How democracy dies


Photo by James Lee

Freedom House’s most recent survey of the state of democracy in the world says:

  • Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.
  • Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
  • The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.

Autocracies are often overthrown in a sudden, dramatic revolution.  Democracies don’t die that way because, as Aziz Huq wrote,

Democracy is not a simple concept … it relies on drams of transparency, legality, impartiality, and constraint,… These are promoted by a range of different laws, norms, institutions, and individual loyalties. All of these rarely vanish all at once. Their evaporation is ineffable and easily missed.

Even the most dramatic examples of democracy collapsing in the past half century have seemed like slow, uneven transitions to the people living in them. The death of democracy feels like the proverbial frog that is slowly boiled alive to participants. That is why most people haven’t heard about the dramatic death of democracy in Hungary over the past eight years. There was never any one event that was so dramatic as to be particularly newsworthy in the US.  In fact, Freedom House still hasn’t changed Hungary’s status from its highest category of most democratic to the sham it has become.

For 20 years after the fall of communism, Hungary was a shining example of a reformed system where democracy and freedom flourished. However, that has ended since the 2010 election of the once-popular Fidesz party led by their demagogic “Prime Minister” Viktor Orbán who has increasingly been grabbing power.  After only eight years in power, Orbán now has so much political control he can be dictator for life if he wishes. Orbán continues to hold elections, but they are completely rigged and he does not allow any political rivals to publish criticism nor develop political parties that could challenge his Fidesz party. Zack Beauchamp reported from Hungary:

In 2010, [Orbán] got a chance to turn this vision into reality. That year, Fidesz won a “constitutional majority” — winning 263 seats, just over the two-thirds margin necessary to rewrite the constitution by parliamentary vote. Fidesz’s victory was widely seen as more a product of general anti-establishment sentiment — the Socialist party had been in power during the 2008 financial crash and was plagued by corruption scandals — than a vote for Orbán’s agenda. Regardless, the Fidesz constitutional majority swiftly went to work, rewriting parts of the constitution within months of taking power. Parliamentary districts were redrawn and gerrymandered to give Fidesz a leg up. Liberal bastions, principally large cities like Budapest and Szeged in the south, were divided so that large numbers of people were packed into a handful of parliamentary districts, while each district in Hungary’s conservative countryside had fewer people in it. The new constitution also expanded the size of the country’s constitutional court, which decides whether laws passed by parliament are constitutional. Orbán filled the new seats with Fidesz loyalists. All judges over the age of 62 were also forced to retire, so their seats could be filled with even more Fidesz-friendly jurists. The constitutional changes were supplemented by legislation expanding the scope of Fidesz’s authority. Civil servants were fired en masse, and Fidesz allies were installed in vital roles, like election supervision. Hungary’s state broadcaster was brought under the control of a new media board — and its editorial slant began to mirror Fidesz’s positions. …

Private media was a principal target of the Fidesz power grab. After the 2010 victory, the Fidesz government used the power of the state to pressure private media corporations to sell to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. Tactics included withholding government advertising dollars, selectively blocking mergers that would allow outlets to expand, and imposing punitive taxes on ad revenue. By 2017, 90 percent of all media in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally, according to a count by Budapest-based scholar Marius Dragomir. This media empire includes every single regional newspaper in the country. Fidesz also worked to reshape the electorate itself. A 2010 law granted citizenship rights to ethnic Hungarians in nearby countries like Romania, including the ability to vote and to access Hungarian social benefit payments. Though many of these ethnic Hungarians have never set foot in Hungary, more than a million non-domestic Hungarians have signed up for the citizenship program. They currently make up about 10 percent of the electorate and are largely on board with Orbán’s right-nationalist agenda, voting for Fidesz at an astonishing 95 percent rate. Some of these actions have been even shadier. In the past two elections, for example, Fidesz helped create several fake parties — including one party that was being run by someone who turned out to be homeless — that got on the ballot using signatures of Fidesz supporters and dead people. These parties split the anti-Fidesz vote in competitive districts, making it much easier for the Fidesz candidate to win a plurality.

In the 2018 election, Fidesz only won a minority of the vote even according to the government’s own statistics (which could be rigged) and the undemocratic nature of the vote and dominance of the government controlled media. Despite being rejected by a majority of voters according to government statistics, Fidesz won a supermajority of the political power again with Fidesz maintaining control over 2/3 of the elected officials due to gerrymandering and other undemocratic maneuvers. Fidesz is following the fascist playbook of scapegoating ethnic minorities, controlling the press, and allying with major corporations. Big business leaders who ally themselves with Fidesz are helped to profit while companies that rebel are forced to sell out control to corporate elites who are part of the Fidesz party. Fascism is an authoritarian political system which preserves private for-profit corporations, but forces them to be politically allied with the ruling party and this mix of state control and corporate control is why fascism is often called a form of socialism. It is also a form of socialism that is generally associated with political conservatives like Orbán unlike most people who call themselves socialist who identify with the political left.

The state’s economic policies are cleverly designed both to enrich Orbán’s allies and to neutralize potential threats to their hold on power. Fidesz watches Hungary’s business community closely because they’re the people who could finance an anti-government uprising, and punishes those it sees as potentially serious threats.

Naturally, this is encouraging massive government corruption which is going to slow down economic development in Hungary, but Hungarians might now know about that because of censorship and government control over the Hungarian-language media.

Orbán (and Steve Bannon) see Trump as a fellow traveler on the same road, but fortunately Trump has not been able to gain as much control over the Republican party nor the courts and federal bureaucracy (including the military and FBI) as Orbán was able to achieve in his first two years.  But will Trump accomplish something similar to Orbán if he gets as much time over the course of eight years?

This is how the 2018 Freedom House report rates the state of democracy in the US:


This is why Republicans should exercise their constitutional duty to provide oversight over the President and choose Pence for President in 2018 while they are still in control of congress!  Pence isn’t an unusually corrupt, dishonest, undemocratic demagogue like Trump.  Democrats don’t really like Pence any better than Trump, but they should for the same reasons.

Posted in Pence2018, Public Finance

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