On Dec. 31, 1999, Anne Applebaum and her husband threw a New Year’s Eve party in rural Poland. In attendance were international journalists, Warsaw-based diplomats and friends from New York. But most of the partygoers were Polish friends and some colleagues of her husband, Radek Sikorski, who at the time was deputy foreign minister in the center-right Polish government. Polish journalists, civil servants and a couple of junior members of the government joined in the festivities. “You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right — the conservatives, the anti-Communists,” Applebaum writes in her new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” “But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcher-ites [who believed] in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances. . . . In the 1990s, that was what being ‘on the right’ meant.” The party lasted all night, Applebaum recalls, “and was infused with the optimism I remember from that time.”

But two decades later, that celebration had come to reflect the shifting tides of history, as Eastern and Western societies have once again fallen prey, as Applebaum’s subtitle puts it, to the seductive lure of authoritarianism. Many of her guests have since joined forces with demagogues, and they no longer speak to those who have remained democrats. “I would now cross the street,” Applebaum admits, “to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there.” What led them to those decisions?

In “Twilight of Democracy,” Applebaum investigates the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, which seemed so discredited in Poland at the end of the Cold War. Her historical expertise and knowledge of contemporary Europe and the United States illuminate what is eternal and distinctive about the political perils facing us today. Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, recognizes that history moves in cycles and exhibits certain patterns and tendencies, but, she argues, people have choices. She explores why important individuals, particularly intellectuals, make decisions that undermine democracy.

“Writers . . . pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes,” she writes, are crucial for demagogues to succeed because they “sell their image to the public.” Authoritarians “need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future.”

Applebaum recalls the work of the French essayist Julien Benda, who in 1927 described the importance of intellectual elites to the rise of both left- and right-wing authoritarians. Benda decried the ideologues who aided Soviet Marxism on the left and those who gave their services to fascist regimes on the right. He “accused them both of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes,” Applebaum writes.

Drawing on the stories of historical figures and her former friends, Applebaum argues that the motivation in some cases is simply personal gain. In Eastern Europe, for example, she shows that intellectuals often teamed with demagogues in return for social status and material rewards. In Hungary, a supporter of conservative leader and Prime Minister Viktor Orban was given, over two decades, “the funding and political support needed to oversee not just her museum but also a pair of historical institutes.” In Poland, Applebaum reports, the director of state television gained his position in return for supporting Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the right-wing populist leader of the governing Law and Justice party.

Besides personal gain, Applebaum observes that “cultural despair” has pushed some intellectuals into the arms of demagogues. She draws on the work of German American historian Fritz Stern, whose 1961 book, “The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology,” argued that concern over Germany’s spiritual and national decay was an underlying force in the rise of Nazism. Applebaum notes that in the late 19th century, German art historian Julius Langbehn described the “democratizing” tendency as a cause of the dissipation of German culture. Similarly, in the United States today, right-wing intellectuals believe that Democrats and liberal elites present an existential threat to American national identity and Christian values. In Britain, Applebaum finds, the European Union “became a kind of fixation for . . . nostalgic conservatives.” The notion of “Europe” became the embodiment of everything that “had gone wrong,” including “the mediocrity of British culture, the ugliness of modern capitalism, and the general lack of national vigor.” In Spain, intellectuals of the right-wing VOX party insisted that Christian civilization faced a looming threat from an “Islamic enemy.” Applebaum shows how such fears have led intellectuals to argue that any means — embracing corrupt, amoral leaders, attacking the judiciary and press, engaging in nepotism and corruption, accepting Russian money — justify the end of avoiding the apocalypse.

A third possible reason some intellectuals have fallen in with authoritarianism — a notion Applebaum considers but does not fully interrogate — is that many were never really democrats at all. During the Cold War, what united intellectuals on the right, like the guests at Applebaum’s party, may not have been their love of democracy but rather their hatred of communism. When communism collapsed, therefore, so did the ties that bound them together. Applebaum and the intellectuals with whom she stills feels a kinship did indeed hate communism because it was anti-democratic and anti-capitalist; but others on the right hated communism primarily because it crushed national identities, organized religion and traditional hierarchies. As it became clear that liberal democracy threatened these things as well, Applebaum’s former friends turned their backs on it, just as they had communism decades before.

While focusing on intellectuals, Applebaum does not ignore the choices made by ordinary people. Here, however, her analysis is blunt and lacks the personal anecdotes that make the book’s discussion of the intellectuals’s failings so compelling. To explain why average citizens prove susceptible to lure of authoritarianism, Applebaum refers to the notion of an “authoritarian personality,” identified by the philosopher of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt. The person susceptible to authoritarian charms is, in Arendt’s depiction, “a radically lonely individual who, ‘without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.” This predisposed person innately “favors homogeneity and order . . . cannot tolerate complexity . . . [and] is suspicious of people with different ideas.”

“Twilight of Democracy” offers many lessons on the long-standing struggle between democracy and dictatorship. But perhaps the most important is how fragile democracy is: Its survival depends on choices made every day by elites and ordinary people. “There is no road map to a better society,” Applebaum writes, “no didactic ideology, no rule book. All we can do is choose our allies and our friends . . . with great care, for only with them, together, is it possible to avoid the temptations of the different forms of authoritarianism.”

Twilight of Democracy

The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

By Anne Applebaum

Doubleday. 206 pp. $25