In the fall of 2016, I returned to the United States from Hungary. As many are now aware, especially following Hungary’s most recent elections, the country is the home of the European Union’s first and foremost illiberal regime. For seven years I had watched Hungarian politicians carry out a relentless assault on democracy. My homecoming coincided with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and when the results came in, my friends joked that maybe I was a political disease carrier.

What I observed in Hungary can be reduced to the following: a nationalist politician got himself elected by manipulating public discontent and fear while suc- cessfully mixing disinformation with voter anxiety to smear his opponents. After winning the election, he claimed a mandate to undermine democratic institutions that stood in his way: free press, independent judiciary, diverse civil society, protections for civil liberties, and minority rights. What remained was the shell of democracy, an elected government in command of severely weakened institutions in a political environment polluted by disinformation.

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gave this new model an Orwellian name: “illiberal democracy.” The Orban model is now being copied across Europe by illiberal movements in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom. Its most extreme versions are present in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Recep Erdogan’s Turkey. And despite President Donald J. Trump’s claims to be an American protectionist, Trump is importing the Orban model into the US. In April 2017, following a Hungarian election campaign during which the prime minister reemphasized his anti-migrant, nativist credentials by using disinformation to attack liberal internationalists, Orban’s party increased its support by 4 percentage points, strength- ening its grip on power as Europe’s leading illiberal regime.

Let us be clear-eyed about the stakes. Liberal democracy is the antithesis of authoritarianism. Its ingredients are the very institutions that the Orban model has undermined. Illiberal regimes attack liberal democracy from within. They use democratic tools, like elections, to destroy democratic institutions. And they are distinct from authoritarian regimes in countries like China or Saudi Arabia, where there have never been functioning democracies.

Attacks on Democracy from Within

The circumstances that permit this subversion of democracy have been in place for quite some time. Across the West, discontent with elected governments, political parties, and ruling elites has been steadily growing. Four years ago, a Gallup poll showed that 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works—a significant increase from 23 percent in 2002. A European Commission poll in 2014 showed an even higher level of discontent among Europeans: 68 percent said they distrusted their governments and leaders. And last October a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that a new high of 71 percent of Americans believe that democratic dysfunction has reached “a dangerous low point.”

This discontent led to populist rebellion. Economic rebellion soon followed, headed by people left behind by the loss of jobs and the shutting down of indus- tries, by the new technologies of production, and by the forces of globalization from which elites are disproportionately benefitting; cultural rebellion by displaced majorities, especially white males, who refuse to accept the emerging new majori- ties of women and ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities; and security rebellion by people whose fears of terrorism and crime have morphed into xeno- phobia and racism toward people different from themselves, especially refugees and migrants. These rebellions are rooted in reaction against the three major societal transformations of our time: the civil rights revolution, the market revolution, and the digital revolution.

The massive changes that have resulted from these revolutions have altered the civic playing field. Citizens yearn for a sense of social solidarity, but the civil rights revolution led to racial and cultural backlash in places that experienced rapid increases in diversity. Citizens need to share the benefits of economic growth, but the market revolution has skewed the benefits away from middle-class workers, whose incomes have remained stagnant for more than a generation. Citizens need a common narrative based on shared facts, but the digital revolution has facilitated the spread of communication silos, contentious narratives, fringe ideas, and con- spiracy theories. The product of all these intertwining trends is a globe-spanning, anti-democracy movement. Two ingredients produce illiberal regimes: a political climate conducive to disinformation and leaders who come to power using disin- formation to mobilize the forces of reaction.

Hungary: Europe’s Leading Laboratory for Illiberal Governance

Hungary has a long history of domination by outsiders, from the Turks, Russians, and Habsburgs, to the Fascist right and the Soviet Empire. The psycho- logical legacy of externally imposed rule has stunted the growth of civil society. This history manifests in many ways; today, the common spaces of elegant apart- ment buildings in Budapest are run down and uncared for, and many view civic volunteering for international NGOs with suspicion, denigrated as a front for col- laboration with foreign enemies. Many Hungarians have rejected the free market’s promise after the financial crisis of 2009 left people feeling no better off than they had been during communism. Nationalist politicians depict the European Union as a source of outside economic and political interference, attacking Brussels as “the new Moscow.” Populist nationalism has found fertile soil in the Hungarian countryside, where the great majority of Hungarians live.

These were the preconditions for Viktor Orban’s takeover of Hungary’s new democracy seven years after it joined the European Union and a decade after it became a member of NATO. Orban’s politics are based on propaganda about real and imagined external threats in addition to a program of accusation and attack on liberal fundamentals.

First in the line of fire was the media. Orban’s government drastically reduced the public’s sources of unbiased information and independent analysis through a combination of political and financial pressure, regulation, censorship, and disin- formation. Next came the judiciary. The prime minister weakened the rule of law by stacking Hungary’s Constitutional Court with allies, limiting the court’s juris- diction, and forcing the early retirement of judges.

Then he went after civil society, branding organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents,” investigating groups critical of the government, and attacking the academic freedom of universities. During the 2018 campaign, the prime minister deployed a massive disinformation campaign to relentlessly smear the 87-year-old Hungarian-American philanthropist and democracy propo- nent George Soros: billboards, TV, radio, and print media ran ads painting Soros as a threat to Christian civilization. Orban’s effort to shape public opinion reached even into school textbooks, where Hungarian children were told that the prime minister was protecting them from refugees.

The Vulnerabilities of Illiberal Democracy

It remains unclear what the Hungarian Prime Minister’s renewed mandate will empower him to do next. But despite the Orban model’s recent apparent success, it is important to note that this style of illiberal governance also has some major weaknesses. An area of particularly acute vulnerability is corruption. Illiberal regimes breed oligarchs who drain public resources, destroy competition, and stir up populist discontent. This can lead to political backlash—last year, 250,000 people in Hungary protested the government’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics because of the bid’s perceived susceptibility to corruption and cronyism. The regime eventually abandoned the bid. In March 2017, 500,000 people took to the streets in Romania to protest a new law weakening anti-corruption standards. The law was scrapped. In Russia, the domestic economy has been weakened by the corrupt oligarchic system of the Putin era. And in China, commentators say that President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign against his rivals informed his decision to abolish presidential term limits so that he would never be threatened by rivals.

Another weakness of illiberal governance is that civil society can seep through the cracks and find new ways to push back, especially in the digital sphere. Autocratic regimes can control traditional media, but the control of digital narratives is more difficult. In Hungary, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in 2014 after the regime announced that it would tax citizens for using the internet. The government had to back down. And earlier this year in Slovakia, the murder of a young investigative journalist who was writing about corruption lit up social media and sparked huge protests that forced the resignation of the prime minister.

Future Threats

How great is the danger that liberal democracy will be overwhelmed by illiberal regimes and movements? The evidence is mixed. The elections last year in France, Germany, and the Netherlands—and the U.S. off-season elections in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—suggested that it remains possible for liberal candi- dates to defeat illiberal challengers, a proposition that will be tested in the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections. But the election of anti-pluralist leaders in Austria and Italy, and the political morass in the UK after Brexit are clear signs of the danger that lies ahead. Russia’s attempts to influence American and European elections and the role digital technologies can play in countering and challenging disinfor- mation attacks by illiberal regimes—a core focus of this special issue of the Journal of International Affairs—are wildcards with unpredictable consequences. And, of course, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the current state of American poli- tics are cause for alarm.

The Resilience of Liberal Democracy in the United States

There are eerie parallels between the anti-democratic tactics of Orban, Putin, and Trump: attacks on the media and the courts, stigmatization of migrants and refugees, stimulation of racism and hate crimes, and assault on facts and truth. Above all, illiberal regimes have used fear and insecurity as the primary instruments for their brand of governance.

Two preconditions for an illiberal regime to exist are present in the United States following the 2016 election: a political climate conducive to disinformation and a leader who uses disinformation to govern. During his first eighteen months in office, President Trump has labeled journalists “enemies of the people” and assaulted the mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news.” He has questioned the integrity of judges, undermined civil society by making baseless claims of massive voter fraud, and attacked the opposition by supporting the gerryman- dering of election districts. Beyond the technical and legal questions of obstruction and collusion that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been tasked with investi- gating, Trump has abused the power of his office by attempting to terminate the investigation of Russia’s role and his own possible collusion in spreading disinfor- mation during the election.

But democracy in the US has deep roots. More than two centuries of consti- tutional history include examples of presidents from both parties who were reined in when they abused their power. Franklin Roosevelt tried to expand the size of the Supreme Court to validate his New Deal agenda, but Congress rejected his “court-packing” scheme. Richard Nixon used law enforcement and intelligence agencies to violate civil liberties, but the House Judiciary Committee voted for articles of impeachment against him and the federal courts held him responsible for his abuses of power.

The history of American political culture has shaped a diverse civil society with a long tradition of political activism. Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed two centuries ago that Americans make up for their skepticism about government with their commitment to civic engagement. The massive demonstrations against gun violence and the mass participation of young people are signs of the resilience of civil society across classes, races, and generations.

But there is plenty to be concerned about regarding the health of America’s liberal democracy. The problems that the 2016 election laid bare are not new. For more than a decade, there has been a steady deterioration of public support for the U.S. system of democratic governance.

The influence of unregulated campaign funding and an increase in state-level voting restrictions and legislative gerrymandering have weakened the electoral process. Public belief in the ability of the courts, Congress, and the Constitution to check abuses of power has dropped dramatically. The 2016 election exacerbated these developments. By repeatedly lying and manipulating facts, President Trump has promoted the view that there is no objective truth. Through disinformation, he has politicized institutions that Americans normally regard as nonpartisan guardrails of democracy.

Yet, there has been a surprising level of resilience during the first eighteen months of the Trump presidency from four institutions with political vulnerabili- ties that make them ready targets for an anti-democratic president: the media, the federal judiciary, law enforcement, and the federal civil service.

U.S. public opinion continues to show opposition to illiberal governance and the concentration of power in the presidency. There is an opening to mobilize public support in defense of democratic norms. There was a surge in voter partici- pation in the off-season elections in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, in addi- tion to a 300 percent increase in new voting registration in North Carolina. More than 500 new candidates are running for office at the federal and state level, and a highly charged political environment indicates that it is possible but by no means certain that the 2018 elections will bring about major changes in Congress. When compared to other democracies that have recently yielded to illiberal regimes— Hungary, Poland, and Turkey—the US is doing better.

A Call for Cautious Optimism

Can the rise of illiberal regimes serve as a wake-up call to stimulate the reclaiming and rebuilding of liberal democracy? Three things need to happen. First, coalitions will need to be built across political divides, bringing together discontented voters who demand economic fairness and opportunity, and can put aside their differences on social and cultural issues to achieve these demands. Second, the politicians who facilitate attacks on democracy will need to be pun- ished at the polls for their role in promoting polarization. Third, new leaders must restore the principles of negotiation that are at the heart of the democratic process.

There are potential sources of resilience in liberal democracy and there are tools available to defend it. But it is one thing to have the tools and another thing to use them.

Illiberal regimes have vulnerabilities. But democracy can ultimately be saved only if the underlying conditions driving the rebellion against the status quo are addressed. Underlying the rebellion in the US and Europe is the biggest issue of our time: structural inequality, when society’s upper tier—those who control the levers of power—siphon off social and economic benefits. This issue fueled the populist anger of Trump voters on the right and the insurgency of the Senator Bernie Sanders campaign on the left. To address the issue of inequality it will be necessary to find common ground and common cause between the populist move- ments of the left and right that are demanding justice for the great majority of people left behind by globalization and the structural forces that it has generated.

Illiberal regimes come to power by manipulating cultural discontent but are vulnerable to charges of corruption and inequality. Reformed democratic institu- tions can provide the means for reducing the forces of inequality, while mediating the cultural issues that divide people. Illiberal regimes and movements only lead to a dead end, as the history of the 20th century dramatically demonstrates.

Let me close with the words of Vaclav Havel, one of Europe’s leading voices for democracy, who summed up how to approach the ongoing struggle against illiberal regimes:

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’m a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that democracy has meaning, and is worth the struggle it takes to defend it.

 

John Shattuck is Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Chair of the international advisory board, Center on Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, Brandeis University; Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (1993 to 1998); United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic (1998 to 2000); and President and Rector of the Central European University (2009 to 2016).