interesting times

A Democracy Disappears

Viktor Orbán has transformed Hungary. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

So now we know how you do it.

I mean how you turn a prosperous 21st-century liberal democracy into an illiberal one, and then into a de facto dictatorship. There are no tanks; no mass arrests of opposition politicians; no coups; no direct assaults on the rule of law; and no new totalizing ideology. There is, in fact, no moment where you can definitively say that the liberal democracy has ceased to exist. But in Hungary, an upstanding member of the European Union, liberal democracy is now dead, pining for the fjords, nailed to the perch, an unmistakably ex-democracy.

Last weekend’s reelection of Viktor Orbán, with a supermajority of his own party in parliament, was a watershed. Yascha Mounk explains why:

[Hungary] has now completed a process … that has mostly remained theoretical until now: It was once a liberal democracy. As Orbán undermined the rule of law, dismantled the separation of powers, and massively violated the rights of ethnic minorities, it turned into an illiberal democracy. Now, it is effectively a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.

The recipe is a familiar one by now. In a society where social mores, especially in the big cities, appear to be changing very fast, there is a classic reaction. More traditional voters in the heartland begin to feel left behind, and their long-held values spurned. At the same time, a wave of unlawful migrants, fleeing terror and deprivation, appear to threaten the demographic and cultural balance still further, and seem to be encouraged by international post-national entities such as the European Union. A leftist ruling party in disarray gives a right-wing demagogue an opening, and he seizes it. And so in 2010, Orbán was able to exploit a political crisis triggered by an imploding and scandal-ridden Socialist government, and, alongside coalition partners, win a supermajority for the right in parliament.

Once in power, that supermajority allowed Orbán to amend the constitution in 2011, reducing the number of seats in the parliament from 386 to 199, gerrymandering them brutally to shore up his party’s standing in future elections, barring gay marriage in perpetuity, and mandating that in election campaigns, state media would take precedence over independent sources. He also forced a wave of early retirements in the judiciary in order to pack the courts with loyalists.

As Mounk notes, Orbán also tapped into deep grievances rooted in Hungary’s loss of territory in the 20th century, by giving the vote to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring Romania and removing it from more culturally progressive expats. But it was in response to the migration crisis in 2015, that Orbán truly galvanized public opinion behind him. Hungary, as Paul Lendvai noted in The Atlantic, had been deluged with asylum claims: 174,000 in 2015 alone, the highest per capita in the EU. Orbán responded by spreading fears of an influx of terrorists and criminals, of a poisoning of Hungarian culture, and expressing visceral nationalist hostility to the diktats of the European Union. Added to all that, of course, was a generous salting of classic central European anti-Semitism. Voters especially in rural areas flocked to him.

He further shifted the public discourse by creating and advancing new media outlets that amplified his propaganda, while attacking, harassing, and undermining all the others. He erected a huge fence to keep Muslim immigrants out, and refused to accept any of the 50,000 refugees the EU wanted to settle in his country. His political allies began to get very rich, as crony capitalism spread. By last year, Orbán had turned George Soros into a version of 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein — an “enemy of the state” — with billboards and endless speeches, demonizing the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist, and vowing to protect the nation from external, malignant forces.

It was a potent formula, especially when backed up by the rigging of the parliamentary seats. Last week, in a surge of voter turnout, Orban won almost 50 percent of the vote, but two-thirds of the seats, giving him another supermajority (this time without coalition partners) in parliament, with further chances to amend the constitution in his favor. His voters in the heartland swamped a majority for the opposition in Budapest. One of two remaining opposition newspapers, Magyar Nemzet, shut down on Wednesday after 80 years in print. Orbán had withdrawn all government advertising in it. Some wonder whether there will ever be a free election again.

If you find many of these themes familiar, you’ve been paying attention. In the middle of a reaction against massive social change and a wave of illegal immigration, a right-wing party decides to huff some populism. A charismatic figure emerges, defined by hostility to immigration, becomes an iconic figure, and even though he doesn’t win a majority of votes, comes to office. His party is further shored up by gerrymandering, giving it a structural advantage in gaining and keeping power, including a seven percentage-point head start in the House of Representatives. That party does what it can to further suppress the vote of its opponents, especially ethnic minorities, and focuses on packing the courts, even rupturing long-standing precedents to deny a president of the opposing party his right to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat.

Openly propagandist media companies emerge, fake news surges, while the president uses the powers of his office to attack, delegitimize, and discredit other media sources, even to the point of threatening a company like Amazon. A mighty wall is proposed against immigrants on the border, alongside fears of a mass “invasion” from the South. Social conservatives are embraced tightly. The census is altered to ensure one party’s advantage in future district-drawing. Courts are disparaged and the justice system derided as rigged by political opponents.

