Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Hating Poland, Hating Hungary

Joe Biden calls these NATO democracies 'totalitarian' -- a slur that says more about him than them
Screen Shot 2020-10-20 at 4.25.29 PM

I’m old enough to remember when it was a huge political deal when President Gerald Ford, in a debate with challenger Jimmy Carter, said that he didn’t believe there was any such thing as the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Seriously, he said it:

He screwed up a line from his briefing book, is what happened. Still, it was a moment. (And even though I was nine years old at the time, I remember it because I was a total nerd kid who obsessed over this stuff.)

So, the other night, it was shocking to hear Joe Biden describe US allies Poland and Hungary as “totalitarian.” Look:

These are democracies and NATO members! What an incredible insult to these nations, which have democratically elected nationalist governments. That derisive remark revealed more about Joe Biden than it did about either Poland or Hungary. Gladden Pappin cuts loose:

Protestations from Poles and the Hungarian foreign minister aside, however, no firestorm broke out in English-speaking media—and for one very simple reason. To the media class, the categorization of Poland and Hungary as “totalitarian regimes” was not a gaffe at all. It did not lead to fact-checking or hasty denials. (Notably, no EU diplomats defended their member states, either.) Rather, it points to new levels of laziness in American foreign policy thinking, where vague impressions of “totalitarian” (read: nationalist, culturally traditional) rule are enough to cast aside countries that have been allied with the United States for generations. For these viceroys of global liberalism, the new hostility is fully intentional.


The real problem with Poland and Hungary, though, is not that Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán have charted supposedly authoritarian political courses. Indeed, faced with the loss of political control over the Supreme Court, the Democratic Party is more than willing to consider tactics that would be pilloried as “authoritarian” in any other context. Rather, Poland and Hungary are successful countries that insist on maintaining their national identities and traditional values—and doing so with the use of democratically earned political power. Liberals abandoned “democratic” concerns long ago, when the European Union was justified in pursuit of substantively democratic outcomes—even while popular opinion was opposed.


The real reason that Poland and Hungary have been demonized in the United States is that they represent a successful alternative to the failed American combination of industrial and family collapse. In recent years, Poland has pursued a policy of modest domestic re-industrialization, while also supporting Polish families with direct government support. Hungary has done the same, including appointing a minister of state for family affairs (Katalin Novák) tasked with helping Hungarian families thrive.

Read it all.

It really is eye-opening to actually go to Hungary and Poland, to talk to ordinary people there, and to try to see the world through their eyes. You must understand that for Americans who don’t speak Polish or Hungarian, all we ever hear about those countries comes to us through English-language media. It is impossible to overstate how culturally conditioned US journalists are by liberal internationalism — that is to say, towards seeing those nationalist governments, which were chosen by their people in free and fair elections, as illegitimate. Even, as Joe Biden put it, as “totalitarian.”

What opened my eyes, and my mind, to the other side of this story was going to Hungary for the first time a few years back, and talking to ordinary Hungarians about how fearful they were of losing control of their own country’s identity, and its fate, to Western capitalist entities and liberal institutions. The people in the Western media, and among Western elites, who look down on the Deplorables in this country hold the same views about the kind of Poles and Hungarians who vote for Duda’s Law & Justice Party, and Orban’s Fidesz. I’m not saying that those governments are above criticism, but Pappin is right: what people like Joe Biden find most repulsive about them is that they have the audacity to question whether policies made in Washington and Brussels are in the best interests of their peoples — and whether the progressive ideals championed by secular Western elites are actually nothing more than a form of cultural imperialism.