“Western European Christian democrats in the past never did the kinds of things that Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary. They never clamped down on media freedom. They, themselves, as Catholics in 19th century Europe, had experienced what majoritarianism in certain countries could mean. They were very often the oppressed minority. They understood that state sovereignty is not good in itself, in the way that now Orbán says nation-state sovereignty is a supreme value. Christian democrats thought exactly the opposite. That’s why they were among the main architects of European integration in the 1950s and 1960s. They wanted to weaken the nation-state, not strengthen it. So, I think it’s an egregious misinterpretation and manipulation of history, for certain types of actors nowadays to say, “We are the real Christian democrats”. They are absolutely not. They are trying to steal this tradition. They are trying to appropriate the mantle of people like Helmut Kohl, Adenauer and others, who everybody considers to be great statesmen of sorts, and it’s a very misleading picture. And I think that’s the kind of use of language where I think one can definitely say, as a historian, that this is just wrong and Christian democrats across Europe shouldn’t fall for it.”
Jan-Werner Müller is a Professor of Politics at Princeton University. The Budapest Beacon recently spoke to him about what to make of the term “illiberal democracy”, what it means to be a Christian Democrat, the cozy relationship between Orbán in Hungary and Kaczyński in Poland, the EU response to the refugee crisis, and why it is important to not be intellectually lazy when analyzing political trends.
A full transcript of the interview follows:
BB: What are your thoughts on the term illiberal democracy? Is it a term that we can actually define?
JWM: I think it’s a meaningful term but I think it’s often misused. It came out of a discussion back in the mid-1990s when people started to say that democracy is about having elections and liberal is about observing the rule of law, checks and balances, and making sure that majorities can’t do anything they like. Today, we very often use the term in such a way where we seem to say that even if a regime restricts certain freedoms, such as media freedom, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, it’s still a democracy, it’s just an illiberal democracy. And I think that’s a mistake because there are certain rights, freedoms and elements of the rule of law which are not an optional add-on to democracy. These things are basically constitutive of democracy. They are essential to democracy.
A regime that starts to tamper with those isn’t really a proper democracy any more. So, if we call Hungary, or maybe now Poland, an “illiberal democracy”, in a sense we are making a huge mistake because we’re leaving the relevant regimes with the term “democracy”, which, for all the disillusionments with democracy over the last 25 years, remains the most prized political word, if you like. Pretty much everybody still wants to be seen as a democracy. Azerbaijan wants to be a democracy. Russia wants to be a democracy. To basically concede this, and say, “Yes, you’re still a democracy, just maybe a different type of democracy,” is something that you might in tennis call an “unforced error.” Nobody has forced us to give them the word democracy, we just do it. And then we, the EU or the Western policy establishment – or whoever talks like this – gets to keep liberalism, which, from the point of view of somebody like Viktor Orbán, is great! Because as he has said many times, he does not want to be a liberal anyway!
So, it’s a fateful kind of a division of labor where entities like the EU, the OSCE, or what some people might call the liberal Western policy establishment, get to stick liberalism and the other guys get to keep democracy.
It would be much better if said quite openly that, “Look, what you’re doing damages democracy itself!” It’s not just a question of liberalism versus anti-liberalism.
BB: One of the things we see is that the term “liberalism” is often used as the antithesis of “conservatism”. Do you think there’s a difference in how the West views conservatism as opposed to how countries in Eastern Europe, say Hungary and Poland, use the term conservatism? Is conservatism like liberalism? Is it also a word that is misunderstood?
JWM: Political language is hugely important. On one level you might say that’s what political actors do all the time. They try to capture certain political terms, they try to define certain political terms. At the same time, I fear it can be a hopeless academic exercise to say, “Now we’re going to decide how to use these terms properly.” That doesn’t usually work. At the same time, it’s very important that we at least understand our differences and we make sure that people don’t get away with really egregious ways of mischaracterizing certain “-isms”.
