Viktor Orbán’s notoriety ultimately has little to do with his arcane transgressions against what Western Europe’s rulers consider good government. It exists because he addresses, in language stunningly clear for a politician, the key civilizational questions facing Europe, those that richer countries are loathe to hear.
A specter is haunting the European Union—the specter of Eastern Europe. Hungary is a country slightly more populous than Virginia, and its population diminishes slightly every year. It receives substantial subsidies from richer EU countries, produces nice wines, but has little industry not tied to German auto plants. Its military has roughly zero external intervention capability.
And yet in Europe, Hungary is always in the headlines. The glossy French center-right weekly Le Point warns with alarm that Hungary’s president Viktor Orbán “outlines the shape of another Europe.” A few months ago, the European Parliament subjected President Orbán’s government to a sort of trial under “Article 7,” a process that could lead to Hungary being denied its parliamentary voting rights. Le Point (again) speaks ominously of a menacing “axis” between Poland, Hungary, and the new populist government of Italy.
It might be difficult to place Mr. Orbán’s government precisely on a political freedom scale. It has taken measures against Hungary’s judiciary and opposition, which have enhanced the power of the ruling party. But people still vote in meaningful elections. Political opponents are not killed or jailed. Unlike France, it is not using brutal measures against demonstrators, though also unlike France, it is not faced with persistent and sometimes violent demonstrations. If you visit Budapest, you will hear soon enough that Mr. Orbán has a weakness for crony capitalism: his government’s recent effort to raise the limits on overtime work a company could demand produced some vocal and vigorous opposition. Overall, I would conclude that Viktor Orbán isn’t a model democrat or technocratic open economy exemplar, but he also isn’t any sort of aspiring dictator.
President Orbán’s notoriety ultimately has little to do with his arcane transgressions against what Western Europe’s rulers consider good government. It exists because he addresses, in language stunningly clear for a politician, the key civilizational questions facing Europe, those that richer countries are loathe to hear.
For starters, he talks about demography. Like many countries in Europe, Hungary’s birthrates have plummeted. Mr. Orbán has commenced a campaign to raise them, with measures including generous maternity and paternity leave stipends, subsidies of up to 50 euros a month per child, tax write-offs, and housing assistance for couples that have three or more children. The government has also sent out questionnaires asking Hungarians whether they think the solution to Hungary’s demographic crisis is stronger support for families or higher immigration. Katalin Novak, President Orbán’s minister of family and youth, explained unabashedly that the purpose of this was “to send a clear message to Brussels: the renovation of Europe is impossible without support for families and Hungary wants neither immigration nor a modification of its population.” This sort of frankness from leaders in the wealthier West is inconceivable. At a press gathering I recently attended, a Macron minister holding a comparable post focused most of the conversation on the expansion of gay rights.
Of course, the other half of the demography subject is immigration. In an address during the fall of 2016 that still resonates, President Orbán proclaimed that Europe is “in mortal danger”:
The danger is “not attacking us the way wars and natural disasters do… mass migration is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory. And what is gaining territory for them is losing territory for us. Flocks of obsessed human rights defenders feel the overwhelming urge to reprimand us…. [A]llegedly we are hostile xenophobes but the truth is that the history of our nation is also one of inclusion, of the intertwining of cultures. Those who have sought to come here as new family members, as allies, or as displaced persons fearing for their lives have been let in to make a new home for themselves. But those who have come here with the intention of changing our country, of shaping our nation in their own image, have been met with resistance.”
Faced with the Merkel Million Man Migration, President Orbán ordered Hungary’s army to build a fence.
Slovakia similarly refused to take in a quota of migrants dictated by Brussels and Berlin. The former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, wrote a short but excellent book, Europe All Inclusive, about the migration crisis in which he charged that Europe’s western elites were supporting mass immigration explicitly to smash the remaining power of nation states so full European unification could be achieved. Poland has likewise refused EU demands to resettle refugees from the Mideast and North Africa.
It is clear that on immigration, Eastern Europe differs from the rest of the continent—attitudes represented politically only through the populist right in the west are thoroughly mainstream in the east. This difference in political culture is so vast, it can be traced to many sources. A similar divergence surfaced before, during the Cold War, when Eastern Europeans stubbornly refused to allow Western European intellectuals to forget or ignore that communism was a malign and murderous system. Today, Eastern Europeans note that they have been already been the subjects of utopian projects to remake society according to a progressive vision—and they have no desire for a repeat.
Encountering Eastern European resistance to progressive dogma for the first time is a bracing experience. I first had it during the mid-’70s, in a grad school lecture class at Columbia. A charming and generally well-liked democratic socialist professor would take admiring students through various sophisticated Marxist readings, leading inexorably to the conclusion that the collapse of “late capitalism” was inevitable and to be welcomed. This semester, there happened to be two Poles taking the class, one of whom was a woman who had been an imprisoned dissident. They seemed to know their Marx as well as the prof did: they were smart, they were vocal, and they were having absolutely none of it. It made for an exciting several months, and for me a memorable demonstration that Eastern Europeans were more or less immune to the guilt and self-hatred permeating much of the West.
Perhaps we are in for a reprise, when the people of the west learn once again from the east what is true and essential about their own societies. Of course, there are parallels between the communists’ aspirations and the open borders diversity project. Both are genuinely revolutionary in their desire to destroy and remake Western societies according to models that have little viable precedent in human experience. Under this logic, the ’60s and ’70s can be seen as a kind of transitional phase, during which Western socialists looked longingly towards various Third World models—China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua—after they gave up on the Soviet Union and their own proletariats as viable revolutionary agents. Now progressives hope that social justice will bloom from the political chaos generated by demographic shifts.
Without the voices of Eastern Europe, the West might not have successfully resisted the first progressive onslaught. Once again, it needs the voices of the east to illuminate its path to survival.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (February 2019).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: The featured image of the Parliament Building in Budapest, Hungary is courtesy of Andrew Shiva, and licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.