Anne Applebaum on Autocracy, Inc


Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. Some of her books include Gulag: A History, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, and most recently Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She recently gave the Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture titled “Autocracy, Inc.”

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We are at a moment of very, very high risk and I’m not sure that people really know that or understand it, or if they do, if they care.

Anne Applebaum

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:42
  • What is Autocracy, Inc – 3:47
  • Democratic Response – 13:40
  • Appeal of Authoritarianism – 26:51
  • Thoughts on Poland – 32:26

Podcast Transcript

In the past intellectuals had clear names for threats to human liberty. The founding fathers fought against monarchy. World War II was fought against fascism. The Cold War Era was opposed to Communism. These days we know old names no longer fit, but we haven’t decided on a new one. If you listen to this podcast, you’ve probably heard a few attempts to describe contemporary autocrats from Spin Dictators to Populists to 4P Autocrats to Kleptocrats.

Recently, Anne Applebaum gave them a new name when she gave the annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture. She calls them Autocracy, Inc. Autocracy, Inc recognizes how today’s autocrats have significant differences. Many find it natural to believe they have nothing in common at all. But too often we see them working together whether it involves Iran supplying drones to Russia or Russia investing in Venezuelan oil. Anne thinks Autocracy, Inc helps us understand their common interests and why they cooperate to challenge democracy and human rights.

Anne Applebaum doesn’t really need an introduction. She is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. Some of her books include Gulag: A History, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, and most recently Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

Our conversation explores the motivations for Autocracy, Inc and how the West should respond. We also touch on the themes of her last book such as why some people find authoritarianism attractive. She also shares some of her thoughts on the state of democracy in Poland as they approach new elections in October.

If you enjoy this episode, please consider becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or a premium subscriber on Apple Podcasts. It’s doesn’t need to be a big commitment. For just $5/month you can access a growing catalog of bonus episodes and listen to new episodes early and ad-free. The most recent bonus episode features Scott Mainwaring in a conversation about the legendary political scientist Juan Linz. There is a link in the show notes to connect on Patreon. You can also provide a one-time donation on the website. Like always you can send questions or comments to But for now… This is my conversation with Anne Applebaum…


Anne Applebaum, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Anne Applebaum

Delighted to be here. Thank you.


Well, Anne, I loved your speech “Autocracy, Inc.” But I’ve noticed that you’ve used that phrase, that term, a few times before. In fact, the first time I remember seeing it was in your article, “The Autocrats are Winning,” where you write, “Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a block, but rather like an agglomeration of companies. Call it Autocracy, Inc.” I’d like to delve into this idea of Autocracy, Inc. Why do you describe Autocracies as an agglomeration of companies and how is it different today than maybe past incarnations?

Anne Applebaum

So, first of all, thanks. Yes, you’re right. I’ve used it a couple of times and it’s perhaps the title of my next book if I ever have time to write it. I’ve been very distracted by the War in Ukraine. I was really looking for a metaphor that describes the relationships between countries like Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Belarus, because these are not traditional ideological alliances. These are not countries that have anything in common. Nationalist Russia and Theocratic Iran and Maoist China and Bolivarian Venezuela, and, I don’t know, Collective Farm Boss Belarus don’t share common texts. They don’t share common ideas of what is a good society. They don’t have a common foreign policy. They have a very, very different sense of the world.

But they do have one common interest, which is all of them have the same political domestic interest in crushing or restraining their own democratic opposition. That is one of the ways in which they now cooperate internationally. They have a common interest in crushing democracy activism wherever it appears. They dislike the language of democracy. They dislike the language of human rights. They push back against it in the UN and they even seem willing to help one another crush their respective movements. So, you saw the Russian very open interference in Belarus in 2020 when the Belarussian opposition looked very close to winning. The Russians sent in reinforcements. Not just, I should say, police reinforcements, but also Russian journalists to run Belarussian state media to do the propaganda differently.

