Democracy and Illiberal Governance in Hungary and the U.S.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks in Budapest. 

Seven years ago liberal democracy was hijacked in Hungary. A nationalist politician, Viktor Orban, played on public fears and anxieties to come to power in a national election. He proceeded to attack the media, the judiciary, civil society, the rule of law, and the protection of minority rights—the fundamental elements of pluralism.  

Was this a harbinger of what would happen in the U.S.? The two countries are of course quite different, but the autocratic government of Viktor Orban has become a model for far-right politicians in the U.S. like Representative Steve King, a Republican member of Congress from Iowa, who has proclaimed that “history will record Viktor Orban as the Winston Churchill of Western civilization.”

Orban has established what he calls a system of “illiberal governance,” a new version of authoritarianism in the hollowed-out shell of democracy. Orban’s model is being copied by populist-nationalist politicians in Poland, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe. In the U.S., Donald Trump is pursuing the same course. Key differences between U.S. and European democracy, however, suggest that the Orban model cannot easily be transported across the Atlantic.

Dissatisfaction with elected politicians, political parties, and ruling elites has made Europeans and Americans dangerously vulnerable to the hijacking of democracy. Discontent has become rebellion—economic rebellion by people left behind by the loss of jobs and the shutting down of industries, new technologies of production, and the forces of globalization from which elites have disproportionately benefited; identity rebellion by previously dominant groups in society feeling excluded from a civil rights culture intended to rectify centuries of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination; and security rebellion by people whose fears of terrorism and crime have been fanned by politicians into hostility toward minorities, refugees, migrants, and foreigners.

In the wake of the 2009 financial crisis many Hungarians rejected liberal democracy, feeling they were no better off than they had been under communism. The European Union was seen as a source of outside interference and Brussels was attacked by Hungarian politicians as “the new Moscow.” After two decades of democracy, a new nationalism sprang up, especially in rural areas, where 70 percent of Hungarians live.

This set the scene for Viktor Orban’s rise to power in the country’s 2010 elections. Orban’s party, Fidesz, used distortion and innuendo to denigrate the opposition as criminal and elitist, appealing to ethnic and religious homogeneity, and rejecting human rights as a threat to traditional Hungarian society. Orban and his party were able to achieve a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, giving them unfettered power to rewrite the constitution and undermine pluralist institutions.

Hungary has been a member of the European Union since 2003, and its membership is dependent on adherence to the norms of pluralist democracy. Unfortunately, the EU has done very little to monitor the democratic practices of its members. Brussels has impinged on the sovereignty of member states when they break EU budget rules or need financial help, but has often turned a blind eye on practices that undermine democracy. Until this year, Hungary was a case-in-point. 

The early steps taken by Orban’s government now look quite familiar in the context of the first seven months of Donald Trump’s presidency. First, it attacked the media. Through a combination of government takeover, financial pressure, regulation, and censorship, the government drastically reduced the public’s sources of unbiased information and independent criticism. Next, it attacked the judiciary. By expanding and packing the Hungarian Constitutional Court, cutting back its jurisdiction and forcing the early retirement of judges, the government weakened the rule of law. Then it went after civil society. By branding organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents” (copying Russia’s crack down on NGOs), conducting harassment investigations of groups they didn’t like, and attacking the academic freedom of universities, Orban’s regime systematically undermined civil society.

A symbol of all these attacks is a new law that would force Central European University (CEU), which I headed for seven years until just last summer, to shut down. CEU was attacked because it was established after communism fell with an endowment by George Soros, whose purpose was to help revive academic freedom after its destruction by more than 50 years of totalitarian rule from which the Soros family and many other Hungarians had fled. The Orban regime—whose leader, ironically, benefited from an early Soros scholarship—wants to turn the clock back to a time when academic and many other freedoms were nonexistent in the country.

But “illiberal governance” itself may be vulnerable, and its vulnerabilities point the way toward democratic revival.

A major vulnerability is corruption. Illiberal regimes breed oligarchies that drain public resources, destroy competition, drag down economic growth, and stir populist discontent. This can lead to political backlash: Earlier this year 250,000 Hungarians protested against the government’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics because it would have taken public resources from the people for the benefit of government cronies. As a result, the government had to abandon its Olympic bid in order to avoid exposing its own corruption. Similarly, in March of this year 500,000 people took to the streets in Romania to protest a new law weakening anti-corruption standards. The law was later scrapped.

Another weakness is the political economy. It’s difficult for authoritarian regimes in small countries with few natural resources to produce sustainable prosperity. Hungary depends on the economy of the EU, which means the EU, at least in theory, can be a restraining influence on the Hungarian government. In May, the European Parliament and the European Commission initiated an “infringement proceeding” against the government for its attacks on CEU and civil society. After major public protests supporting the university, the government announced that it would consider a new agreement about CEU with the state of New York, where the university is chartered.

