Hungary's A Textbook Case For Democracy In Decline. Is America Next?

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Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, speaks during a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh, file)
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, speaks during a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh, file)

Political science scholars look at Viktor Orban's regime in Hungary as a textbook case of rapid democratic decline. Is America moving in a similar direction? We learn what Hungary can teach the U.S. about accelerating authoritarianism.  


Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Kim Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. Author of the forthcoming book "The Frankenstate."

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Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights organization based in Budapest.

Interview Highlights

On Viktor Orban's rise to power

Kim Scheppele: “Orban was just past university when the wall came down. And he sort of shot to fame in Hungary because he was one of the speakers at this giant sort of rally, when it was sort of clear that politics in Hungary was changing. And he took to the microphone and he called for Soviet troops to withdraw from Hungary, which looked incredibly brave at that time. And it kind of catapulted him onto the national scene. He had already founded this political party called Fidesz in which he's been really the only leader.

"And at the time of the transition, Orban and his colleagues all portrayed themselves as libertarians. You know, it was a young party. It was a party that called for throwing out everything communist. And they went into the first free and fair elections with this kind of branding. And they did pretty well in 1990. The problem is, by 1994, the luster had gone off that particular brand and Orban’s party didn't do so well. So when he was in opposition, he remade the party. He purged it of all the libertarians and took this sharp, hard turn to the right.

"And so by the time of 1998, when there was another national election, his party actually came in first. So he was prime minister in 2000, but he actually became prime minister in 1998 to 2002. But he had to govern in coalition. So there were lots of signs during those four years that if he were left to govern alone, he might be dangerous. But because he governed in coalition, he didn't do anything that was as radical as he probably would have wanted. So then he was defeated in 2002, and he was defeated again in 2006.

"And while he was in opposition, he created a whole network of what were called 'civic circles' to kind of boost his popularity throughout the country, and support his political party. So that by the time of the election in 2010, and by the way, Hungary experienced the financial crisis, it was under a caretaker government. It was under an IMF austerity program. By the election of 2000, Orban looked like the only sane and sensible candidate running in that election.

"And he won. And he won with a bare majority of the vote. But he got 67% of the seats in the parliament. In a system in which a single two-thirds vote of the parliament could change anything in the Constitution. And it was that lineup that gave him the legal power to do what he's done. And that is to shut down Hungarian democracy, and also to prevent himself from ever losing an election again.”

On Orban's political ideology

Kim Scheppele: “To some extent, the public platform of his party could not be more different. Freedom for everybody, [to] freedom for nobody. But there is this kind of link, which is that Orban still believes in freedom for himself. And so he refuses to be constrained by any law. It's like a libertarian fantasy. That anything about the state can be changed to suit your own personal will.

"So in that sense, Orban, I think, hasn't really changed. You know, it's a bit like after the Russian Revolution and Lenin realized the world was not going to be entirely communist. So Lenin developed this theory of communism in one country, which led to everything we saw in the Soviet Union. Orban has developed this theory of libertarianism in one person. Which is that he's the only one who can operate completely without constraint.”

On the parallels between Orban's actions when he lost power, and the GOP now

Kim Scheppele: “This is where I think we have the scariest parallels. So Orban, when he was out of power, had a two-pronged strategy. One was that he purged his party of everyone who wasn't personally loyal to him. So he built a party that was just lying in wait for an election when the main sort of left parties would be weak. And that's what happened in 2010. And of course, in the U.S., we have a two-party system. So you can't wish for one party to stay in power forever. One day the Republicans will come back.

"And the question is what the party looks like. And if it looks like Orban's Fidesz party, where it's really designed to support one person or to support a kind of a strong man at the top, then you'll be in some danger. But there's also what the other thing that Orban did with these civic circles, was that he engaged in a kind of mass mobilization of civil society, and he did it a lot through the Hungarian churches. He mobilized their members. He got them all on board. They already had a preexisting structure. He was mobilizing the kind of religious Hungarian middle class.

"And through doing that, he developed a very reliable base for his own party by feeding them sort of a lot of lines. As I mentioned, rewriting Hungarian history, developing a certain version of civic patriotism, developing a kind of intolerance for multiculturalism, and laying the groundwork for what became the kind of Fidesz platform when Orban came back to power. So you see that kind of thing happening now with the Republican Party. Its alliance with the evangelical movement, its alliance with other groups that sort of foment, and the militia movement. And all of these Oath Keepers, and proud boys and so on. And so all of that means that in addition to the Republican Party organization, you've got a whole civil sector that is mobilized to bring autocracy back.”

On lessons for the future of U.S. democracy

Kim Scheppele: “It's a kind of hallmark of these autocrats that they try to distract the press. And unfortunately, the press allows itself to be distracted. I mean ... what's click bait? The latest Trump tweet or the latest Orban outrageous statement? It's important, though, I think, for us all to keep our eye on the ball, what's happening to the democratic institutions that are supposed to protect us. So we need to look under the surface to ask, do we have functioning institutions that can stop an autocratic push for power?

"And I'm worried about that in the U.S. I saw in Hungary that all of these institutions that I knew and loved and even worked within were captured so easily when the public was distracted by other things. And culture wars, however important they are, and however hateful the rhetoric is, and everybody's got to respond. But the culture wars are very often a distraction from the kinds of checks and balances and important sort of guardrails on democratic processes that we need to keep intact for democracies to survive.”

READ: The Parallels (And Differences) Between Viktor Orban And Donald Trump by Kim Scheppele

From The Reading List

Vox: "The American right’s favorite strongman" — "At dawn on a Tuesday in May, the police took a man named András from his home in northeastern Hungary. His alleged crime? Writing a Facebook post that called the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a 'dictator.'"

New York Times: "Populist Leaders in Eastern Europe Run Into a Little Problem: Unpopularity" — "A right-wing populist wave in Eastern Europe, lifted by Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, has not crashed as a result of his defeat last November. But it has collided with a serious obstacle: Its leaders are not very popular."

CFR: "After Trump, Is American Democracy Doomed by Populism?" — "The Trump presidency has demonstrated the appeal of populist authoritarianism to many Americans. The way the country responds to the attack on the U.S. Capitol will indicate how long this movement lasts."

Washington Post: "Some GOP members didn’t accept Biden’s win. What happens when an anti-democratic faction rocks a democracy?" — "Republican leaders’ response to the armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and other recent events suggested that some are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of free and fair elections."

New Yorker: "Trump’s Strategy for Returning to Power Is Already Clear" — "Viktor Orbán became the Prime Minister of Hungary in 1998. Four years later, with a record number of Hungarians turning up to the polls, his party lost power."

This program aired on June 23, 2021.


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