I should also say the thing that makes them like companies is that their relationships are very transactional. So, they don’t have historic friendships based on some deep, long sense of… I mean, what is the historic relationship between Iran and Venezuela? I mean, none. They’re not necessarily traditional allies or regional allies either. Of course, they have certain kinds of interests in common, so they have similar ways of using, for example, the Western financial system to launder money to keep themselves in power, to export money out of their countries, keep it in various places and then import it back. It’s not an accident that Russian, Chinese, Venezuelan, and frankly lots of African and other oligarchs all own apartments in London. They all use the same accountants. They use the same banks and the same techniques.

There are a lot of things and tactics that they share, even if they don’t share an ideology. So, that seemed to me less like a Cold War style alliance and more like something different. I came up with Autocracy Inc. because it seemed like the best description of that.


I think part of the reason why it makes sense, it kind of rings true for myself, is because of the way that they interact with the West. You’ve already described how they use Western financial institutions, but it’s almost as if the West wants to do business with them and because of this is really enabling them, encouraging them. In that same article, you also write, “How have modern autocrats achieved such impunity? In part by persuading so many other people, in so many other countries to play along.” So, why do countries, why do democracies, enable autocrats?

Anne Applebaum

So, there’s a history to that and the history is perfectly logical, I should say, from that point of view. At the time, the theory of how we would relate to the autocratic world that emerges in the early 1990s is that through trade and through contacts and through extensive diplomatic relations, but especially through trade, we would have an impact on that world. I mean, some of it was classic, if we buy and sell things from them then we won’t go to war with them. Some of it went a little bit farther than that. I mean, there was an idea that building pipelines between Germany and Russia would eventually lead to positive political change in Russia. There was an idea that American trade with China would, if not make China a democracy, then at least make it a more open society.

In fact, actually it did. I mean, trade and capitalism did make China a more open society. It just didn’t make it friendlier towards us. In particular, the changes there in the last few years have made that even more difficult. But the idea that US companies or European companies could happily trade with the autocratic world and that in the course of doing so they would not only make money, but eventually would open up those societies was very widespread and accepted. I’ve just been doing some research on it and it really only began to become clear in the last few years that that was wrong and that in fact trade with China empowered the Chinese state, partly through the fact that many of the companies we were trading with were in effect state companies or they were controlled by the state.

Even more so in Russia where all of the large natural resource companies are either directly state owned or they’re owned by oligarchs who somehow owe their fortunes to the state. So, in effect, we were trading with the Russian government when we’re trading with Russian companies. The private companies that we were working with weren’t really private companies.


So, Anne, most people of my generation remember those conversations about how trade was going to change autocratic nations. What I found remarkable in your lecture and in many of your other writings was that you bring up the fact that nobody really thought about how interactions with autocracies would change democracies, would affect the free world. In hindsight, with what we know now, how has that engagement with autocracies affected countries like ours?

Anne Applebaum

I think in the first instance, it had the effect of making the business class to become much more cynical. All the people who were doing clandestine, or not even clandestine, I mean legal, but dodgy deals with the Russians in particular in the 2000s had some of that rub off. Perhaps the most famous example is Donald Trump. One of his children has said that much of the investment into their properties, the purchasing of properties, which of course could be done anonymously in most countries. Anonymous companies can buy apartments in luxury buildings. So, one of the Trump children has said that most of that business came from Russians.

So, the knowledge that people were stealing money and buying properties in your building and doing so somehow legally or quasi-legally had a corrupting effect on the American property market, certainly on the London property market, probably on the property market in the south of France and a few other places. I think the same thing can be said of banks and bankers. I mean, as it became clear that the really big money that was sloshing around was Russian or Chinese or even sort of Malaysian or Angolan and it was coming from people who had gotten it semi-legally or even illegally, I think that created a lot of cynicism in the financial markets and eventually that seeped into politics. The experience of constant interaction between the business community and those places had the effect of making them more cynical about our own legal system.

