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19 September 2014

Orbán’s Hungary: Image and Reality – Whose Democracy? Which Liberalism?

Hungary faces an epistemological problem that all medium-size and small countries face in international politics. Most people – including most journalists and most opinion-formers – know very little about them. Among open societies only a very few are known and understood abroad to any degree of depth and complication. The United States enjoys such informed scrutiny because of Hollywood’s film and television industries; the size and reach of its media organisations such as Time, the AP and CNN; the world-wide internet from which America gained influence from the fact of being its pioneer; and, finally, because of official United States international broadcasting agencies such as Voice of America. Indeed, the United States – from its white picket fences to its towering skyscrapers – is a place we think we know almost as well as we know our own country. Britain, whose imperial power has been transmuted into spectacular cultural influence, is another such ubiquitously visible power. France is a third such country, but perhaps decreasingly so as admiration for French culture fades before the advance of a vapid multiculturalism. At least in Central Europe Germany still exercises cultural “pull”. And during the Cold War Hungarians probably felt that they knew the Soviet Union very well, indeed far better than they would have wished – and that feeling may now be returning.
Sometimes we are wrong in thinking we know these countries well. Martha Bayles, the Boston University cultural critic, has just written an entire book – Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad (Yale University Press) – arguing that the export of American popular culture systematically misinforms the rest of the world about what America is really like. The real America is a much less violent, corrupt, coarse and urban nation than the America of the large and small screens.

Compare, however, what outsiders know of Poland, of Portugal, of South Korea, indeed of Hungary, with what they know of America. The differences are vast. For practical purposes, even well-informed people who read the Frankfurter Allgemeine or watch BBC documentaries know almost nothing about these countries. They are a vast empty map on which is written “Here Be Dragons”.

Moreover, in general, the outsiders know they know nothing. They have no good basis for any opinions they may hold about those countries.
Now, a psychological fact of some importance is that people don’t like not having opinions. It makes them feel they are ignorant or foolish. If a topic is raised at a dinner party or in a bar, they like to hold their own in an argument. They like to have something to say. British humorist Stephen Potter, the inventor of One- Upmanship, invented a gambit for this problem. If someone else was holding forth eloquently on the problems of Outer Mongolia or the economic opportunities in Brazil, he would wait patiently for him to finish and then say with quiet confidence: “Yes, but not in the South.” He was rarely challenged.
If that is true of countries of which we know little, it is still more powerfully true of countries of which we are completely clueless. Hungary is one of those countries for most foreigners. Tokay, goulash and operetta exhaust the average Anglo-American’s knowledge of Hungarian life – and that includes the average distinguished international journalist. Genuinely well-informed people know about Hungary’s expatriate screenwriters and directors in Hollywood, Cardinal Mindszenty, 1956, the role Hungary played in ending the Cold War, and of course John von Neumann and Edward Teller, two great inventors. But if they dont have the language, they (or rather we) will still be handicapped. So when we want to understand something of which in reality we know little – or when a journalist wants to explain something of which he is ignorant to people of equal knowledge – we place the matter in a context or template that we do understand. That gives us a false confidence that we grasp a very foreign reality.
Accordingly if we want to explain the politics of modern Thailand or the divisions in the Soviet Politburo to the readers of The New York Times, we write of battles between Left and Right, Liberals and Conservatives. This may sometimes be helpful; usually it is misleading.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish statesman, diplomat, writer and one-time editor of The Observer, gave a very illuminating example. He pointed out that Western journalists covering the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s regularly explained it as a struggle between the Right (or Maronite Christians) and the Left (or Muslim Mujahedeen). Being leftish themselves, the journalists presented the Lebanese war from mildly leftish standpoint. Whatever its flaws as truth, this gave their readers the comforting feeling that they understood the conflict: it was like the Spanish civil war all over again. Such reporting continued until the day when the Mujahedeen captured the hotel where the European journalists all stayed, shot up the bar, and poured all the alcohol down the sink. After which they abandoned these formulations and began to report the war in all its foreign complexities – or at least to try to do so. The template had inserted a false picture of Lebanon in their minds which was more harmful than their previous innocence.
Let me now apply this insight to Hungary which, as I have just argued, is really terra incognita to most statesmen and journalists abroad. This country is host to fewer foreign journalists than it should be; many of those assigned here live in another Central European country and fly in when an election or a crisis looms. Not all countries have embassies here. Finally, few non-Hungarians speak Hungarian. And I can admit from personal experience that even if you live in a country, not understanding its language is a daily barrier to understanding its politics.
