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“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.

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