Secondly, of course, the fact that we now live in a global information space where everybody has access to everybody else. I think we discounted what the impact of that would be. I mean, the famous story again is the use of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election or the use of bots and divisive polarizing messaging. But actually, they do it everywhere and it’s also been copied everywhere. The Russian style of campaigning which is to create fake groups that pretend to be more radical than they are on either one side or the other and all that. That’s now copied and imitated by all kinds of political parties in democracies too. That way of thinking and campaigning, you know, the kind of cynicism about democracy and the cynicism about the ease of manipulation had an impact on us as well.

You could go down a number of roads – surveillance technology. I mean, Israel’s not usually classified as a classic western democracy, but it is actually Israeli technology that autocrats and actually some illiberal democrats around the world are putting onto people’s cell phones. This is the famous Pegasus software. There was a scandal about it in Poland where the government put it on the phones of the opposition. You know, it’s been used in Mexico. It’s been used in Greece. It’s been used in lots of other places. This is a kind of spyware that was originally, supposedly created to defeat terrorists and maybe it does do that, but it turns out that you can also use it to spy on your political opponents. So, the range of surveillance technology that’s now available…

Of course, the Chinese make and manufacture their own surveillance technology, but they also sell it. We know that they sell it to places like Zimbabwe. How much of it they sell in the Democratic world, we might not know yet, but we might soon discover that there’s more than we think.


So, just to steer the conversation back to the idea of kleptocracies and kleptocrats, do you feel like the amount of money that’s coming from corrupted leaders, or really stolen from some of these autocratic nation’s people, do you feel like that amount of money is actually large enough to actually reshape different parts of our own economy? I don’t know if it’s the entire economy, but it feels like possibly certain sectors really depend on that influx of cash on a regular basis. I mean, how do you think about that?

Ane Applebaum

So, it depends on what you mean. We would have to break that down, but if you mean purely kleptocratic money, the banking market in London, the accountants, the lawyers, the real estate industry in London are all profoundly shaped by kleptocratic money and they in turn have some influence on politics. I mean, London is also the political capital as well as the financial capital. The presence of that kind of money has undoubtedly shaped British politics. So, if you want just that one example, I think that’s one of the most famous ones.

You know, I used to think that in the US the amount of money sloshing around the system was so enormous that the tiny amount, relatively speaking, that Russian oligarchs could contribute was pretty small. But then on the margins, the Russian investment in the NRA, which wasn’t really just a financial investment, they had people who were trying to be close to the NRA and so on. There may, of course, be more money than we know, because it may go through other people and so on. Maybe that made a big difference – I don’t know – in the NRAs ability to continue operating and to be actually one of the most successful lobbying organizations of all time.

Little bits of money, for example, the loans made to Marine Le Penn in the previous French electoral cycle seemed to have been able to keep her in politics when other French banks wouldn’t lend her money. There’s another example. I don’t think that was millions and billions of dollars, but it was a small loan and it kept her in the game. So, I don’t know that you need billionaire type money to be influential. It depends on how you pay, where you pay it, and where you use it.

There are a lot of marginal people and groups and lobbyists and so on who don’t cost very much to persuade like American think tanks. You don’t need to invest very much money in them to get them to do a paper that’s to your liking. There are some famous examples of that. So, I’m not sure that you need that much money in order to have a political impact.


I get the impression that the real estate market is one sector that seems to have an inordinate amount of financing from kleptocrats and kleptocratic governments. It seems like there’s aspects of the entertainment industry that have been funded by the billions stolen from the Malaysian people and the Malaysian government. It seems like there are certain sectors that seem to have drawn interest from investments from kleptocrats more than others.

Anne Applebaum

Yeah, that’s definitely true. I mean, mom and pop grocery stores are not evidence of kleptocracy. But you can pinpoint some sectors. Particularly the entertainment industry is really interesting. In the case of Hollywood, it turns out to be very important for big blockbuster movies to sell them in China and that’s shaped a little bit the way that Hollywood makes movies. So, all those action movies with not very much dialogue. I mean, those are aimed at international markets, especially the Chinese market, which is of course the biggest. It turns out that the Chinese mind very much if they’re the villains in these movies, so nobody makes movies with Chinese villains and that’s why. The subject matter is chosen with Chinese tastes and the Chinese government influence in mind. Nobody wants to be boycotted by China.

