Can Democracy Survive?

In the face of democratic backsliding around the world, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Applebaum and Richard Haass discuss what needs to happen for democracy to survive.

December 16, 2021 — 33:44 min
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Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations Full Bio

Episode Guests

Anne E. Applebaum

Staff Writer, Atlantic

Show Notes

About This Episode


Will democracy have to evolve to survive in the twenty-first century? Richard Haass sits down with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Applebaum to discuss this question and more on the second episode of Nine Questions for the World. What lessons can the United States learn from other democracies? And how alarmed should Americans be about democratic backsliding?  


This podcast series was originally presented as “The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas,” an event series in celebration of CFR’s centennial. This episode is based on a live event that took place on May 4, 2021.


See the corresponding video here.


Dig Deeper


From Anne Applebaum


The Bad Guys Are Winning,” Atlantic


How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire,” Atlantic


There are many ways for democracy to fail,” Washington Post


From CFR 


Elliott Abrams, “Reorganizing U.S. Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights” 


Stewart M. Patrick, “With the United States Backsliding, Who Will Defend Democracy in the World?


Yascha Mounk, “How Populism Has Proven Lethal in This Pandemic” 


Democracy Tested: The Global Democratic Recession, With Yascha Mounk,” The President’s Inbox


John Campbell and Nolan Quinn, “What’s Happening to Democracy in Africa?


Read More


Jill Lepore, “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died,” New Yorker


Robert Kagan, “Is Democracy in Decline? The Weight of Geopolitics,” Brookings Institution


Marc Rotenberg, “Democracy and the Internet,” New York Times


Watch and Listen

How democracies can win the war on reality,” Democracy Works, Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy



Hello. I’m Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is Nine Questions for the World, a special limited edition podcast series. 

In each episode, you’ll be hearing me in conversation with some of the best thinkers of our time, as we ask fundamental questions about the century to come.  

For those of you who don't know, the Council on Foreign Relations or CFR is an independent, non-partisan membership organization, dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. We're also a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution. 

Today’s episode features a conversation that occurred on May 4, 2021. I spoke with Ann Applebaum, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, historian, and professor. We talked about democracy or at times the lack of it. And we asked why we are seeing so much backsliding from Poland to Brazil, and even here in the United States.  Enjoy the conversation. 

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

Ann 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 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 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 countries that are imperfect democracies or semi-democracies. There are countries that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian. There is quite a lot of space in between the best democracies and the worst dictatorships. Those are filled in different ways by a different country. But I think a democracy requires elections. It requires the institutions that ensure the elections are fair. It requires the rule of law, 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 agree that that person has won. That level of consensus, which is 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. 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 weighty and epigrammatic things that, "Democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others." The one thing that democracy had is that no other form of politics has is a way of ensuring peaceful succession. And so, democracy 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 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 where those rights and freedom are most explicitly declared and most usable. So yes, I do think it's morally a better system to live in. Democracies are not always, but usually more fair, not always, but usually more free, not always, but usually more peace loving.

HAASS: Do you also think our democracy in any way is correlated with wellbeing, either economic or health or anything else? Is there a case for that?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, there is a case for that. Then you have to go and define wellbeing. 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 wellbeing indexes or prosperity indexes, the leaders are invariably Sweden, Norway and Finland in some order. Followed, more or less, soon after that by Britain and Germany. Historically, there has been a correlation between democracy and property in the broadest defined self, and between democracy and wellbeing. So yes, that's another. I should say, not all democracy are wealthy and not all authoritarian states are poor. But more or less, yes, I think there is 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 and in some cases can't always be present?

APPLEBAUM: So I mean, 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 either inevitable or impossible is always to make a mistake. 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 a tolerance of diverse opinions, these are things that make it easier to have democracies. Some countries that don't have that or are still acquiring that can find it more difficult to become democracies or to maintain democracies. But, I don't think there is any absolute barrier to democracy anywhere.

HAASS: Do all democracies, before they become democracies, have something in common? 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 think there are elements or there are forms of society, as I said, having a diverse economy with lots of different kinds of company, having rule of law and an independent court system, which you have in some countries that aren't democracies. Those are, if not prerequisites, than 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 democracies, have been successful democracies that then move towards dictatorship as well. So I also don't think there is anything that guarantees that a living democracy will remain one. There is 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? 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 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 is 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. 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 10 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 seemed to have played in years from now. But all of those countries, I'm sure I don't have to tell you this, in fact I'm as interested in hearing your view of this as I am hearing my own, but of course, those countries lack some elements, some political, social and cultural elements that are useful for democracies. They lack traditions of religious tolerance. They lack traditions of pluralism. In many cases, they lack a free press or a tradition of a public sphere 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. We still have partial democracies in that part of the world. There’s still elections that are held. There’s still elements of pluralism in Tunisia or in Iraq, or in other places. 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 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? 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'd think. So 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 Russian, you have a special case where you have a class of people who have really and truly captured the wealth and power of a country. 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 General Motors and Amazon and Facebook. He controls all of those institutions, and therefore has control over all those levers of power and there is no division of power inside the country at all. 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, even there where there is no cultural tradition of civil society, where there is 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 in local elections and so on. So even Russia is not an immobile never changing autocratic monolith.