So what is the template that foreign analysts rely on when seeking to understand Hungary without learning about it first?
Quite simply it is an image of Central and Eastern Europe rooted in the interwar years and resulting from the errors of the Versailles and Trianon pacts and from the impact of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. This Central Europe is a place of border conflicts, threats to minorities, anti-Semitism, ethnic conflict, the near threat of Bolshevism, the rise of popular Fascism, and the spread of authoritarian regimes. That world has a resonance in the Western mind because it can be experienced not only through historical books and films but also more vividly in the thrillers of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and in recent years Alan Furst. That world had died in Western Europe in 1945, but many commentators felt that it had been merely repressed in Central and Eastern Europe. Soviet communism had acted as a kind of refrigerator freezing such ideas in suspended animation for forty years. So when the refrigerator broke down in 1989, they feared that these evils would soon re-emerge and threaten the peace once again.
That was a reasonable anxiety, but it didn’t happen, and there are many reasons why: 1989 was not 1929; the pre-War evils had produced such terrible disasters for Central Europe that most people were inoculated against them; and different issues dominated European and national politics, notably the need for democratic and market reforms following the collapse of the region’s planned economies. Undoubtedly one factor underpinning stability was that Soviet rule had been replaced swiftly by the structures of Euro-Atlantic stability. Hungary’s first democratic Prime Minister after the end of communism, József Antall, initially ensured that Hungary chose a Western and Atlantic future for itself. But Viktor Orbán too, who established a relationship of mutual respect and even friendship with Antall from the opposition benches, took an early role in helping to spread stability to Central Europe. He was one of the first political leaders in Hungary to join (in 1994) the New Atlantic Initiative which urged the entry of the Visegrád countries into NATO; as Prime Minister he led Hungary into the alliance; he supported EU membership in the Hungarian referendum; and he was Prime Minister when Hungary exercised the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2011.
That stability began to erode following two events in 2008 – the Russian invasion of Georgia in August and the start of the world financial crash in September – which between them marked the end of the post-Cold War period. As I wrote in the first issue of this Review in November 2010:
[B]oth failures signified respectively that the post-Cold War settlement in Europe was no longer sacrosanct and that the liberal system of free trade and free capital movements would now come under attack. They inflicted severe damage on the nascent market economies of post-communist Europe. And they encouraged a further erosion of moral and intellectual self-confidence in Western elites – and thus a further erosion of Atlantic structures of cooperation.
This instability is a bad thing, of course, and is having bad consequences. Are they exactly the same bad consequences as following 1929? Not really. But observers are tempted to interpret recent developments in and near Central Europe – the gradual transformation of the Russian Federation into a post- democratic authoritarian state; the emergence of “populist” and extreme “nationalist” movements such as Jobbik in the region; the rise of anti-Semitism (Jobbik again); and the recent speech by Viktor Orbán criticising “liberal democracy” and embracing “illiberal democracy” – in the light of this dangerous and unstable past. They add these developments together and reach the conclusion that Central and Eastern Europe is ripe for the gradual replacement of Atlantic democracies by Eurasian dictatorships and democratic leaders by local strongmen close to Putin. Viktor Orbán is the poster-child for this theory. Thorsten Benner and Wolfgang Reinicke of the Global Policy Institute in Berlin deliver the indictment as follows here:
Taking a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, Orbán has wielded his Fidesz party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through a number of laws that attack what freedom remains in Hungary’s media, civil society and academic community.1

“… what freedom remains …” The phrase invites the reader to conclude: little or none. Here are sweeping charges under the guise of implication. The best antidote to them is to walk around Budapest. Newspapers, magazines, television programmes and social media are full of polemical attacks on the Orbán government. Universities are still mainly leftist in mentality. Rallies of opposition parties and marches of activists are held regularly. There is a daily protest at the end of my street against a monument alleged by the protesters to downplay Hungary’s wartime collaboration with Germany. And the “civil society” allegedly under attack is a term that badly needs some sceptical examination if it means such things as the funding by the Norwegian government of NGOs that play an active role in Hungarian political and civil life. This is not a simple matter. NGOs are not untainted agents of virtue but special interest groups with ideological and sometimes directly political agendas. They are on the liberal side of liberal democracy rather than on the democratic one. They are neither elected nor accountable to the voters and their role in democracies is not above suspicion. If they seek to change public policy – rather than, say, do good works of a charitable kind or promote public debate open to all sides – then they might best be regarded as single-issue political parties. Now, Western governments may be generally justified in funding NGOs so that they can widen the area of civil liberty under undemocratic governments. I believe that they are. But that justification does not cover the discreet funding of Washington think tanks by the Norwegian government in order to pressure the US into following foreign aid policies that are favoured by Norway but regarded as controversial between the parties within the United States – which a The New York Times front page story in September alleged Norway to be doing (NYT, 6 September 2014). Those political actors who feel their political interests are being attacked by such political charity are reasonably entitled to complain about it. Maybe the line should be drawn differently in the Hungarian case; but there should clearly be transparency on both sides of whatever line is drawn. And as it happens, that is exactly what Orbán called for in his controversial speech – namely, that Hungarians should “be aware of who are the characters behind the masks”.