I think, especially in the case of liberalism, it’s clear there is a huge divide between the way Europeans understand the term and the way Americans understand the term. The European use is across European countries not all that different. What leads to a certain amount of confusion in Europe is that very often economic liberalism and political liberalism – just as I said earlier – is really bound up with democracy, and tend to get conflated.
Very often we can have a situation where actors say: “Well, look, you know what liberalism is like. It’s basically free markets. It’s ruthless capitalism. It’s what, let’s say – in the recent context of the region – it’s what Platforma did to everybody in Poland. It leads to huge amounts of inequality. So, that’s why everybody should be against liberalism!” — and that will resonate with some people for good reasons, because inequality has increased. One can have good reasons to complain about what passes as “free markets” but very often amounts to a kind of crony capitalism. So, that’s all fair as a criticism. But it doesn’t follow that, therefore, political liberalism, and especially the parts bound with democracy, should also be dismissed.
So we have to be very careful about how certain people phrase certain arguments, and I think it’s particularly fateful that a number of people in Hungary – intellectuals who want to serve the regime, please the regime, speak for the regime – have tried to say: “Well, look, you Westerners don’t understand Hungary because you want to push liberalism which means libertarianism basically, loose morals, gay marriage for everybody, and we’re different. We’re conservative. We basically continue a tradition that you western Europeans have abandoned, ‘Christian democracy’. If even Angela Merkel moves so far to the center that now, in a Christian democratic party in Germany, same-sex marriage is de facto more or less okay, then we are the last real defenders of Christian morality, etc., etc…”
Now, we can debate the justice of same-sex marriage, but maybe that’s for another day. What I’m trying to point out here is that this then gets conflated with questions of democracy and rights. Western European Christian democrats in the past never did the kinds of things that Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary. They never said, “Democracy is whatever the majority wants. Democracy is that I can single-handedly change the constitution as I see fit and put down basically a symbolic interpretation of Hungarian history, Christianity, the family, etc., etc…” — what is now often called, after the famous speech in September, the Christian national vision of Hungary” and, according to Orbán, Europe as a whole.
It is very important to understand that this is not the traditional Christian democratic understanding. Christian democrats never abridged the rights of minorities. They never clamped down on media freedom. They, themselves, as Catholics in 19th-century Europe, had experienced what majoritarianism in certain countries could mean. They were very often the oppressed minority. They understood that state sovereignty is not good in itself, in the way that now Orbán says nation-state sovereignty is a supreme value. Christian democrats thought exactly the opposite. That’s why they were among the main architects of European integration in the 1950s and 1960s. They wanted to weaken the nation-state, not strengthen it. So, I think it’s an egregious misinterpretation and manipulation of history, for certain types of actors nowadays to say, “We are the real Christian democrats”. They are absolutely not. They are trying to steal this tradition. They are trying to appropriate the mantle of people like Helmut Kohl, Adenauer and others, who everybody considers to be great statesmen of sorts, and it’s a very misleading picture. And I think that’s the kind of use of language where I think one can definitely say, as a historian, that this is just wrong and Christian democrats across Europe shouldn’t fall for it.
Now, if you’re a conservative in Spain who is opposed to same-sex marriage, you are entitled to your views. I’m not saying there is only one proper vision of how things should go, but then that what you have to say, that you’re basically a conservative in morals. Don’t say that Orbán and Kaczyński are great heroes of a revival of Christian democracy. That’s just wrong.
BB: With the refugee crisis, the Hungarian government took the “the sky is falling” approach, which essentially means that there is an unstoppable wave of people coming into Europe, people who don’t share “our Christian values” and “Enlightenment values”. But what we do see is that more and more Europeans, even those outside Hungary, are receptive to this message.
JWM: I think there is an openness to the idea that somebody needs to do something, somebody needs to give us a sense that we as Europe, or we as nation states, or even we as the EU, are somehow in control and this is not just chaos where everybody has lost control of the situation. And there Orbán looks like somebody who did something. So, I think people are receptive to that and think one has to be fair and say yes, in a country like Germany there’s a very strong sense right now that the state is somehow losing control. Even members of the Christian democratic party of the government are saying the state is failing. I think that’s de facto wrong. I’m just describing the sentiment. That sentiment is growing and in that context it looks like Hungary did something, right? That’s one thing.
