In May 1995, I attended a conference in Moscow organized by the former dissident Yuri Orlov and others, with the assistance of one of the new Russian democratic groups, to debate the danger of a “fascist” takeover in Moscow. Those were the days of the “Wild East” in the former Soviet lands, full of crime and violence. They had produced much speculation as to whether the current less-than-democratic interlude constituted merely a “Weimar Russia” before the return to full authoritarianism. Participants in this small conference, which included American scholars such as Eugen Weber, Abraham Ascher, and myself, were given some 40 pages of prepared material that listed at least 30 or more new Russian nationalist organizations. At that time, the term “populism” had not yet come into vogue, being restricted mainly to historical usage and to Latin America. But that is the term that would be used to describe such threats today.

When this modest conference convened, only two years had passed since the revolt of the new Russian parliament against Boris Yeltsin that had been repressed. Clearly visible from our “Hotel Ukraina” was the smoke-blackened damage to the assembly’s Belii Dom (White House) across the Moscow River. At that moment, Yeltsin was completing an amendment to the new Russian constitution that greatly increased the powers of the presidency. After examining the materials available to us, we concluded that none of the new nationalist associations was likely to develop the strength to take over the Russian system. Rather, the greatest danger stemmed from an extension of the powers of the existing Russian government itself, which might simply morph directly into a new repressive regime. The predictive powers of social scientists are quite limited, but that is exactly what happened a few years later. The handwriting was on the wall.

Even today, such ironies are generally lost on those who warn that democracy is under threat. One of the most active defenders of democracy is Anne Applebaum, a distinguished journalist and historian of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era. Her most recent book, Twilight of Democracy (2020), was motivated by the retreat of liberal democracy in contemporary Hungary and particularly in her second homeland, Poland. Applebaum presents the politics of populism and of nostalgia as the principal new ills of the age. Only once in passing does she take note of “so-called ‘cancel culture’ on the internet, the extremism that sometimes flares up on university campuses, and the exaggerated claims of those who practice identity politics.” She states that these phenomena represent “a political and cultural problem that will require real bravery to fight,” and leaves it at that. The result is a well-written and informative book that is strangely unbalanced as an analysis of political problems in the present decade.

Moisés Naím, once Venezuelan trade minister and more recently, after fleeing his motherland, an accomplished political analyst, echoes Applebaum. In The Revenge of Power, published this year he finds the common features of the new authoritarianism to be a product of what he calls the “3 Ps”—populism, polarization, and post-truth. Naím lucidly and accurately examines numerous examples of the descent into either authoritarianism or, in some cases, an increasingly illiberal dysfunctionality in democratic polities. His last regular chapter deals with the impact of Covid-19, which has led to a significant extension of state power in every kind of polity. The book’s major weakness lies in its short-term focus on new pathologies to the exclusion of any discussion of longer-term trends, perhaps inherent in liberal democracy itself.

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