That is not to dismiss all criticisms of the government. As an advocate of a US-style first amendment more or less flatly prohibiting government regulation of the media, I am no fan of the media laws. But they plainly have come nowhere near censoring hostile criticism of the Orbán government. They are no more onerous than similar regulatory laws in Western Europe, including Britain, where the Left has been pushing strongly for tougher regulation because of its hatred of Rupert Murdoch. And if some of the proposals for European press regulation and the licensing of journalists that are floated from time to time in Brussels ever make it through the wilderness of committees there, Hungary’s laws will look indulgent.
So the broad picture of Hungary as an authoritarian state under a despotic government – the distorting telescope through which Hungary is now viewed by many otherwise well-informed outsiders – is at best a grotesque exaggeration. Still, it influences the reactions of the media, the European Left, some governments (including Washington), and the institutions of the EU. Indeed, the punishment demanded by Benner and Reinicke for Orbán’s alleged undemocratic practices is that his (and presumably other) elected governments should be supervised by the central bureaucratic institutions of the European Union and made subject to fines and other penalties. But the European Union itself has a long-standing democratic deficit” with its main institutions not accountable to the voters. The late Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, a former European Commissioner, once remarked that if the European Community (as it then was) were to apply for membership in itself, it would not be admitted on the grounds of being insufficiently democratic. It is therefore presumably less democratic than the Hungarian government which was admitted. Moreover, the criticisms that they mount were recently laid before the voters who gave the Orbán government a second two-thirds parliamentary majority. That has really decided the matter from a democratic standpoint. If the EU were to impose the punishments they suggest, such action would amount to anti-democracy in light post-democratic disguise.
Insofar as there is a problem of democracy in Hungary, it is the weakness of the opposition. That is due, however, not to the policies of the government but to the implosion of the Left in the elections of 2010 and 2014. In the latter a coalition of five left-wing parties was able to muster less than a quarter of the total national vote. This meltdown can be traced in part to its strategy of appealing less to the electorate for its votes than to sympathetic EU factions for interventions into Hungary’s domestic politics – which is what Benner and Reinicke advocate. That gave the Left parties an anti-national flavour which Fidesz successfully exploited. For the moment, the Left continues in this downward spiral: its weakness leads it to rely on external support; such reliance weakens it further at home.
When we turn from this general picture to the specific items mentioned above, the scene grows no darker. The suggestion that Orbán is ideologically similar to Putin is absurd – and monstrously so. How many countries has Hungary invaded? How many journalists have died in mysterious circumstances in Budapest? Please give the dates of Orbán’s service in the ÁVH! Oh you don’t mean that? You mean what exactly? That he has a rough tongue? In matters of foreign policy, if that is what’s complained of, Budapest would certainly like good relations with Russia since the US made plain its lack of commitment to Central Europe in 2009, and it would prefer milder to more severe sanctions over Ukraine since Russia has been a growing market for Hungary’s produce. Both these positions reflect obvious Hungarian interests rather than ideological sympathy. Besides, Hungary has loyally gone along with both NATO and EU policies over Ukraine even though they disadvantage Hungary more than most. Again, one can criticise Budapest’s policies on these points, as I sometimes do, but not as borrowings “from Putin’s playbook”.
