My father introduced me to the Libertarian Party in 1992. This was the year Bill Clinton defeated George Bush. Ross Perot had disrupted the two-party system with his independent campaign. But I was groomed to support a relative unknown. The Libertarian Party had nominated Andre Marrou. He was elected to the Alaskan state legislature in 1984. This was a big deal for a third party. No Libertarian had been elected to a state legislature before Marrou. But his campaign made little noise. It had less impact than Ron Paul’s campaign in 1988 or Harry Browne’s campaigns in 1996 and 2000. Nonetheless, this was my introduction to politics.
Libertarianism was easy to understand at a young age. There was a simple, clear principle for governance. The Libertarian philosophy argues the purpose of government is to preserve liberty or freedom. Many laws and policies, they argue, are not designed to preserve liberty which is why they advocate for small government. David Nolan is recognized as the founder of the Libertarian Party in the United States. He felt out of place among conservatives and liberals. The traditional left-right spectrum did not fit his political ideas so added a second dimension. The Noaln chart has one axis to measure personal liberties while the other measures economic freedoms. Nolan defined liberals as those who defend personal liberties but want to restrict economic freedoms while conservatives defended economic freedoms but wanted limitations on personal liberties. Liberalism, according to Nolan, remained the opposite of conservatism. But libertarianism was not simply a combination of the two. Nolan interpreted libertarianism as a distinct ideology. Its opposite was authoritarianism which he defined as a support for limitations on both personal liberties and economic freedoms.
Nolan’s conceptual map is designed to recognize libertarianism as the adversary of totalitarianism. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz uses his chart through the incorporation of ten questions to define a person’s political ideology. The quiz is used to recruit libertarians into the movement, but it is also a subtle piece of propaganda. The participants are nudged to embrace libertarian views because it moves them towards the top of the chart. Moreover, the design makes the subtle implication that liberalism and conservatism incorporate elements of authoritarian or totalitarian into their ideologies. Libertarianism is portrayed as the only ideology which is diametrically opposed to totalitarianism.
But libertarianism has a critical flaw. David Nolan and other libertarian intellectuals allow for little room for political liberty. Indeed, democracy is often ridiculed and denigrated because it can lead to economic redistribution. They are known to say, “We live in a republic, not a democracy.” Indeed, it is interesting how libertarians spend a lot of time talking about the constitution. Unlike George Washington and Alexander Hamilton who saw the constitution as a template for actual governance, libertarians use the constitution as an intellectual veto to rule out ideas they dislike. They use the constitution to restrict and confine democratic sentiments rather than a means to bring about an actual governance of the people.
Upon deeper reflection, it becomes obvious that libertarian philosophy is antithetical to actual political freedom. It looks for tools to impose its ideology upon others. Ultimately, libertarianism is not the opposite of authoritarianism. On the contrary, there is a tendency within libertarian philosophy toward authoritarianism. Indeed, most libertarians will openly prefer an unrestrained leader capable of imposing their utopic vision to the compromises of democratic governance. David Nolan imagined an enormous divide between the libertarian and the authoritarian, but experience has shown how the ideals of libertarianism naturally decay into a populist form of authoritarianism.
My father used to describe himself as an adherent of the radical fringe of libertarianism. But his political instincts were never so pure nor as simple as I had imagined. Over the years, my father began to align with the Republican Party. This would have been unimaginable for his younger self when he was a self-described hippie of the counter-culture movement. Libertarianism served as a bridge between the left-wing politics of his youth and his right-wing politics today. I had also become disenchanted with libertarianism around the same time, but for different reasons. Nonetheless, we had both supported the Republican candidacies of McCain and Romney. But my father was more zealous in his support than I would ever allow. I never had animosity toward Barak Obama. In truth, I thought he was the best candidate in both elections. But I was comfortable with the Republican nominees and remained faithful to a belief in small, responsible government.
The Presidential election of 2016 changed everything for me. It was inconceivable how the libertarian wing of the Republican Party was able to embrace the open authoritarianism of Trump. His nomination brought about a personal crisis of my political identity. But my father embraced Trump, partly out of his animosity for Hillary Clinton, but also because it spoke to some political sensibilities I had previously ignored. I expected him to turn on Trump after the election, but he became an ardent supporter. It was inconceivable to me how my father gave his trust to a president who represented such a threat to constitutional government when he spent so many years revering the constitution. It was not until Trump was impeached when I understood my father’s motivations. I believed the impeachment case hinged on how his call with the Ukrainian was interpreted. While I saw it as an abuse of power, I was willing to concede there could be other interpretations. My father believed the Democrats had overreached on their case for impeachment and did not understand why they pressed the case when there was no chance the Senate would convict. I was surprised at this purely political view of constitutional responsibilities and pressed him at the abstract level: Does not a representative have a duty and an obligation to impeach a president who they believe has abused the power of the office? My father’s response was incomprehensible to me. He said an abuse of power was not an impeachable offense. He did not see it as either a high crime or a misdemeanor. He had gone from demands for a small government to avoid tyranny to a justification of tyranny for the sake of his political beliefs.
Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy is not a work of political theory so much as an autobiographical memoir of the divide within the conservative movement between democratic idealism and authoritarian populism. She navigates through her experiences in Poland, the United States, and the United Kingdom which she alone can weave together into a coherent narrative. Applebaum represents the cosmopolitan intellectual that the conservative movement has permanently exiled. It surprised me to read about her conservative credentials because I never saw her as a conservative since my experience with her writings have been limited to the past few years, long after her divorce from the conservative movement. But Applebaum makes the case that she has not changed over the years. The meaning of conservative has undergone a deep transformation.
The subtitle of her work says a lot about her book. Indeed, it is not clear whether we have approached the Twilight of Democracy, but she has shown there is clearly a seductive lure of authoritarianism. Applebaum’s experience among conservatives parallels my own experience with my father. Of course, her experiences are more exotic and often more extreme. She writes about the Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt whose museum is a testament against Communism and Nazism yet has given license and credibility to the populist authoritarianism of Viktor Orbán. And she knew Boris Johnson when he was a just a journalist. She recounts an encounter where they run into each other in London while he was mayor and they visit a pub together as old friends. She attended parties where Dinesh D’Souza, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and David Frum are present. She recounts these stories with a sense of nonchalance as though this is a normal part of life. There is nothing normal about it. It is an extraordinary glimpse into a life few of us can imagine.
But underneath the stories there is a common theme. The rhetoric of freedom for many of these leaders and intellectuals long disguised an attraction to populism and authoritarianism. Orbán is the quintessential populist leader of Eastern Europe. He began as an opponent of communism. Indeed, he claims to remain an opponent of communism, but has become disenchanted with liberal democracy. His illiberal democracy has entrenched a new political elite in power who control not just the government but the media and private enterprise. The path toward advancement is no longer personal merit, but commitment to a political party.
Applebaum argues the decay of democracy is not limited to Eastern Europe. It is not a symptom of their inexperience with democratic governance. The same symptoms are evident in the mature democracies of the United States and the United Kingdom. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa among others have written about the deconsolidation of democracy. Mounk and Foa have used the World Values Survey to show how support for democracy has diminished in recent years. Applebaum does not appeal to surveys or theories. She recounts how her personal experiences and relationships have shown how many have betrayed their faith in liberal democracy.
This book is unique. I have read so many works on democracy so some of the ideas begin to reverberate back and forth as they influence one another. Indeed, none of the current events Applebaum has written about were new to me. Plenty of scholars have written about Hungary and Poland. There are many books and articles about the rise of Trump and recent British politics. Yet her approach was able to captivate my attention from start to finish. From the very first chapter it was clear this was a remarkable book.
But my final takeaway relates back to my own personal experience. The seductive lure of authoritarianism does not emerge from a collection of political beliefs. David Nolan was wrong when he portrayed it as an ideology. It is a worldview where success comes from the exclusion of others. The political vision behind authoritarianism is dependent on the exclusion of political adversaries. Joseph Schumpeter was wrong when he defined democracy as a “competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” While Western democracy has incorporated elements of competition so representative assemblies reflect the interests and values of their constituents, it is not its definable characteristic. Politics is a unique game where the victors can shape the rules of future engagements. Unrestrained competition will inevitably look to shape the political system to the advantage of those in power. Democracy requires not just inclusive participation but inclusive governance. This is difficult for many to imagine.
Looking back, I can recognize how the libertarianism of my father disguised a populist distaste for liberal democracy. Radical individualism is often perceived as a commitment to human freedom, but it was Friedrich Nietzsche who recognized how the most radical form of individualism is found in the tyrant who shapes their own value system. Democracy requires a conformity to political norms and the law. I cannot see myself as a libertarian ever again. There are times I think I am a liberal and others where I believe I am a conservative. But my father has always been a radical. He is neither liberal nor conservative. This is the reality of the far right today.
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