HAASS: When you think the history of post, well, basically of 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 describe 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. I fear the idea of inevitability. The idea of inevitability is dangerous because it means that we abdicate responsibility. If it's inevitable that the United States will always be a democracy, 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 move along with our lives. 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. History shows over and over again that nothing is inevitable and things change. 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 in wildly divergent ways. The mainland, if you will, the People's Republic of China, power is much more concentrated 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, a case study on what you've just argued?

APPLEBAUM: Absolutely. I mean, it's one of several. You could also talk about Russia and Ukraine. There are other countries that share a lot of cultural similarity, yet have developed different kinds of politics. I mean, but you're right. 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 a 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 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 yes, and of course, it's proof that culture is not destiny.

HAASS: Let’s 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. 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, 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. 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? They were thinking, even then, about what would cause democracy to fall. In the United States, we've been really lucky, particularly since the Second World War, to live in an era when democracies in the form that while democracy was spreading all over and we felt ourselves to be the vanguard of that. We were also, in addition to that, the world's most prosperous country and the world's most creative country. That gave us this feeling, I said, this dangerous feeling of democratic inevitability. We had that moment of good luck. But most of the time, democracies are fragile and they could be undermined 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. I mean, I do think, for example, 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 and the same status. And of course, the very, very wealthy have more power in any political system, but including in democracies. Although, I don't think that's the only lever, or the only source of danger either. I also think that 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, anytime people begin to feel a sense of general insecurity, I think any political system is endangered by that. I think we don't even acknowledge the degree to which we are living in a moment of revolutionary change. 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, in this immense period of change and revolution we've lost something or something is missing. I should say that they're not wrong. Earlier ways of life, earlier forms of economic activity have disappeared. I think this gives people a sense of insecurity and this causes them to question the rules of the society that they live in. I think we're living in a period like that right now. 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, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, 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 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 making people feel insecure and damaging democracy everywhere. Americans, in particular, always want to look at elements of our own history, or our own particular story as an explanation for what's wrong in our country. But actually, I think there is something happening all over the world that's worth paying attention to right now. 

HAASS: Okay, 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, immigrations pressures, demographic changes, the disappearance of many existing jobs because of productivity and increases in technology changes, inequality, this sounds to me like an extraordinary vulnerable period of democracy. It seems to me the statistics bear it out. That, over the last 15 years, if you had the whatever color would be on the map, there would be less of it, or it would be a faith or shade of whatever color one associated with democracy. 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 that it's obviously applicable among other countries to this one. What are the ingredients of democratic revival, if you will, of resisting, backsliding, and reviving? What goes into that?

APPLEBAUM: So that's a big subject. 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. In many cases, our democratic institutions, our voting systems, the way our parliaments are composed, the rules by which they work, are sometimes outdated and need rethinking and work. There is a whole field of study and argument about what those rules are and what they should look like. Some of those arguments go on inside the United States too. There is a second area that I would look at, and 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. To be very brief and crude about it, we all know what the authoritarian internet looks like, because China has created it. The authoritarian internet reflects the values of authoritarianism, right, so there is surveillance, there is censorship, there is control. 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 is controlled by a very few, very wealthy companies. So you can call it an oligarchic or, I don't know, oligopolistic internet. 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 group of democracies, I think over the next decade. Again, that's a long conversation. 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 that there is 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, as the country that consolidated the other democracies, 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. Look, this is who we are and this is what we stand for. 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 was something that shored up and helped democracy at home. I also believe that alliances with other democracies, feeling ourselves to be part of a group or movement or a team was also part of what shored up our democracies in a mutual way. Think about it, we now live in a world where autocracies cooperate in a very agile manner. Why hasn't the Iranian regime fallen? It's very weak. It's economically falling apart. It's increasingly unpopular. There is a lot of dissatisfaction. One of the reasons is that it's going to be shored up, it is being shored up, by the Russians and the Chinese. I mean, you can tell the same story about Venezuela. You can tell the same story about Cuba. Many autocracies now stick together, reinforce one another, keep one another going in various ways. 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 help even the domestic politics inside their own camp. If the US 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 that remains an important part of American domestic politics as well as foreign policy. 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 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 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.

HAASS: 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 eco chamber. 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 asked me what was the cure for this problem. My cure is partly to do with the reform of social media and the changing of the rules of the internet, and that's why, because of the extreme fragmentation of conversations, and in particular, political conversations, which as we know, it's now possible for all of us to live in completely separate eco chambers and alternate realities, and that ultimately makes democracy impossible. How can you debate 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 are convinced that those institutions are fake or false, which is increasingly a problem in the United States? Thinking about how to solve that and thinking about creative ways in which we could use the internet to solve that is something I that I hope is going to begin to happen. There are countries where it happened. Taiwan is, which we just spoke about, is one of them. Here is a possible answer for you, I mean, what if there were 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 emotion and increase division and benefit from anger and hatred and excitement, what if there were algorithms that made and created more consensus or brought people together? What if we began thinking about how to create these alternate forms of conversation, ways of talking to each other? 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 play some role in them as civil society? 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 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 thought and effort on the part of both politicians and people in the world of technology. But, you've put your finger on one of the main sources of democratic decline is this division caused by a change in the nature of information.

