM: So, I mean, I would—I would broaden that a little bit. I would say that every country is a potential democracy and every country is a potential dictatorship in that I think that imagining that any kind of political system is—are either inevitable or impossible is always to make a mistake.

You know, countries do change and societies do alter themselves, and they change sometimes in dramatic ways. And so I would never want to say that country X cannot be a democracy because history has dictated that that’s impossible. I just don’t believe in the inevitability of history.

Certainly, it’s the case that there are elements that make democracy work better. Having a more sophisticated and diverse civil society, for example. Having lots of different kinds of public and private institutions is an element that makes democracy easier.

Having a tradition of free press and free speech, having a tradition of religious tolerance or of tolerance of diverse opinions—these are things that make it easier to have democracies. You know, and some, you know, countries that don’t have that or are still acquiring that can find it more difficult to become democracies or to maintain democracies.

But no, but I don’t think there’s any—I don’t think there’s any absolute barrier to democracy anywhere.

HAASS: But all democracies—well, let me ask the question this way. Do all democracies before they become democracies have something in common? Are there—can one, basically, go almost down a checklist and say, if you have these things you’re much more likely to become a democracy or a successful democracy, and if you don’t have these things, essentially, the ball is not teed up to become one?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, I think—yeah, I think there—I think there are elements—I mean, I think there are elements or there are—there are forms of society. As I said, having a—having a diverse economy with lots of different kinds of company, having rule of law and an independent court system, some—which you have in some countries that aren’t democracies.

Those are, if not prerequisites, then things that are much more likely to make your democracy successful if you have them. But as I said, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for any country or culture to develop those things and also there are countries that have been—have been democracies—have been successful democracies that then moved towards dictatorship as well.

So I also don’t think there’s anything that guarantees that a living democracy will remain one, and, you know, the—you know, there’s always—there’s always the possible reversal or change in any country.

HAASS: I want to get to that in one minute, this question of backsliding. But before I do that, let’s talk about the Middle East.

When I look at the world, I can find democracies in much of the world. They’re few and far between in the Middle East. Is that a laboratory of explanation that there are certain things either present or missing that explain why, in particular, the Arab world has had such trouble moving in that direction? And we’re, what—we’re, roughly, a decade since the so-called Arab Spring, which, certainly, doesn’t look like it was much of a democratic spring.

APPLEBAUM: It was a democratic spring in that there was—there’s a part—it was an illustration of the fact that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with Arab dictatorship that was expressed in those political movements and that, I think, remains.

There’s even a new generation now of dissidents and would-be democrats from that part of the world who are trying to learn from the mistakes of the previous generation. At the time, I think I wrote in 2011 that it was a mistake to see the Arab Spring as a 1989 moment—in other words, a moment when lots of countries very quickly became democracies—and I thought it was more similar to 1848, which was a moment in Western European history when there were a series of uprisings across a number of autocracies, some of which ended badly, some of which ended with some changes, most of which, if you’d looked at them ten years later, would have seemed like failures but which, nevertheless, planted some seeds of democratic thinking in all of their societies.

And my guess is that will be the role that the Arab Spring is seen to have played in years from now. But all of those countries—I mean, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this and I would—you know, in fact, I’m as interested in hearing your view of it as I’m hearing my own. But, you know, of course, those countries lacked some elements, some, you know, political, social, and cultural elements that are—that are useful for democracies.

They lack—like I said, they lack traditions of religious tolerance. They lack traditions of pluralism. They lack—in many cases, they lack a free press or a tradition of a public sphere in which—in which a free press can exist. So yeah, they lack many things. But I don’t see that as some kind of inevitable argument against the idea that there would ever be any democracy in the Middle East.

You know, we still have partial democracies in that part of the world. There are still elections that are held. There are still—there are still elements of pluralism, you know, in Tunisia or in Iraq, in other places. So I’m—I wouldn’t write off the possibility of democracy there just as I wouldn’t write it off anywhere else.

HAASS: Let me ask you about two other—two other places before we move on. One is Russia. Why is democracy so rare or limited, I guess, is maybe a better word, in Russian history?

What is it about—and in some ways, it forces me to ask the question where does culture come in? Is there something called culture that also influences the ripeness of a society to become democratic?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, there is culture. But as I say, I think cultures also change and evolve, and sometimes they do so faster than you think. So, you know, I’m reluctant to see culture as some kind of immutable—you know, because Russia was a certain way in the 19th century it will always be like that. I’m not sure I believe that.

I mean, in Russia, you have a special case where you have a class of people who have really and truly captured the wealth and power of the country. I mean, you have to imagine a country in which the—you know, imagine the president of the United States who controls not just the White House but also Congress and the CIA and the FBI and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and Exxon and—you know, and General Motors and Amazon and Facebook, and he controls all of those institutions and, therefore, has control over all those levers of power and there’s no division of power inside the country at all.