The difference, of course, is that Orbán is an experienced politician, and knows exactly what he’s doing. Trump is a fool, an incompetent, and incapable of forming any kind of strategy, or sticking to one. The forces arrayed against the populist right, moreover, are much stronger in the U.S. than in Hungary; our institutions more robust; our culture much more diverse. Our democracy is far, far older.

And yet almost every single trend in Hungary is apparent here as well. The party of the left has deep divisions, and no unifying leader, while the ruling party is a loyalist leader-cult. The president’s party is a machine that refuses to share power, and seeks total control of all branches of government. It is propelled by powerful currents of reaction, seems indifferent to constitutional norms, and dedicated to incendiary but extremely potent populist rhetoric. The president’s supporters now support a purge in the Department of Justice and the FBI, to protect the president from being investigated.

The president himself has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for liberal norms; and despite a chaotic first year and a half, is still supported by a solid and slightly growing 42 percent of the public. Meanwhile, the immigration issue continues to press down, the culture wars are intensifying again, and the broad reasons for Trump’s election in the first place remain in place: soaring social and economic inequality, cultural insecurity, intensifying globalization, and a racially fraught period when white Americans will, for the first time, not form a majority of citizens.

History is not over; and real, profound political choices are here again. My hope is that the descent into illiberalism across the West might shake up the rest of us in defending core liberal democratic principles, wherever they are threatened, bringing us to the ballot box in huge numbers this fall, and abandoning the complacency so many have lapsed into.

We cannot take anything for granted anymore. What was once a theoretical collapse of a liberal democracy now has a proof of principle. Do not ask when this choice between liberalism and illiberalism will come to America. It is already here.

Power, Reason, and Liberalism

The much-anticipated podcast discussion between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein, though frustrating at times, was nonetheless clarifying in one core respect. Klein doesn’t believe you can discuss the latest scientific arguments about genetics, environment, and IQ without integrating an account of the historical and political context that surrounds them. That means, for Ezra, that any contemporary discussion must defer to the context of the history of white supremacy, and its nefarious abuse of science, and thereby be deemed guilty of racism until proven innocent. What Harris is insisting on, in contrast, is that the science is the science regardless of history, and you can discuss that separately from a discussion of social policy or the past, and that, in scientific debate, the race and gender and identity of the participants are irrelevant, and only the arguments matter.

This is, in fact, a central question being debated right now in our culture — far beyond the race and IQ debate. Much of the left now holds that structural racism/sexism et al. is so overwhelming that it pollutes the exercise of reason itself. And it further argues that the very premises of debate in a modern democracy — that everyone has an equal voice, regardless of their identity — must therefore be modified to account for these power differentials. And so Harris’s position is flawed because, in Klein’s words, it is simply a reflection of tribal bias, i.e., Harris is a white male, merely defending his privilege, not a free mind grappling with data. Indeed, Klein even believes his own engagement is flawed because he’s white. All thought, in this view, is filtered first through racial and gender power structures. It has no independent realm.

“Privilege,” in other words, trumps reason, hence the need to “check it” all times. Indeed, there is no realm in which arguments are simply arguments; they are always to be judged as components of power relations. This is the Frankfurt School made manifest. All discourse is a function of power; and power has to be restructured before any debate can be legitimately had; which means that “diversity” must come before reason; and that suppression of some voices is required for true tolerance and an actual free debate to exist. Hence affirmative action — not to give some disadvantaged but able kids a chance to prove themselves as individual thinkers, regardless of their race, but to resist and overturn the racial power structures that exist on campus, before any truly free discussion can take place at all.

Science, for the Frankfurt School, therefore has no real validity as a separate mode of human thought. It is a social construct, like everything else, embedded in “whiteness” and thereby oppressive in its essence. Or to put it in the language of the protesters at Middlebury: “Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’” Indeed. Everything is power. And so scientific inquiries that might buttress the status quo must be stigmatized and suppressed, because they presuppose a world in which truth can be posited beyond power.

And of course, in a more modest sense, our environment and our history do indeed affect and structure our discourse. It’s only sensible to acknowledge that to a degree. But they do not fully determine it, and cannot fully determine it if we are to retain some trace of the Enlightenment ideas that lie beneath a liberal society. (I think, in fact, that this is more Ezra’s view, but that he has conceded far too much ground to the radical premises of his fellow-travelers.)

There has to be a space left for reason alone, for a free and open-ended review of evidence and data and arguments, regardless of the consequences, irrespective of the racial and gendered identities of the people trying to think things through. There has to be a space where reason can liberate an individual from his or her identity, rather than a world in which identity is fundamental and creates thought. We once constructed a space in liberal society, where that principle was sacrosanct, where ideas could be exchanged in rare freedom, regardless of who offered them, and debated on their merits. And how many universities will soon be left that have that as their animating idea?