The rise of populist or extremist parties, Jobbik in Hungary’s case, is similarly irrelevant to any judgment of Orbán – though not, as we shall see, of Hungary. Such parties have prospered across Europe in response to worries over immigration, economic decline, globalisation and intrusion into domestic politics by the European Union. These developments have evoked both respectable reactions – notably the attempts by parties such as Fidesz and the British Tories to reform the EU along the lines of a decentralised Europe of Nations – and unrespectable ones such as Jobbik and National Front in France. But the European Left finds it hard to distinguish between patriotism, nationalism and neo-Fascism, and the institutions of the EU reflect its misleading and baneful influence. They accordingly tend to treat all political leaders who have nationalist sympathies with suspicion and distaste. But the fact is that the votes Jobbik won in Hungary’s last two elections came disproportionately from the Left when the socialist vote collapsed (as also happened in France where the National Front picked up disillusioned socialist voters).
The third issue, namely anti-Semitism, is, however, both more significant and more revealing – though I should make clear that this charge was not levelled by Benner and Reinecke. Accusations of anti-Semitism against a conservative government in Central and Eastern Europe are bound to be important because the international media, the Left across Europe and in the United States, much of academia, the staffs of NGOs and transnational organisations are predisposed to believe them. They suspect that such governments are tempted to be anti-Semitic when no one is looking. So when such allegations are made, the confirmation bias of the outside world kicks in and the allegations are given wide circulation. And at the start of the 2010 government term of office, however unjustifiably, such suspicions did circulate.
Yet as Tamás Fellegi – the president of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation in Washington – established in testimony to the US Congress last year, the Orbán government has made great efforts, practical and symbolic, going far beyond what any previous Hungarian government had done, to highlight, protect and preserve the contributions of Hungarian Jews to national life. Indeed, its record has been not only not anti-Semitic; it has been positively philo-Semitic. As Fellegi conceded in the first few lines of his opening remarks, moreover, this strong and positive government stance was against a background of growing anti-Semitism in popular opinion. Far from appeasing or feeding this opinion, the Fidesz party challenged and opposed it. This hostile opposition towards anti-Semitism may well have been a factor – one cannot claim more than that – in improving the security of the Jewish community. Despite the high levels of anti-Semitic opinion in Hungary, physical attacks on Jews are rare, much more so than in France, for instance. Finally, the Orbán government’s strong support for Israel – equalled only by Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper – is another demonstration of the Hungarian government’s commitment to the rights of the Jewish people.2
By 2014, therefore, Orbán had demonstrated a determination, reflected in policy, to combat anti-Semitism in Hungary. Earlier suspicions, always unjustified, gradually evaporated.
Two conclusions flow from this. The first is that dark suspicions are sometimes wrong; the second that his record on this matter fits him well for leadership in Europe’s current struggle with a recurrence of anti-Semitism. For anti-Semitism is again a rising force in European politics. Today, however, it comes less from Central Europe than from Western Europe – from France, from Sweden, and (I‘m sorry to say) from Britain. And it finds its home not among neo-Nazi extremists but among Islamo- fascist extremists. They in turn get support not from conservative nationalists in the petty bourgeoisie but from radical multiculturalists in the media and in academia. And this new anti-Semitism is much less guilty and more outspoken than the older kind. And many European leaders are uncertain about how to combat it. They take refuge in tolerant pieties that never seem to lead to strong actions.
Bold but also imaginative leadership is required on this issue. Overcoming anti- Semitism has to go beyond simply confronting it and deconstructing its poisonous myths (though those things need to be done too). It must also emphasise the positive contributions that the Jewish community has made to Hungary’s life and future, as Fellegi did before the US Congress. Ideally, this should be done by a coalition of Europe’s political and religious leaders since it will be politically easier for some of them to take a bold initiative if they have company.
Let me detour here from analysis to exhortation. Orbán and Hungary can and should take a lead here – approaching other governments, national and international Jewish organisations, Christian leaders, and those moderate Muslim bodies that have a stake in rescuing the good name of their faith from the Islamists – to celebrate the great contribution that Jews have made to European civilisation. Such a campaign might begin with all heads of state, including the Pope, visiting a synagogueonthesameSaturdaytomakeacommondeclarationoffellowship. It might continue with such long-term projects as official museums of Jewish life on the model of the Galicia Museum of Jewish life in Krakow. How it might develop beyond that I cannot predict. But it is certainly a task that needs to be done.
For the moment, however, all attention has been diverted from other questions to the Prime Minister’s recent speech in which he seemingly repudiated liberal democracy and embraced what he called “illiberal democracy” as his favoured political system. Those remarks were interpreted, not unreasonably, as a justification for a more authoritarian form of government. They seemed to confirm the hostile critique of Orbán that is current in the European Left. And they added weight and force to all the other criticisms of him, his government and Hungary.