It’s another thing to say that we should emulate Hungary and basically start hate campaigns against the people coming in. I don’t see anyone who says that’s the right approach, let’s replicate that, let’s have posters in France, Germany and Austria saying that these guys are coming here to steal our jobs. I don’t see anybody who is receptive to that. Although, that has always been part of the Hungarian package that we saw last year as well. And then there’s last year’s question about defending Christian values, defending the Enlightenment, etc. I don’t see anybody being terribly receptive to that either. I don’t think we’re having a meaningful debate about values in the sense of saying these people somehow don’t share our values. We don’t know what people share right now or don’t share. One can have different approaches to questions of integration of minorities, and we can have a meaningful debate about that.
But it’s a very strange thing, if you think about it, to start with the assumption that these people come from Syria, therefore, they must have Muslim values. I don’t know how you would feel if you showed up in Europe and someone immediately tells you, “You’re from America, you must have Christian values. right? That is a country where 70 to 80 percent sort of identify as Christian or somewhat religious. Let’s talk about your Christian values. Let’s make this the starting point of our conversation.”
I think we have to be very careful with that debate, which is not to say that we shouldn’t have that debate, but let’s always take a few steps back and see how we frame that debate and what we take to be a kind of natural starting point. It shouldn’t be a natural starting point that “these people can’t possibly share our values, they must be some kind of barbarians who show up here and we have to first re-educate them somehow!”
Let’s see. We don’t know enough right now. We have a certain amount of experience from Europe in the past. Let’s draw on that. Let’s have a meaningful debate about that. But let’s not reduce everything right now to terms like “they are Muslims” and “we are Christians”. I think that’s a fateful mistake.
There are countries which are signatories to international regimes, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention. In those regimes, there are defined values as to how we treat refugees, the kind of protections we afford them. Do you think in Europe there is a very serious division amongst European Union Member States concerning their own interpretation of these regimes? Are these regimes worth anything any more? Are there any shared values on that level?
It might be helpful to make a distinction between values on the one hand and norms – and ultimately laws – on the other hand. I mean, these are legal regimes. If you sign up to them, and if you enter the European Union saying, “I’m going to sign this treaty,” then it’s not really an option to say, “Oh, actually I kind of disagree with the underlying principles.” It’s not an option to say that the Treaty on European Union, the famous Article 2, which defines the EU’s underlying values, is sort of a thing that you like or don’t like. Nobody forced you into the EU. Nobody forced you to adopt these regimes. But once you adopt them, partly because they come with a lot of benefits obviously, you are obliged under law to do what they are asking you to do.
Now, of course, in practice, how law is interpreted and applied, there is room for maneuver and we can work out different ways of how, let’s say, we actually realize Article 2 values, such as a democracy, human rights and so on. But something like the right to asylum is not something where if you signed up as a universal norm, there’s sort of a way of saying, “Well, I kind of like it today, but maybe tomorrow the majority doesn’t like it.” I think we should not conflate a more general philosophical discussion, which we can have and which is entirely legitimate — it goes back to the point about Christian democracy. If Christian democrats said, “We are anti-liberals because liberalism for us is individualism, materialism, it’s selfishness, so we don’t believe in that sort of stuff,” — that’s an entirely legitimate point of view. And then let’s say a neoliberal economist might have a different or opposing point of view and says the world works differently. But these two parties can still converge on a, let’s say, a democratic constitution that will have legal norms in place which will protect minorities, put checks and balances in place, and so on, irrespective of the underlying philosophical disagreement.
To conflate these levels is a way for some actors to effectively erode the observation of law and norms, and to pretend this is some kind of subjective thing and say, “Well, our friends in Western Europe feel a bit differently. We, because of our history, feel another way.” That’s a kind of smokescreen for essentially not living up to your legal obligations. I think we should call out actors on that without making it seem like we can’t have a discussion on values.
