Liberal Democracy vs. Illiberalism, in Orbán’s Hungary and Elsewhere

Hungary’s Orbán (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)
Conservatives have enemies to their right.

‘Democracy is in crisis,” begins the 2018 annual report from Freedom House. “For the 12th consecutive year, . . . countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains.” Indeed, the downward trend may be accelerating. This year for the first time, the number of countries registering losses of freedom — a whopping 71 in all — is more than double the number in which freedom grew.

Alarm at this trajectory, together with some other global events and trends, inspired the issuance of the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, officially launched at the October 2017 conference, in Prague, of the Forum 2000 Foundation, an organization founded by former Czech president Václav Havel and maintained by members of his family and close political associates. The Prague Appeal is intended as a “moral and intellectual catalyst for the revitalization of the democratic idea” and as the charter for the Coalition for Democratic Renewal, consisting of intellectuals and activists, from scores of countries, who aim to “go on the offensive against the authoritarian opponents of democracy.”

That such an initiative might draw return fire from its targets is to be expected. More surprising, however, was the broadside against it in these pages by National Review editor-at-large John O’Sullivan, speaking mostly through the voice of Ryszard Legutko. O’Sullivan merely glossed a polemic that Legutko had contributed to the Australian magazine Quadrant. Lengthy quotes from it made up most of O’Sullivan’s piece.

O’Sullivan introduces Legutko as a “distinguished Polish philosopher,” but one could not tell from the method of his diatribe. In the compass of a thousand words, Legutko accuses the Prague Appeal of being “bizarre,” “outrageous,” “intellectual[ly] dishonest,” “an insult to decency,” “vile,” “shameful,” and “a lie.” He attributes to the signers, many of whom have published a great deal, views in manifest contradiction to what they have written. Oddly, he elsewhere recently put his name to an appeal for “linguistic decency,” noting that “language is a delicate instrument, . . . debased when used as a bludgeon,” and that “recourse to denunciation is a sign of . . . decadence.”

What is going on here? The fuse igniting Legutko’s (and, by proxy, O’Sullivan’s) explosion is the inclusion, in the Prague Appeal, of a reference to Hungary alongside references to Venezuela, Turkey, and the Philippines. All are cited as examples of “backsliding democracies” where “illiberalism is on the rise.” Legutko, who angrily decried this as “attributing guilt by scurrilous association,” and O’Sullivan, who directs a think tank in Budapest, are evidently partial to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. More broadly, they appear to sympathize with “populist” movements that have arisen recently in Europe and the U.S.

There are important issues to discuss here. But first we must get past not only the torrent of abuse rained down by Legutko but also O’Sullivan’s misleading claims about who the sides are in this argument and what it is they are arguing about. O’Sullivan portrays a debate in which “most conservatives and mainstream Republicans” are set “against a coalition of progressives and liberal Republicans.” The former support “a majoritarian view of democracy” that, he says, their critics call “populism.” The other side of the debate, he continues, favors “a form of liberal democracy in which courts, international treaties, and bureaucratic agencies take decisions once under the control of Congress”: a position called “post-democracy” by their critics.

Pretending to even-handedness, O’Sullivan proceeds to refer to each group by the epithet that its “critics” attach to it, but this is not even at all. “Populism” is not a term used only or even primarily by “critics” of the political currents represented by Trump, Orbán, Le Pen, et al. They must be called something, and “populist” is a rather neutral label. O’Sullivan, who sympathizes with this side, has used the term himself repeatedly in articles for Hungarian Review. On the other hand, “post-democracy” is a slur, or at least a gross distortion, as none of the advocates of liberal democracy in this debate believe what O’Sullivan attributes to them. In fact, the first paragraph of the Prague Appeal specifically denounces the efforts of authoritarians “to create a post-democratic world order.” In other words, “post-democratic” is a term that the Prague Appeal uses to define what it opposes, not to define itself.

Neither is it true that “most conservatives and mainstream Republicans” identify as “populists.” Almost none use that label, and few would embrace it. Nor is the liberal-democracy side of this debate made up of “progressives and liberal Republicans.” The latter term is generally recognized as a null set since the demise of Nelson D. Rockefeller, and the former applies to few if any of the signers of the Prague Appeal.

