What America Can Learn From Hungary's Backsliding Democracy

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The country's creeping authoritarianism offers a warning for the Arab Spring and even for the U.S..

Hungary Jan19 P.jpg

Protesters carry a poster of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a December demonstration against the Hungarian government / Reuters

The Hungarian parliament building, a grand neo-Gothic landmark along the Danube, is an enduring stone monument to representative government. Plans for such a structure were made in the years following the conversion of the Austrian Empire into the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Construction began in the 1880s and was completed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. It is the largest building in Hungary and the third-largest parliament building in the world.

The building symbolizes a Hungarian commitment to representative democracy, notwithstanding Hungary's straying from democracy more than once. The straying in the past has resulted mostly from external pressures. Hungary's falling in with the Axis powers in the 1930s was partly due to the Great Depression and an economic lifeline from Germany that helped to bring the country out of the Depression. It also had to do with a Germany-like resentment over post-World War I settlement terms. The Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of nearly two-thirds of the territory that had belonged to the kingdom of Hungary as part of the dual monarchy. Later came communist rule, but that of course was imposed by Soviet power, and forcefully reimposed in 1956 after a brief assertion by the Hungarians of freedom. When communist rule finally ended in 1989, a new republic of Hungary was proclaimed from a balcony of the parliament building. Shortly afterward, the red star that the communists had placed on the spire of the building was removed.

Now Hungary is showing worrying signs of straying again from democracy, and this time the wandering cannot be attributed to external forces. The Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the power of a supermajority to ram through a new constitution and to take other measures that appear to challenge the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. Orban's government is having to answer to the European Union for some of the steps that seem to violate the Union's pluralistic standards. The EU's inquiries have led Orban to back off slightly from his changes, but his record suggests that he will not fundamentally alter his course.

This affair shows how even a country where liberal democratic principles seem to have been firmly established (and in this case a country that until now has been a member in good standing of the club of advanced democracies known as the European Union) may back away from consistent application of those principles. Democratization and liberalization are not necessarily one-way processes. To realize this goes against the tendency to think of them as a one-way process. Perhaps some of this tendency comes from interpretations of Francis Fukuyama's end-of-history idea. Perhaps we should remember the ideas of an earlier big-think political philosopher, Plato, about how different forms of government degenerate into other forms. Democracy, as Plato saw it, was not the end state of this process. It was the penultimate state, degenerating into tyranny. Plato's progression of political forms has not matched subsequent history very well, but it provides some food for thought about different possible types of political transformation.

We see the common one-way view of political change in much current political thought and interpretations of current events. The Arab Spring, for example, is usually regarded as a push in the direction of greater democracy as long as the process doesn't get hijacked by those nasty Islamists. Apostles of regime change presume that destabilizing any undemocratic regime will result in a new political system that is freer and more democratic, even though that is not necessarily the case. And there is smugness about the endurance of democratic values in our own political system.

The Democracy ReportWhat is going on in Hungary suggests that we should not be so smug. Some of what is involved in Hungary's creeping authoritarianism has echoes in American politics. There is the use of brute legislative force or outright coercion to get one's way, even if this in effect means a compromise of democratic values. And there is a hubristic belief that it is so important for one's own party or movement to be in power that this takes precedence over all other interpretations of the national interest. Viktor Orban has a soulmate of sorts in Mitch McConnell when the latter says his top priority is to defeat the president of the opposing party.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Paul R. Pillar is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. He is a contributing editor to The National Interest.

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