Beyond the universities? Our broader intellectual culture — through all the institutions that sustain it — is now being subjected to these same pressures, where race and gender are openly made central to the project of reporting, of thinking, and of writing. Resisting this tendency is not racist or sexist. It is about defending the possibility of a place where ideas matter more than identity.

In Defense of Stereotypes

And then they came for Apu.

In battling against the relentless onslaught of “social justice,” you have to take solace in a few small acts of defiance. And last week, we had one, as the writers of The Simpsons stood their ground against the attempt to rid their show of funny stereotypes, in particular to reform and remake the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The usual arguments have been made: Apu foments racism because he was long the sole South Asian figure in mainstream television and does not represent many Indian-Americans, he is voiced by a white (i.e., Jewish) man in a parody of an Indian accent, he “hurts” people, he’s created by people with “privilege,” the oppression is intolerable, yada yada. We haven’t yet gotten to the point in the formula where Apu is actually responsible for the deaths of Indian-Americans, but I’m sure that’s coming.

The usual response to this social justice routine is a moderated form of apology, and much public hand-wringing, followed by surrender. Just ask Jeffrey Goldberg. Hank Azaria — a totes def lib — did the dance: “The idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally.” The writers, mercifully, weren’t such wimps. In an unusual scene, Lisa and Marge looked directly at the camera and complained that one of their favorite childhood books had been put through the PC washer and ended up drab, predictable, and without any character arc. “What am I supposed to do?” asks Marge. Lisa continues: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Then she looks at a picture of Apu, on which is scrawled the Bart mantra “Don’t Have a Cow.”

And, yes, on cue, Twitter erupted. The one objection to the scene that had a point, it seems to me, is that Lisa is the wrong character to say this. By 2018, surely her do-goody, NPR-listening, 1998, liberal egghead persona would have morphed into a permanently aggrieved racial activist, intent on removing every lamentable obstacle on the march toward boundless diversity. But maybe Lisa, I like to think, is too smart for that (as are many liberals in private). Maybe she’s precisely the right person to push back against the left’s latest attempt to police and stymie artists and writers.

More to the point, Apu is funny, in part, because he is a stereotype, and because that stereotype largely rings true. He’s a first-generation immigrant, highly educated with a doctorate in computer science, a small businessman who went through a tortuous immigration journey, and he’s now a successful and integrated part of Springfield. And, indeed, most Indian-Americans are first- or second-generation immigrants, highly educated, often small business owners, high earners, and skew liberal. So Apu is not an outlier here. And his character has developed quirkily over the years: We know he’s vegan, is good friends with Homer, sang in a barbershop quartet, and thinks he is the fifth Beatle. The Simpsons writers have already addressed his being a stereotype by having a scene where his nephew, who speaks in a generic American accent, is embarrassed by him. They finish with a guest appearance from the Italian chef, with a silly mustache and absurdly stereotypical Italian accent.

And there’s a huge difference between stereotypes that are born out of fondness, and those rooted in hatred. The Simpsons is all about love. Think of Groundskeeper Willie, or Chief Wiggum, or Ned Flanders: how much more stereotypical can they be? And yet how human they are. Or think of two of my favorite characters from South Park: Big Gay Al and Mr. Slave. They’re both screaming gay stereotypes, but they’re created out of love, and they definitely exist (in less outlandish ways, of course) in reality. I don’t know any gays who actually feel hurt by them, and if they are, it says more about their own insecurity than anyone else’s alleged homophobia. In fact, one of the reasons I was such an early fan of South Park is because I enjoyed seeing a pop-cultural product recognize that such stereotypes exist, make fun of them, while still coming from an entirely benign place. And stereotypes are only funny when they reveal something true that we try to suppress — and almost all the studies of stereotypes in social psychology prove that they are actually, most of the time, dead accurate. (Seriously, check this out.)

Comedy particularly needs to be defended against ideologues. Humor is the most resilient enemy of zealotry, which is why so many fanatics have tried to ban or police it, from the original Puritans to the new PC Puritans. I recall George Orwell’s line that fascism would never happen in Britain because if the Brits saw soldiers goose-stepping down the street, they’d giggle. He’s onto something. And in an increasingly multiracial and multicultural society, stereotype humor is one of the most benign ways to vent racial or gender or religious tension, without degenerating into dangerous bigotry. Laughter always defuses hatred. It’s a safety valve and a reality check. That is why some on the left are so exercised about it. For their project in remaking the world, it is, indeed, magnificently problematic.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: A Democracy Disappears