The same is true of one or two important sports. The famous one is the NBA example, which I think is in my original Atlantic cover story article that you were quoting before where an NBA official made a positive comment about Hong Kong. So, the Chinese government responded… This is about the Hong Kong democracy movement. The Chinese government responded by banning some NBA games and he had to apologize. So, the amount of money that the NBA can make apparently from Chinese television and from Chinese franchises is enough to mean that the NBA censors itself when it talks about China. \

So, that doesn’t mean that every academic in America is silenced by Chinese pressure or that journalists are, that government officials are, but the sporting institutions, Hollywood, I would guess some pop stars are affected by Chinese influence when they think about how they’re going to sell themselves and what kind of language to use.


So, is it possible to trade with autocracies and kleptocracies without enabling them?

Anne Applebaum

You know, I hope so because international trade is very important to our economy. But when we do so, we should do so more carefully with controls on what we export, careful evaluation of how those exports and how that trade is affecting our own companies. Some of that is happening now. There’s much greater consciousness now of what it means to do deals with a state company in an autocratic state. But it would’ve helped to have some of that earlier. I also think more broadly there are just better rules about property and anonymous companies that would help everybody. I don’t know why anybody needs to have an anonymous company for any reason really given the amount of harm that can be done.

A lot of it is just ordinary people hiding their money in order not to pay taxes. It’s not all evil people in faraway places, but putting controls on that I think would be good for the transparency and the health of the whole economy. So, there’s some changes, particularly to the financial system that we could do that would restrict the ability of foreign kleptocrats to use our financial system that would actually restrict the use of American hurdles to use the American financial system. So, I would appreciate more being done in that direction too.


When I think of a classic kleptocracy, I mean, Russia comes to mind immediately, but Russia’s a really super big economy. Some of the smaller kleptocracies, particularly central Asian states, and some countries in Africa as well, are relatively small. Some of the only trade that’s being done is coming from people that you could describe as kleptocrats or connected with them. Is it possible to trade with those economies when it seems like the only businesses that are looking to trade with the West are somehow connected directly to government corruption?

Anne Applebaum

I wouldn’t trade with them and I would caution companies that care about their reputations and even those that care about how much money they make to be very careful because obviously if you’re trading with a kleptocratic company that’s directly connected to the state, then there’s always a political risk. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to imagine how we ban all trade or how technically it would be possible to restrict trade. But there are some watchdogs already. Empowering those watchdogs to watch trade with those countries in particular would be useful.

Still, I would like the people of Azerbaijan to be able to have some contact with the outside world. I would also like them to be able to sell their wheat. I don’t want to end all trade, but certainly going into it with open eyes and having better monitors and better watchdogs would help a lot.


So, when you describe Autocracy Incorporated, it definitely brings up imagery that President Joe Biden has made very clear of trying to draw a line between democracies and autocracies. But there’s obviously a lot of countries that fall somewhere in between and not just in terms of not quite being a democracy or an autocracy, but also in between in terms of where they align themselves, geopolitically. Foreign Affairs just did a big edition on the non-aligned world this past month. How do you feel that we should be interacting with these countries that see themselves as not wanting to align themselves with the democratic or the autocratic world?

Anne Applebaum

I actually dislike this idea that we’re going to separate the world into democracies and autocracies, not least because it immediately creates questions around countries like India, which defines itself as a democracy which holds elections, but increasingly looks more and more like a one-party state where one party is so dominant that it can control the media and affect the civil service and the judges and so on. There are a number of countries like that, India, Turkey, much less important Hungary, but they exist out there. There are other countries that are somehow in the middle for other reasons or for historical reasons. They don’t like being aligned and so I would rather not talk in those terms.

I do think that rather than having a Democracy Summit where all the democracies talk to each other, supposedly, I would rather focus on particular issues. For example, kleptocracy – there is a group of 50 countries you could get together and who could say, ‘This is harming us. This is hurting our political systems. It’s bad for our financial systems. It’s distorting to our property markets. What can we do about it?’ I’d rather see foreign policy focusing on those issues rather than trying to create Cold War style block politics.

