Discover more from Letters from an American
October 26, 2021
For all the news stories that seem to tug us in one direction or another, there is just one overarching story in the news for Americans today.
We are in an existential fight to defend our democracy from those who would destroy it.
People seem to hark back to films from the 1930s and 1940s and think that so long as we don’t have tanks in our streets, our government is secure. But in this era, democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint.
You can see this in Russia, where Vladimir Putin gradually concentrated power into his own hands. You can see it in Brazil, where Jair Bolsanaro, whose approval rating in late August was 23%, claims that the country’s elections are fraudulent and that “[e]ither we’ll have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.” You can see it in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has quite deliberately dismantled liberal democracy and replaced it with what he calls “illiberal democracy.”
On paper, Hungary is a democracy in that it still holds elections, but it is, in fact, a one-party state overseen by one man.
Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture, stop the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture, and reject “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
No matter what he calls it, Orbán’s model is not democracy at all. As soon as he retook office in 2010, he began to establish control over the media, cracking down on those critical of his party, Fidesz, and rewarding those who toed the party line. In 2012 his supporters rewrote the country’s constitution to strengthen his hand, and extreme gerrymandering gave his party more power while changes to election rules benefited his campaigns. Increasingly, he used the power of the state to concentrate wealth among his cronies, and he reworked the country’s judicial system and civil service system to stack it with his loyalists. While Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orbán’s opponents to win an election.
Hungary is in the news in the United States because Americans on the right have long admired Orbán’s nationalism and centering of Christianity, while the fact that Hungary continues to hold elections enables them to pretend that the country remains a democracy.
In 2019, Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson endorsed Hungary’s anti-abortion and anti-immigration policies; in that year, according to investigative researcher Anna Massoglia of Open Secrets, Hungary paid a D.C. lobbying firm $265,000, in part to arrange an interview on Carlson’s show. Recently, former vice president Mike Pence spoke in Budapest at a forum denouncing immigration and urging traditional social values, where he told the audience he hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would soon outlaw abortion thanks to the three justices Trump put on the court. Further indicating the drift of today’s right wing, the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will be held in Budapest.
In their embrace of the illiberal democracy of Hungary, those on the right argue that they are defending traditional American values.
Like Orbán, they focus relentlessly on immigration; “caravans” of immigrants have once again made the right-wing news, as they always do before an election. They worry that traditional families are under attack, hence Texas’s S.B. 8, which outlaws the constitutional right of abortion by empowering vigilantes. They insist that “real” America is being destroyed by multiculturalism; hence the hysteria over Critical Race Theory, an obscure legal theory from the 1970s that is not taught in K–12 schools, and the calls for “patriotic education.”
And, crucially, those on the right are openly embracing voter restrictions and the replacement of nonpartisan election officials with partisans.
Astonishingly, John Eastman, the founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and a member of the powerful Federalist Society, wrote a six-point plan for overturning the will of the voters in the 2020 election. Although he went to the reputable National Review to cover his tracks by saying his plan was just a thought experiment, just tonight a video appeared in which he told an apparent supporter that his ideas were right, and that it was Pence’s establishment biases that made him unwilling to implement them. His plan to overturn the election barely failed.
The 33 new election laws in 19 states will not fail. They are designed to replace the idea of democracy with a hierarchy in which a minority will determine our fate.
If it seems odd that a group of people who claim to be trying to “Make America Great Again” are taking their cues from a central European country of about 10 million people, it is worth noting that they are not simply talking about Critical Race Theory or Texas’s so-called heartbeat bill. We are in a larger struggle over the nature of human governments. And when American thinkers are praising Hungary, they are tapping into a long history of our own.
When the Founders declared it “self-evident, that all men are created equal,” they were making a bold declaration about the nature of governments that flew in the face of western tradition and thought. They denied that some individuals were better than others and had an inherent right to rule the rest. Governments, the Founders said, derived legitimacy not from religion, or heritage, but instead were legitimate only to the degree that those who lived under them consented to them. “[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” the Founders said.
This was a revolutionary argument. It rejected not just King George III, but all kings, claiming for the people the right to rule themselves. For all its limitations—the Founders could conceive of this idea in part because they excluded from their vision women, Black people, and all people of color—it was an astonishing declaration.
And yet, the idea that all men are created equal and that governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed began to fall apart in the late 1820s. Southern Democrats wanted to take control of Indigenous peoples’ lands in the Southeast in order to spread the wildly lucrative system of plantation agriculture. Then, when they had displaced the tribes, they spread across those lands their economic system based on human enslavement.
But because southern leaders were outnumbered by Americans in the North who objected to their economic system, within a decade they were arguing that true democracy meant not that government depended upon the consent of the governed as a whole, but rather that local or state governments could choose how everyone, including enslaved people, women, Indigenous, and Mexican people, would live. And, of course, they limited voting to a few white men, who voted to keep themselves in power.
In 1860, southern white elites declared the American concept of democracy based in equality, government based in the consent of the people, to be obsolete. They declared they were going to start a new country, based in a hierarchy of gender and race, that they believed reflected God’s will.
In a speech in March 1861, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who would soon be the vice president of the Confederate States of America, explained to an audience that Jefferson’s belief that all men are created equal was “an error” and that anyone who still adhered to that idea was an insane “fanatic.” Stephens told listeners: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
And there it was: the replacement of the idea that all people are created equal with the idea that some people are better than others, and that those people, who truly understand God’s laws, should rule.
It is not an accident that the insurrectionists of January 6, 2021, carried the Confederate battle flag.
We are today in a struggle no less dangerous to our democracy than that of the 1860s, for all that it is fought with Facebook memes and cable television rather than artillery. And when our leaders talk fondly about Viktor Orbán, or Jair Bolsonaro— former president Trump endorsed his reelection today—we would do well to listen.