But values are not like norms. Values can be colored by history. We can trade values off against each other to some degree. That’s all fine, but that’s different from laws that you’ve committed yourself to observing.
Nobody prevents you, of course, from saying we should change the laws or from saying we should have a different treaty on the European Union. There are plenty of actors who want to do that. David Cameron wants to do that. Fine. Let’s have that discussion. But while you are still under the old regime, you must observe the old regime.
BB: Do you think the European Union has failed, looking at countries like Hungary and Poland, in addressing these very serious allegations about the violations of the treaty? We see that some members of our political community aren’t living up to their promises. Has the European Union failed in this respect?
JWM: I think the one-word answer is ‘yes’ and in a sense we are seeing the effects of these initial failures now. Had the EU been more effective in its dealings with Hungary a couple of years ago, I think we might see a different situation in Poland now — which is not to say that people shouldn’t have elected PiS and Kaczyński. Obviously, they are entirely free to do that. They are entirely free to implement a conservative program, whatever that means in their eyes. But it’s another thing effectively to attack the constitution. We have a precedent now with Hungary that you can do this, that you can basically adopt a strategy of moving two steps forward and then you’re called out by the EU, and then you move one step back. But the reality on the ground is changed.
I think as liberal democrats we have this sort of nice illusion that, “People always learn and democracy is a learning process. It’s always the stupid authoritarians who don’t learn. Look at the failure of the Soviet Union, they didn’t learn. We always make mistakes but eventually democracy self-corrects in a certain way. Whereas, in a dictatorship if you make one big mistake, that’s it, you lose legitimacy, it’s over.”
One thing we have to honestly recognize is that anti-democrats, authoritarians and – in the language which I don’t like but people might still want to use – illiberal democrats, they are learning all the time, too! And they learn across borders.
As I’m sure you know, Orbán and Kaczyński recently had a very long meeting. We don’t know what they discussed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing a sort of emergence of an informal manual of how to do this vis-à-vis the EU — that is, what kind of strategy do you adopt to effectively implement certain changes to essentially lock down your regime in certain ways, while still nominally observing treaty values and giving the EU something so that the Commission can declare victory at the same time and say they were effective.
It’s a very dangerous path that we’re going down and the more we go down it, the more difficult it will be to reverse course. The one thing that is maybe worth pointing out as an important difference is that, of course, Orbán remains part of the European People’s Party — the super-national party family that contains Christian democrats and much more mainstream parties. Whereas, Kaczyński doesn’t have the benefit of being seen as somebody who, if in doubt, is sort of in the center. With Orbán there has always been the sense that “Okay, maybe he’s going a bit too far now,” or “Oh, he has this extremist rhetoric, but ultimately he’s a good guy who comes out of the center and must somehow be part of the center-right.” With Kaczyński there’s much more of this perception that this is somebody who is already coming from the extreme and who believes in all kinds of conspiracy theories. So, there’s maybe an extra amount of weariness about what he’s doing and where he’s going. But it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the situation. And it’s clear that for purely short-term and opportunistic reasons, the EPP missed its opportunities to really and effectively sanction Orbán. By now, it’s very hard to see how they are going to do that given this track record.
BB: One of main concerns of the critics of what’s happening in Poland now is that Kaczyński has started using the Orbán playbook. We see that there have indeed been very radical changes to the political system and government of Poland within a matter of a few short months. To what extent have these changes been informed by what’s happened in Hungary?