My own feeling when I read the speech was slightly different. I was overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. For I was an advisor to Margaret Thatcher when she made her famous remark – “There is no such thing as society” – to a women’s magazine.
I recall thinking that she would never escape from that remark or, rather, from a grotesque misunderstanding of that remark. For that sentence meant the opposite of what it seemingly said when it was wrenched from context. What she was saying was that society was not a “thing” – an abstract independent entity out there – but that it was composed of the ordinary men and women, and their families, and their various associations from churches to tennis clubs. If “society” was to take collective action, therefore, it would have to come ultimately from ordinary people, herself included, who would have to provide resources or themselves and for those less fortunate than themselves.
These explanatory thoughts were not the implications of her remark on society. They were said quite clearly in the few sentences that followed it. But they were never quoted. As a result her apparent denial of society’s existence was all people heard. That played into the left-wing caricature of her as a heartless anti-social extreme individualist – to which she bore no resemblance in reality. This misinterpretation plagued her well into her retirement. And that was predictable. Indeed, as soon as I heard the fatal words, I recalled the comment of Wilmore Kendall on Barry Goldwater’s famous declaration: “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Kendall, a distinguished philosopher who was an admirer of Goldwater, declared wryly: “There’s nothing wrong with that statement that couldn’t be put right by a hundred thousand well-chosen words.” And so it proved in Mrs Thatcher’s case.
Fewer words are needed to correct any misunderstanding of the Prime Minister’s remarks on liberal democracy. The fundamental problem is that he used the term – and in particular the “liberal” half of it – in a special sense and in a context unfamiliar to people outside Hungary and Central Europe. He was not attacking liberalism in the sense of freedom of speech, freedom of intellectual inquiry, freedom of association, the free exercise of religion, or the constitutional protections that underpin these liberties. He went on to specify this in the sentence immediately following his argument for “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state” by saying that such a state would not deny the foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.”. As with Mrs Thatcher, however, that key qualification has rarely, if ever, been quoted either in reports of the speech or in the many hostile commentaries on it. In other words Orbán’s critique was not an attack on liberalism as traditionally (and properly) understood but on a set of ideas that have come to be described as liberalism in the Hungarian political context of recent years.
Liberalism is, of course, a protean set of ideas. Depending on the context, its three most common meanings are (1) the broad tradition of constitutional liberty summarised in the above paragraph; (2) classical liberalism (aka neo-liberalism) or a broad reliance on free markets in economic policy; and (3) “progressive” state intervention, initially in economic policy, more recently in education and social mores, sometimes enforced by coercive measures indulgently called “political correctness”. We are all liberals in the sense of (1), including Orbán; most conservatives and some in other parties are liberals (2); and the Left parties on both sides of the Atlantic are liberals (3), though many Christian Democrats are drifting idly in that direction. Unfortunately for clarity, Orbán was criticising a fourth kind of liberalism that requires still further explanation.
An exasperated Milton Friedman once remarked that in Britain in the 1980s monetarism was “whatever Margaret Thatcher did”. Similarly an irritated Herbert Morrison defined British socialism in the 1940s as “whatever the Labour government did”. Well, in present-day Hungary “liberalism” is whatever the neo- socialist governments of 1994–1998 and 2002–2010 did.
There is a small modicum of justification for this definition. Self-described liberals were in these governments which pursued policies they called liberal or, in economic policy, neo-liberal. It is even the case that some of their policies were liberal in the sense of liberalism (3). Not all policies, of course. “Liberalism” and “neo-liberalism” are very bad shorthand for the policy of borrowing money from abroad, using it not for productive investment but to bribe the voters, and then handing the resulting massive indebtedness onto the next government. Margaret Thatcher’s definition of socialism – “running out of other people’s money” – would seem to be a more accurate one than liberalism. In the event, however, definitions and theories are secondary: the entire ideological mixture collapsed in Hungary amid chaos and absurdity in 2010 and the good name of liberalism was among the collateral damage.
As a conservative classical liberal, aka “Thatcherite”, however, I would observe that there are dangers for the Right in this definition of liberalism. The general danger is that it will lead conservatives to dismiss well-known liberal economic truths on the grounds that they were disproved by recent Hungarian history. Conservatives are not theological libertarians; we know that the market was made for Man, not Man for the market. So we recognise that grave crises such as the inherited debt crisis of 2010 require emergency revenue-raising measures that might not be justified in normal times. In this case they have contributed to a marked improvement in both the financial and real economies. To make those improvements permanent, however, foreign investment will be needed which in turn will require “neo-liberal” policies on taxation, property rights, and labour market reforms to attract it. Conservatives shouldn’t join in erecting rhetorical obstacles to such policies.