I suppose the one area where this has become very sensitive and difficult is over the question of sanctions on Russia, because it would certainly help the cause of Ukraine. It would help the cause of… Actually, it’s not even really about democracy. It’s just about preserving borders and maintaining stability in Europe. If Russia would lose and if Russia would feel a greater economic impact from the war… One of the reasons that it doesn’t is that there’s a huge sanction busting operation. Truckloads of stuff going through Turkey and Georgia. The Chinese are helping them get around some of the rules on electronics and so on. It seems to me there could be better or more directed diplomacy focused on that issue.

But I’m really not interested in getting everybody who’s a democracy or calls themselves one on exactly the same page on all issues. I don’t think it’s useful to do that. I don’t think we’ll win that argument and I don’t see the point of it. I would rather, as I said, create coalitions around particular problems. In the case of Russia, there’s a reason why Europe is on board and that’s because Europeans feel directly the security threat from Russia. Clearly, there are other countries that don’t feel that security threat and so we may need a different set of arguments to convince them to go along. Those might even have to be economic arguments.


I think that’s an important point about how you think about Autocracy Incorporated is that it’s not something that we’re defining what is Autocracy Incorporated. Rather it’s something de facto. It just already exists and it’s not something that they’re even thinking about consciously. It’s just something that they’re adapting to because it’s in their interests. Something you mentioned earlier about the way that Autocracy Incorporated behaves in terms of trade was in terms of creating surveillance technologies that they often export to the West, particularly China.

Do you feel that businesses in autocratic governments tend to develop different types of technology than they do in the West particularly around things like artificial intelligence? I just imagine that China’s very focused on surveillance. It seems like in the United States we’re focused on other types of applications. Do you see a real divide in terms of how autocratic nations try to develop new technologies and try to develop different types of industries?

Anne Applebaum

So, I don’t know enough about artificial intelligence to be able to give you very precise descriptions. I can only repeat what other people have said. Namely, that it’s going to be very important going forward for democracies to develop a set of standards and an ethics around it and around the way it’s used, which doesn’t seem to be really happening yet. One of the big differences between the US and China in this area is that, in our case, it is private companies which are far ahead on this technology. In China it’s a state project. So, in our case, it’s a matter of regulation rather than the DNA of the projects.

My impression so far, and maybe I’m wrong, it’s been my impression about technology in general, is that certainly Congress is not yet sophisticated enough or doesn’t really have the advisory or the backup to successfully regulate really almost anything involving technology, certainly not social media, probably not artificial intelligence. Going forward, Congress must develop that sort of missing muscle, those missing capabilities, so developing that as well is going to be very important in maintaining it. A lot, of course, depends on do we have a president, do we have an administration, that wants to have ethical artificial intelligence? If there’s a second Trump administration, I can imagine that maybe they don’t. So, we’ll see.


So, we’re obviously talking about autocracies in terms of the way that they work together. But your past book actually talked about the way that authoritarianism, the ideas of autocracies, actually appeal to many people in democracies. The subtitle of your book, Twilight of Democracy, is The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. It’s a very well written phrase. It’s one of those that just really bounces around in your brain while trying to figure out what exactly that means. Why don’t I give you a chance to explain to us why authoritarianism appeals to people in democracies and what exactly that seductive lure is?

Anne Applebaum

So, there is a class of people, and I’d say it’s roughly a third of most countries, who are bothered by the cacophony of contradictory voices, who don’t like rapid change, who are uncomfortable with whether it’s social or demographic or economic or informational transformation and who dislike the openness and need to rapidly readjust that you find in the modern world. Sometimes there is a mostly economic component to this. I mean, people who’ve lost their jobs because of the rapid change. Sometimes there’s a social component. People don’t like the way social mores have changed in the last couple of decades. Sometimes people are just overwhelmed by the amount of information they receive on their phones and on their television sets.

