A big lightning rod for conflict these days between progressive politicians and their allies in the Western media on the one side and populist politicians and conservative commentators on the other is … Hungary. What is it about this Central European, post-communist country of only 10 million people that inflames such emotions? The answer may tell us more about the health of Western liberal democracies than it does about Hungary.
At the center of the storm is its prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Much of the right sees Orbán as a visionary fashioning a more socially conservative, populist democratic state. The left views him as an authoritarian and casts his policy decisions as dictatorial. For example, New York Times reporter Patrick Kingsley says ominously, “Mr. Orbán has transformed the country into … an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.” President Biden described Hungary as a “totalitarian regime” during last year’s campaign and implied that Orbán was a thug.
But the evidence that critics provide to show Hungary’s alleged slide into authoritarianism usually doesn’t involve what is truly worrying in the country’s politics. Rather, the attacks focus on debatable policy choices that merely offend Western partisan sentiments. This obscures what is truly worrying in our own politics. For each Orbán move that does represent a serious threat to the country’s democratic order, we can easily cite similar actions by liberal governments in our backyard. That might explain why these threats get far less attention.
One policy that American and Western European journalists, academics and other progressives held in disdain was the border wall that Orbán’s government built to stem the flow of refugees during the European migrant crisis in 2015. Later, Donald Trump’s promise to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico became the centerpiece of his administration’s immigration policy.
Tucker Carlson Arrives in Town
Then this past August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson moved his nightly show to Budapest for a week to sing the praises of how Orbán is controlling immigration and supporting families. Populists such as Carlson and a growing list of intellectual conservatives such as Rod Dreher, an editor at “The American Conservative,” and Patrick Deneen, a political science professor at Notre Dame, see Orbán’s priorities and policy approaches as a model for how the U.S. needs to be thinking.
The condemnations of Carlson were swift and voluminous. The Washington Post ran more than 10 anti-Orbán opinion stories in the wake of the visit. The Times described Carlson’s interview of Orbán as “a meeting of conservative fellow travelers: a jovial host—who heads an authoritarian government bent on targeting liberal institutions, including universities, the judiciary and the media—and his American guest exchanging grins,” and followed that up with a disparaging reference to Hungary’s wall.
Much of the rhetorical ferocity focused on the country’s new child-protection law passed on the eve of Carlson’s arrival, which critics call an anti-LGBT law. This is another policy that progressive opinion leaders consider distasteful and therefore frame as a fundamental threat to liberal democracy without much evidence or context. Not only have they apparently reached a consensus that any effort to control a border is wrong and that there shouldn’t be any limits on what children are exposed to when it comes to human sexuality, but also that anyone who disagrees is clearly on the path of democratic backsliding, if not outright fascist oppression.
Lashing Out at an LGBT Law
For instance, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded in the most militant terms, vowing to “bring Hungary to its knees” in the name of social justice (for LGBT individuals). He claimed that the country’s new law was an attack on the bedrock values of European liberal democracy that might warrant ejection from the European Union. This message resonated as well as you might expect in a former Eastern bloc nation that was brought to its knees in 1956 when its Soviet ally invaded in the name of social justice (for the proletariat) after Hungary attacked some of the bloc’s bedrock values.
Of course, Rutte was buying domestic political cover for criticism he’s been getting from LGBT groups. With so many elites trying to prove their bona fides on hot button issues and score political points, many of the attacks on Orbán offer more insight into domestic politics in the West than they do about Hungary’s. Indeed, when we compare the law with its counterparts across the West, it’s remarkable that Western observers can speak with such conviction that the law is thoroughly incompatible with liberal democracy.
A close look at the new law shows how this process of Orbán action and Western reaction plays out. The law builds on the 2011 constitutional amendment to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. This was akin to the Defense of Marriage Act in the U.S. that President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 and the Supreme Court overturned in 2013. And Hungary’s law follows an executive decree in January stating that books must have a disclaimer at the point of sale if they contain LGBT and other themes not based on traditional identities and unions.
THE CHILD-PROTECTION LAW:
Toughens penalties for pedophilia-related crimes and creates a national sex-offender database. Convictions for sex crimes against children under 12 and for sex crimes while holding public office will carry no possibility for a suspended sentence. It bars convicted offenders from practicing certain professions that involve children both directly or indirectly, such as working at zoos, beaches, amusement parks, sports associations or government offices.
Regulates LGBT content in sex education curriculums and children’s media, saying “it is forbidden to make available for minors content that features any portrayal of sexuality as an end in itself, any deviation from the identity corresponding to one’s sex assigned at birth, sex reassignment or promotion of homosexuality.”
