Viktor Orbán and the New Conservative

Viktor Orbán at CPAC
Viktor Orbán speaking at CPAC Hungary. Photo by Elekes Andor.

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Viktor Orbán and a New Conservatism

Viktor Orbán is not a traditional conservative. He has implemented a generous family policy to support new parents through subsidies for housing, childcare, and medical care. Of course, Hungary receives large sums of its budget through transfers from the European Union. But unlike conservatives in the United States, Orbán never turns away free money. Still, he is not a liberal even in economic policy. In fact, nobody questions his status as a conservative politician. Rather he reflects a new conservatism with increasing popularity in the United States. Nonetheless, Orbán’s brand of conservatism comes with dangerous consequences for democracy.

Orbán describes Hungary as an illiberal democracy. It’s meant to distinguish it from the longstanding ideal of liberal democracy. At the same time, it’s not clear what exactly Orbán means when he embraces illiberalism. In his speech at Băile Tuşnad, he says illiberal democracy “does not deny foundational values of liberalism.” Still, his government has curtailed freedom of speech and rights of the press. Moreover, Hungary is antagonistic towards many marginalized groups particularly immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community. Nonetheless, Orbán might also imply a rejection of neoliberal economic policies and globalization.

Regardless of Orbán’s assurances, I find illiberalism has one purpose. It offers a path to follow the letter of the law without any regard for the spirit of the law. Frighteningly, Republicans in the United States are attracted to this vision of illiberal democracy. In recent years Republicans have won supermajorities in many states where they can create illiberal democracies at the subnational level. They have the power to rewrite constitutions, remove checks on their power, and make their own election rules. Indeed, Hungary is the template for a new brand of conservatism. The model for them is Hungary where democracy is neither liberal nor even democratic.

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