Explore More »

The Hijacking of Democracy: Learning How to Resist

In June 2017, John Shattuck, Humanity in Action Board member, gave the following speech at the Eighth Annual Humanity in Action International Conference in Berlin, Germany.

"I returned to the United States last fall after living for seven years in Budapest, just in time for the presidential election.  As the results came in, friends wondered whether I’d become an importer of Hungarian politics.  I’m certainly not an importer, but I’ve been a close observer of populist nationalism in Hungary and the neo-authoritarian governance that has come with it.  I’ll speak in a moment about this, but first let me state my basic proposition:  Democracy has been hijacked in Hungary, and a similar hijacking is now underway in the US.

Here’s how it’s done.  A nationalist leader gets elected by playing on public fears and anxieties, then uses the election as a hijacking tool by asserting a democratic mandate to centralize power by controlling or undermining pluralist institutions that stand in the way – a free media, an independent judiciary, a diverse civil society, civil liberties and minority rights.  What’s left is the shell of democracy – an election with no democratic institutions.

This is what happened in Hungary.  Its leader Viktor Orban has given it a name: “illiberal governance”.  The Hungarian model bears a resemblance to the neo-authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey.  The model is attracting followers elsewhere in Europe, and as I found when I returned from Budapest, it’s what Donald Trump is trying to bring to the US.

How has this happened?   It started with growing dissatisfaction on both sides of the Atlantic with elected governments, political parties and ruling elites.  The discontent spread and stimulated populist rebellion in three different but related forms of protest.  First, there were economic protests by people left behind by the loss of jobs and the shutting down of industries, by new technologies of production, and by the forces of globalization from which the elites have disproportionately benefited.  Second, there were identity protests by majority groups who felt left behind by the long overdue recognition of the rights of ethnic, racial, religious, gender and sexual minorities after centuries of discrimination.  Third, there were security protests by people whose fears of terrorism and crime turned to xenophobia, racism and hostility toward refugees and migrants.

These protests were rooted in reaction against the great societal revolutions of the last 50 years: 

  • the Civil Rights Revolution, which strengthened democracy by broadening democratic rights and participation, while stimulating counterrevolution against those exercising their rights; 
  • the Economic Revolution, which enshrined the free market as an engine of growth, but reduced the role of government in regulating the economy and paved the way for the rise of new economic elites, increasing inequality and the politics of resentment; 
  • the Political Revolution, which led to the rapid spread of democracy, but also, especially in Eastern Europe, to a drastic cut-back of social benefits and the social contract between government and the people; and 
  • the Internet Revolution, which created a vast increase in information and communication and the technical means for organizing political opposition, but also gave rise to social media echo chambers, fake news and mass surveillance.

The results of these revolutions contributed to democratic development, but also led to distrust of elected leaders, alienation from distant decision makers, polarization of politics, and fragmentation of the media.

The intertwining of all these trends is a threat to democracy itself.  It needs only one more ingredient to create the conditions for authoritarianism: a leader who comes to power by mobilizing the forces of reaction.

Hungary is Europe’s leading laboratory for illiberal governance, and the model it has produced has been exported to the US, where Donald Trump is its champion.

Let’s look more closely at what’s happened in Hungary. The country has a long history of domination by outsiders – the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Russians, the Habsburgs, the Fascists, and most recently the Soviets.  The psychological legacy of externally-imposed totalitarianism stunted the growth of civil society and created resistance to civic cooperation.  This is why the common spaces of elegant apartment buildings in Budapest are run down, and why volunteering is often equated with collaborating.  Hungarian politics were affected by the country’s ambivalence toward its fascist past and its facilitative role in the Holocaust.  Market economics were rejected by many Hungarians after the financial crisis of 2009 that left many people feeling no better off than they had been under communism.  In this environment, the European Union was seen as a source of outside economic and political interference and Brussels was attacked by Hungarian politicians as “the new Moscow”.  A new nationalism sprang up, especially in the countryside, where eighty per cent of Hungarians live.

These were the preconditions for Viktor Orban’s hijacking of Hungarian democracy.  His entry point was the country’s 2010 elections.  His political party, Fidesz, used distortion and innuendo to denigrate the opposition as criminal and elitist, appealing to ethnic and religious homogeneity, and rejecting human rights as a threat to traditional Hungarian society – women’s rights, gay rights, Roma rights – basically, any form of minority rights or social diversity.  Their slogan – picked up seven years later by Donald Trump –  was “Make Hungary Great Again”.

They were so successful in 2010 that Fidesz was able to achieve what Trump wishes he had today – a supermajority in the parliament, giving them unfettered power to rewrite the constitution and sweep away pluralist democracy:

First, they attacked the media.  Through a combination of government takeover, financial pressure, regulation and censorship, they drastically reduced the public’s sources of unbiased information and independent criticism.

