Is Hungary’s Present the United States’ Future?: On Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s “Tainted Democracy”
By Jeffrey C. IsaacApril 19, 2023
Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary by Zsuzsanna Szelényi
Orbán has been amply rewarded for his efforts. He has accumulated vast political power, which he has used to enrich his family, friends, and principal supporters, thus further reinforcing his kleptocratic rule. He has used his power to reshape electoral law, the media system, and the cultural and educational system; to marginalize critics and opponents; and to intimidate independent civil society institutions, most notoriously through the passage of a “Lex CEU” that forced Central European University to leave its Budapest home and reopen in Vienna. This has made him the scourge of the European Union—whose rule of law and transparency requirements he has regularly flouted—and the bane of supporters of civil and academic freedom everywhere.
It has also made him a hero of the transnational far right, a symbol of resistance to the supposed “tyranny” of human rights, gender equality, “woke elitism,” and liberalism more generally. He has long been lionized by the US populist right: fêted at Conservative Political Action Committee meetings; idolized by Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and Patrick Deneen; and regarded as a pioneer of a new kind of “illiberal” regime that promises to save civilization from an evil humanistic overclass. In late January, Orbán fanboy Rod Dreher, writing in the misleadingly titled far-right journal The American Conservative, celebrated the “political lesson” that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has learned from Orbán, namely to “take the war against left ideological hegemony to the institutions.” And the Claremont Institute’s The American Mind ran an adulatory piece by Luke Larson—a fellow of the Orbán-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium—about “Hungary on the Cutting Edge,” celebrating how Orbán prefigured Donald Trump, inspired right-wing populism, and now finds himself “at the forefront of political change in the West.”
Zsuzsanna Szelényi agrees that Orbán’s Hungary represents “the cutting edge.” And it terrifies her. Szelényi, an author, former politician, and current director of Central European University’s Budapest-based Leadership Academy, was one of the original core members of Orbán’s Fidesz party. Working closely with Orbán in opposition to the Communist regime, she participated in the roundtable discussions negotiating the 1989 transition to democracy and served as a Fidesz MP from 1990 to 1994, the period of Hungary’s first democratically elected government. She then left the party, along with many other liberals who became increasingly disenchanted with its increasingly opportunistic, nationalistic, and anti-liberal positioning. From 1994 to 1996, Szelényi worked in the Education Ministry under the coalition government led by the Socialist Party. She then worked for a number of transnational NGOs and European institutions, including the Council of Europe, before returning to Hungarian political life in 2012 as a co-founder of the liberal Together party. She returned to parliament from 2014 to 2018 as a strong opponent of Orbán’s government, before exiting from electoral politics again in 2018 when Together failed to defeat Orbán and then fell apart.
Szelényi’s new book, Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary (2023), is a powerfully written, insider account of the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal group of “Young Democrats” opposing authoritarianism to an anti-liberal group of middle-aged opponents of liberal democracy, and of Orbán himself from a charismatic tribune of freedom to a fervent proponent of “traditional Christian family values” and “Magyar Greatness.” This transformation provides what Szelényi calls “a detailed ‘twenty-first century autocratic playbook,’ charting the key elements of the new politics of intolerance.”
The core of the book is part two, called “Establishing Control.” Here, Szelényi describes in depth “the illusion of democracy” created by Orbán’s overhauling of parliament, attacks on judicial independence, and alteration of election law; the ways that Orbán has drawn on EU and IMF funding to establish a Hungarian form of crony capitalism while simultaneously mobilizing his base against the “tyranny” of these very institutions; the financial and bureaucratic means by which Orbán has attacked the independent press and essentially “press-ganged into service” almost all of Hungary’s media institutions; and his implementation of these institutions to wage a permanent campaign of vilification and intimidation against his political opponents and autonomous civil society institutions. Much of this has been well documented by a range of commentators. But Szelényi adds important detail to how Orbán’s autocratic innovations have actually worked, showing how they have frustrated politicians, journalists, legal professionals, and academics seeking to defend liberal democracy.
It is in its nuanced discussion of the political dynamics behind Orbán’s electoral conquest and exercise of political power that the real importance of this book lies, especially for an American readership. Indeed, the parallels between the rise of Orbánism and the rise of Trumpism are glaring.
