“Why do Liberals Hate Orban?” is not the Right Question
The right questions are: 1) why do some some on the right like him, and 2) should this concern us all?
There is a new sub-genre of columns and commentary coming out in response to criticisms of Tucker Carlson, et al.’s recent visit to Hungary. The Ross Douthat piece I discussed in a prior post fits in this genre, but a more direct example comes from The Federalist: Why Liberals Hate Hungary’s Viktor Orban So Much? Noting up front I don’t speak of all “liberals” (or “progressives” or, really, any specific group–indeed, I speak for myself) let me underscore, as I did in a previous post: the issue is not, fundamentally, Orban. The issue is having a significant number of Americans praising him and his regime. This may be a subtle difference, but it is a very, very important one.
There is a difference, for example, between being aware that there is a member of the KKK living in a nearby town and having one of your children be dating that person. The abstract existence of something one finds problematic is one thing, having it connected to you in some way is a different level of concern.
I will admit that I find, as a matter of fact, the degrading of Hungary’s democracy to be troubling (and its degradation is an empirical matter: Hungary is less democratic now than it was 10+ years ago). But the concern that has emerged of late is not the discovery of growing authoritarianism in Hungary. The issue is not “hate” aimed at Orban. The issue is watching mainstream American conservatives embracing Orban, and specifically embracing some of his authoritarianism.
For example, and before I return to The Federalist piece, is the following from Rod Dreher that was brought to my attention in a recent OTB Open Forum, The Culture War In Four Minutes. In this column, Dreher is pretty incensed that in an episode of the Muppet Babies, Gonzo wants to dress like a princess and not a knight.
Here’s how sick and evil these creeps are. Disney — Disney! — is now grooming little children for sexual identity problems. They’ve turned the Muppet Baby Gonzo into a cross-dresser. I’m not kidding:
They really are coming for our children. And so, let us reflect on how in Hungary, thanks to a law passed by the Fidesz government this summer, this kind of thing would be illegal. Hungarian parents know that their government is on the side of their family, not the side of major corporations who seek to poison the minds of little kids. Hungary is ruled by a man. America’s men won’t even fight these corporate freaks on behalf of our own children.
I don’t want to digress too much on his transphobia (which I think is an accurate description), but the notion that acknowledging the notion that some people do wish to behave differently than cultural norms dictate is “grooming little children” (grooming is a pretty loaded term, I would note) or consists of “coming for our children” is just beyond hyperbolic. As a father of three, I have to say that the notion that something like this would be enough to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity is just flatly absurd.
But the thing that struck me was his praise for clearly authoritarian policy solutions: “thanks to a law passed by the Fidesz government this summer, this kind of thing would be illegal.” What happened to not watching Muppet Babies if one doesn’t like its messages? What happened to simply not subscribing to Disney+ (or blocking which cable channel has this insidious programming on it?). Why do we have to resort to making it illegal?
Further, I find the sentence “Hungary is ruled by a man” to be extremely off-putting. First, I would never say that the United States is “ruled” by the President. Indeed, I associate the word “ruled” with monarchies and dictatorships. Slip of the keyboard by Dreher? Perhaps. But it is a telling one. Second, this obsession with a very specific strong masculinity as being the characteristic of governing is problematic.
Here is a report on the law Dreher is extolling via NPR: Hungary Bans LGBTQ Content From Schools, But Some Teachers Say They Will Defy It.
the Orban administration is banning LGBTQ people from appearing in school materials or on TV shows for people under 18.
[60-year-old literature teacher Mariann]
Schiller jokes that she would have to stop teaching half the classics to follow the law. On a more serious note, she says that some of her colleagues feel they can’t trust their students.
“In almost each class, there are some kids who would report what they heard to their father who would go to the government reporting the teacher,” Schiller says.
Yes, that sounds like freedom, now doesn’t it?
Luca Dudits, a board member of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group, the Hatter Society, refutes this and says it is the government’s prohibitive policies that are targeting children.
Dudits says the moves are part of the Orban administration’s scapegoating minorities in a bid to cling to power. “It began in 2010, when they made Roma people a public enemy, then it was refugees and migrants, then the homeless, civil society organizations, and now the LGBTQ community,” Dudits says.
But, at least Orban is, you know, a man.
Let’s be crystal clear here: Dreher has specific views on sexual and gender norms that he thinks are so fundamentally important that he wants the state to be able to forcibly enforce them. Pluralism and resepecting the preferences of other citizens are not to be tolerated because Dreher believes the his understanding of “normal” is so powerful that it should overpower other values and preferences. That kind of thinking is a sure road to authoritarianism.
