We Need Only To “Stay Faithful”: American Democracy and Hungarian Corruption

By Robert Andrew Price

Democracy has never been, and is not now, an inevitable consequence of human interactions. Rather, as put by Anne Applebaum in an article published in the October 2018 issue of the Atlantic, “Polarization is normal, skepticism about liberal democracy is normal and the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”[1] Thus, it should not be surprising when European countries relinquish their hold on democratic standards. The allure of power is timeless; human devotion to democracy is weak relative to that allure.

One country that has recently found itself losing its hold on democracy is Hungary. In Hungary, the Fidesz Party, headed by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has dominated the political scene for the better part of the last decade. As a consequence of this new functional one-party system and the questionable governing strategies that have been implemented to complement that system, Hungary has started to score poorly on assessments of its democratic status. In one assessment conducted by Freedom House, a self-proclaimed watchdog organization, the country earned a concerning score of 3.54 out of 7 on a scale that set a score of seven as equal to the least democratic circumstances possible.[2] Some of the questionable governing strategies that have contributed to this poor rating are: the closure of the opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag,[3] the legal attacks that effectively forced the Central European University out of the country, and the passing of the “STOP Soros”[4] bill designed to keep NGOs from providing aid to potential immigrants.

What is particularly alarming about the decline of democratic values and human rights in Hungary is that they have declined despite the oversight of the European Union. Despite the EU’s devotion to human rights, fair trade, and basic human dignity they have only been able to vote “to pursue [emphasis mine] disciplinary action against Hungary under Article 7 of the European Union Treaty.”[5] While this sounds promising, the disciplinary action enabled by the article will only ever amount to a slap on the wrist for Orban; the Article being invoked only starts a preventative process that has no timeline.

The fact that Orban has been able to slowly introduce elements of a soft autocracy in Hungary despite EU oversight is a testament to the allure of authoritarianism. Moreover, his success, which has been based on his being able to appeal to far-right populists, is a testament to the enduring motivational power of fear and safety. Oftentimes those inclined toward safety are willing to trade essentially any other right for it, even the right to a free press or the right to an impartial education system. Arguably, this is exactly the deal that has been made by populists in Hungary. The Hungarian borders have been secured at the high price of a free press. Also, Orban is not the only world leader who has been accused of stripping away fundamental human rights in exchange for improved safety. President Erdogan of near-by Turkey, has also been accused over the same time period of trading rights for safety, democracy for autocracy. Tellingly, the allure of authoritarianism is evidenced by the choices being made by numerous leaders around the world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the novel rhetoric and policies of Viktor Orban have prompted comparisons to those of President Donald Trump. Orban’s statement in an interview with Pannon RTV is, unnervingly similar to statements Trump has made on the immigration issue:

There are many people who would like to see the end of Christian Europe, and they believe that if they replace its cultural subsoil, if they bring in millions of people from new ethnic groups, which are not rooted in Christian culture, then they will transform Europe according to their conception, and this will make the continent a better place. We utterly  reject this.[6]

By rhetorically positioning the people of Hungary opposite to the non-Christians outside the borders –generally the Serbian border—Orban argues that outsiders and insider-Hungarians are fundamentally different from one another. According to Orban, reconciliation of differences between people groups is not worthwhile. This ideology is not unlike the ideology of Trump that is revealed by such statements as his bold call to political action just before the recently concluded midterm elections: “If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans, you better vote Republican.”[7] Both Orban and Trump are, evidently, in favor of putting their respective countrymen first, even if that means discounting the human rights of outsiders, disparaging against the liberal press, or generally emphasizing loyalty over morality.

Still, it is important to note that there are significant differences between what Trump and Orban have accomplished in their respective countries. Contrary to what biased news sources might have the public believe, the United States is not a broken democracy – as of yet. Yes, Trump has twitterly abused what he has repeatedly called fake news outlets that publish anti-Trump news, disparaged against a number of Muslim-majority countries through various travel bans, and painted Latin American immigrants as villains even though they are largely innocents desirous of better living conditions. Trump’s tweets, however, unlike Orban’s commands, have yet to amount to noticeable censure of the press, the closing down of liberal schools, or the banning of non-governmental aid organizations. Trump’s America, despite the president’s often offensive and ever-entertaining brand of bizarre behavior, remains a constitutional democracy that allows its citizens to think independently, to express themselves freely, and to vote in elections. Although there are, indeed, striking parallels between the political approaches of Trump and Orban those parallels cannot be considered, within the parameters of reasonability, indicative of equally compromised democracies between the two countries. No, the United States is still a free country.

Nevertheless, the parallels between Orban and Trump do serve a purpose other than to drive home the point that Americans have a lot to be thankful for. The parallels demonstrate that, even in America, democracy is not guaranteed. Accordingly, we should not take for granted the freedoms provided by our democratic systems. Unfortunately, Americans that have allowed themselves to adopt tribal postures in response to the fear-mongering and hate-speech promulgated by Trump are, to a degree, taking their freedoms for granted by valuing their side’s policies over the essential rights afforded to all Americans. On the left and right alike, individuals have become politically myopic as their beliefs about issues ranging from abortion to immigration prevent them from seeing the larger picture. In the larger picture the freedoms of the press, speech, and religion are all being threatened by as divisive a President as this country has ever seen. If Americans are to lead the modern, free world it is of paramount importance that we see beyond partisan issues in order that we may defend the principles that bind us together. If we cannot come together to defend basic human rights then we are truly lost. It is my humble opinion, however, after having participated in as stirring a midterm election as our country has ever seen, that the state of the union is healthy and partisanship may yet be overcome. We need only to “stay faithful.”[8]

[1] Anne Applebaum, “A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come” The Atlantic Magazine (October 2018): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/poland-polarization/568324/.

[2] Daniel Hegedus, “Nations in Transit 2017: Hungary, Country Profile” Freedom House (December 31, 2016): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/hungary.

[3] Pamela Druckerman, “The News is Bad in Hungary: Viktor Orban didn’t like what the press was reporting, so he took it over” The New York Times (November 1, 2018): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/hungary-viktor-orban-press-freedom.html.

[4] Marton Dunai, “Hungary Approves ‘Stop Soros’ Law, Defying the EU, Rights Groups” Reuters (June 20, 2018): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-soros/hungary-approves-stop-soros-law-defying-eu-rights-groups-idUSKBN1JG1VN.

[5] Reality Check Team. “What Sanctions Can the EU Impose on Hungary” BBC News (September 12, 2018): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45485994.

[6] Zselyke Csaky “In His Own Words: The Preoccupations of Hungary’s Viktor Orban” Freedom House (April 4, 2018): Accessed November 7, 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/blog/his-own-words-preoccupations-hungary-s-viktor-orb-n.

[7] Max Boot, “Trump’s Racist Closing Argument” The Washington Post (November 2, 2018): Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/11/02/trumps-racist-closing-argument/?utm_term=.6022f6a5f576.

[8] Rebecca Berg, “Booker Rallies Iowa Democrats to ‘Stay Faithful’ after Kavanaugh Confirmation” CNN Politics (October 8, 2018): Accessed November 7, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/07/politics/cory-booker-brett-kavanaugh-donald-trump/index.html.

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