For those people, the appeal of a single party, a single answer or single leader, homogeneity, unity, a return to some real or imagined previous era when everything was simpler and things were much more predictable… For some people, that’s a very powerful feeling. I mean, I think the word the historian and writer Timothy Snyder – I was recently at an event where he was talking about the significance of predictability versus unpredictability. Autocracy often seeks to create predictability with, of course, the exception of the dictator himself, who gets to be unpredictable. But a lot of people like and prefer predictability They like and prefer people to be unified. There is an autocratic language that appeals to those people.

So, the idea that automatically everyone wants to be open and everyone wants to be outward looking and everyone wants to be constantly in touch with all different kinds of things and people and opportunities is wrong. Just as I said, there are particular types of politicians and political leaders and their propaganda who understand this and who seek to appeal to those people who are bothered by modernity. That’s a bigger problem than we usually like to think about. So, most people who write for newspapers or who take part in American politics have had for a long time this fundamental assumption that democracy is automatic and everybody agrees about it and everybody wants it to go the same way.

The sort of mainstream story that we’ve told ourselves about democracy opening up over the past century after having been something confined to white male landowners, eventually spread to include a much broader definition of who is American and who gets to vote. We assume that’s a positive story, but not everybody does. The backlash against that has taken the form of an autocratic backlash. You know, I’m not just talking about the United States. I could talk about Poland or I could talk about France or I could talk about Germany and lots of other countries where you find a percentage of people who want to hear something very different from that.

It’s also important to remember that throughout human history most of the time most people have lived in autocracies. I mean, they were monarchies or they were dictatorships or they were something else. You know, democracy is very rare. It doesn’t usually last very long and it’s easily overthrown by demagogues who appeal to people who don’t like the idea that they have to allow their political opponents to rule for four years before they get a second chance.


So, does that mean democracies become a partisan issue, not just in the United States, but in many of the other democracies in the world like Poland, France, the United Kingdom and so on?

Anne Applebaum

In a number of countries, there are now anti-democratic parties that would like to change their country’s political system in order never to lose power. In some places that’s become a divisive partisan issue. Yes. I wouldn’t like to say it is always and everywhere, but certainly in some. Poland is a very good example where you have a ruling party that was elected completely democratically and which emerged in a democratic system. Its first election was democratic, but during its years in power, it has tried to alter the political system so that it won’t lose.

That is a longer story. It’s to do with altering the judiciary, altering the role of state media, which is very important in Poland. It’s the media that about 30% of the country watches. It’s about changing the civil service. It’s about providing funding for sort of fake think tanks and NGOs. I mean, there’s a whole range of things that they do and maybe moving right up to cheating and altering the election results. We don’t know yet. There’s an election in October, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if they try and do it. But those were originally democratic parties. So, originally the battle between that party and the three or four others in the Polish system wasn’t about democracy, but it has over time become about democracy. Now it is.


Poland’s a country that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, not as much time as you have, but the reason why is because it’s connected a lot of times to Hungary. We really kind of compare those two countries, because they’re the two countries that were highly democratic in Eastern Europe where we’ve seen some significant backsliding in recent years. Oftentimes Poland has even referenced Hungary as an influence. But at the same time, Poland doesn’t seem like it’s trying to become part of Autocracy Incorporated the way that Viktor Orbán is in Hungary. I mean, Viktor Orbán seems very comfortable aligning Hungary with Russia in a way that Poland definitely does not.

Anne Applebaum

So, Poland can’t align itself with Russia because Poland is directly threatened by the war in Ukraine and would be the next target if Russia were ever to overrun Ukraine. That’s the main difference. Internally, Polish politics are as ugly as they ever were and getting worse. So, the impression created by the War in Ukraine that Poland is fighting for democracy is true up to a point. It’s true that Poles are fighting for Ukraine or they’re helping Ukraine and helping Ukrainian refugees. But that’s partly because it’s popular in Poland.