And so you have this—you have such a strong centralization of power there that you have—that makes it very difficult for anything like democracy to flourish. And yet, even in Russia, you know, even there where there’s—where there’s no cultural tradition of civil society, where there’s no cultural tradition of pluralism, you still have an amazingly large group of people who say they want it and who are willing to go to prison for it and willing to protest about it and willing to try to bring it in even at lower levels, you know, in local elections and so on. So, you know, even Russia is not an immobile, you know, never changing, you know, autocratic monolith.

HAASS: So when you think the history of post—well, basically, a post-’89, post-’91 Soviet Union, the rise of Russia is written, historians will be able to identify critical moments where history could have played out a different way? That it wasn’t in any way baked into the cake? That, ultimately, you would end up with the kind of concentration of power you just described in Putin’s hands? That this was not an inevitable trajectory for what was the former Soviet Union?

APPLEBAUM: I don’t think anything is inevitable.


APPLEBAUM: And I fear the idea of inevitability. You know, the idea of inevitability is dangerous because it means that we abdicate responsibility. You know, if it’s inevitable that the United States will always be a democracy and then we don’t really have to do anything about it, right.

We don’t have to try to maintain it. We don’t have to play any role in politics. We can just leave politics to the experts over there somewhere and we can just—and move on with our lives. You know, or we can say, well, it’s inevitable that Russia will always be the way that it is and so we just accept that and move on. And, you know, history shows over and over again that nothing is inevitable and things change, and by taking responsibility for whatever society is that we live in and whatever the state of the world is that we live in, we make change possible.

HAASS: Do you find the case of China and Taiwan rather fascinating? That you have, if you will, side by side both Chinese cultures, fought a civil war that ended in ’49 but have gone wildly divergent ways? The mainland, if you will, the People’s Republic of China, if anything power is much more concentrated than it—than it really has been ever since the time of Mao, and then you have Taiwan that’s a relatively thriving democracy. Is that, in some ways—how would I put it—a case study of what you’ve just argued?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, absolutely. I mean, it’s one of several. You could also talk about Russia and Ukraine. I mean, there are other countries that share very—you know, that share a lot of cultural similarity and yet have developed different kinds of politics. I mean, but you’re right. I mean, and not—and it’s interesting because Taiwan, I would say, is more than just a thriving democracy.

Taiwan is now really at the cutting edge of thinking about democracy in a lot of ways. A lot of the most interesting experiments with democracy and—for example, the use of the internet to hold public debates, thinking about how to fight disinformation—a lot of that is happening in Taiwan and not by accident because the Taiwanese feel themselves constantly challenged by China because they share a language and culture and so much else with China.

So, you know, Taiwan is going to be a really, really interesting country to watch for a lot of reasons in the next several years and decades. But, I mean, but yes, and, of course, it’s proof that culture is not destiny.

HAASS: Talk about something you mentioned before, which is you were referring to American democracy. But let me broaden it for a moment before we focus in on America, which is that one should not assume the inevitability that existing democracies continue to stay democratic.

What makes a democracy prone to backsliding? What have we learned about either what triggers it or some series of events? What makes a democracy vulnerable to becoming something else?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, first of all, I should say, I think democracies are always vulnerable to becoming something else. You know, when the Founders of the United States wrote the American Constitution, if you look at what they were saying to one another and what they were thinking about, they were all talking about, you know—well, first of all, they were all reading the histories of ancient Greece and Rome and they were all talking about how democracies had fallen in the past, and they were thinking about how do we write a constitution and a set of laws that will protect us against the inevitable decline in republican virtue, the inevitable rise of demagogues, the inevitable appearance of groups of people who seek to take over the state and use it for their own benefit.

I mean, they were—they were thinking even then about what would cause democracy to fall. And I think we’ve—you know, in the United States, we’ve been really lucky, particularly since the Second World War, to live in an era when, you know, democracies in the form that, you know—well, democracy was spreading all over the world.

We felt ourselves to be at the vanguard of that. We were also the—you know, in addition to that, the world’s most prosperous country, the world’s most creative country, and we were—and that gave us this feeling. I said this dangerous feeling of democratic inevitability.

So we—you know, we had that moment of good luck. But most of the time, democracies are fragile and they can be undermined by—simply by ambitious leaders who, when they take power, decide to not play by the rules. They can be undermined by a loss of that consensus that I was talking about in the beginning, and that can happen because—for cultural reasons. It can happen for economic reasons.

You know, I mean, I do think, for example, the growth of—the growth of very large inequality is always dangerous for democracy because it makes people feel that they don’t share the same amount of power in the same state and, of course, the very, very wealthy have more power in any political system including in democracies. Although I don’t think that’s the only—I don’t think that’s the only lever of or the only source of danger either.

