How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In his essay “Democracy Demotion” (July/August 2019), Larry Diamond laments the decline in prominence of U.S. democracy promotion. It is refreshing to have an American expert lift a mirror to the United States, writing that the country “has to repair its own broken democracy” before it can take up again the mantle of democracy promotion internationally. But Diamond betrays his biases when, expressing concern about “the wave of illiberal populism that has been sweeping developed and developing countries alike,” he claims that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “has presided over the first death of a democracy in an EU member state.”
The death of democracy in Hungary? That’s a dramatic claim, as ill informed as it is offensive. Diamond and other critics of Orban who assert that Hungary is no longer a democracy rely on a set of flawed arguments that are incapable of explaining a host of other facts about today’s Hungary.
For example, voter participation in Hungary has been going up, not down. Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the highest turnout since 2002. In elections for the European Parliament this past May, Hungarians again showed up in record numbers to vote, and a party barely two years old won ten percent of the vote. The surge in emigration that followed the 2008 financial crisis has subsided, and far more Hungarians are now returning than are leaving. A host of economic indicators—record-low unemployment, record-high female employment, rising real wages, robust GDP growth—show a much more positive picture than the one Diamond offers. So do important social indicators, such as an increasing number of marriages, a declining number of divorces, a dramatically declining number of abortions, and a rising fertility rate. Hungarians are a freedom-loving people, and these trends depict a country of optimism and confidence, not one where our liberty has been taken from us.
Diamond’s bias against Hungary illustrates a larger problem that explains why democracy promotion has taken on such a negative connotation in so many parts of the world: it has become blatantly political. In his 1982 speech to the British Parliament, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made a forceful case for promoting democracy as part of the United States’ foreign and security policy. Recognizing one of the core weaknesses of the Soviet Union, Reagan sought to promote liberty and democracy to win the Cold War. That goal was explicitly tied to a clear national interest. In recent years, however, as U.S. engagement in central and eastern Europe has waned, political interests have hijacked the democracy-promotion agenda. In the name of democracy promotion, groups directly funded by the Hungarian American billionaire George Soros or closely affiliated with his Open Society Foundations promote an ideologically driven agenda. These groups carry out work that has no democratic mandate and no relevance to a clear U.S. national interest.
State Secretary for International Communication, Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, Hungary
The test of a democracy is not whether the economy is growing, employment is rising, or more couples are marrying, but whether people can choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections. This is the test that Hungary’s political system now fails.
When Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party returned to power in 2010 with a parliamentary supermajority, they set about destroying the constitutional pillars of liberal democracy. First, Orban packed Hungary’s Constitutional Court with political loyalists. He did the same with the National Election Commission and the Media Council, a newly created watchdog group. Fidesz then rammed an entirely new constitution through parliament, clipping the authority of the Constitutional Court and politicizing the judiciary more broadly and extending party control over such crucial accountability agencies as the State Audit Office and the central bank. Orban also purged state-owned radio and television stations and made them mouthpieces to justify his creeping authoritarianism. He pressured critical media outlets, which saw their advertising revenues plunge, and harassed civil society organizations that received international assistance.
By the 2014 elections, Orban had rigged the system. Yes, multiparty elections continued, but his systematic degradation of constitutional checks and balances so tilted the playing field that he was able to renew his two-thirds majority in parliament with less than a majority of the popular vote (and did so again in 2018). The repeated resort to xenophobic and anti-Semitic prejudice (directed not only at George Soros) cannot alter the facts. Orban has transformed Hungary into not an illiberal democracy but a pseudo-democracy.