Jon Van Til on "The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy"

January 15, 2016


Characteristic of every successful people is a spirit of mutual trust, social well being, as well as dignity. Unfortunately, one senses this less and less in Hungary. . . . It is very easy to exploit fear.  Hungary is a good example of that.”

Translation of József Barát’s interview with The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy co-editor and contributor Jon Van Til appearing in the 7 January 2016 edition of liberal print weekly 168 óra.  The Rutgers University sociology professor has lived in Budapest with his Hungarian wife since 2010.

What is your diagnosis of the condition of the Hungarian patient?

We sociologists call “weak democracies” those systems where elections are held every four years but where the role of civil society in political processes and decisions is limited or excluded.  The situation is even worse in Hungary because the government manipulates the electoral rules of the game in order to ensure its own victory beforehand.  So at best it can be considered a weak democracy. Such a situation is very painful for me as I was one of those at the beginning of the 1990s who thought that the peaceful system made Hungary very promising.  The ability to limit the power of the government and the private sector at the same time amounted to a unique opportunity for civil society.  Unfortunately, Hungarian society was overcome with a desire for simple solutions and for a charismatic leader to point the way to easy and fast solutions.  We see the results.

In final study of the collection studies you opine that changes can hardly originate from traditional political sources, and that soon the world of political parties won’t be able to create a strong democracy.

There is something that is very difficult to understand as a foreigner.  There are a large number of people who, in private company or over a glass of wine engage in animated political discussions, but still do not bother to vote.  It is as though a large number of leftwing and liberal minded people look down on parties.  As though they find them unworthy of their vote.  It’s easy for Fidesz to win if the opposition doesn’t even compete.

In your study you write: if things continue like this, Fidesz can be expected to win in 2022

Only very weak parties can be seen on the leftwing.  On the rightwing a monstrous formation to which the governing party can point:  if you don’t vote for us, they will follow.  I’m afraid the Hungarian reality today is a kind of  one party system, where in the end all of the parties other than Fidesz support the governing party.  Even though it is clear as day that a unified large party of change could defeat Fidesz, which won a two-thirds parliamentary majority with the votes of a minority of the electorate.

The large party of change, of course, is a utopia.  In Hungary the political shadows are deeper than any other EU member state.  It is not even possible for them to shout amongst themselves let alone agree.

My impression is that people here only come into contact with those belonging to their immediate circle of acquaintances.  They live their lives in their own bunkers.  They maintain social contact with those who hold similar social views, and they swap theories with them over the internet, and expect television to tell them what they like to hear, and everyone sees enemies in something different.  Especially in Roma, in migrants, and in Jews.  In the United States there aren’t even fences between houses in the majority of settlements, or a symbolic one so short you can step over it.  Try to drop by somebody’s home in Hungary.  For example, in order to collect signatures for an important political protest.  In the villages angry dogs protect the closed gardens.  In the the towns the gates only open if someone knows the code.  It is as though the people themselves are closed to those that do not know their code, their call sign.  Characteristic of every successful people is a spirit of mutual trust, security, as well as dignity. Unfortunately, one senses this less and less in Hungary.

The subtitle of your book is “Social opposition to illiberal democracy.”  The authors’ studies, however, show that hardly any resistance remains.  The state has either throttled or bought off the larger part of civil organizations and churches.  Those they couldn’t, they branded as enemies.

Nevertheless, I believe that the so-called third sector is the place from which the leaders of the future may come from–a place where people still come together and think collectively about solutions to common problems.  So the immune reaction to the weakening of democracy can be expected to come from the world of civil and nonprofit organizations.  Because if that doesn’t happen, then the road of Hungarian society leads to mediocrity, and the best and brightest will leave the country year after year.  Of course, life goes on without them. I believe the government’s intention is to replace them with those coming from outside the country—from Transylvania, from Transcarpathia, or other territories lost at Trianon–because the government can trust in their loyalty and votes.

Of course stability has some sort of value as opposed to convulsions.

Maybe.  There is an American expression: flyover state.  It applies to those states where there is no reason to land over which one flies to get where something is happening.  In Europe that would be Berlin, Istanbul, Prague or Moscow.  I think that unfortunately Hungary may end up with this status.  True, it could still function as a kind of central-European Disney Land.  There are wonderful two-day programs where you can ride a boat on the Danube, admire the huge historical buildings, go to one or two museums and ruin bars.   Meanwhile society’s real problems remain unsolved, and the country became a public joke in the political sense because it fails to wind up the system of suppression, exceptionalism and corruption.

So you think Hungary could become a North Balkan country?

I don’t know whether that would happen.  Last year I was in Croatia for the first time in many years.  And I saw incredible development.  I think the Croatians have a good chance of overtaking the Hungarians in terms of competition and the majority of social indicators.  And perhaps they won’t be the only ones among the southern European peoples to do so.

Do you think the disease afflicting the Hungarian patient is contagious?  Might other European countries catch it as well?

The asylum seekers matter has become a global crisis causing worry and fear for millions.  This has become one of the central topics of the American primaries.  Yet again Orbán promises a simple solution.  He is the Donald Trump of Europe.  If there were direct presidential elections in Europe, then he could be the joint candidate of the right-wing parties.  It is very easy to exploit fear.  Hungary is a good example of that.