I also think that the—sometimes the speed of change by itself and the speed of economic change, demographic change, cultural change, sociological change, is dangerous for any political system because any system that makes people feel insecure or makes people feel that they’ve lost something or they’re missing something, or they—you know, anytime people begin to feel a sense of general insecurity, I think any political system is endangered by that.

And I think in the—you know, we’re living through this moment—I mean, I think we don’t even acknowledge the degree to which we are living in a moment of revolutionary change, and there are ways in which people feel that whole ways of life or ways of being or entire professions or things they remember from their childhood in a small town no longer exist, and people feel a kind of loss. You know, in this—in this immense period of change and revolution, we’ve lost something or something’s missing.

And I should say that they’re not wrong. Earlier ways of life, earlier forms of economic activity, have disappeared, and I think this gives people a sense of insecurity and this causes them to question the rules of the society that they live in and I think we’re living in a period like that right now.

I mean, you have to—you know, right now you have to say it is truly remarkable that we have a crisis of democracy in countries as diverse as the United States—you know, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, you know, Venezuela, Brazil. These are all countries that have really nothing to do with one another culturally or economically or historically. I mean, really, nothing. And yet, they’ve experienced very similar kinds of anti-democratic movements and—you know, and sentiments over the last several years.

And so you have to ask whether there isn’t something going on that’s more universal, that’s to do with the way our economies and maybe even our information ecosystems are changing that’s, you know, making people feel insecure and damaging democracy everywhere.

So I would be reluctant to point to—you know, Americans in particular always want to look at elements of our own history or our own, you know, whether it’s our racial history, our own particular story, as an explanation for what’s wrong in our country. But, actually, I think there’s something happening all over the world that’s worth paying attention to right now.

HAASS: OK. But if one were to take then what you just said and if you add it up, globalization, and a lot of people feel that they can’t control things, immigration pressures, demographic changes, the disappearance of many existing jobs because of productivity and increases in technology changes, this sounds to me—inequality—this sounds to me like an extraordinarily vulnerable period of democracy. And when you look at the—and it seems to me the statistics bear it out, that over the last—


HAASS: —fifteen years, if you had whatever color would be on the map there’d be less of it, or it would be—it would be a fainter shade of whatever color one associated with democracy. So this does seem to be a time of backsliding or recession or remission, whatever word you want to use, where democracy is in decline, which leads me to the question how do democracies then resist those trends?

How do they bounce back? And it’s, obviously, applicable among other countries to this one, that what is—what are the ingredients of democratic revival, if you will, resisting backsliding and reviving? What goes into that?

APPLEBAUM: So that’s a big subject and I—it’s hard to answer in a very general way because there are somewhat different answers in different countries. And I would say there are institutional answers. There are—in many cases, our democratic institutions, our voting systems, the way our parliaments are composed, the rules by which they worked are sometimes outdated and need rethinking, and that’s—you know, there’s a whole field of study and argument about what those rules are and what they should look like, and some of those arguments go on inside the United States, too.

There’s a second area that I would look at and that is to do with—that is to do with the internet and the way in which we speak to one another and the kinds of conversations that we have. You know, to be very—you know, very brief and crude about it, we all know what the authoritarian internet looks like because China has created it, and the authoritarian internet reflects the values of authoritarianism, right.

So there’s surveillance. There’s censorship. There’s control. You know, we—on the other hand, we democracies don’t have a counter to that in that we don’t have a democratic internet. We don’t have an internet that is suffused with the values of transparency and accountability and openness.

Instead, we have an internet that’s controlled by a very few very wealthy companies. So you could call it an oligarchy or, I don’t know, oligopolistic internet. And rethinking what the rules of the online space and online conversation are is one of the most important things that we can do, not just as the United States but as a group of democracies, you know, I think over the next decade. And that’s—again, that’s a long conversation. I do think it’s—I do think it’s possible and I think it could happen.

The third thing I would say is that, and maybe this is the most appropriate one for the Council on Foreign Relations, I do think—I do think that there’s merit in democratic cooperation. I think we underestimate the degree to which even in the United States the fact that the United States was seen by other people but also by itself, by Americans, as the leading democracy, you know, as the country that consolidated the other democracies, you know, as the country that was the standard bearer for democracy in the world.

I think that helped reinforce democracy at home in ways that we don’t always acknowledge or appreciate. It was one of the things that made people proud to be American. You know, look, we are—this is who we are. This is what we stand for. And the fact that we stood for that at home and we stood for it abroad or at least some of the time we stood for it abroad—I realize it was inconsistent and so on—but that that was a part of American foreign policy. It was something that shored up and helped democracy at home.