When Orbán won his first landslide victory in 2010, he declared that “today a revolution has happened at the polls. […] The Hungarians have given their verdict on an era.” Like Trump a decade later, Orbán regarded his political opponents as a blight on a prostrate nation, and saw his victory as a political, even metaphysical, triumph of national greatness. Elections, he made clear, are not really about fair partisan competition, actual citizen preferences, and peaceful alternations of power. What followed was a quite deliberate, and often candidly articulated, effort to “topple” the only recently installed liberal democratic order, and to establish a “new regime” of what he called “national cooperation.” Orbán was relentless (Szelényi recently described him as a “Machiavellian genius”) in his pursuit of power, his disregard for liberal democratic norms, and his hostility towards political opponents, even when these were former colleagues or friends. Szelényi quotes László Kövér—one of Orbán’s closest associates and the current Speaker of the National Assembly—outlining the Fidesz approach to opposition: “The greatest political opponent is always the one who is closest to you.” Orbán and Kövér are practitioners of a politics in the style of the 1930s “revolutionary conservative” legal scholar (and Nazi supporter) Carl Schmitt. There are no shades of gray in Orbán’s political universe; one is either with him or against him. And since he imagines himself to represent the authentic will of the Hungarian nation, to be against him is to be against the nation itself.
Exploiting every opportunity presented by Hungary’s distinctive history and post-1989 political system, Orbán and Fidesz have managed to succeed in a way that other far-right leaders and parties in Europe have not, and in a way that the MAGA Republican party has not—yet.
But it is worth noting that Orbán and Fidesz are in it for the long haul. Indeed, their electoral defeat in 2002, after having led a coalition government since 1998, can be regarded as the moment when their scorched-earth assault on liberalism kicked into high gear, with Orbán casting doubt on the election’s legitimacy, announcing that “[t]he nation cannot be in the opposition!” In the years that followed, as Szelényi explains, Orbán and his followers regularly mobilized angry and sometimes violent crowds, who in 2006 attacked the state television building and the parliament building itself: “Between 2006 and 2010 Fidesz took politics on to the streets, and its representatives in Parliament regularly obstructed parliamentary proceedings.” In short, for Orbán, it was outraged electoral defeat that energized his 2010 comeback and the politics of vengeance that has followed ever since. Does this sound familiar?
While legal and institutional changes have been at the center of Orbán’s aspirational new regime, lying behind these changes, and powering them, has been the relentless prosecution of a culture war against liberalism. Szelényi brilliantly analyzes Orbán’s brazen effort to control Hungarian historical memory. In 2002, in the midst of a heated political campaign, he allocated government funds to create the controversial Budapest House of Terror, directed since its founding by Orbán crony Mária Schmidt. In 2018, he ordered the removal of a statue honoring Imre Nagy, the martyred communist hero of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 (Orbán first rose to prominence during the 1988 reburial and tribute to Nagy, a demand of the anticommunist opposition), on the 60th anniversary of his execution by the Soviets in power, and the monument’s replacement with a Red Terror memorial originally created under the quasi-fascist and antisemitic dictatorship of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944. Orbán’s allies have attacked independent historians, and he has funded the creation of new historical institutes, such as the perversely named Veritas Institute, designed to promote a more “patriotic” understanding of Hungarian history.
Orbán has also waged a relentless assault on what he has called “gender ideology,” which he claims has overtaken and polluted the Hungarian nation. He has regularly attacked LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights, and his government has sought to purge teaching about these topics from educational institutions, revoking the accreditation of gender studies programs at the two universities in the country that offered them. As a government spokesman explained: “The Government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female […] and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially-constructed genders, rather than biological sexes.” Orbán’s government has thus appointed itself the supreme scientist, educator, and moral custodian of the nation.
Orbán has successfully accomplished what Trump began in the White House and what Governor Ron DeSantis is currently pioneering in the Florida state house, as he surely positions himself for an eventual run for president—he has managed to channel widespread public fear and confusion about social change into a vigorous attempt to demonize feminists and trans activists, immigrants, and “outsiders” of all kinds; to attack all forms of liberalism; and to use control of state institutions to entrench a socially reactionary and politically authoritarian regime. Embraced at last August’s CPAC meeting in Dallas, Orbán pulled out all the stops, rallying the crowd to fight a “culture war” against “the Woke Globalist Goliath,” and declaring frankly that “[w]e cannot fight successfully by liberal means because our opponents use liberal institutions, concept, and language to disguise their Marxist and hegemonist plans.” Perhaps most ominously, he lashed out at “race mixing” as a threat to national identity. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reported:
The purpose of the speech was simple enough: to tighten the bonds linking Orbánism with the Trumpism that dominates the American right. The Hungarian populist sees the potential in that connection. His closing lines called on conservatives across the Atlantic to “coordinate our troops” in the fight against liberalism, exhorting them to gear up to remove Joe Biden from office (“you have two years to get ready”). The stakes, in his telling, are the very future of our civilization.
