Last month, Tucker Carlson replaced Rod Dreher as the latest conservative to take a pilgrimage to Hungary. Carlson praised Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s pro-family policies, stricter immigration policies, and resistance to progressive views on gender, saying: “If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now.”
Hungary’s Orbán is the champion of what he has dubbed “illiberal democracy.” This form of government is characterized by an explicit support of nativist Christian policy enacted through authoritarian measures. Yet conservatives who place their hopes in this philosophy are misguided. Disregarding the fact that recreating the U.S. in the image of Hungary is practically impossible, this notion misses the entire point of the American experiment.
While you could technically call Hungary a democracy, it lacks basic protections and separation of power which we take for granted in the U.S. Orbán has consolidated power over the three branches of government within his party, Fidesz. He controls large swaths of the press. The economy is also an expression of cronyism, with valuable grants awarded to the party faithful. He has also used the courts to punish rival political parties.
The root of Hungary’s appeal to American conservatives is that Orbán has successfully countered progressive ideas and laws in the country. Essentially, some conservatives are willing to give up freedoms in order to counter what they see as the ascendant progressive project.
Here’s the thing: The parallels between Hungary and the U.S. begin to breakdown after even a cursory glance. Even if a Hungarian-style illiberal democracy were an appealing ideal (more on that later), it is completely impractical in the U.S. context. First, Hungary is ethnically and religiously homogenous, while the U.S. is not. The U.S. has a population over 330 million spread over 3.7 million miles while Hungary has only 10 million occupants in less than 1 percent of that area, with four-fifths of the population belonging to the majority Hungarian ethnicity. Finding support for Orbán’s policies is possible in a country where such a large percentage of the population shares a similar cultural background.
Beyond that, let’s embark on a thought experiment. Suppose we consolidated the power of all three branches government permanently in the U.S. … who would run the system? No matter what your political leanings, you would have to recognize that control of the system would eventually be captured by those on the opposing team, which would wield its immense power against your interests. For conservatives, this calculus looks even less appealing. The rulers in an American Triumvirate would most likely come from the ranks of the culturally elite progressives. An authoritarian government in the U.S. wouldn’t protect conservatives against a self-serving elite – it would seek to control them to a greater degree. A U.S. illiberal project is doomed to backfire.
Idealizing foreign governments is certainly not new. Thomas Jefferson excused the violence in France while he celebrated the French revolution. Many leaders have desired a blueprint for the U.S. to use when we shape our policies. We vacillate between creating ourselves in the image of another nation and creating nations in our image. But the uniqueness of the American project frustrates any attempts to draw parallels between any foreign country.
In light of the practical flaws, the whole argument for an illiberal democracy in America might seem inconsequential. After all, the U.S. is not and will never be Hungary. But who we hold up as our ideals does matter. When many progressives hold up Che Guevera as an icon, many rightly call foul. After all, idealizing someone who ruthlessly executed his foes seems to justify a certain violence in one’s own actions. In the same way, conservatives lauding Hungary can justify a certain method for achieving their preferred ends.
At its heart, the idea of an illiberal democracy challenges the project of pluralism. The U.S. is based on the idea that various individuals can “pursue happiness” in a variety of ways. Michael Novak writes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism:
“In a genuine pluralistic society, there is no sacred canopy. By intention there is not. At its spiritual core, there is an empty shrine. That shrine is left empty in the knowledge that no one word, image, or symbol is worthy of what we all seek there. Its emptiness, therefore, represents the transcendence which is approached by free consciences from a virtually infinite number of directions… Believer and unbeliever, selfless and selfish, frightened and bold, naive and jaded, all participate in an order whose center is not socially imposed.”
This is not to say that the system lacks a conception of morality. Laws cannot be morally neutral. Whoever said that you can’t legislate morality was confused about the nature of morality. Prohibiting murder is a statement about the moral weight of human life. Prohibiting fraud is a statement about the moral quality of justice. The difference between liberalism and illiberalism is what value is placed on individual conscience. Within a pluralistic system, individuals can pursue ultimate meaning within a set of basic rules. Throwing out the pluralist project betrays a utilitarian desire to pursue specific policy outcomes at any cost.
Hungary may have some policies in place for now that religious conservatives can laud, but these policies must not overshadow the fundamental lack of structures to protect citizens from abuse. A society needs a way to weigh competing interests without allowing one group to quash the rights of others. The U.S. does not need Hungarian-style illiberalism to thrive.