HAASS: Let me ask two last questions, and then I will move on, one is in the classroom. Imagine we said, we agree with you, democracy's permeance 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 6th 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 be teaching school children from first grade onward about the nature of our institutions, what were the ideas behind them, how were they created, what are they for. I know that it's 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 educational programs. But, I wouldn't think of this just as a problem of school. I think civic education is something that can be part of adult life as well. We do all kinds of public education campaigns, whether it's about not smoking or wearing seat belts, 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 the civic life at the lowest levels as where is the national level. I mean, if you're asking me in an ideal world what would I do if I had $100 million dollars to spend on civic education, I would spend some of it there too.

HAASS: Public service PSAs for democracy.

APPLEBAUM: Something like that.

HAASS: What is the principal alternative? There has been backsliding. A lot of countries, perhaps 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 30 years ago. What is out there as the principal rival now? Is it some version of the China technocratic state, where basically people create a bargain and will take less political freedom in exchange for security, and broadly defined? What do you see is 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 Hungry, in which you have a autocratic kleptocracy, in which you have power centralized either by a person and a group of people, but usually it's a political party. So the real alternative, and the one that is 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 it seems to be a more efficient kind of state. I mean, sometimes a one party state finds it easier to take decisions because there is no pluralism, and so there is no competition. There is no need to come to compromises. More often, it leads to very high levels of corruption, and also to the kind of secretiveness that lead to the early days in the pandemic in China. What happened in China in the first few days is that China tried to suppress news of the pandemic, and actually punished the doctors who were beginning to speak about it. And thanks to that, the pandemic spread around Wuhan and eventually around the world. 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 Hungry, these are essentially former democracies in which one political party ceased to believe in democracy, accord to itself, usually through some populist rhetoric 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, to keep themselves in power. That's realistically the most common alternative around the world. It can have different ideological forms. I mean, it can call itself left wing or right wing. It can be Bolivarian socialists or it can be a right wing nationalist party, but essentially, that's the most common alternative that we see out there. There are a lot of people who find that alternative appealing, even within modern democracies. Sometimes they find it appealing because they think that 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 homogeneity that they're unable to achieve in pluralistic democracies. And sometimes they see because that would be an opportunity for theft and corruption on a whole different scale. 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: As we've seen in this country and in other countries, there is 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. I guess, sometimes it's appealing because people think that would be, that's the real country. Those are the people who represent me. And if they win, then I can eliminate these ideas I disagree with and I can get rid of these people that I don't like. And some people simply prefer the simplicity of unity, the end of this endless, raucous, disorganized democratic debate. And then we could have just one set of political leaders, one party, one state. 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 is good news and bad news in your message.

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.

Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed the conversation.

If you’d like to learn more please visit where you can find a transcript as well as additional resources on this topic. Have a question or some feedback? Send us an email at [email protected]

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And with that I ask that you stay informed and stay safe.


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By all accounts, China is sure to have an outsized impact on the world over the next 100 years. Richard Haass and Elizabeth Perry, director of the Harvard-Yenching I...

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Birth rates are booming in some countries and plummeting in others. Leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt and Richard Haass analyze the most important trends and th...

Birth rates are booming in some countries and plummeting in others. Leading demographer Nicholas Eberstadt and Richard Haass analyze the most important trends and th...

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Richard Haass and economist Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, discuss the realities of climate change a...

Richard Haass and economist Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, discuss the realities of climate change a...

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Richard Haass and Stanford University Professor Fei-Fei Li discuss how to contend with technologies that can do both good and harm.

Richard Haass and Stanford University Professor Fei-Fei Li discuss how to contend with technologies that can do both good and harm.

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Richard Haass and Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s foremost historians, discuss how best to apply history to better understand current global challenges, inclu...

Richard Haass and Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s foremost historians, discuss how best to apply history to better understand current global challenges, inclu...

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Richard Haass and Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Institute, discuss the future of biotechnology and its potential impact o...

Richard Haass and Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Institute, discuss the future of biotechnology and its potential impact o...

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The world is changing, and its future is forming around high-stakes challenges such as climate change and shifting geopolitical power. In this limited series, Counci...

The world is changing, and its future is forming around high-stakes challenges such as climate change and shifting geopolitical power. In this limited series, Counci...

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Democratic Republic of Congo

The Congolese government is letting energy firms bid for access to its vast oil and gas reserves, raising concerns about the potential climate consequences.


President Biden's comment on Taiwan independence is a break from his predecessors.


The death of Mahsa Amini has sparked large-scale protests in Iran. But President Raisi’s speech at the UN General Assembly signals that the regime is not likely to soften its stance toward the Iranian people nor toward the West.