Controls which organizations can provide lifestyle education in schools, requiring them to register with the state to lecture on sex education, drug prevention, internet usage or other topics related to mental and physical development. It excludes “organizations of questionable professional credibility, created in many cases to represent certain sexual orientations,” that are trying to “influence children’s sexual development with their so-called sensitivity trainings, causing severe damage to their physical, mental and moral development.”
The legislation passed in July with 79% of the 199 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. But the EU is pressing Hungary to soften it in the name of the liberal democratic values that the union espouses. Orbán is so confident that the public backs the law that he’s putting it up for a referendum early next year on the eve of parliamentary elections and setting the EU on a collision course with Hungary’s democratic legitimacy.
Critics can disagree with provisions of this law. I certainly do. But is it really a dangerous violation of not only LGBT rights but also of the fundamental values of Western liberalism as critics so often claim?
The answer is certainly no. The law codifies practices that were largely universal across the West just 10 or 15 years ago, and many of these practices continue today in even the most progressive nations. And it regulates or prohibits things that nearly all liberal democratic governments regulate or prohibit. Governments, including many in the U.S., routinely ban advocacy groups from schools (such as religious organizations and ones considered hate groups) and regulate media and educational materials for children. It is common for Western governments to require or strongly encourage warnings about products, ranging from the dangerous (“smoking is bad for you”) to the confused (“GMO food!”) and the profane (“explicit lyrics”).
Moreover, it’s usually colonizers and theocrats, not liberal democracies, that seek to control what other sovereign nations teach and which private organizations can teach it on such issues as the nature of the person, human identity and human purpose. Countries forcing another country to adopt their cultural and educational norms is a clear act of colonialism. Likewise, demanding that one view of human nature and creation hold a monopoly in education, regardless of popular sentiment, has traditionally been an act of churches and theocracies.
It’s Worse When Hungary Does It
Many practices that are common in the West and don’t create much controversy would be seen as violating core values—if they were taking place instead in Hungary or another out-of-favor country. Some organizations in the U.S. have their views included in sex-ed classes, but public schools usually don’t allow the Catholic Church to present its views, claiming that the principle of church-state separation prohibits it. Likewise, the federal government censors what it considers obscene, indecent and profane content on television and radio. And other Western governments often have far more extensive media regulations than the U.S.
These violations may be undesirable or even wrong, but it doesn’t make them a serious threat to Western values and European civilization. If similar actions mean that Orbán’s Hungary is “illiberal and authoritarian,” as many media voices suggest, then nearly all Western governments must be characterized as illiberal and authoritarian.
In any event, it’s unclear which, if any, LGBT rights Hungary’s new law violates. It is so unclear that when the European Commission challenged the law, it didn’t do so on the grounds that it discriminates against LGBT people. Instead, it said it violates the principle of the free movement of goods within the EU and other commission rules. And it argued that product labeling and restricting books for minors interfered with freedom of expression, rather than citing LGBT rights.
Obviously, such a challenge can be debated in a liberal democracy. Nevertheless, the commission is trying to force Hungary to revise the law by threatening to withhold the large payments it makes for COVID relief or use other levers of coercion unrelated to the legislation. If the EU’s treatment of Hungary reminds you of President Biden’s response to the border crisis in Texas, perhaps because he doesn’t like the state’s politics, or Trump’s response to the California wildfires last year for the same reason, that’s probably apt.
Bowing to One View of Social Progress
The message of the commission’s attack on Hungary doesn’t seem to be much about rights, liberalism or democracy. Instead, it’s a demonstration of rising progressive intolerance that’s driven, perhaps, by a belief that powerful bodies must back the forces pushing to dethrone heterosexual norms. Or maybe it’s a desire to avoid being seen as sympathetic to anyone who actively opposes that goal. Even if dethroning heterosexual norms is a noble aim, that doesn’t justify government action against another democratically run country.
Another message the commission is sending is that it’s okay to distort and abuse the politics of a country merely to serve as grist for the mill of coalition politics in its other members. The real objection of most critics is that they simply do not agree with Hungary’s law on the merits. There’s apparently a belief that every law passed somewhere else that they don’t like is a sign of a slide into fascism.
Oddly, it must be pointed out that Hungary is a different country, and in other countries, people under democratic rule get to work out their own answers to questions. That’s one of the original promises that democracy offered as the West emerged from the religious wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. It isn’t as though the answers to LGBT questions have been known forever or enjoy a consensus. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s own country of Germany legalized gay marriage only in October 2017 after all.