Around 85 percent of them are not Americans. Of the 38 signers who are, I know almost all and don’t see any who I think would call themselves  “progressive.” A large part are associated with groups such as Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy. Some are moderate liberals, others are centrists or conservatives, and some are neoconservatives. (For the text of the document and the list of signers, see Forum2000.)

The last group is significant in that the O’Sullivan-Legutko polemic is redolent of earlier attacks by self-described “paleoconservatives” against neoconservatives. A cornerstone of those attacks was the charge that neocons made a fetish of democracy in advocating democracy-promotion as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.

Over the years, progressives have voiced cognate criticisms, drawing a distinction between the “human-rights community” and the “democracy community.” They have favored the former because human rights, a touchstone of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, could be couched in terms of U.N. treaties and declarations, whereas democracy-promotion, a touchstone of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, seemed American-centric.

Whatever the invidious intent of this distinction made by progressives, “the democracy community” is an accurate description of the American signers of the Prague Appeal. And if there can be said to be an international “democracy community,” made up of veterans of the victories over Communism in Eastern and Central Europe as well as of dissidents from Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Bahrain, Egypt, and other countries under dictatorship — a community of activists many of whom know one another and offer one another moral support — then this term would apply to the signatory group as a whole.

Most thoughtful democrats, but especially conservatives, understand that restraints on governmental power by means of divided authority and protections of minority rights are essential.

This makes it doubly strange that O’Sullivan would characterize the signers as believers in what he calls “post-democracy” — that is, rule by unelected elites — while describing those usually called “populists,” including by O’Sullivan himself, as “majoritarian democrats.” This nomenclature makes the latter group sound like the firmer or truer democrats.  Why would O’Sullivan resort to such verbal sleight of hand?

Perhaps because there is no honest way to make populism out to be a conservative virtue or cause. Most thoughtful democrats, but especially conservatives, take to heart the wisdom of the American founders, who understood that representative democracy is preferable to plebiscitary democracy and that restraints on governmental power by means of divided authority and protections of minority rights are essential even where public officeholders are chosen in free elections.

Populism puts little stock in such checks and balances. It favors direct and immediate expressions of popular will, which all too readily devolve into tyranny, as Plato observed in antiquity, and as the Jacobins illustrated at the dawn of the modern era. Populists are generally demagogues, which is why we have often seen them resort to appeals to bigotry, both here and abroad.

That is the reason that the “democracy community” is alarmed at the rise of populism, but populism is not the only issue or even the main one that the Prague Appeal addresses. First and foremost among them is the mounting assertiveness of “despotic regimes in Russia, China, and other countries that are tightening repression internally and expanding their power globally.” Their audacity is encouraged by the “fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies.”

A second reason is that other countries, including some important regional powers, are moving away from democracy. Venezuela, Turkey, and the Philippines are salient examples. Legutko denies or downplays the changes in those countries, citing earlier weaknesses, but the facts are these: Venezuela boasted one of Latin America’s firmer democratic traditions, Turkey was often cited as the best example of Muslim democracy in the Middle East if not the world, and the Philippines had functioned since the mid 1980s as one of a handful of democratic exemplars in East Asia. Now, democracy has been overturned in Venezuela and Turkey and is hanging by a thread in the Philippines. Perhaps the reason Legutko strains to obscure those facts is that in each case the leader responsible for the deplorable turn — Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — can well be labeled a populist.

A third source of concern cited in the Prague Appeal is survey evidence showing a significantly weakening commitment to democracy and liberal values (in the broad sense of that term, denoting beliefs often held most dear by conservatives) in Western societies, especially among young people.

These developments must distress any democrat. That makes it inexplicable that O’Sullivan and Legutko would, in their zeal to defend Orbán, trash the Prague Appeal in toto. And it is downright bizarre that they would do so in the name of democracy, whether “majoritarian” or any other kind.

They might have shared the worries expressed in the Prague Appeal while taking exception only to its criticism of Orbán’s Hungary. Why issue such a fierce across-the-board attack on the whole endeavor instead? Perhaps because they could not come up with a compelling defense of Orbán.

