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‘The Era of Liberal Democracy Is Over’

Hungary’s Orbán (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

A week ago, I wrote a post titled “Liberal Democracy and Us.” I quoted Pat Buchanan, in part because he is so frank — he does not pussyfoot around, as so many lesser Buchananites do. He is perfectly willing to use words such as “authoritarian,” where others play coy.

Last month, Buchanan was hailing Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister (though “prime minister” seems too weak a term for what he is). “The democracy worshippers of the West cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis,” wrote Buchanan.

Here we go again. Or here I go again, in another post. This past Thursday, Orbán said, “The era of liberal democracy is over.” Being an American political journalist, I could not help thinking of Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address: “The era of big government is over.” Unfortunately, Clinton was wrong. Is Orbán right?

Orbán proceeded to say, “Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.” And what might that mean? I think it means whatever Orbán and his camp decree, frankly.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to claim he was building a Muslim democracy — a democracy that shucked the unnatural secularism of the past but that was a democracy nonetheless. He had his enthusiasts in the West. At some point, however, those enthusiasts went quiet, as Erdogan went ever more dictatorial.

Putin, too, had his Western enthusiasts, you know. Largely — but not entirely — they have gone quiet.

Erdogan has been in power since 2003, and there is no end in sight. Putin has been in power since 2000, and ditto. How about his friend Orbán? “In power since 2010,” reported the New York Times, “he confidently suggested that he planned to lead the country until at least 2030.”

Back to Orbán’s proclamation that “the era of liberal democracy is over.” On Twitter, Simon Schama, the British historian, said, “Well, no, Orbán, liberal democracy will see you and your nativists off because liberal democracy has John Milton, John Locke and J. S. Mill and you have Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon.”

I can tell you this: In my corner of the world — the American Right, and the Western Right generally — Farage, Le Pen (any of them), and Bannon are a helluva lot more popular than Milton, Locke, and Mill. The first three are big at CPAC; the other guys, no.

On Twitter, responding to Schama, I said, “It seems to me that the public’s appetite for liberal democracy is dangerously weak — and that its openness to strongmen is dangerously great.” Schama wrote, “I don’t discount that. Liberal democrats — left and right — haven’t yet found the right language to talk to people beyond their own constituencies and readers, to give them a potent sense of what has to be defended and why. That’s the challenge.”

I could not agree more. And I thought of one of my favorite pieces of all of 2018, a piece by Noah Rothman, published at Commentary in March. One of its messages is the following: The nationalists and populists are strong and confident, not to mention belligerent and bullying. The classical liberals, the believers in liberal democracy, are all too meek. They are back on their heels. They need to grow a pair, and be as bold as their opponents.

Who in the Republican party today speaks for liberal democracy? Ben Sasse? Marco Rubio? Let me borrow an old line: That’s not a wing of a party; it’s barely a feather. What the GOP is today, we saw earlier this month, when Vice President Pence praised Joe Arpaio as a champion of the rule of law.

In Europe, I wish liberal democrats, or those who claim to speak in liberal democracy’s name, would remember this: As “the Constitution is not a suicide pact,” liberal democracy is not a suicide pact. You must be unblushing about the defense of the West, including national sovereignty. Otherwise, people will turn to the authoritarians, just as Pat Buchanan says. And I would not over-blame them, frankly.

To a lot of people, liberal democracy looks weak and helpless now. Politicians and other leaders are afraid, or loath, to demand assimilation. Political correctness is choking the life out of societies. Yet liberal democracy is like trade (a component of liberal democracy): Everyone benefits from it, and few know it. They would know it if it died, or were killed off.

Illiberalism sounds great to people, as long as they can lord this illiberalism over others. But to be on the wrong end of it — is enough to send you back to Locke and the boys. You’d better hope it’s not too late.

Did you hear Viktor Orbán, on the stump? “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

I wonder if things will get so bumpy in Europe, the present period will seem an idyll.

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