A further weakness of illiberal governance is that civil society can seep through the cracks, finding new ways to resist by using the internet and social media. While traditional media can be regulated by autocratic regimes, digital media are more difficult to control. In Hungary in 2014, more than 100,000 people took to the streets after the regime announced that it would tax citizens who use the internet, and the government backed down. Next door, in Poland, where the ruling party is pursuing Orban-style illiberal governance, massive demonstrations this year in support of judicial independence persuaded the Polish president not to sign legislation giving the government broad authority over the courts. 

The hijacking of democracy in Hungary is both a cautionary tale and a story of resistance. What are the prospects that this will happen in the U.S.?  

Seven months into his presidency, Donald Trump seems to be mimicking Viktor Orban. He’s labeled journalists “enemies of the people” and assaulted the mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news”; challenged the independence of the judiciary and smeared the integrity of judges; attacked civil society by claiming massive voter fraud, challenging the voting rights of millions of Americans, and discounting minority voters by supporting the gerrymandering of their election districts; abused the power of the presidency by putting pressure on his FBI director to drop an investigation of a former Trump White House official, then firing the director for investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election.

There are of course many examples of the abuse of power by American presidents, but also cases in which presidents have been reined in. Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the Supreme Court so that it would validate aspects of his New Deal agenda, but the Congress rejected his “court-packing” scheme. Richard Nixon used government law enforcement and intelligence agencies to violate civil liberties, but the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him and the federal courts held him responsible for his abuses of power. George W. Bush introduced the use of torture in his “war on terror”, but he was resisted by government officials inside the Pentagon, and later by Congress and the courts.

In contrast to Hungary, the U.S. has a decentralized, multi-layered governance system that’s difficult to control from Washington. The system is now being used to resist some of Trump’s abusive initiatives. State attorneys general, for example, have challenged Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens from Muslim countries. Cities have offered sanctuary to the refugees and migrants Trump is trying to deport. States are sticking with—and carrying forward—the standards of the Paris Accord on climate change.

The federal courts are another potential source of resistance. Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban was invalidated by five federal courts and judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents, and the Supreme Court has blocked implementation of the ban for travelers who have a “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States.”

Resistance can also take place within the federal bureaucracy, as, for example, when former FBI Director James Comey refused to follow the President’s directive to terminate the FBI investigation of the president’s former National Security Advisor. 

There’s room for resistance in Congress, even when it’s controlled by the President’s party.  Complex rules of procedure make it possible to defeat legislation like the bill to repeal healthcare benefits enacted during the Obama administration. 

The media are another critical strength of American democracy. Trump’s attacks on The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and other mainstream media may appeal to his hard-core base, but the attacks have galvanized the press, and have coincided with the president’s falling support in national opinion polls.

Finally, the U.S. has a robust and diverse civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out two centuries ago that Americans make up for their skepticism about government with their commitment to civic engagement.

American democracy may be resilient, but it’s still vulnerable to hijacking.

There’s always the danger of an American “Reichstag.” On February 27, 1933, the German parliament was set ablaze by unknown attackers. It remains a mystery whether the attack was carried out by Hitler’s enemies or his secret agents. Either way, it was a spectacular act of terror that gave the future Fuhrer the opportunity he was seeking to round up his enemies, suspend civil liberties, and declare a state of emergency that remained in effect throughout the Third Reich.

Americans are vulnerable to a Reichstag event. A major terrorist attack or an international crisis involving nuclear weapons would create a climate of fear that could be exploited by an American president like Donald Trump looking for a way to escape his political problems and crack down on his opponents. There are many current possibilities for such an event—war with North Korea, a military confrontation with China, an ISIS attack on a major American city. If any of these were to happen, the cost of defending democracy would go up and the possibility of resisting a hijacking would go down. The only way to prepare for a Reichstag event is to recognize that it is possible, warn of its dangers, and be aware of its history. The powerful memory of 9/11 and its impact on American society provides both a warning and a collective reason to resist another attack on American democracy.

In the end, liberal democracy in the U.S. can be saved only if the conditions driving the populist rebellion against the status quo are addressed. Underlying the rebellion is the biggest issue of our time: structural inequality—the vast upward redistribution of economic and social benefits to the upper tiers of society where the levers of power are manipulated. This was the issue in the U.S. that fueled both the populist anger of Trump voters on the right and the democratic insurgency of the Bernie Sanders campaign on the left.

Populists across the political spectrum are demanding justice for people left behind by globalization and the structural forces of inequality it has generated. Finding common ground among these populist movements is essential if liberal democracy is to survive. With their support, democratic governance could create a roadmap for reducing the regressive forces of inequality. Illiberal governance and authoritarian rule, on the other hand, will lead only to a dead end.

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