Next, they attacked the judiciary.  By expanding and packing the Constitutional Court, cutting back its jurisdiction and forcing the early retirement of judges, they weakened the rule of law.

Then they went after civil society.  By branding organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents” (copying Russia’s crack down on NGOs), conducting harassment investigations of groups they don’t like, and attacking the academic freedom of universities, the Hungarian government undermined civil society.

A symbol of all these attacks is a new law that would force Central European University, which I headed for seven years until last summer, to shut down.  CEU was attacked because it was established after communism fell with an endowment by George Soros, whose purpose was to help revive academic freedom after its destruction by more than 60 years of authoritarian rule from which the Soros family and many other Hungarians had fled.  The irony is that today a new authoritarian regime -- several of whose leaders, including Viktor Orban, have benefited from Soros scholarships -- is now trying to turn the clock back to a time when there was no academic or other freedom in Hungary.  

But “illiberal governance” is vulnerable, and its vulnerabilities point the way toward resistance.

A major vulnerability is corruption.  Illiberal regimes breed oligarchies that drain public resources, destroy competition, become a drag on economic growth and stir populist discontent.  This can lead to political backlash – for example, 250,000 people in Hungary earlier this year protested against the government’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics because it would have taken public resources from the people for the benefit of government cronies.  As a result, the government had to abandon its Olympic bid in order to avoid exposing its own corruption.  Similarly, in March of this year 500,000 people took to the streets in Romania to protest a new law weakening anti-corruption standards, and the law had to be scrapped.

Another weakness of illiberal governance is the political economy of Eastern Europe.  It’s difficult for authoritarian regimes in small countries with few natural resources to produce sustainable prosperity.  Hungary depends on the economy of the EU, which means the EU, at least in theory, should be a restraining influence on the Hungarian government.  In fact, this spring, the European Parliament and the European Commission started an “infringement proceeding” against the government for its attacks on CEU and civil society.  After major protests, the government announced earlier this month that it would consider a new agreement about CEU with the State of New York, where the university is chartered.

Still another weakness of illiberal governance is that civil society can seep through the cracks and find new ways to resist through the internet and social media.  Traditional media can be controlled by autocratic regimes, but digital media are more difficult to control.  In Hungary in 2014, more than 100,000 people took to the streets after the regime announced that it would tax citizens for using the internet, and the government backed down.  

This spring tens of thousands of Hungarian citizens mobilized by social media protested the attack on CEU.  These protests were joined on the internet by thousands of CEU alumni, and by other universities and Nobel laureates all over the world.  In Hungary many academics and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences participated.  It now looks as if the government’s strong-arm tactics against CEU may be backfiring.  Opinion polls show a drop in government popularity, and even a majority of Fidesz members oppose shutting down the university.

What about the danger that democracy will be hijacked by “illiberal governance” elsewhere in Europe and in the US?  The danger is growing, but people are learning how to resist – even in Hungary and Eastern Europe.  The elections this year in France and the Netherlands, and last year in Austria and hopefully next fall in Germany, all show that it’s possible to prevent an electoral hijacking.

But the election last fall in the US was another story.

There are eery parallels between the early moves of Donald Trump and the rise to power of Viktor Orban:  attacks on the media, attacks on the courts, attacks on migrants and refugees, the denigration of political opponents, the rise of racism and hate crimes, the assault on facts and truth, the abuse of authority, and above all, the appeal to fear and insecurity.

How resilient is American democracy, and how well can it withstand these attacks?  

Trump is clearly trying to do what Orban did – undermine democracy by polluting the political discourse and abusing and expanding executive power.  He’s labeled journalists “enemies of the people” and assaulted the mainstream media as purveyors of fake news.  He’s challenged the independence of the judiciary and smeared the integrity of judges.  He’s attacked civil society by claiming massive voter fraud, challenging the voting rights of millions of Americans, and discounting minority voters by supporting the gerrymandering of their election districts.  And he’s abused the power of the presidency by putting pressure on the FBI Director to drop an investigation of a former Trump White House official, then firing the Director for investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election.

But unlike democracy in Eastern Europe, democracy in the US has deep roots.  More than two centuries of constitutional history include recent examples of reining in Presidents who abused their power.  Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the size of the Supreme Court in order to validate aspects of his New Deal agenda, but the Congress rejected his “court-packing” scheme.  Richard Nixon used government law enforcement and intelligence agencies to violate civil liberties, but the House Judiciary voted articles of impeachment against him and the federal courts held him responsible for his abuses of power.  Ronald Reagan attacked the independence of the federal courts by seeking legislation to remove their jurisdiction over certain categories of civil rights cases, but he was pushed back in Congress.  George W. Bush introduced the use of torture in his “war on terror”, but he was resisted by government officials inside the Pentagon, and later by Congress and the courts.

