Friday, November 12, 2021

Why Western Conservatives Admire Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a very controversial figure, widely considered a dictator by many leftists but admired by many on the right. Orban's party wins elections, and seems to be genuinely popular, but on the other hand he has taken control of the nation's media, refashioned the constitution to increase his power, and sacked many bureaucrats (down to the level of school principals) and replaced them with cronies and allies. 

A few weeks ago Scott Siskind posted a review of two biographies of Orban that leaned toward the "Orban is a dictator" view. Now he has posted a round-up of the comments his received. The comments force one to confront a very hard question: what is democracy, and how much of it do we really want? 

Siskind says that the conservative commenters didn't really praise Orban's policies; they praise him for winning and holding power as a conservative. In a world where so many institutions are controlled by liberals, maybe acting at least a little authoritarian is the only way a conservative can accomplish anything:

The idea is something like: there are a few ways to govern. One is to be Angela Merkel. Be more or less an elite, who only likes things other elites like. Then you can do things like have an independent judiciary (because the elites in the judiciary will mostly be nice to you), have an independent media (because the elites in the media will mostly cover you positively), have independent academic experts (because they will say the evidence supports you), etc.

Another is to be Donald Trump. Go against elite opinion, have all of the elites hate you, and - realistically - don’t accomplish very much. When you try to accomplish something, the courts will declare it unconstitutional, the media will attack it, and academic experts will say the evidence is against it. You can ram the government really hard against all these other institutions and try to break past by sheer inertia, but it’s a tough battle.

Another is to be Viktor Orban. Go against elite opinion, and when the elites try to stop you, crush them. Crush the judiciary and replace it with your college friends. Crush the media and replace it with your college friends. Crush the intelligentsia and replace them with your college friends. Then do whatever you want, and the judiciary, media, and intelligentsia will take your side!

Siskind goes on to say (and I agree) that this is wrong in putting too much emphasis on right vs. left. In fact it is hard to get anything done in a mature democracy, as you are seeing with Democratic efforts to pass spending bills. Realistically, maybe any kind of major change requires authoritarian tactics:

So regardless of your politics there’s a tiny Overton Window of things you can actually get done, things that you can sneak past the gauntlet of various liberal and conservative elites trying to frustrate you at every turn. You can either do some minimal thing within this window - Trump’s tax cut, Biden’s spending-bill-lite - or you can crush all those people.

I believe something like this is true. Changing the world through politics is just really hard, and democracy doesn't make it much easier because so many people hate and fear change.

On the other hand, the world does change. Perhaps not as fast as some of us would like, but only a few odd young anti-racists want to deny that the past century has seen extraordinary changes. The question becomes, do we want change so badly that we want to force it politically, which means dismantling the complex system of multiple power centers that so effectively prevents it? Do we really want pure rule by the people?

Remember that to many Enlightenment figures, including the US founding fathers, democracy was pretty much identical with the election of authoritarian demagogues. They very much had people like Orban in mind when they wrote the Constitution.

My general feeling is that these obstructionist systems have served us pretty well for 200 years, and I am not much interested in casting them aside. Obviously there could come a point where politics becomes impossible, as it did in 1861, but I don't think we are there yet. 

I suppose my root feeling is that I don't trust any faction to govern without limits, and if that means I don't get all of what I from from politics, I think that is probably still for the best.


Shadow said...

For the first 150 years or so of the republic it didn't matter how inefficient democracy was, because we were far away from those countries that could cause us trouble and we were big enough to fight back. Then the depression came along followed by WWII. Afterwards distance didn't matter, but the U.S. was the only "modern" nation left standing, so again the inefficiency didn't matter.

Now everyone has caught up, and the distance between the U.S and Europe, and The U.S. and China, is tiny, tiny, tiny. I am wondering how well a democracy that gets in its own way competes in a modern, technocratic world. Xi's verdict is, and he seems to be acting on it, such a democracy will not do well. We will see.

G. Verloren said...


I would agree that the US's current inefficient form of democracy is not going to serve it well in the coming decades.

I would hope that we would just look at all the other more efficient democracies out there in the world today (the ones who had to become efficient to compete in the post-war period) and emulate what they're doing better than we are, but...