The political system is declining rapidly. At the moment, many of the leading Polish opposition figures are under criminal investigation, for example. The leader, in fact, Donald Tusk, who’s the leader of the largest party, is under a completely bogus, fake investigation. So, while it’s true that they’re not seeking to join Russia, that doesn’t mean that they’ve created a milder system at home. I also wonder under different circumstances, if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine, what their policy towards Russia would be. But anyway, that’s just speculation.


So, you’ve already made clear that the government in Poland hasn’t really changed its policies, because of the War in Ukraine.

Anne Applebaum



Yes. Have the Polish People started to think differently about politics because of the War in Ukraine?

Anne Applebaum

Because of the war in Ukraine, people are more afraid and fear often makes people prefer autocrats. So, it remains to be seen. We’re a few months away still from the election, but these things don’t work the way you imagine. I mean, emotionally people are more frightened. They’re more anxious. They may prefer some system that they know to some political change, but I don’t know. Right now, if the elections were held tomorrow, the opposition would win. But as I said, we’re still some months away.


You’re talking a lot in hypotheticals. I mean, in reading your books and hearing you talk, I mean, I get the sense that you’ve got a very personal connection to Poland. You’ve got a sense of what…

Anne Applebaum

Yeah, of course. I’ve written about it. Yes.


Yeah, I mean, you’ve got a sense of what people kind of feel there. I mean, do you think that the opposition is likely to win or do you think that the Law and Justice Party’s likely to win in the next election in October? What does your gut say?

Anne Applebaum

I don’t know. I mean, I know that Law and Justice, the ruling party, will cheat in the sense that they already are. I know they will use the arms of the state in order to convince people to vote for them or not to vote for the opposition. They’re already doing that. I wouldn’t exclude some last-minute game like, I don’t know, locking up leaders or some such thing from possibility. People are talking about that now openly in Poland. My sense is if there were genuinely a free election that the opposition would win, but we’ll see.


So, Anne, we’ve obviously been talking about the idea of Autocracy Incorporated. But I do want to refer back to your most recent book, which was called Twilight of Democracy once again, because the title, just like the subtitle, is very fascinating. It makes it sound as if democracy is in its twilight. That it’s about to be extinguished. Like we’re about to go into a period of even greater darkness. Do you really think that democracy is in its twilight or do you feel a greater sense of hope than that title would give me the impression of?

Anne Applebaum

Yes. I ended the book with a greater sense of hope than the title. The title was, by the way, very hard to come up with. I wouldn’t make too much of the title. It was a hard book to name. So, that was what the publishers wanted in the end. There were other possibilities. I mean, I could have done Twilight of Democracy? question mark and thrown some ambiguity into it. But I mean, I think we are certainly at risk of that. I think a second Trump presidency would be so disruptive and would create so many ripple effects of violence in different ways that I wonder whether American democracy would really survive. For example, I can imagine democracy coming to an end in Poland. I wouldn’t have said that five years ago even.

So, we are at a moment of very, very high risk and I’m not sure that people really know that or understand it or if they do, if they care. There is a mood now that the system’s so rotten or it’s so terrible that we might as well abandon it because anything else is better. So, I always counsel people who say that, very often young people, to go and visit a country that’s not a democracy and see if that’s what you would prefer.

You know, we have the system that we have. It has a lot of flaws. It needs a lot of reform and lots of changes. I can certainly imagine an American democracy that had somewhat better rules and worked according to better logic. But I’m not sure that throwing it up in the name of an oligarchy or a one-party state is really going to make people’s lives better.


Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Anne. Again, I want to plug the speech one more time. It’s available on YouTube. It was with the National Endowment for Democracy. It’s called Autocracy, Inc. Apparently, we’re going to be seeing a book with that title one day.

Anne Applebaum

Fingers crossed.


Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

Anne Applebaum

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Key Links

Watch Anne Applebaum’s Lecture “Autocracy, Inc

The Autocrats are Winning” in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Francis Fukuyama Responds to Liberalism’s Discontents

Larry Diamond on Supporting Democracy in the World and at Home

More Episodes from the Podcast

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