Hungary, Orban, and Homogenizing Liberalism

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Middle Europe is still alive on the Danube, and that is an affront to many.  

I was tempted to write this column about Matt Yglesias specifically but I realized that wouldn’t be fair. By most measures it would be punching up—he has many more readers than I do and makes much more money—but it would still be too easy; he’s too big a target (where would a billion Mattys even fit?), and besides I have a lot of parasocial affection for the guy, like you might for your father’s childhood friend who never went anywhere or did anything and now operates as an alcoholic appendage on some family gatherings, a sort of staring honorary uncle. I think that’s basically the relationship a certain kind of technocratic liberal has to realignment conservatism, not in the family on the right, but fun to talk to once in a while. 

Anyway, Yglesias is on my mind because he typified a common response to Tucker Carlson’s visit to Hungary, and typifies a common attitude to that country. You might think that is last week’s discourse and not worth a column, but I think a week late is about the timeline on which these sorts of conversations should happen. Everyone shooting from the hip in the moment is fine and nice and keeps us employed, and Twitter is an enjoyable enough game, but if there are any conclusions to arrive at they need some time to percolate. 

So here is my thesis after a few days: Because liberals want to homogenize the world, to make all of it the same block of luxury apartments next to a homeless camp, they can’t grasp that the American right admires Hungary not because we want to make the U.S.A. just like it, but because we don’t, and Hungary doesn’t want to be just like us.

It is simple, really: We like Viktor Orban’s Hungary not because Orban is a crook or strongman or whatever you want to call him, but because Orban seems to genuinely love Hungary and is willing to try whatever he can to make the lives of Hungarians better, to protect them from outside power that threatens their way of life. That means in practice strong border controls, throwing money at family formation to see what sticks, and restrictions on media and NGOs and corporations that undermine Hungarian identity. Those are each implemented in Hungary by Hungarians in Hungary-specific ways. 

I don’t want the United States to be just like Hungary. We’re an extended republic spanning a continent, and our citizens come from all over the world. We have 50 states. We don’t have a parliamentary system. We are very rich, still, even if we are stupid about it. But I do want leaders who really love the United States and are willing to try whatever they can to make the lives of Americans better, to protect us from outside power that threatens our way of life. And that does mean strong border controls, and throwing money at family formation to see what sticks, and regulating media and NGOs and corporations that undermine our Bill of Rights and erode our civic privileges and responsibilities. All those things should be implemented in America by patriotic Americans by means of specific policies that take into account what is unique—even exceptional, yes—about the United States of America (largely the scale). 

Liberals outraged that Hungary can be appreciated have taken recourse to some of the silliest bits of Cold War propaganda. Our system of global markets is superior because, when the big line goes up, our washing machines are better than rinky-dink Central Europe, our houses have more rooms, etc.—the sort of arguments that prompted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to remind the United States that there were ways it was not so different from the Soviet system he was a dissident of. We have our own problems, shiny city and hill or no. As he wrote: “Liberty, by its very nature, undermines social equality, and equality suppresses liberty—for how else could it be attained?” That is a puzzle we still struggle to solve.  

Hungary offends because Hungary represents an alternative to the post-war consensus. It is a living piece of Middle Europe and not a part of some new order of the ages. It thus is not only resistant to the after-’89 liberal internationalism of the American unipolar moment—one the U.S. has failed to maintain spectacularly (though our elites did not fail to capitalize on it)—but is also a symbol of a road not taken after the World Wars, the wreckage of which we all still live in. While world leaders after Yalta sought stability in a dualist globe divided East and West, a paradigm we are still tempted by especially as China continues its swift ascent, Hungary exists now as a would-be independent patch in some unsewn quilt of nations. It is content to be for Hungarians, to be not just by the Danube but of the Danube, unhomogenized. As America faces a multipolar future, in that, there’s much to learn. 

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