And I also believe that alliances with other democracies—you know, feeling ourselves to be part of a group or movement or a team—was also part of what shored up our democracies in a kind of—in a mutual way. I mean, you know, think about it. We now live in a world where autocracies cooperate in a very agile manner. You know, why hasn’t the Iranian regime fallen? You know, it’s very weak. It’s economically falling apart. It’s increasingly unpopular. There’s a—you know, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction.

One of the reasons is that it’s going to be shored up. You know, it is being shored up by the Russians and the Chinese. You can tell the same story about Venezuela. You can tell the same story about Cuba. You know, the—many autocracies now stick together, reinforce one another, keep one another going in various ways.

And democracies haven’t found an answer to that and they haven’t understood that a similar kind of solidarity and a similar kind of cooperation can increase the—even the—can help even the domestic politics inside their own camp.

So I would argue that, you know, for the U.S. to—if the U.S. itself wants to remain a democracy, it’s very important that it works with other democracies and towards a common goal of maintaining or spreading democracy in the world. I think it—I think that remains an important part of American domestic politics as well as foreign policy and I think that’s true of other countries as well.

HAASS: When you mentioned social media, I thought you were going to go in a different direction. You talked about the oligopoly of the couple of big companies. I would have thought the argument and the relationship with democracy was just the opposite. Yes, they may be controlled by a few but they—I grew up in an era of what you might call broadcasting. I would argue now we live in an era of narrowcasting. You’ve got more cable stations that I can count. You’ve got more AM/FM and satellite radio stations that I can count. And then social media, essentially, allows each of us to become, if you will, a broadcaster.

So what we have are all these forms of our media are contributing to centrifugal tendencies as opposed to the old days when I grew up—I won’t say we grew up because I’m older than you—that there were three broadcasts to watch and there were three networks, essentially, to watch.

So what’s happened is the technology has, essentially, created, again, these forces that rather than bringing societies together, rather than having shared experiences, essentially, each of us goes into our own echo chamber and, as a result, it’s much more difficult because of the new technologies to fashion a collective way of thinking.

APPLEBAUM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, you asked me what was the cure for this problem, and my cure has partly to do with the reform of social media and the changing of the rules of the internet. And that’s why, because—you know, because of the—you know, the extreme fragmentation of conversations and the—and in particular political conversations, which, you know, as we know, it’s now possible for all of us to live in completely separate echo chambers and alternate realities and that, ultimately, makes democracy impossible.

I mean, how can you—how can you debate, you know, the issues of the day if you don’t agree what the issues of the day are? How can you all participate in the same democratic institutions if some people in society, you know, are convinced that those institutions are fake or false, which is increasingly a problem in the United States?

But, you know, thinking about how to solve that and thinking about creative ways in which we could use the internet to solve that is something that I hope is going to begin to happen, and there are countries where it’s happening. Taiwan, which we just spoke about, is one of them.

I mean, here’s a—here’s a possible answer for you. I mean, what if there was something like a public service social media? What if there were alternate forms of social media, which, instead of relying on advertising and relying on algorithms that increase—you know, increase emotion and increase division and benefit from anger and hatred and excitement, what if there was then—you know, what if there were algorithms that created more consensus or brought people together?

What if we began thinking about how to create other—you know, these alternate forms of conversation, ways of talking to each other and what if those were—what if those were only—you know, what if we had better access to the algorithms that are being used by Facebook and by others? What if we were able to control them or moderate them or, you know, or play some role in them as civil society?

I mean, these are—you know, we’re all—we’re at the very beginning of thinking about some of these things. But that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about having democratic values be part—you know, be, you know, infused into the internet. Instead of the internet being a place of anger and division and polarization maybe it could be something else.

But, again, this requires a lot more—a lot more thought and effort on the part of both, you know, politicians and people in the world of technology. But yeah, I mean, but you—but no, but you’ve put your finger on one of the main sources of democratic decline is this—is this division caused by change in the nature of information.

HAASS: Let me ask two last questions, and then I will—we’ll move on. One is the classroom. Imagine we said we agree with you; democracy’s permanence should not be taken for granted. We’re worried about some of the trends in this country, and if you’re not worried you’re not paying attention, given January 6 and much more. And we wanted to revamp our education system in order to become more democracy supportive. What would we do?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, look, I would start at the very beginning. I mean, I would—I would be teaching schoolchildren, you know, from first grade onward about the nature of our institutions, what were the ideas behind them, how were they created, what are they for.

You know, I know that it is also important to teach children about how they failed at different times and how they were repaired over the course of history. But making sure that they understand why they were put there in the first place is missing from a lot of—you know, from a lot of educational programs.