JWM: I think there are two factors here. One is indeed the Hungarian playbook. The other is Kaczyński’s previous experience in government. My sense is that what both of these experiences have taught is that you need to move very quickly and you need to move on the actual institutions. This means you capture the civil service, that’s very important. You capture the media to the extent that you can if you have state media at your disposal. And you attack the main legal check on government, which is the constitutional court. That’s another way of saying you shouldn’t waste huge amounts of time engaging in culture war or big symbolic gestures, you can always do that later. Once you’ve captured the system, you have plenty of time to basically implement your ideas about things like proper Catholic morality, the importance of nationalism, whatever it might be. And I think that this time around, Kaczyński has learned that you go for the institutions very quickly. You give people very little time to react. All these people know that the EU, because of the way that it works, takes a lot of time to react. There’s a lot of back-and-forth. The procedures are very slow. So, if you basically establish facts on the ground, you wrongfoot people immediately. In that sense, I think we have a kind of manual now for how you capture these systems.
Speed is important. Going for the main countervailing forces vis-à-vis the government is important. And, maybe what we’re learning now, is that you can do a lot of that even without formally changing the constitution.
Kaczyński, as you know, doesn’t have quite the luxury that Orbán had in 2010. He also doesn’t have quite the luxury of a previous government that is as discredited as MSZP was in 2010. Clearly, there was a lot of discontent with Platforma in Poland, but there’s no equivalent as far as I can tell of something like Gyurcsány being on record as saying that, “We lied to the people” — we can talk about what that really meant, whether it was really as bad as people say… But I think symbolically things are more difficult for Kaczyński. And yet what we’re seeing is that you can still do a lot even in a more constrained situation.
BB: How hard do you think the pushback is going to be from the European Union? Frans Timmermans, in his letter to the Polish government, made it very clear that this is not an attack on the Polish people, that’s it not an attack on Poland, these are criticisms being levied directly at what the government is doing right now. Beyond that letter, what can we expect from the European Commission?
JWM: I think the European Commission wants to use what is now very often called its “instrument”. I think they are serious about strengthening the rule of law. These people have learned as well. They’ve seen the failings that the Commission had in the last couple years. There’s a reason why they instituted this new so-called “Rule of Law Mechanism”. I think they might have a little more leeway because the Eurocrisis doesn’t seem quite as pressing now as it was a year or two ago, which is not to say it’s over, but I think it’s not quite the situation that we had a couple of years ago when the European Commission simultaneously seemed to be saying to nation-states, “We’re going to tell you what your budgets have to look like, and, by the the way, we’re also going to tell you what democracy is really about.” In the eyes of some people, that looked like a huge amount of intervention within nation-state affairs. So, I think there might be a little bit more room for maneuver now.
I don’t doubt that the Commission is serious about doing something, but we shouldn’t forget that the Commission itself can only do so much. Basically what has been put in place is yet another sort of warning stage, if you like, in addition to Article 7, the Treaty on European Union which can ultimately lead to a country having its membership rights in the European Council taken away from it, its voting rights.
But in a sense, Article 7 itself already contains such a warning step which was put in as a reaction to what was seen – rightly or wrongly – as a failure of Europe vis-à-vis Austria and the government that included Jörg Haider’s party in 2000. Before that, we had basically the idea that if you do something wrong, your votes will be taken away. Then, as a reaction to that, we had: okay, you do something wrong, we give you a warning, we negotiate, we talk, hopefully we can resolve it. What we have now is yet another step previous to Article 7 in which the Commission says, ‘I think you’re doing something wrong. Let’s talk about it. Let’s resolve it in a good way.” But the fundamentals haven’t changed. If a government doesn’t play, if a government says it hasn’t done anything wrong, the Commission still ultimately has to go to the ultimate step of Article 7, which, without the cooperation of nation-states, will not work.
So, since Hungary has already said it would veto this, it’s very hard to see where this could go if Poland – well, I shouldn’t say Poland, I mean the Polish government because it’s not Poland as a whole – if the Polish government plays hardball, I think they’re in a pretty good situation.