“The West is at war with itself. We have seen what kind of future the globalist ruling class has to offer. But we have a different kind of future in mind,” Orbán told the crowd. “The globalists can all go to hell. I have come to Texas.”
Szelényi’s book offers an account of how Orbán has turned this rhetoric into a new ruling ideology, and also a warning to liberal democrats everywhere about the necessity of standing together against this ideology. It also provides a sobering account of the difficulties involved in trying to do this. Indeed, the most instructive part of her book is chapter three, “‘Alone We Would Fail, But Together We Will Win!’: Orbán’s Political Opposition,” in which she details the efforts of Hungarian liberal democrats to come together in defense of liberal democracy, and analyzes their failure to succeed. Most of her attention is focused on the Together movement she helped to found in 2012, and its ultimate inability to overcome partisan rivalries and create a sufficiently broad coalition, leading to its implosion in 2018. But, as she also notes, even more disappointing was Orbán’s overwhelming victory in 2022.
In that election, a broad group of opposition parties, ranging from the Socialists to the Greens to the right-wing Jobbik party, came together under the banner of “United for Hungary.” They agreed to select a common prime minister candidate via a joint primary, to present a single list for all single-member parliamentary seats, and to share a common program that centered on the defense of liberal democracy. The winner of the October 2021 primary, Péter Márki-Zay, was a former member of Fidesz, a Christian conservative and a center-right small-town mayor who seemed to have broad appeal beyond conventional urban-based and liberal constituencies. (As political analyst Gábor Tóka has noted, Márki-Zay “would be a Never Trump Republican in America.”)
United for Hungary was the source of much hopefulness for liberal democrats. And yet, it won only 57 seats, nine less than the opposition total in 2018. Meanwhile, Fidesz won 135 seats, a gain of two, while Our Homeland, a new far-right party that split from Jobbik, won seven seats. Orbán’s far-right, illiberal regime emerged from the election stronger than before. Szelényi describes this result as disastrous, a “dramatic defeat” that left the opposition demoralized and confused. And she makes clear that, while opposition unity in 2014 and 2018 had been impaired by partisan rivalries and real ideological differences (for example, liberal parties had been understandably reluctant to coalesce with the historically xenophobic Jobbik party), the opposition’s main obstacle in 2022 was simply Orbán’s overwhelming power. His success during his first three terms as prime minister—in attacking independent media and cultural institutions, tilting the electoral system to his advantage, using budgetary control to reward friends and punish enemies, and propagandizing against liberalism—had enabled him to entrench his party in power and to build a strong base of popular support.
In short, the election seems to signify that Orbán had succeeded in superseding the liberal democratic regime change of 1989 with his own anti-liberal regime change. Szelényi notes that this regime is not without vulnerabilities. Its corruption undermines its policy effectiveness, putting it in violation of EU regulations, which could bring pressure on the regime (though EU pressure thus far has proven relatively feckless and ineffectual). And the regime lacks support in key cities, especially Budapest, which remains an oasis of liberal democratic power in an expanding desert of illiberalism.
At the same time, Szelényi closes on a note of pessimism: “There will be no easy revival of democracy in Hungary. The years-long entrenchment of illiberalism will pose a serious challenge for any future Hungarian government.” Observing that democracy is a difficult and fragile achievement, she concludes that her “historically privileged generation, who believed that history always moves forward, have squandered this chance,” and that the most “we can do now is, with all our strength, help the next generation, so that they can carry on pushing Hungarian democracy forward and manage to overcome the forces of autocracy, which are always ready to pounce.”
The forces of bigotry and autocracy have successfully managed to pounce on, and to suffocate, Hungary’s fragile liberal democracy, at least for now. The United States has not reached that stage—yet. But the Republican Party—in Congress, in state houses across the country, and soon in the 2024 presidential campaign—is working hard to follow Orbán’s autocratic playbook, to wage culture war against liberalism, to “Orbánify” electoral institutions, and to entrench its own power. Will liberal democrats here be able to keep the forces of autocracy at bay, and to push American democracy forward? That remains to be seen. But what is certain is that we can only succeed if we take seriously the experiences, and the failures, of our compatriots elsewhere. Szelényi’s book is an excellent place to start.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Democracy in Dark Times (1998) and #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018).
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