But I wouldn’t think of this just as a problem of school. You know, I think civic education is something that can be part of, you know, adult life as well. You know, we do all kinds of public education campaigns, you know, whether it’s about not smoking or wearing seatbelts, you know, public education about how your local elections work or what’s at stake in the debate about the local budget, finding ways to involve people more in civic life, you know, at the lowest levels as well as the national level.

I think all of that is—you know, that’s something that—I mean, if you’re asking me in an ideal world what would I do if I had, you know, $100 million to spend on civic education, I would spend some of it there, too.

HAASS: Public—PSAs for democracy.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you.

HAASS: What is the principal alternative? When one looks at—there’s been backsliding. A lot of countries are—the arrows are going in the wrong direction. When you think about the alternatives to democracy, it’s almost the—very different, say, than what Frank Fukuyama was articulating thirty years ago.

What is out there as the principal rival now? Is it some version of a China technocratic state where, basically, people create a bargain and will take less political freedom in exchange for security, broadly defined? What is—what do you see as out there if democracy doesn’t thrive? What’s the image?

APPLEBAUM: Realistically, in most states the alternative is not China but is something more like Russia or something more like Hungary, in which you have a kind of, you know, autocratic kleptocracy in which you have power centralized either by a person and a group of people but usually it’s more—usually it’s a political party.

So the real alternative and the one that is, you know, really threatened in a lot of places, the alternative is the one-party state. So a state where there is a group of political insiders who control all the levers of power. And sometimes this is a—seems to be a more efficient kind of state. I mean, sometimes a one-party state, you know, finds it easier to take decisions because there’s no pluralism and so there’s no competition. There’s no need to come to compromises.

More often, it leads to very high levels of corruption and also to the kind of secretiveness that led to the release—you know, the early days of the pandemic in China. You know, what happened in China in the first few days is that China tried to suppress news of the pandemic, you know, actually punish the doctors who were beginning to speak about it, and thanks to that, the pandemic spread around Wuhan and eventually around the world.

So, you know, so very often these systems that seem to be efficient or seem to be able to make more rapid decisions or seem to give the levers of power to just a few people or sometimes even one person, that leaves them open to all kinds of—you know, they make all kinds of errors for other reasons.

But, nevertheless, they pose themselves as the realistic alternative. And usually when democracies backslide or when they slide in the direction of illiberalism, this is the phase that they go through. I mean, if you look at a Venezuela or you look at a Turkey or you look at a Hungary, these are, essentially, former democracies in which one political party ceased to believe in democracy, accorded to itself, usually through some populist rhetoric, you know, that we are the true party. We represent the true people. There is no real alternative to us. They accord to themselves the right of permanent rule, and then once they take power they alter the institutions in order to maintain—you know, to keep themselves in power.

And that’s, realistically, the most common alternative around the world and that can have a—it can have different ideological forms. I mean, it can call itself left wing or right wing. It can be Bolivarian socialist or it can be—you know, or it can be a right-wing nationalist party. But, essentially, that’s the most common alternative that we see out there, and there are a lot of people who find that alternative appealing even within modern democracies.

Sometimes they find it appealing because they think they would be running that party. Sometimes they find it appealing because they think then they could achieve a kind of unity or a kind of, you know, homogeneity that they’re unable to achieve in pluralistic democracies. You know, and sometimes they see because that would be an opportunity for theft and corruption on, you know, a whole different scale.

But there are—that’s the real alternative. That’s the realistic alternative because that’s what’s out there and that’s the main competition right now for liberal democracy.

HAASS: And as we’ve seen in this country and in other countries, there’s a significant slice of the society that, in certain circumstances, is more than prepared to support just that—

APPLEBAUM: Absolutely. Absolutely. No. No. It’s an appealing form of government for a lot of different reasons to people and, I guess, sometimes it’s appealing because people think that would be—you know, that’s the real country. That’s the people—those are the people who represent me and, you know, if they win, then I can eliminate these ideas that I disagree with and I can get rid of these people that I don’t like.

And some people—some people simply prefer the simplicity of unity—you know, the end of this endless, you know, raucous, you know, disorganized democratic debate and then we could have just one set of political leaders, one party, you know, one state, and there is a—there is a very deep appeal to that.

HAASS: Anne, thank you for this tour that is at once fascinating and also, to some extent, disturbing and worrying. But I take to heart your point that nothing is permanent and nothing is necessarily inevitable, and there’s good news and bad news—


HAASS: —in your message.

Let me now invite members to join the conversation with their questions and, again, this is—remains on the—on the record, and I think Kayla is going to walk you through the—how to do this.

MODERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Jim Himes.

Q: Hi. It’s Jim Himes, congressional representative from Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District.

Anne, thank you for that. Richard, thank you. Thank you to the Council. And those of us who had a very personal experience on January 6 have spent a lot of time unpacking what happened, and your analysis of social and economic change rings true. That’s, obviously, not something that will be addressed very, very quickly. And your solutions, social media, immensely, immensely complicated for a society that values freedom of expression and has the First Amendment.

So my question is, drill in a bit, if you would, on that. Well, not on social media, but drill in a bit on what beyond—you discuss civics, but beyond those two things what, at one level, can the two parties—can the Democratic Party and the Republican Party be working on today to try to reverse the trends that led us to January 6? And then, more broadly, outside of the parties what, beyond civics education, can we be doing?

And in deference to Richard and the Council, are there lessons for the rest of the world in terms of what the two parties might be doing and what else we can be doing beyond what you’ve already spoken about?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, I somewhat feel that that’s a question for you. I mean, you are one of our elected representatives and, you know, this is what—this is something I’d like to hear from people like you what you think—what you think the answer to this is.

I mean, lessons from around the world for the U.S., if you look at societies that have been very divided before where you’ve had, you know, radically different visions of what the society is about, even when you’ve had violence, you know, let’s take, for example, Northern Ireland, you know, which is a place where you had some people who thought their country was Irish and some people who thought it was British, and there actually was no halfway. I mean, you couldn’t reconcile them.

One of the lessons is that the way you begin to overcome some of that—some of that polarization is by changing the subject; in other words, by—instead of, you know, intuitively, ultimately, we need to get together and talk about the things that divide us and then we’ll work out the—you know, we’ll come to some halfway solution, sometimes that’s actually not possible. There aren’t going to be halfway answers. Sometimes the—it’s best to change the subject and come up with joint projects. So what—OK, so we can’t talk about whether we’re British or Irish. What can we talk about? So maybe we can talk about, I don’t know, building a bridge over the local river or we can talk about building a local community center. I mean, and those are just—those are just sort of metaphors.

So what is it that Republicans and Democrats could do together? Are there—is there an infrastructure bill that we could write together and, you know, discuss together at town halls all over the country? Is there a—you know, is there a way we could jointly talk about health care? Maybe that’s a bad example, But, you know, are there—are there themes that we could share where neither one of us has a big cultural stake in the outcome or—but where we both agree that for the future of America, you know, we need to move forward on this topic?

I mean, maybe even there are ways in which foreign policy can do this. I mean, what I said and then when I was speaking a few minutes ago, you know, is there a—you know, can we jointly agree on policies towards, I don’t know, Europe and Venezuela and Russia and China, and can we work together on coming up with joint ways of speaking about that?

I mean, in other words, what we need is something that we share that we can all talk about together and that—you know, that doesn’t become immediately the subject of, you know, these really damaging and distracting culture wars. I know that’s incredibly difficult because we now have media that lives off culture wars.

I mean, that’s how they make their money. That’s how social media makes its money. That’s how, you know, cable news makes its money. And so finding the venues and the places to have conversations. I think that’s—I think that’s part of it. I mean, are there—are there events you could hold in your district that are bipartisan?

I mean, can you—can you imagine an event at which you and some local Republicans were able to appear on a stage together and talk about something in a civil way? I mean, are there—are there—you know, are there issues in your district that can be—that can be—that won’t immediately provoke, you know, a kind of Fox style or, you know, angry response? I mean, that’s the kind of thing I would start looking for.

I mean, my instinct is that, to some extent, at least some of the Biden administration and probably Biden himself are trying to do this. I don’t know whether it’s successful or unsuccessful, and it’s kind of early to say.

I mean, I think they were hoping that the vaccination program would be this joint project that we would all do together, blue states and red states and so on, and we would end the pandemic. And, of course, that’s hit a kind of political wall with huge numbers of Republicans refusing to take the vaccine for political reasons is what it seems to me. But maybe that’s a—maybe there’s—that’s an area for joint work as well.

Maybe there’s a Republican-Democrat effort that can seek to jointly overcome vaccine hesitancy by working with church leaders and business leaders. I mean, I would—that’s the—that’s the kind of direction I would go if the goal is to end polarization and to increase people’s trust in the political system.

HAASS: Northern Ireland, by the way, also underscores just how hard that is when people have our—do not have a common confidence about the future and have not—never been able to come up with a common view of the past. These are—these are fault lines which can, almost like earthquake zones, come out at any moment. Indeed, we may—

APPLEBAUM: Absolutely, and we have that in our country, too. Yes.

HAASS: Yeah, and we may be heading into another one because of Brexit in Northern Ireland. We will—we’ll see.

On that happy note, Kayla—(laughter)—let’s raise—let’s raise another question.

MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Bob Rubin.

HAASS: Bob, there’s this thing called the mute button.