One more thing, if I may, is that a big unknown at this point is the strength of Polish civil society. I think there’s a general perception or expectation that here the game might be different than in Hungary. Of course, people in Hungary mobilized as well. I don’t want to dismiss the many efforts that people made. I don’t think they were unimportant. But it is at least conceivable that the strength of Polish civil society is somewhat higher, and that perhaps also people who have left Poland will be even more engaged than people who left Hungary in the last couple of years have been. We simply don’t know. I think there we might see somewhat of a difference. And if there’s a huge pushback from society, then it will obviously become much harder for the government of Poland to say that this is a German conspiracy or that this is just the left-wing Timmermans who has his own ideological agenda — all the things which Orbán basically said in response to European criticism… “This is Cohn-Bendit with his radical green agenda…This is just the Commission full of supposedly left-wing people…”
If you have a huge pushback from society, including from Platforma which is not a left-wing party, I think the symbolic stakes are different.
BB: As a professor of politics, when you hear a politician like Prime Minister Orbán make statements against Cohn-Bendit, Guy Verhofstadt or the European Commission, saying these are all part of some left-liberal agenda, to what extent does academia actually agree with that? I know there’s no unified academia, but are statements like these taken seriously any more?
JWM: It’s very important to keep different things apart. Why is it that it has even become possible that in Europe far-right parties and sometimes left-wing parties both have nice things to say about Putin and Russia? In theory, that shouldn’t really be possible. Well, it’s because there’s sometimes a sense that this is all part of an important anti-hegemonic, anti-liberal, anti-global capitalism agenda. Which is not to say that the extremes will always touch each other, they don’t. That’s a cliché as well which I think we should be weary of. But strange alliances are becoming possible in our world. I think it’s important to distinguish between a legitimate criticism of – for shorthand – global capitalism, global trade regimes, etc., from criticisms of democracy, criticisms of certain forms of morality, including liberal morality, and not to conflate all these.
I think the left is making a huge mistake if it joins in with the far-right in saying, “We want more protection against an austerity-driven European Union, against unleashing global capitalism on these poor and vulnerable countries, and therefore we’ll work with you on certain issues.”
I think they can make these criticisms on their own while holding firm to their real moral commitments, which are incompatible with far-right commitments, whether it’s National Front in France, Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, and so on.
We, as observers, have a duty to also not be intellectually lazy and sort of use shorthand for very different phenomenon. You mentioned earlier Michael Ignatieff and his lecture. I believe he invoked Hannah Arendt, one of the greatest theorists of the 20th century. Arendt always asked what does good political judgement really mean? It’s the ability to draw distinctions. So, if in a lazy way, we say Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland — these are all populists. I think this is a very dangerous form of laziness, because they are all very different forms of phenomena. And to put them all together and say that they criticize elites, or they all want a different EU, or they are all sort of anti-establishment and so on in a vague way, is a very big mistake. Because it’s one thing to say I want a different EU with perhaps more social cohesion, a more powerful European Commission that has its own money to distribute — that’s not populism, that’s a legitimate way of criticizing the EU we have. It’s another thing to say we want all the money from the EU, but we also want maximum nation-state sovereignty — that’s just another way of saying basically that we don’t want the EU at all, and ideally we flout all the kinds of burdens it puts on us in terms of observing the values the way we talked about earlier.
I think what little we might have to contribute as observers is hopefully useful reminders to say, “Okay, let’s keep these different phenomena apart.” We’re doing the wrong actors a favor, it’s another unforced error, if you will, by basically making it seem like there’s this huge wave of anti-establishment figures because there are so many good reasons to dislike the EU because all these people are sort of saying the same thing. No, they are not all saying the same thing. It’s our job to point out the important differences. Even though it can now seem like Orbán is hugely popular across Europe, I would question that very much. It’s only on the specific point I mentioned earlier: here’s somebody who is doing something, re-establishing control. But his agenda, his Christian nationalist populist agenda as a whole, is not popular.
BB: How do you feel about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis?
JWM: I think Angela Merkel did the right thing. It’s also important to note that initially most Germans agreed with the decision. There was a huge wave of support, including support on the ground, although of course in Hungary there was also support on the ground for refugees. And I think it’s a misreading to think that there’s a backlash, people are already regretting it, they now want to just close the border and want no more refugees ever again. That’s not the situation. I think there is a sense that the state is losing control and that doesn’t go over well in Germany. It doesn’t go over well in any country. But specifically, I think there is a sense that the bureaucracy isn’t working properly, people don’t know what is going on, and the situation seems out of hand.
