Wake up, everyone! Democracy is in peril again.
Blasting across Cockburn’s email feed recently was a new piece from Yasmeen Serhan for the Atlantic, titled ‘The Autocrat’s Legacy.’ The piece is about the unfathomable wickedness of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. He’s the autocrat.
Orbán doesn’t stick his opponents in jail or ban political parties or rig the votes in elections. He’s a much deadlier kind of authoritarian: the kind who wins elections but believes wrong things.
Orbán has been the dominant political force in Hungary since 2010, when his Fidesz party dominated elections so thoroughly that they achieved a supermajority capable of passing a new constitution (which they did; replacing Hungary’s Communist-era document). Whoops, that’s ‘supermajority’. Serhan puts the word in quotes to indicate that it is illegitimate, because Fidesz getting lots of seats when it wins by 18 points just isn’t fair.
‘Orbán doesn’t follow the classic authoritarian playbook of jailing opposition politicians, arresting journalists, or violently cracking down on protesters, as is so often the case in places such as Russia or Belarus,’ Serhan writes. So, in other words, Orbán is not an authoritarian. He’s just a guy who wins elections.
Cockburn goes on to list things that the American left bashes Orban for, and then shows that the same things happen in liberal America — but they don’t care, or even call it good. More Cockburn:
That’s really what this is all about in the end. For the trans-Atlantic Atlantic set, ‘democracy’ has stopped meaning ‘government through popular elections’ and instead means an ever-narrowing set of neoliberal priorities. Defy any of these priorities, and you’ve left the pale of democracy to embrace ‘competitive authoritarianism’, in Serhan’s paradoxical wording. On the other hand, for neoliberals, virtually any tactic is acceptable if done in the name of ‘preserving democracy’.
When Orbán makes appointments to his high court, it is ‘packing’ regardless of context. Last fall, Serhan’s colleague Adam Serwer overtly called for packing the Supreme Court to save democracy.
When independent media outlets in Hungary struggle to find advertisers, it is ‘soft autocracy’. When the most popular cable show in America can’t find any advertisers besides a pillow salesman, that’s corporate America standing against hate.
In 2019, the Washington Post complained that Hungary’s electoral commission rejected complaints on ‘formalistic grounds’, but the paper wasn’t perturbed at all a year later when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court kicked the Green party off the ballot for faxing an affidavit instead of mailing it in.
Winning three landslide election victories in a fair vote is not democracy if the government then bans gay marriage, but an unelected Supreme Court imposing gay marriage nationwide by a 5-4 vote is exactly what Cleisthenes envisioned 2,500 years ago.
More than ever before, Western elites simply equate democracy with their own power. In a time when Western power seems shakier than ever, they tell the public that democracy means they are the only acceptable choice to lead. So, who is really putting democracy in peril?
As I said the other day, it’s becoming hard to avoid the conclusion that liberalism as we have known it really is dead, and that the two choices facing us are leftist illiberalism, and rightist illiberalism. I prefer to live in classical liberalism, but that choice is not in front of us, is it? The problem with the American Left is that it doesn’t recognize what it does as illiberalism. The problem with the old-guard Establishment Right is that it has either reconciled itself to the dominance of leftist illiberalism, or it is popping the Pill of Murti-Bing. What’s that? I explained it a few years back:
The dynamic behind this phenomenon is what the Polish dissident writer Czesław Miłosz, in his classic study of intellectuals under Polish communism, The Captive Mind, called “the Pill of Murti-Bing.” The concept comes from a 1927 dystopian novel by Stanisław Witkiewicz in which an Asian army overruns Poland, and conquers its people in part by giving them pills to assuage their anxieties over their condition. From The Captive Mind:
Witkiewicz’s heroes are unhappy in that they have no faith and no sense of meaning in their work. This atmosphere of decay and senselessness extends throughout the entire country. And at that moment, a great number of hawkers appear in the cities peddling Murti-Bing pills. Murti-Bing was a Mongolian philosopher who had succeeded in producing an organic means of transporting a “philosophy of life.” This Murti-Bing “philosophy of life,” which constituted the strength of the Sino-Mongolian army, was contained in pills in an extremely condensed form. A man who used these pills changed completely. He became serene and happy.
For Miłosz, Polish intellectuals who capitulated to communism and Soviet rule had taken the pill of Murti-Bing. It was what made their condition bearable. They could not stand to see reality, for if they recognized what was really happening in their country, the pain and shock would make life too much to take.
OK, I’ll wrap up. It’s late here in Milan, and I’ve got an early flight back to the US tomorrow. I didn’t want to let Ross Douthat’s column go by without offering some remarks. The point of these remarks is simply this: if we conservatives are going to mount an effective political resistance to the soft totalitarianism taking over our country, then we are going to have to have aggressive, competent, national conservative leadership, one that is not averse to intervening in the economy for the sake of the common good. The best example of that now on the world stage is Viktor Orban. If we are going to I don’t want his tolerance for corruption to be brought to America. I don’t want all of his laws and policies repeated in the US. America is not Hungary. But neither is Hungary America, and I respect Orban for defending Hungary’s character, Hungary’s customs, Hungary’s sovereignty, Hungary’s natural families, and Hungary’s national interests against dictatorial progressive bullies from rich countries whose societies are coming apart at the seams.
With the possible exception of Poland’s leadership, about which I know next to nothing, Viktor Orban is the only Western leader who understands that Europe, at least, is facing a civilizational crisis, and is committed to addressing it as best as he can using political power. He might fail, but if he does, the failure will be felt by all of us in the decades to come, and it’s not going to be pleasant.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
As far as I can tell, the significance of Orban is a lot like the significance of Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson is not going to cleanse the academic temple of SJWs, but his example is one we should emulate in the academy. In say 2015 it would have been very easy to just feel lost at sea in the academy amid all the SJW business. We didn’t quite know then that it would take over so thoroughly to the point it couldn’t really be questioned, but the old school liberals and conservatives knew we were in dangerous waters.How do you respond to that? It is like being in new territory without a map, someone needs to trailblaze it. Peterson did it for me and I learned something about how to inhabit the academic world as a dissident. I could see what it would look like, the sort of criticism I would receive, how I might respond successfully.Jordan Peterson allowed me to more effectively chart out the possibilities, play out scenarios and to go into uncomfortable situations with less anxiety because it wasn’t all new, it was somewhat familiar. I had seen Peterson argue with students and even lawmakers, that was huge.I think maybe that’s what you and Tucker see in Orban: the guy to emulate in this war. Conservatives in America are pathetic. They are like lost children. Frum a conservative? Give me a break, that guy is Judas Iscariot. My background is working man’s Democrat so I grew up despising country club Republicans, hedge funders, Neocons, but now that I vote Republican for social issues, my judgment hasn’t changed. They’re dead wood.Orban is an example that statesmen like DeSantis can emulate.
I caution conservatives against the search for trad-topia. What attracted leftists to Cuba, Venezuala et cetera was the idea that their values were thriving somewhere even if they had failed at home. Of course, I think right-wing ideas tend to better than left-wing ones. But the impulse behind ideological tourism can still obscure the actual conditions of a country.