The Influence of History
The risk of this intellectual laziness is that we lose sight of what real threats look like. Ill-targeted attacks also could destabilize EU politics and (ironically, given the focus on inclusion in the critiques) threaten Europe’s cultural diversity. These policies are not only popular in Hungary but are also commonly supported in the other countries that emerged from Soviet oppression 32 years ago. They often result from a stronger interest in national unity and a greater belief in traditional and national values than are seen in the West. The fact that government actions reflect this seems quite liberal and democratic.
However, there are aspects of Orbán’s rule—a big one is the brazen corruption—that are troubling and worthy of a serious discussion of what is truly important for preserving liberal democracy. Why don’t we focus on those issues? It’s easy to understand why the right wants to emphasize what it likes, such as the immigration and family policies, while downplaying less attractive elements.
But the left’s choice of targets is more interesting. While it makes sense to attack policies it doesn’t like, such as the border wall and the child-protection law, it’s puzzling why less attention is given to more serious threats to democracy in Hungary. Perhaps it is hard to focus on Orbán’s more illiberal moves because many of those moves look pretty good to progressives. Indeed, we can easily cite similarly illiberal threats throughout the West.
For example, Orbán has sought to limit the ability of the courts to independently interpret the law. That sounds bad, and perhaps it is, but U.S. courts have long advanced progressive policies outside of the legislative process. And Orbán has engaged in what has been called “court packing in disguise.” But the anti-Orbán media narrative becomes blurry when you consider that Democratic Party leaders in the U.S. advocate for undisguised court packing.
Pressuring the Organs of the Opposition
In 2018, Orbán forced Central European University out of the country for “failure to comply with government regulations.” The ouster of the school, founded in 1991 by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation to address social and global challenges, was a major blow to academic freedom and illegal under EU law. But it’s inconvenient for critics to point this out when many Democrats, the U.N.’s Human Rights Campaign and editorials in major publications pressure the administration to crack down on conservative and Christian colleges, a conflict that amounts to an ideological disagreement on LGBT issues.
Since the beginning of the last decade, media independence in Hungary has been under attack by both Orbán’s government and his party, and media critical of government narratives have been suppressed. But in the U.S., we have government and tech industry collusion to suppress stories and narratives from media outside the mainstream. A New York Times news story argues that Hungary has developed a “government-aligned media.” This is at a time when the Times and much of the media in the U.S. regularly aligns itself with Democratic Party and establishment priorities.
Is Orbán’s active role in changing history curriculums in favor of his ideological assumptions so different from the Trump and Biden administrations’ fight over including the 1619 project’s view of history in public school curriculums? Or the arguments over the influence of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms?
Orbán’s Hungary has made it harder for left-leaning organizations, scholars and other parts of civil society to find public funding. But to progressives in the U.S., it doesn’t seem as disturbing when right-leaning organizations, scholars and other parts of civil society face an all-too-familiar ideological bias when applying for federal funds. Indeed, the New York Times’ description of Orbán’s ruling style is familiar to many Western conservatives frustrated by the dominance of progressives in different spheres:
His party’s appointees or supporters dominate many artistic institutions and universities. A growing number of plays and exhibitions have had nationalist or anti-Western undertones. Religious groups and nongovernment organizations critical of [the ruling party] have seen funding dry up. He has especially vilified pro-democracy organizations funded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.
All in all, if we ignore the policies that merely offend us and zoom in on those that threaten Hungary’s democracy, we find that they differ more in degree than in kind from similar policies promoted by the supposed champions of liberal democracy in the West. These comparisons are not meant to identify willful hypocrisy, but to diagnose an advancing blindness in our discourse about what really matters for democracy. Our debate over Hungary glosses over serious problems with the infrastructure that sustains democratic governance and pluralism. Instead, as noted by English political philosopher John Gray at the turn of the millennium, democracy is increasingly seen as healthy only when it affirms the right answers and outcomes, according to the self-appointed scions of progressivism, rather than when it’s pursuing answers in a free and democratic manner.
Our discourse is increasingly obsessed with policy choices that educated Western opinion deems distasteful, and on usually new and highly contested personal-rights grounds. This is often useful for elites in their domestic political fights, such as Rutte’s attempt to win favor with LGBT critics at home. But averting our eyes from Orbán’s more serious attacks on constitutional governance means we’re also looking away from the fragile health of our own democratic regimes. By failing to understand what is really going on in Hungary, we also fail to understand our democracy’s own failings, its challenges and what some find attractive about Hungary. That leaves us vulnerable to misjudging people overseas, our fellow citizens and ourselves.