Q: There we go. I’m not a technological leader, as you know, Richard.

Anne, my question relates to the discussion we just had and it relates to another set of conversations you and I have been part of. Kissinger says that a democracy can’t succeed unless it believes in itself.

Do you think we’ve lost our sense of shared values, we’ve lost our sense of who we are, and we’ve lost that sense of communal perspective with respect to our values and what we are, that undermines our ability, as a consequence, to have an effective democracy and an effective government?

APPLEBAUM: You know, that’s a big question to which there’s—you know, there’s a one-word answer, which is yes. That’s the short answer. You know, you have to—we would probably have to break that down and ask whether it’s true of all parts of the country or only some, whether it’s true of the right or the left, or parts of the right or part of the left.

But yeah, I think—I think the loss of a sense of a shared project, and you and also the previous question, also—Richard Haass also mentioned the word future. This idea that we’ve lost this idea that we’re building towards a common future and that that future is brighter and better than the present is something that’s felt, you know, at a lot of levels and in a lot of different political contexts.

So rebuilding that, rebuilding, finding—you know, finding whether it’s lessons from American history that we can all accept or ideas from our constitutional project that we can all agree or still apply. Yeah, I do think—I do think that rebuilding the cultural project and rebuilding the sense of a shared future is very important. I mean, then, you know, how you do that is, you know—you know, we’ve just been talking about.

Interestingly, it relates to something that we were talking about during the earlier discussion, which is this question of whether there are cultural obstacles to democracy. I mean, are there—are there certain cultures that make democracy difficult or impossible?

And it’s true that one of them—one of the big obstacles to democracy in a lot of places is this kind of deep disagreement over the definition of the nation. You know, who are we? What’s our history? You know, what are our founding documents? What’s our main principle?

I mean, if you don’t have that, then you have—then it’s very difficult to have a consensual democracy. Then you have Northern Ireland, you know, or you have a Civil War America. And so yes, this is an absolutely—you know, this is, you know, at the same time both, you know, very vague and somewhat over obvious thing to say that we need a common set of goals, and at the same time quite profound. Yes, if you don’t have it, then you don’t have democracy.

HAASS: Thank you, Bob.


MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Nannerl Keohane.

Q: Hi. It’s great to hear your discussion of this crucial topic, Anne and Richard.

I wanted to ask about a slightly different dimension of a problem. Political theorists have always argued that equality is an essential component of a democracy, whether they think equality is good or bad, and, therefore, the real main problem facing democracies is the tendency to decline into oligarchy, where a few people get more and more power, more and more influence.

They’re not necessarily kleptocratic at all, and a lot of political scientists think that that’s happening in the U.S. today. Our dramatic socioeconomic inequality means that the political vote may be technically one person one vote, but the votes have very different weight. Some have influence. Some have none.

Campaign finance is one issue of this but there are many more. It’s our fundamental inequality in this country that may threaten democracy most of all. How would you react to that?

APPLEBAUM: So I think that is—you know, absolutely, that is one of our deepest problems and for exactly the reasons that you say, that there’s a feeling that many people have that our democracy is unfair, that some people have more to say than others. And I would say that this is something that’s happened in our history before.

I mean, if you look at the Progressive Era, if you look at the end of the 19th, early 20th century, that was another moment when there were a few people who had too much power and there were a series of reforms carried out, antitrust reforms and other kinds of reforms, that were designed to return some power and influence to small business and to—and to other people.

And so we—you know, as a nation, we’ve proven in the past that we are capable of overcoming that kind of inequality, and I think there are many lessons, actually, from that era for the present. Certainly, when we look at the tech companies, which now have outsized influence on the economy and on politics and all kinds of other things.

I would—I would be wary, though, of thinking that this is the only problem. You know, it’s very tempting for all of us to want to explain political failure by talking about economics, because economics is—you know, it seems like math. Well, if the problem is inequality, then we can do redistribution or we can have higher taxes or, you know, you can come up with some kind of economic formula that will solve it.

And I worry that—Bob Rubin was onto something when he suggested there might also be some cultural problems. There are now some deep disagreements about the nature of Americanness, about American history, and solving those or dealing with them or finding some way to reconcile them also has to be part of the solution.

I don’t think it’s a—I don’t think it’s a singly or only economic problem. Although, yes, you’re right. I mean, extremes of wealth make democracy impossible because they make people feel that however they vote the society remains unfair, and yes, that can’t—you know, as I said, we’ve had that before and we’ve dealt with it before.

HAASS: I would just sort of say I’m not sure I agree with that and that there’s questions, I think, about opportunity versus outcome there. And if—you know, yes, we have exacerbated inequality in this country and one question is, is that the cause or the reflection of the problem and the issue is as much that we don’t have anything remotely like equality of opportunity, and that if we focused on that we could, perhaps, do away with a lot of the friction in society, even though there still would be inequality of outcome.

