Not Every Loathsome Government Is Anti-Democratic

But plenty of them are. And there's nothing shameful about defending democracy against budding autocrats.

The day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, one of my high school teachers—a man I had always admired—turned to me with a disgusted look on his face. “If you ever needed proof that most people are too stupid to be given the vote,” he said, “there you have it.”

His words are emblematic of the high-minded sense of superiority that some leftists and liberals adopt towards those who dare to disagree with them. In my teacher’s mind—and that of many other Remainers—the only possible reasons why 52 percent of Britons had voted for Brexit were that they were depraved, deluded or deceived.

This makes me sympathetic to the popular conservative complaint that liberals have a tendency to delegitimize any election if they don’t like its outcome. But two things can be true at once. Even though some liberals do have a penchant for paranoia, there really are plenty of right-wing demagogues who seek to dismantle democracy.

The question, then, is how to distinguish between these two scenarios. When are liberal complaints about right-wing governments just a way to pathologize robust disagreement—and when are they timely warnings about all too real attacks on democratic institutions?

Over the past few years, many on the British and American right have fallen for Viktor Orbán, hard.

Patrick Deneen, perhaps the most prominent right-wing critic of liberalism, has described the Hungarian government as a “model” for American conservatives. Chris DeMuth, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute, has called Orbán “a political and intellectual leader.” And Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, has labelled him “a visionary.”

Not content with verbal accolades for Orbán, the same crew has also been willing to provide him with visible support. Deneen, DeMuth and Dreher have all traveled to meet with Orbán, smiling photo-op included.

The admiration for authoritarian regimes is not limited to Hungary. After Yascha Mounk warned, here in Persuasion, that the reelection of the Polish government represented an acute danger to the country’s democracy, Michael Brendan Dougherty, a writer at the National Review, responded, “this is precisely why your project is so dangerous. If your candidate doesn’t win, it’s not a real election.” Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, was more concise: “Liberals losing ≠ democracy dying.”

This is true insofar as it goes. The Polish president has labelled asylum seekers “parasites and protozoa” and is now vowing to pass a law forbidding the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Hungary’s border is covered by razor-wire fences to keep out migrants and refugees, and many of those who do make it through end up in detention camps. These actions are both illiberal and immoral. But because they do not stop voters from kicking out their government at the next election, they do not threaten democracy.

But if outside observers like Freedom House warn about Orbán’s and Kaczyński’s anti-democratic tendencies, it is not because they dislike their restrictive social policies: it is because they recognize the extent to which both have also attacked the institutions that are necessary if Poles and Hungarians are to have a fair chance of removing their governments from office.

Take the case of Hungary. For months, Index, the country’s last independent news outlet of any significant size, has raised alarm about attempts to curb the website’s critical reporting of Orbán’s government. Last week, its editor-in-chief was fired, and many of the staff resigned in protest.

The hostile takeover of Index was only the latest step in a long-running assault on Hungarian democracy. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has turned Hungary’s state broadcaster into a propaganda machine, eroded the independence of the judicial system, forced a leading university out of the country, and changed the electoral rules to make it virtually impossible for the opposition to win power.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, things have gone from bad to worse. When the epidemic hit, Orbán quickly moved to expand his powers even further. Imposing an open-ended state of emergency, he granted himself the power to rule by decree and made the spread of “fake news” punishable by up to five years in prison. All elections have been cancelled for an indefinite period.

This state of affairs has led some conservative apologists to take a turn towards the comical. In a recent column, Dreher promises his readers that he does not “want to be a ‘useful idiot’ either for Orbán or the Western liberal media.” In an attempt to get to the bottom of whether warnings about Orbán’s anti-democratic nature might be justified, he turns to John O’Sullivan, who currently serves as the president of the Danube Institute—a think tank funded by the Hungarian government.

But for all the clever obfuscation that these intellectuals engage in to defend their putative heroes, the dividing line between an illiberal regime and an undemocratic one is clear: Any democracy must remain contestable. And in order to preserve this contestability, key institutions—including the media, the universities and the judiciary—must remain independent of the whims of the president or prime minister.

When this rule is violated, as it clearly has been in Hungary, the opposition has no fair chance of gaining power. At that point, a political system has not only become illiberal but also undemocratic.

Liberals have an urgent lesson to learn from all of this.

We may detest Orbán’s restrictive border policies or Kaczynski’s intolerant attack on gay rights. But however much we speak up against them, we should studiously avoid conceptual slippage. Abhorrent though I personally find them, these policies are not anti-democratic. To speak as though they are is not only misleading: it also helps aspiring autocrats shift the debate onto their preferred turf—from corruption and democratic malfeasance to immigration, religion and the culture wars. And that only makes it easier for their most devoted propagandists to pretend that well-founded concerns are just an excuse to impose progressive social policies on unwilling populations.

The same point also applies to American politics. Trump’s talk about “shithole countries,” though repugnant, is not anti-democratic. His suggestion that he may not accept the outcome of the election if he should lose in November, by contrast, certainly is.

But though liberals should be precise in their language, they should also be unapologetic in their commitments. For those who dismiss concerns about the undemocratic nature of the Polish and Hungarian governments are, wittingly or unwittingly, helping budding autocrats destroy democracy via the ballot box. And there is nothing shameful or snobbish about standing up for democracies when they are under attack.

Sahil Handa is an Associate Editor at Persuasion. He has written for Foreign Policy, The American Interest, and the Wall Street Journal.