American political institutions were designed to resist presidents who abuse their power, and the federal system itself is a potential firebreak.  

Unlike Europe, the US has a decentralized, multi-layered governance system that’s difficult to control from Washington.  The system is now being used to resist some of Trump’s abusive initiatives.  State attorneys general have challenged his executive order banning travel to the US by citizens from Muslim countries.  Cities have offered sanctuary to the refugees and migrants Trump is trying to deport.  States are sticking with the standards of the Paris Accord on climate change, despite Trump’s announcement that the US is pulling out. 

The federal courts are another potential source of resistance.  US courts have explicit constitutional authority to block presidential actions that violate civil rights and abuse executive power.  Trump’s executive order on immigration has been struck down by five federal courts and judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents.  The courts are now considering lawsuits filed by states and nearly 200 Members of Congress charging the President with corruption for mixing his business interests and official activities.  Corruption is a big area of vulnerability for Trump, just as it is for illiberal governance in Hungary.

Resistance can also take place within the federal bureaucracy.  The best known example is former FBI Director James Comey’s refusal to follow President Trump’s directive to terminate the FBI investigation of the President’s former National Security Advisor.  Another example is the Acting Attorney General’s refusal to enforce Trump’s unconstitutional executive travel ban. 

The Congress is controlled by the President’s party, but even under these circumstances there is room for resistance.  Complex rules of procedure make it possible for members of Congress to block legislation like the bill to repeal health care benefits enacted during the Obama administration, or to prevent the enactment of a regressive bill to replace “Obamacare”.  Congress has explicit constitutional authority to investigate abuses of power by the President, and to begin impeachment proceedings if there is bipartisan support.

The media are a critical strength of American democracy, with a long tradition of protection by the First Amendment.  Trump’s attacks on the New York Times, The Washington Post and other mainstream media may appeal to his hard-core base, but these attacks have galvanized the press, and have coincided with the President’s falling support in national opinion polls.

Finally, the US has a robust and diverse civil society.  Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out two centuries ago that Americans make up for their skepticism about government with their commitment to civic engagement.  Trump’s election and his abuse of power have produced a surge of activism that is now the backbone of resistance to the hijacking of democracy in the US.

There are many potential strengths and sources of resilience of American democracy.  And there are multiple tools available to defend it.  But defense is not certain, and democracy is vulnerable in two fundamental ways.

The first is the danger of an American “Reichstag event”.

On February 27, 1933 the German parliament was set ablaze by unknown attackers.  It remains a mystery to this day whether the attack was carried out by Hitler’s enemies or his secret agents, but it was a spectacular act of terror that gave the future Fuhrer the opportunity he was seeking to round up his enemies, suspend civil liberties and declare a state of emergency that remained in effect throughout the Third Reich.

In an age of terror and discontent not unlike the 1930s, we are at risk of a comparable Reichstag-type event in the US.  Authoritarians come to power by generating and manipulating fear.  Another major terrorist attack on the US, or an international crisis involving nuclear weapons, would create a climate of fear that could readily be exploited by a president like Donald Trump looking for a way to escape his political problems and crack down on his opponents.  If either of these events were to happen, the price for resisting Trump would be much higher, and the prospects of success much lower.  The only way to prepare for a Reichstag event is to recognize that it’s likely to happen, warn of its dangers and be aware of its history.  In some ways, the Russian cyberattack on the US election was such an event.  Americans must be prepared that it might be repeated.

Another major hurdle standing in the way of resistance is the will to resist.  It’s one thing to have the tools.  It’s another thing to use them.  

Illiberal governance may have vulnerabilities, and people may stand up to it.  But democracy can ultimately be saved only if the underlying conditions driving the populist rebellion against the status quo are addressed.  Underlying the rebellion is the biggest issue of our time: structural inequality -- the huge siphoning off of economic and social benefits by the upper tier of society which controls the levers of power.  This was the issue in the US that fueled the populist anger of Trump voters on the right and the insurgency of the Sanders campaign on the left.  We need to create common ground and common cause between these two populist movements if democracy is to be saved.  Populists on the right and left are demanding justice for the great majority of people left behind by globalization and the structural forces of inequality that it has generated.

Democracy can provide a way to change, reduce and rectify these forces of inequality. Authoritarianism offers only a dead end, as the history of the 20th century clearly demonstrates.

Let me close with the words of Vaclav Havel, Eastern Europe’s leading democrat, who summed up how we as democracy’s defenders should approach the ongoing and never-ending struggle against authoritarianism:

I’m not an optimist because I do not believe all ends well. 

I’m not a pessimist because I do not believe all ends badly. 

Instead, I am a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief 

that democracy has meaning, and is always worth whatever struggle it may take to defend it." 

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article




Browse all content