Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

“It Can’t Happen Here”: Illiberal Democracy in Hungary and Wisconsin

Photo by Anthony Crider | CC BY 2.0

In Europe there is much alarm at the return of right-wing populism, previously unseen since the 1930s. A common thread connecting right-wing populist governments together is the economic dislocation experienced by the working and middle classes of the post-Soviet bloc since the 1990s.

Parts of Europe see “illiberal democracy,” an oxymoron coined by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, taking hold. Illiberal democracy arose by muting dissent, demonizing opponents and through structural manipulation of elections to gain disproportionate legislative representation. To win power, effective control was also exercised through soft power, such as creating partisan media outlets to channel opinion in support of chauvinist policies.

Yet, lest we think It Can’t Happen Here in the United States, to quote Sinclair Lewis’ 1930s classic on the dangers of ignoring authoritarianism at home, we might look at the similarities between events in Hungary and in the United States. In Hungary, an effective media presence disregarding journalistic norms of informed discourse, was accompanied by its promoting illiberal democracy. The state was used to regulate media in favor of the government. In the United States, deregulation was used to achieve a similar end.

During the New Deal and after World War II independence and fairness were both highly prized qualities in media, but also enforced by regulation. Rules such as 7/7/7 media law limited media concentration to seven radio stations, seven newspapers and seven television stations. The Fairness Doctrine of 1949 required giving equal time to opposing points of view. Meanwhile a culture of journalistic independence held sway. One can romanticize this imperfect past, but nonetheless it created a media space that was more reasoned and nuanced than today. This regulation was dismantled by Ronald Reagan. Fast forward to the 1990s and Roger Ailes (who formerly worked for President Richard Nixon) was able to create his old dream of what he termed “GOP TV”, branded as Fox News. An aggressive talk radio infrastructure also simultaneously emerged, which in Wisconsin is particularly strong. This new media targeted immigrants and African-Americans as the source of the collapsing middle class’ ills, especially in the Midwest rust belt. It also presented public school teachers, who formally were iconically depicted by Norman Rockwell as selfless public servants, as alternatively “thugs” and “rich elites.” When pressed on whether these hard-working teachers that drove decade old cars, lived in modest flats and using whatever little discretionary income they had to buy school supplies for kids were really “thugs,” the rejoinder would be, “only the union teachers.” In short, teachers were ok as long as they consented to being bullied and refrained from organizing for the collective benefit of their students or themselves. Politicians now only had to use “dog whistles” (although President Donald Trump uses bullhorns) to signal that they really supported such views even if they officially denied them if pressed.

Another feature of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and Wisconsin, is attacking universities as remaining sites of independent thought. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has threatened the country’s premier graduate school, the Central European University, with shutdown and heaping new bureaucratic requirements on it. The intent has been to curtail freedom of expression in hopes of creating a climate of self-censorship. Similar trends are on display in Scott Walker’s University of Wisconsin system, where tenure has been diluted, budgets slashed and programs targeted for closure. These efforts chiefly targeted the humanities and social sciences where critical (and thus, uncomfortable) questions are often asked.

Another element in asserting this populist control was to shape the contours of elections in ways advantageous to those in power. Viktor Orban’s party in Hungary won under 50% of the vote this April, but captured two-thirds of the legislative seats. This electoral manipulation has a long-pedigree in the United States and was often practiced by big-city Democratic machine politics in generations past. Those urban white-working class voters that made up the base of those Democratic parties of old, became through white flight the white suburban middle-class Republican voters of the industrial Midwest. They clung tenaciously to their precarious middle-class status and suspiciously viewed African-Americans and government as looking to appropriate what little security they had. Orban, similarly gained political traction by creating ethnic division, chiefly targeting Hungary’s Roma population and exploiting fears of immigrants, as President Donald Trump has. The Wisconsin GOP also went to work to impose voter suppression policies where it could, and also to implement, just as Orban more recently did in Hungary, a gerrymandering of legislative districts. Nowhere has this been done more successfully than in Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where in 2012 the GOP received 60% of the state legislature seats while only getting 44% of the popular vote.

The question in Hungary and parts of the United States such as Wisconsin, therefore, is not whether if “it can’t happen here”? The reality is it already has….

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public and Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is Visiting Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model Peter Balazs is the former Foreign Minister of Hungary, former Hungarian Ambassador to Germany and representative to the EU, and current Director of the Center for European Neighborhood Studies at the Central European University in Budapest.

October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail