Autocracy Masquerading as Democracy: The Regression of the United States and Hungary to Non-Democratic States

Written by: Aly Niehans

Hungary has a storied political history. Invaded by and allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, Hungarian Nazis quickly succumbed to the invasion of Soviet troops in April of 1945, just months before the end of the war. Within the four years following World War II, the Soviets consolidated power and transformed the political and social infrastructure of Hungary to more closely align with the USSR’s idea of communism. Matyas Rakosi, leader of communist Hungary, would proceed to develop a Stalinesque cult of personality in what became one of the harshest dictatorships in Europe. A predominately communist system dominated Hungarian politics until 1989, when a transition to a multi-party system began alongside the opening of Hungary’s borders to Western Europe and the withdrawal of Soviet forces two years later in 1991.

In 2004, Hungary was one of 10 states admitted to the European Union. Just four years later, the country was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, eventually needing a bailout package to the tune of 20 billion euros to salvage the economy. The financial woes of Hungary trickled down into the politics, with the far-right Jobbik party winning three seats in the European Parliament elections and almost 15 percent of the vote in 2009. Just a year later, Hungarians elected Viktor Orban, a member of the far-right Fidesz party, as Prime Minister. Orban’s party also fared well in the 2010 election, winning an overwhelming supermajority in the Parliament. 

This supermajority granted Orban the ability to dismantle the democratic system in Hungary, beginning first with the Hungarian media. In January of 2010, Orban created the National Media and Communications Authority, granting the organization the power to impose heavy fines for coverage that officials found unbalanced or offensive to “human dignity or common morals.” When passed, the law was compared to laws passed by Hitler as the NSDAP rose to power in Germany with a supermajority, echoing that which Orban currently enjoys. The new media laws also allowed Orban to appoint sympathizers to state-run media organizations to ensure their content was favorable to his government, having a chilling effect on the organization’s’ willingness and ability to run controversial stories. 

Orban continued his demolition of Hungary’s democracy by targeting the judiciary. During the country’s transition from communism to a democracy, a Constitutional Court was put in place to ensure the general protection of human rights and to uphold rule of law. Appointed judges had to be approved by a panel comprised of members of all parties, ensuring consensus. Under Orban and the Fidesz party’s rule, judges were to be chosen exclusively by the party. Eight years later, the Constitutional Court is made up entirely of judges appointed by Fidesz and, according to research done by the University of Wisconsin, the vast majority of these judges tend to vote in favor of the government. Not only does the political consensus of the judiciary make it infinitely easier for Orban to pass laws that otherwise would have undergone much more severe scrutiny, but it politicizes an institution that, in a democracy, is meant to be above the realm of party politics and partisanship. On the rare occasion that the Court rules contrary to Orban, the supermajority in Parliament allows for the ratification of Hungary’s constitution to include the rejected laws.

On top of the institutional transformation, Orban has cultivated a political climate rich with cronyism, favoritism, and the reduction of Hungarian politics to a single-party system. Secret contracts funded by the European Union are being handed on silver platters to friends of Orban, including a contract given to a son-in-law’s new lighting company before the EU grant had been publicly announced. Voting districts are being redrawn to favor the Fidesz party that retains a supermajority even though it received fewer votes in 2014 than it had when it lost in 2002 and 2006. With an election approaching in April, the Fidesz party is on track to receive the fewest number of votes in 20 years, but is likely to win the election due to gerrymandering. Districts that historically lean liberal were redrawn to include about 5000 more voters than districts that lean right, meaning that leftist parties needed more votes to win a seat than Fidesz did. Moving into 2018, a year Orban has referred to as “a year of great battles”, the Hungarian Prime Minister has shifted targets to immigration, threatening financial penalties for groups that aid migrants. In the upcoming election, Orban is almost certain to win, due in large part to the aforementioned restructuring of voting districts throughout Hungary. 

Much as European nations remained relatively complacent in the early months of what would escalate to World War II, the European Union has allowed Hungary to regress to an “illiberal democracy” or an autocracy without much retribution. As the western world sits and twiddles their thumbs, watching countries previously heralded as post-communist success stories slip farther from democracy, the trend is spreading unchecked. For example, Austria’s uber-conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz continually defies the EU on issues of immigration and fundamental human rights. While the EU maintains that figures like Kurz and Orban are on the political periphery, their influence is felt in Eastern and Central Europe, where their cries that the postwar “liberal consensus” in Europe has come to an end are met with praise instead of criticism. Across the pond, the United States is following a similarly unchecked path. Since the election of President Donald Trump, the American system has found itself in jeopardy of losing its democratic identity.

Although not reaping the benefits of a supermajority, Trump finds himself with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, with the potential for more judicial appointments in the future. Much like Orban, Trump  has launched a war against the media, condemning the likes of The New York Times and the Washington Post as “fake liberal news,” going so far as to name “Fake news awards.” While not blatantly censoring the media through heavy fines, Trump has cultivated a climate where there are two realities, one substantiated by hard facts and the other by “alternative facts,” and each cast aside by those adhering to the opposing reality. Only 32 percent of Americans report having a great or fair amount of trust in the media, and just 14 percent of Republicans express trust in mainstream media. The Trump administration’s war on the press allows the president an unprecedented ability to fail while still being praised by the likes of Fox News, and even more disquieting, to slowly tear down democratic institutions while receiving praise from his base. It is not unreasonable to connect the dots and end with a picture of Trump’s America where there is true censorship of the media.

Following in Orban’s footsteps is Trump’s flawed relationship with the judiciary and Justice Department. Trump has repeatedly attempted to bypass the normal progression of cases through the judicial system, most recently in regards to the Obama-era DACA program. After U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued a temporary block on the Trump administration’s rollback of DACA, the administration and the Justice Department appealed the decision not only to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, but directly to the Supreme Court. This appeal would allow the administration to bypass the 9th Circuit altogether to enjoy a decision from a conservative Supreme Court. The Trump administration has been known to complain about the decisions of lower courts preventing its more questionable policies from being implemented nationwide, but it is concerning that the president does not understand the importance of respecting decisions made by the courts. 

Finally, the Republican party as a whole has reaped the benefits of the extensive gerrymandering that has kept the likes of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in power. Much as in Hungary, the voting districts in key states have been redrawn so as to benefit the party in power, making it easier for Republicans to win seats than for Democrats. On top of the unconstitutional gerrymandering, Republican lawmakers, including Trump, have repeatedly attempted to put restrictive voter identification laws in place across the country. Maintaining that these laws are to prevent voter fraud, Trump and his party gloss over the fact that only four cases of voter fraud, or 0.000002 percent of all ballots cast, were identified in the 2016 presidential election, reiterating the glaring lack of voter fraud across all elections, both local and federal. Instead, these voter ID laws are put into place largely to keep key demographics that vote Democratic from casting their ballots, again making the road to office easier for Republicans. 

Hungary and the United States are two very different countries with very different roles in the international community. Orban has enjoyed a power unmatched in American politics, but it is not unrealistic to point to decisions made by the Trump administration as stepping stones to a political system lacking basic characteristics of a democracy. Hungary falling to an autocrat is different than America succumbing to a similar, less-than-democratic leader.  Regardless of the countries’ differences, the message to major international players should be the same: the destruction of previously stable democracies in influential countries does not bode well for the future of international cooperation and international governance. Domestic problems aside, Trump has already threatened to greatly reduce U.S. aid and involvement in the United Nations when U.S. interests are voted against, much as Orban has denounced the European Union for its exertion of power over and imposition of neoliberal ideas onto countries like Hungary. With the success that unconventional leaders like Trump, Orban, and Kurz have had in dramatically transforming the way politics are run domestically and the rhetoric surrounding international issues such as immigration, far-right movements in countries such as France or The Netherlands gain traction and democratic institutions worldwide suffer.