Gettting back to The Federalist piece (written by Dr. Sumantra Maitra, an IR professor at the University of Nottingham), let me again not that I, personally, am not especially concerned about Orban, save that I have a normative preference for democracy over authoritarianism. I also recognize that he is quite some ways away from where I live and he has little direct influence on US politics. However, it is deeply concerning for Fox News hosts with sizeable audiences and for American conservative radio hosts and writers to decide that being ruled by a real “man” who isn’t afraid to support a little censorship could be pretty keen.
Leftists have a curious obsession with Hungary. Orban is routinely called “far-right” by a section of the American journalist and pundit class who may never have heard of Jobbik nor have any idea of what the real far-right in Europe can mean or even look like.
This is just weird to me. While, again, I do not claim to speak for “leftist” but I honestly don’t see an obsession here, but rather a concern for reasons I have detailed. And for what it is worth. I had heard of Jobbik and I am aware of what “far-right” can mean in Europe and I do think that the label is applicable to Obran, even if he is not the most extreme example thereof.
Further, Maitra doesn’t exactly do a great job of defending Orban.
Orban is not even right-wing in the American parlance. He’s a statist Christian nationalist who uses the state power to impose (or roll back, depending on which side of the spectrum you are) a certain set of values. As David Harsanyi mentioned on Twitter, that has more in common with progressivism, but the progressives simply cannot stand Orban because he is using their own style against them, to impose policies they don’t prefer.
In that way, Orban is far more successful, measured purely by legislative achievements, than both contemporary British and American right, which would rather sit back and let Big Tech decide your morality. His popularity in Hungary and landslide victories are a testament to that.
Note in the first paragraph that weird need to make this somehow progressive’s fault (they started it, Ma!). But also I need to point out that progressives (whatever that may mean here) have not passed censorious laws banning whole topics from classrooms. So not only is the “they started it” bit childish, it is simply false.
(I am constantly amazed that in these pieces the blame for people like Dreher and Carlson admitting Orban isn’t their fault, but, instead, the progressive made them do it!).
Second, even in a piece that kind of attempts to defend Orban, he calls him a “statist Christian.” Last I checked, a major tenet of American political theory is the separation of church and state (and before someone says it in the comments, I fully recognize that for Dreher that “statist Christian is a feature, not a bug). Further, Maitra states that Obran “uses state power to impose…a certain set of values.” That makes him anti-pluralist and anti-liberal democracy.
Let me note something incredibly important: Orban has not won “landslide victories,” rather he was able to manipulate the electoral system back in 2010 so that he need only win a plurality and still be able to control a super-majority in the National Assembly.
Yes, he has the party with the largest vote-share, but as I noted in the Douthat post, the electoral rules give his coalition a huge advantage (49.3% of the vote is enough for 2/3rds of the seats in the parliament). Further, this report from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which observed the 2018 elections, was far from glowing:
The Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on 9 April concluded that the parliamentary elections “were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis. Voters had a wide range of political options but intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice. The technical administration of the elections was professional and transparent”.
Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate. Access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association were restricted, including by recent legal changes. The electoral legal framework, as recently amended, formed an adequate basis for democratic elections. However, the legislative process was a missed opportunity to hold inclusive consultations and address prior ODIHR recommendations, including with respect to suffrage rights, a level playing field for campaigning, the freedom of the media, and citizen observation.
So, not the worst conditions one could imagine, but also no where near acceptable democratic conditions.
Understanding the problems with Hungarian elections undercuts Maitra’s conclusion:
Watching the meltdown over Carlson visiting Hungary and meeting Orban, I stumbled upon a hypothesis. In an earlier era, British and American liberals from Walter Bagehot to Margaret Sanger opposed any mass democracy or plebiscitary instincts. Now liberals are therefore baffled when that democracy results in normal people rejecting their radical policies. The Hungary meltdown is a sign of that disconnect.
It is simply not the case that democracy is resulting in “normal people” (an interesting choice of words) choosing a set of policies in Hungary. Instead, a skewed system is allowing less than a majority to impose policies on the broader population. And since it takes a 2/3rds majority in the Assembly to do much under the current constitution, even if Orban’s coalition loses power, rolling back what Fidez and friends have done is not necessarily easy to accomplish.
Back to the post’s title: the question is not “why do liberals hate Orban?” the question is, why do people like Dreher and friends like him so much? And, beyond that, how much of Orban-style politics do they really want to promote in the US?
P.S. I know some of this is a kid of retread of the Douthat post. But I am honestly and profoundly disturbed by the admiration being express for Orbanism. It is not healthy for American democracy and hence all the words that have been pouring out about it.
P.P.S. Let me also recommend this Twitter thread (which is where I found the report cited above):