APPLEBAUM: No, I agree that equality of opportunity is the—is the piece of it we need to focus on the most. I’m just questioning whether the fact of inequality is the only problem for democracy. I think there are—you know, there are others as well.

I would also say that because of—because of the—you know, because of the role that political funding plays in—particularly in congressional politics, you know, there is a way in which the wealthy have a larger say in political outcomes, and people feel that and know it, and I think that’s a—that remains a problem.

But, you know, yes, I agree that, ultimately, equality of opportunity and the—you know, the feeling that people are equally treated by the law and by the system, and that they are able to have a voice or be a participant in public life even if they’re not billionaires, I think, you know, that’s also important to maintaining this faith in the system and to maintaining that kind of consensus around democracy.

HAASS: Great. We probably have time for one or two more, Kayla.

MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Alexander Vershbow.

HAASS: Mr. Ambassador?

Q: Thanks very much. Thanks. Sandy Vershbow, former ambassador to Russia.

I wanted to ask, Anne, what’s your current thinking on exporting democracy? I mean, Putin thinks that we promote democracy as a form of regime change, promoting color revolutions, and he’s actively suppressing dissent, criminalizing the opposition. Do you think it’s still worth it to try to project our values, promote democracy to Russia, or should we concentrate on neighbors of Russia where we might have more prospects of success, Ukraine in particular?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, first of all, I really wish that we were as effective as Putin thinks we are and that we—you know, we’re able to achieve these results that he—because he often blames the U.S. for, you know, demonstrations and the existence of dissent in Russia that, you know, as far as I can tell, we have nothing to do with at all. But, sadly, we’re not anywhere near that effective.

I mean, look, my view of democracy, as I said before, is that unless we are—unless it’s a force and a philosophy and a set of values that are growing and unless we are able to stand behind it as a nation and as a—you know, and as an alliance or a set of alliances—you know, we have alliances in Europe and Asia and other parts of the world—and unless we’re pushing and promoting our values, then—you know, then the—then the autocracies who are aligned and who are working together and who are actively seeking to undermine our democracy inside our countries, then—you know, then they win.

I mean, I think there’s a—you know, we’ve been in a strange world for the last few years where we think we’re not in ideological competition with anybody but lots of other people are in ideological competition with us. And the Russian effort to fund and support extremists of the far left and the far right all over the democratic world, to use, you know, disinformation, you know, including promoting anti-vax rhetoric, you know, whatever they can do to unsettle and destabilize democracies, you know, the fact that they have done that with no—with no real pushback from us, you know, has been a kind of invitation for them to keep going.

No, I absolutely think that we should continue to stand up for those ideas and ideals in Russia, in China, you know, in Turkmenistan, you know, even in the hardest places, because it’s really only through standing up to those things and through working together with other democracies that we—that we are able to maintain our own systems as well.

I mean, I really do think there is—we now live in an era of ideological competition whether we want it or not. You know, I know that lots of people would prefer they’re not—this thing not to be happening. They would—either they prefer isolationism or they prefer some form of realism or they prefer to keep, you know, ideology and ideas out of foreign policy. You know, it should just be about arms deals or whatever. You don’t have a choice anymore. There isn’t—there is a(n) ideological competition. We’re in one with Russia, and if we’re not trying to win it then we’re losing.

HAASS: I would think also one of the most effective tools we have in that competition is the demonstration of the success of American democracy.


HAASS: It’s not so much this—it’s not so much the democracy programs we have. Those are useful. But I would actually think the most central instrument is what people see American democracy as delivering to its citizens.

APPLEBAUM: Of course. I mean, I agree with that completely.

HAASS: Well, then we’re going to end on a note of agreement.

Anne Applebaum, thank you.

For those of you who want more, and I would think that would be most if not all of you, again, I recommend you pick up or download a copy of Twilight of Democracy, Anne’s most recent book. You’ll be able to hear—read this conversation and see it on the member site of CFR, and several months down the road you’ll be able to hear it as part of a podcast series that will be drawn from the Centennial Series.

So with that, Anne, again, thank you not just for today but for your contributions to the—to the debate in this and other countries about this precious thing we call democracy, and let me thank all of our members and others for joining us here today.

APPLEBAUM: Let me thank you as well. I really appreciate this chance to talk to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve been a member for many years. I’m really grateful to you all for what you do in terms of education and the organization of conversations and debate. So thank you very much as well.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR


During Kenya’s state visit, the United States should work toward building a more resilient model of U.S.-Africa partnerships.



Ebrahim Raisi was more loyal to hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei than previous presidents, and whoever succeeds him is likely to be just as conservative.