Changes that Fidesz pushed through seem designed to assure that its measures would be hard to undo even if its electoral fortunes waned.

Ever since his Fidesz party came to power in 2010, winning 50-odd percent of the popular vote and thereby securing more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, it has undertaken a dramatic overhaul of Hungarian institutions. This has provoked protests from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, and all manner of human-rights groups. Early complaints, having to do with electoral laws and gerrymandering, were apparently borne out in the next election, in 2014, when the popular vote for Fidesz fell below 50 percent but the party retained its two-thirds-plus control of parliament.

Other changes that Fidesz pushed through seem designed to assure that its measures would be hard to undo even if its electoral fortunes waned. It created, among a raft of constitutional changes, a category of “cardinal laws” that could not be overturned by less than a two-thirds majority in parliament, meaning that they will be immune to change by any future government that commands only a simple majority. A necessary feature of liberal democracy is the requirement of supermajorities, for the purpose of guaranteeing rights. But Hungary’s constitution now includes such matters as family and tax policy within the ambit of “cardinal laws.” Also, the terms of the public prosecutor and of the head of the judicial office (which appoints various judges) were lengthened, as were those of the head of the media board and the audit office, with a proviso that, even when their terms expire, their successors must receive the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament. If they fail to attain that, the tenure of the present officeholders would, it appears, extend indefinitely.

Members of the constitutional court used to be nominated by a committee on which all parties were represented. Now they are nominated solely by representatives of Fidesz, which has filled the court with its own partisans. Something similar has been done with government offices that have power over media. State media now are widely accused of slanting in favor of the government, and large swaths of private media have been bought by investors who are reportedly close to Orbán.

The largest opposition daily, Népszabadság, closed abruptly in late 2016 after running exposés of government corruption. Its parent company soon sold it to another company, linked to the former mayor of Orbán’s hometown, a man regarded as a crony of his. The second company announced that it would not restart the paper.

Last year the European Parliament, whose majority comes from right-of-center parties, adopted a resolution decrying ‘a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights’ in Hungary.

For these and other derelictions, Freedom House’s assessment of Hungary has progressively worsened since Orbán took office. For the previous five years, Hungary had recorded a pristine 1.0 on the Freedom House’s scale of 1 to 7. It promptly fell to 1.5, then to 2.0. It now stands at 2.5, at the outer edge of qualifying as a “free country.” A small slide in the same direction would tip it into the category “partly free.”

While O’Sullivan describes Freedom House as lying in the “left-leaning Center,” even though most of its recent executives have been Republicans, many of Orbán’s other critics are indisputably left of center. But plenty of observers on the right have expressed similar worries. The Heritage Foundation in its annual index of economic freedom notes that “judicial independence remains under threat” and that “cronyism and corruption are serious concerns, as illustrated by the difficulties experienced by business owners who have fallen out of favor with the government.” And last year the European Parliament, whose majority comes from right-of-center parties, adopted a resolution decrying “a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights” in Hungary.

What I and, I am sure, other signers of the Prague Appeal find most alarming, however, is Orbán’s own rhetoric. In a famous speech in 2014, he made clear that his aim was to “reorganiz[e] the Hungarian state” and society to create a “work-based society that . . . undertakes the odium of stating that it is not liberal in character.” That meant “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies [of] the West.” He added, “What we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state.” The goal, he explained, was to make the society “internationally competitive,” adding that “the stars . . . today are Singapore, China, India, Russia, and Turkey.”

Orbán’s admiration for Erdogan’s Turkey makes it especially ironic that Legutko waxed most furious over the association of Hungary with Turkey in the Prague Appeal. It is a shame that O’Sullivan and Legutko resorted to a tirade against the Appeal instead of venturing a justification of Orbán’s words and actions.

For it seems undeniable that democracy is in crisis for the reasons the Appeal enumerates: authoritarians emboldened, the West in retreat, many countries growing less free, the younger generation indifferent to democratic values and innocent of the horrific though heroic struggles that secured them. One would have hoped that the likes of O’Sullivan and Legutko, men who once participated in those struggles, would join in defending their fruits.


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