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The Ford School of Public Policy hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Anne Applebaum at the Michigan League on Monday to discuss challenges to democratic institutions and the role of the press in a conversation with Dean Michael S. Barr. 

Offered in both an in-person and virtual format, the event titled “The Twilight of Democracy” drew hundreds of attendees for the culmination of the Ford School’s “Democracy in Crisis” series. Beginning in March, the series hosted four acclaimed journalists to speak on threats to democratic systems in the U.S. and around the world. Applebaum, who specializes in geopolitics and the contemporary political landscape, is currently a staff writer for The Atlantic.

Barr began the conversation asking Applebaum about her book “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, which explains how the appeal of nationalism and autocracy has paved the way for a new wave of authoritarianism around the world.

Applebaum said her book explored the rise of right-wing nationalism in Poland following the fall of the Soviet Union as well as a similar phenomenon being found in countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.

“A part of the right (in Poland) in particular, had come to different conclusions and had decided that the system that was built after 1989 didn’t reflect their views,” Applebaum said. “A part of the Republican Party became disappointed with modern America. A part of the Tory party became disappointed with Britain, that the country was not what it had been or not what they imagined it should be … So they attached themselves to new, radical political movements.”

Applebaum went on to explain how conspiracy theories such as birtherism — the belief of any discrediting claims that former U.S. President Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen — have fueled public distrust of the government in Western democracies around the world.

“Each country has its different version of this: in Poland, there was a terrible plane crash involving one of the former presidents and a huge set of conspiracy theories were built around the plane crash,” Applebaum said. “The use of conspiracy theory to undermine public trust … in democratic institutions, was something I started to see happening all across Western democracies.”

Applebaum said right-wing nationalism and distrust of democratic institutions has led people to believe that they must take extreme, extrajudicial measures to regain control, as exemplified by the Jan. 6 insurrection and the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“A part of the (Republican Party is) reconstructing itself as a party designed to overthrow the American voting system,” Applebaum said. “(The idea that) there is a conspiracy to take away the votes of ordinary Americans and instead to put in fake candidates for president … that’s a way of undermining confidence in institutions and giving people the sense that they need to do extra legal or extrajudicial actions, including violent actions, in order to take power.”

The end of the session left room for questions from the audience, who engaged in conversations around how the media plays a role in informing citizens.

“What would you say is the number one thing that journalists need to do so that when they report facts, they are believed and they’re trusted?” one attendee asked. “And what can audiences do to be more mindful of the content that they are consuming?”

Applebaum answered by discussing the role of social media and selective reporting of violence and conflict for the purposes of higher engagement.

“The incentive (for news media) was towards louder, more angry, more emotional writing, and that was coming from the readers,” Applebaum said. “It also came from the nature of social media … (Facebook) makes its money off of advertising, it does not make its money off of creating consensus or promoting better speech or better conversations. And because journalism was connected to Facebook … that had a really negative impact on journalism.”

Applebaum concluded by reminding attendees that decline in the quality of democracy is not fated or predestined, and that the collective of many individuals taking action could make a difference in efforts against authoritarianism.

“Democracy is not inevitable, but dictatorship is not inevitable (either),” Applebaum said. “We all have agency and we can all affect the course of events … (something) that people who live in dictatorships don’t have … We take that for granted because we’ve had it for 250 years with a few glitches in the middle. It’s therefore incumbent on all of us to take pride in the fact that we have (that ability) and to use that possibility.”

Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at irenayli@umich.edu.