Anne Applebaum, or, the Meritocratic God that Failed

I have generally admired Anne Applebaum (website here, tweets here), especially her historical works dealing with the evil side of the Soviet Union. But now one encounters a positively brutal take-down at the NY Review of Books that does resonate in the current American and international climate. Excerpts from the article, judge for yourself:

Orthodoxy of the Elites

Jackson Lears [more here]

In Anne Applebaum’s book, democracy, free markets, and meritocracy all get the aerial view.


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

…being a liberal Democrat no longer means what it once meant. Sympathy for the working class has, for many, curdled into contempt. By 2016 the concept of “liberal democracy,” once bright with promise, had dulled into a neoliberal politics that was neither liberal nor democratic. The Democratic Party’s turn toward market-driven policies, the bipartisan dismantling of the public sphere, the inflight marriage of Wall Street and Silicon Valley in the cockpit of globalization—these interventions constituted the long con of neoliberal governance, which enriched a small minority of Americans while ravaging most of the rest.

In 2020 the Democrats made little attempt to distance themselves from that calamitous inheritance. As early as 2019, Joe Biden himself made clear to the donor class that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected and reassured the medical-industrial complex by dismissing any discussion of single-payer health care. But he has made no substantial attempt to reassure the millions of Americans who have lost jobs or homes or health care in recent months. One might never have known, by following his campaign, that the US was facing the most serious and protracted economic depression since the 1930s. So it should come as no surprise that Trump maintained his support among rural and less educated voters and even improved it among African-Americans and Latinos. Despite Trump’s bungling, many ordinary Americans may have sensed indifference if not outright hostility emanating toward them from his Democratic opponents. And they would not have been mistaken. The Democratic Party leadership has become estranged from its historic base.

The spectacle of liberals jeering at coal miners reveals seismic changes in our larger public discourse. The miners were “getting exactly what they voted for”—exactly what they deserved, in other words. The belief that people get what they deserve is rooted in the secular individualist outlook that has legitimated inequality in the United States for centuries, ever since the Protestant ethic began turning into the spirit of capitalism. Yet visions of a nation of autonomous strivers always coexisted with older ideals of community and solidarity—and those ideals resurfaced in the Great Depression to become the basis, however limited and imperfect, of midcentury social democracy. During the last four decades, the autonomous striving self has returned to the center of the success ethic, but featured in a new narrative that has focused less on plodding diligence and more on talent, brains, and credentialed expertise…

Part of the problem with these assumptions is that allegedly meritocratic practices do not reliably transcend class privilege, as Ivy League admissions annually demonstrate. But in a market society where money and merit are conflated, even a fair meritocracy would implicitly affirm that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, and the poor have no one to blame but themselves for their plight. As Michael Sandel has recently argued in The Tyranny of Merit, one can hardly overstate the corrosive effect of this belief on democracy. By dividing the population into winners and losers, smart people and stupid ones, the meritocratic myth promotes hubris on one side, humiliation and resentment on the other…

Since the 1990s, cheerleaders for globalization on both sides of the Atlantic have further obfuscated political discourse by announcing that “the new divide in rich countries is not between left and right but between open and closed,” as The Economist put it. “Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?” These questions made clear which was the more enlightened choice. Elite thought leaders from Tony Blair to Fareed Zakaria to Paul Krugman [more failed gods] espoused versions of that enlightenment.

The open or closed duality arrays the provincial losers in the backwaters, crippled by closed-minded mistrust of multicultural diversity, against the open-minded cosmopolitan winners—geographically and socially mobile devotees of open borders. Those left behind by globalization, who might have reason to question the beneficence of free-flowing capital, can simply be dismissed as bigots or failures. A complex subject deserving democratic debate is reduced to a morality play…

Promising to end endless wars and rebuild American industry, Trump offered false hope to those who had been left jobless by the global flow of capital and damaged in body or mind (or both) by the idiocies of imperial adventure. He played shamelessly to racist, misogynist, and xenophobic fears, but he also gave his dispossessed supporters a chance to vent their rage against the architects of empire and the meritocratic elite who dismissed them as “deplorables” clinging to religion and guns. His election shocked Democratic Party leaders into a panicky, incoherent, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to explain their loss as a result of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. But the Democrats failed to provide any serious policy agenda, focusing instead on simply demonizing Trump…

For intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, the first warning sign was the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election. The threat was magnified by the rise of right-wing demagogues in Eastern Europe and Brazil. The most common defensive strategy, especially among those who positioned themselves within a nebulous “center,” was to ignore the possibility that their own values, ideologies, and policies may have helped to provoke a populist reaction. Self-examination was not on the agenda; no one acknowledged how completely democracy had been undone by neoliberal policies and ideology. Instead it was time to sound the alarm: the barbarians were at the gates; civilization itself was imperiled.

Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy is a contribution to this narrative. Her career epitomizes the typical meritocratic blend of achievement enhanced by privilege and personal connections. For a would-be transatlantic intellectual, she was to the manner born. Her father is a partner in the Washington law firm of Covington and Burling, which represents a wide range of multinational corporations; her mother was a program coordinator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (before it was dissolved in 2014). She attended the elite Sidwell Friends School, then took a BA at Yale in history and literature and an MA in international relations from the London School of Economics. Her writing has frequently appeared in these pages, The Economist, The Washington Post,and now The Atlantic, where she is a staff writer. She has published a history of the Soviet Gulag, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two accounts of Stalinist crimes in Eastern Europe.

She is a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, which has been backing American interventions abroad since the Reagan years. And she has been a fellow at the market-friendly Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, where her husband, the Polish politician Radosław Sikorski, has also held an appointment.

Applebaum has been in the right place at the right time. Her rapid rise to prominence reflects her well-positioned start but also the resonance between the revived cold war atmosphere in Washington and her own geopolitical perspective. She associates herself with “the Republican Party of John McCain,” which means center-right on domestic policy and recklessly interventionist in foreign policy. Like McCain, Applebaum seems rarely to have seen a problem, at least overseas, that couldn’t be solved by bombing.

Twilight of Democracy shuttles back and forth between chatty, anecdotal accounts of encounters with big players at parties, restaurants, and bars and cloudy, abstract formulations about everyday life—“demographic change,” “wage decline”—which look and sound as if they have been formulated on the fly, in a first-class seat high above the Atlantic.

…Trump’s promise to end our endless wars, however misleading, tapped into a deep vein of popular resentment—as poll results reveal. Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota and Douglas Kriner of Boston University analyzed election results from the 2016 election in three crucial states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—and concluded that “even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.” Many of those communities, moreover, voted for Obama in the two previous elections.

…ultimately Applebaum is less interested in talent than she is in ideology. She pines for the “idealism” that inspired the “young conservatives” who were preparing for power in the US in the 1990s:

“This wasn’t the nostalgic conservatism of the English; this was something more buoyant, more American, an optimistic conservatism that wasn’t backward-looking at all. Although there were darker versions, at its best it was energetic, reformist, and generous, predicated on faith in the United States, belief in the greatness of American democracy, and ambition to share that democracy with the rest of the world.”

Yet the “optimistic conservatism” of the fin de siècle was the outlook that brought us the invasion of Iraq, the legitimation of torture, and the unprecedented, unconstitutional expansion of executive power under Bush and Cheney. In league with liberal interventionists, these “energetic, reformist, and generous” conservatives ushered in the calamitous policy of regime change—a euphemism that conflates imperial ambition with the “ambition to share [American] democracy with the rest of the world.” In this context, sharing is a bad joke. The regime changers are in effect saying, You know you want to be like us, and if you don’t, we have the guns to persuade you...

To recognize the bloody history of US foreign policy is not to equate this nation with amoral oligarchies but to call it to account for violating its own professed ideals and aspirations. If “American democracy is good,” as Applebaum believes, if its public figures truly aspire “to be a model among nations,” then they should be willing to grapple with the significance of their own history, including the many crimes committed in the name of American democracy. That would be a fundamental departure from the exceptionalist faith in America’s unique virtue, a heresy unthinkable to the foreign policy establishment and the intellectuals who legitimate it. Deliverance from exceptionalism is not likely to happen anytime soon, but it is crucial to keep imagining it—if only to sustain the idea of international cooperation required by climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. For American democracy to survive, its clercs are going to have to disengage from orthodoxy, stop talking only to one another, and start listening to heretics.

Jackson Lears is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers, Editor in Chief of Raritan, and the author of ­Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920, among other books…[review here]

Ouch. Related posts:

The Continuing Failure of US Neo-Imperialism [2015]

No “End of History”, “Collapse of the Liberal World Order” Section [2016]

Donald Trump, the People and Universal Suffrage Democracy–and Bertolt Brecht [2016]

US not done using CIA to Mess with Foreign Elections, Former Yugoslavia (Serbia) Section, 2000

Holey moley! Poles will Pole

Der Untergang des Abendlandes, for real

US Foreign Policy Elite Failed the (generally white) Middle Class Masses in the Middle of the Country

The very Infectious Trumpdemic, or, the Poor, Fractured, Failing, Formerly United States of America

Country Music no Racist Product of the American South (note “Deliverance” at the end)

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

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