I think it would be wrong to think that what the government now needs to do is basically shut down the border and not let anybody in. That’s not, I think, what a majority of Germans want to see, but they would want to get a sense that there is a plan, government knows what it’s doing, and something can be done that looks like a pan-European way forward.
As with the case of the Eurocrisis, there’s a sense that now that we have one European border, just as in the case of the Eurozone there is one currency, that has to have certain consequences. We can’t just sort of continue as before in doing what we do as individual nation-states. And I do think people are receptive to this argument and say that if we actually want this passport-free travel, Schengen, etc., that has to mean something, it has to mean we have a pan-European approach and whoever wants to be part of this has to play by the rules. I think Merkel thinks that is the way forward. She works, as everybody knows, slowly and methodically, and will not go ahead promising things that might not happen. She has huge amounts of credit with Germans in general, so I think she has some time left to work something out.
Having said that, I think she has also single-handedly rescued a right-wing populist, possibly in the future racist party that last summer seemed to have self-destructed because of internal differences and because Germany was seen as being so tough in the Eurocrisis; hence what had been the mainstay in their program, namely a different approach to the Euro all of a sudden didn’t look very plausible or unique any more. Now, this will undoubtedly become the party of all those people who feel that effectively – we have four social democratic parties in parliament, i.e., only social democratic parties in parliament – that they want to be represented by a more pro-nationalist, possibly pro-closing the border party. It doesn’t mean they will get the majority, but they might permanently establish themselves now in the German party system, which in and of itself is legitimate. Why not have a party that wants to have more nation-state powers? Fine, there are other parties like this in Europe. The problem becomes when these people move into an outright racist, xenophobic, anti-foreigner direction. Then I think we will have even more of a problem than what we already have with a fair amount of violence on the ground, with sentiments that the whole system is broken, Merkel doesn’t represent us at all any more, etc.
So, it’s a dicey situation and I don’t want to pretend that it’s not a decisive moment at all for German politics, but we shouldn’t go from one extreme to the other. We shouldn’t go from the extreme in September where we said Merkel is a saint, to another extreme of all of a sudden saying Merkel is finished, all Germans are against this, and because of Cologne everybody is now part of a backlash.
BB: In Hungary, the presentation of the refugee crisis is very one-sided, lopsided. Hungarians were told they were being invaded by Muslim hordes, Christian Europe is under attack, and so on. What was the discourse like in Germany?
JWM: One sometimes hears that German public discourse, which is maybe to say published opinion in contrast with public opinion is entirely dominated by bleeding-heart liberals who want to welcome the entire world, “willkommenskultur über alles”, and so on… I don’t think this is true. There have always been a fair amount of skeptical voices. There are always people who take a different view and they can make their point on television and in newspapers. It’s a complete caricature to say that somehow published opinion has become totally uniform in this. I want to underline this because now again, other European actors, in Poland for instance, are saying, “We actually have media pluralism, it’s Germany that doesn’t have media pluralism” because everybody has sort of been subject to a, if I may use this term, “gleichschaltung” along the lines that everybody has to be pro-refugee. This is simply not true.
Now, if you’re an all-out racist, can you have a legitimate expectation that you can say whatever you want and get away with it? No. But that’s true in most liberal democracies. There are limits to public discourse. The US is somewhat of an exception to this, as you know. But I think we should not have pseudo-discussion about supposed dominance of political correctness and taboos and so on. No, the policy options are on the table. Elections are happening in the upcoming state elections in Germany. People will vote the way they truly feel and think.
I think the party which has mostly clearly identified with a policy of closing the borders as much as possible will get many more percentage points than it would have received a year ago. That’s fine. That’s part of the democratic process. But let’s not pretend that now somehow free speech has been shut down in Germany.