The particular danger – one by which national conservatives are sometimes tempted – is to confuse state ownership with national control. With a few “strategic” exceptions, which should be narrowly defined, this is almost always a mistake. When a government owns an industry, it is really the industry that owns the government. A state airline will complain that low-cost rivals are losing it revenue and forcing it to seek subsidies from the taxpayer. To avoid such embarrassments, the government then erects barriers to entry or imposes costly regulations on the private carrier. Prices rise (or fail to fall as they otherwise would), innovation declines, and the state carrier still faces losses and eventual bankruptcy. When enough industries are on the government payroll, the situation becomes that described by the English economist, Arthur Shenfield. Asked to distinguish between the private and public sectors, he replied: “The private sector is controlled by the government, and the public sector isn’t controlled by anyone.” That is not the situation in Hungary today. As Orbán pointed out in his speech, Hungary has one of the smallest public sectors in Europe, but it is the direction in which some conservative rhetoric on neo- liberalism seems to be pointing.
If Orbán was not attacking traditional liberalism in his speech, what was he attacking? The answer to that question lies in the tension between liberalism and democracy. Democracy is about who exercises power and how they get to exercise it; liberalism is about what limits should exist on their exercise of power. In principle the dividing line between these two spheres is simple: a constitution sets up rules restraining the government (it can’t cancel elections; it can’t imprison people without due legal process; etc.), and a constitutional court interprets these rules, sometimes overriding government decisions. A constitutional court cannot lawfully re-write the rules, and a government can only do so if it is given a super- majority by the electorate. (That’s why the 2010–2014 Orbán government was lawfully entitled to change the constitution – a point that seemingly mystifies most European intellectuals.)
A clash arises, however, in one of two circumstances. First, when the elected government rejects constitutional limits on its authority – which Orbán never needed to do since he had the two-thirds majority that would allow him to re-write the constitution legally. Or, second, when a constitutional court overrides its own limits and begins to exercise power independently by making laws rather than merely interpreting laws passed by parliaments. And that happens increasingly across the world as power shifts from elected parliaments to remote bureaucracies, domestic and international courts, and supra-national institutions which have only a very misty accountability to voters anywhere.
Such clashes are driven, moreover, by a third factor: the increasing tension between liberalism (1) and liberalism (3). Traditional liberalism assumed that people would differ on all sorts of issues – rich vs. poor, religious vs. secular, enlightened vs. custom-bound – and drew up laws intended to minimise and arbitrate the conflicts between them. Liberalism (3), however, thinks that whole classes of people – the religious, the custom-bound, the unreasonably patriotic, the sexually conservative, members of traditional families – are the prisoners of their own prejudices and the unwitting oppressors of those with opposing convictions. Both should therefore be liberated from the prejudices of the former. And because all the prejudiced would probably amount to an electoral majority if they were added up, liberals (3) cannot trust democracy to pass the right laws to achieve universal liberation. So they seek to “constitutionalise” the rights of oppressed minorities and to limit the power of democratic majorities to object. As rights multiply, democracy exercises less and less control over government and law; liberalism is transformed from procedural rules into substantive policies enforced by courts, treaties and international agencies; and the voters lose all influence over how they are governed – or indeed oppressed.
That is what Orbán attacked when he attacked “liberal democracy”. And, oddly enough, it is what modern liberal elites in Europe and America mean when they talk of liberal democracy too. But it is liberal only by a recent and very questionable definition of liberalism that rests uneasily on Rousseau’s notion that democratic citizens can be “forced to be free”. And it is democratic only insofar as it holds elections from which, however, its managers seek to drain all significance.
If we have to yoke these two words together in some way to describe the real political system of modern Europe, “undemocratic liberalism” would be the least bad coinage. To propose “illiberal democracy” as an alternative system as Orbán does, though I see the point, seems to me to risk losing too much that is valuable – notably liberalisms (1), including his own broad tradition of constitutional liberty, and (2), the great 19th century liberal traditions of Hungary and Europe. Orbán, obviously, does not want that to happen, as his remark about “freedom” in the speech confirms. And, besides, I see no good reason to surrender liberal democracy, either as a term or as a system, to the Sixty-Eighters, nomenklaturas and apparatchiks who have stolen and degraded it. Crime must not pay.
This is a subject to which Hungarian Review will return.


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