Over the past several years, Hungary and Poland have been heavily criticized within the European Union. Both have been scolded, but neither have had sanctions imposed against them. The charge against them is that they have moved in the direction of repression. Since 2010, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been criticized for, in the view of its critics, impeding on press freedoms and independence of the judiciary, as well as undermining checks and balances and the rule of law. In Poland, after coming to power in October 2015, the new government of the Law and Justice party has introduced laws that, according to its critics, limit the independence of the media. Moreover, the government triggered a constitutional crisis when it took steps that undermined the ability of the Constitutional Tribunal to function. In addition, both countries have come under attack for opposing large-scale immigration.
It is important to note that the governments of both countries were democratically elected. Both Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło ran on platforms deeply critical of the prior regime. Neither hid the general direction they were going to take their countries, and both were elected by substantial margins. Orbán popularized the phrase “Illiberal Democracy” when German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised liberal democracy and urged Orbán to pursue it. By that she meant two things. The first was that each country should practice national self-determination – free elections. The second was that they should follow liberalism.
The term liberalism is of course complex. When used to modify democracy, liberal democracy denotes the type of regime that the European Enlightenment urged, a regime in which the rights of man were respected. Liberal by itself has another meaning, more immediately political, denoting a particular ideology to be pursued, liberalism. Merkel seemed to be implying that the Orbán regime was not pursuing liberal democracy. In other words, it was not respecting the rights of man. If that were true, then she meant Orbán was not respecting human rights, and that would be a serious charge, particularly since Poland has joined Hungary in this camp, according to the EU hierarchy and the German government. It would certainly be grounds for expulsion from the EU, which hasn’t happened.
There are those who confused these two concepts, in the sense that they believe that the liberal ideology defines liberal in both contexts, and that failure to pursue that ideology means that the regime is no longer a liberal democracy. In some of the more extreme utterances both governments have been accused of fascist tendencies. As I have recently written, the charge of fascism is the McCarthyism of our time. As Joseph McCarthy accused anyone he didn’t like of being a communist, others now charge anything they don’t like as fascist. Fascism is not an abstract concept but a historical reality. To claim that either of these regimes deserve to be lumped in with Hitler or Mussolini, in any way, should immediately discredit the speaker. The threshold of fascism has been set high, and neither government has earned or deserves the name.
Liberal democracy is not a narrow concept. It contains Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the “general will” – that the government and intellectual elite can identify the course that will be in the best interest of the people. The tradition also included John Locke, who envisioned a very limited and restrained government. Certainly, the EU is not the type of government Locke would have wanted. Rousseau might have approved of the EU, since its civil service has powers that go far beyond what Locke would have regarded as appropriate.
The point is that liberal democracy as a principle of government has a vast array of possible configurations. It is hard to see either Hungary or Poland as beyond the pale. FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court by expanding it. He was blocked. He was still within the bounds of liberal democracy. Orbán’s policies towards the media, even if it had a political end as FDR’s court-packing did, is also not outside its bounds, any more than requiring tax dollars to pay for programming on public radio or television, which some may find abhorrent.
People may hate and despise the government, but so long as another election is coming and the people’s voice may be heard, you are pretty much within liberal democracy. As for immigration, liberal democracy allows any latitude on that score. This is why Orbán spoke of illiberal democracy. It was not in the sense of the regime, but in the sense of the ideology – a world in which an election is held and liberal programs and values are rejected by the electorate.
Why did the EU establishment become so upset? First, because a trend is developing in the countries made free in 1989, that rejects the ruling ideology of the EU. These nations were the infants of Maastricht, born to be European. The insistence by Orbán that he is Hungarian first, and Christian, deeply offended the internationalist and devoutly secular leadership of the EU. This was deviation from the founding principles, which were less about liberal democracy and more about a certain ideology within it.
Second, they see this as an ongoing trend. There is significant hostility toward immigrants, Muslims and Jews in both countries. The purpose of the EU was to bury the European past under layers of tolerance. Neither regime intended to foster these racist feelings, but in a liberal democracy, the government has no choice but to manage movements it can’t crush. This is true with the National Front in France and with the political movements Germany has recently unearthed. It is the nature of a liberal democracy that the regime must tolerate the intolerant – at least to a degree. The Eurocrats saw Poland and Hungary as setting precedents they couldn’t live with.
Finally, both of these regimes serve their nation first, and then the EU when it is deemed to be in the national interest. The rise of unabashed nationalist regimes cuts directly against the moral project of the European Union, where nationalism was to be a heritage and European the identity. This nationalism was becoming untenable throughout Europe and had to be discredited. But neither the Polish nor Hungarian government was embarrassed, and that made it difficult to discredit their nationalism.
The only possible strategy was to label them, but the label itself – tending fascist – was so preposterous it was taken seriously only by those who said it and the domestic political opponents of the governments. As I began, it has become the norm to label those you disagree with the mark of Cain. Since the fall of communism, calling people a communist has become the same as calling them Druids. But fascism is alive, and it is the charge of choice by those who have lost elections and by organizations teetering on the abyss.
I don’t know that I would vote for either government if I were Polish or Hungarian. Since I’m not, it doesn’t matter. But it is hard for me to manage the claim that either Poland or Hungary is no longer a liberal democracy, although neither government is liberal. For the EU, there had been a prescribed ideology and both countries have violated it. But they are merely the ones who have openly violated it. The EU’s problem is that others are following. And it is possible that among them might be Germany.
And that should give the stern critics of Poland and Hungary pause. What do they do if Germany passes from the pale?