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Illiberal Democracy, CEU, and the Frog

Responding to Jeffrey C. Isaac's Illiberal Democracy

This piece is part of the discussion generated by Jeffrey C. Isaac’s piece, Illiberal Democracy

As I was taking the escalator up in one of Budapest’s most central subway stations on a sunny July day in 2017, I counted forty-eight advertising spaces along the walls. Of the 48, forty-seven carried one specific poster, a government sponsored “public service announcement” showing a picture of George Soros with the text: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.

Another 20 or so oversized versions of the same lined the station itself and thousands were posted in streets and on roadsides all over the country. Never mind that the ads, protesting the millionaire philanthropist’s views on immigration are based on an altogether false interpretation of his position. Never mind the anti-semitic overtones, never mind the fact that the claim of the poster that 99% of Hungarians agree with the government’s views on migration cite data which reek of every possible bias known to social scientists. Observe simply the method through which the government’s message is communicated: using its political influence to buy up vast expanses of advertising space at a much reduced price, excluding all alternative voices in an attack-like, centralized fashion, and violently overpowering with visual images. These characterize all too well the workings of a regime which calls itself “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.

“Illiberal democracy” may sound benevolent enough, yet I believe it is a political and conceptual imperative to highlight the radical difference of this regime — both as it stands now and the way it is headed — from those within other nations of the European Union and North America. Granted, as Ivan Krastev argues, the roots of authoritarians, xenophobia, and “illiberalism” may be found, among other places, in the failure of liberal democracies and are thus closely related. Granted, as Jeffrey C. Isaac argued here last week, it is important to take the concept seriously and analyze it instead of simply dismissing it. Granted, as Szelenyi and Csillag argue, there are remnants of democracy, for example, in parts of the electoral system and in some civil freedoms, even within an illiberal democracy.

Yet illiberal democracy’s unique characteristics are coming sharply into focus. One systemic feature of such a regime is that this type of rule is not a steady state, its practice, its values, its ideology are moving targets and its ever-changing nature is essential for the exercise of power and legitimacy. We’d do best to describe “illiberal democracies” as “flows,” as a set of gradual, sometimes hesitant, often contradictory shifts, where some trends (such as the move away from democratic values, practice and institutions and towards authoritarianism) may be identifiable, and others less so.

Obviously, no regime is unchanging but the lack of an unquestionable, core set of values and practices is an essential element of this type of rule. It allows a slow but profound transformation of every single segment of social life while building on the resulting confusion, frustration and vulnerability of the population. Any practice or institution can be reshaped or abolished overnight. Indeed, the notion of “illiberalism” while it denies adherence to liberal values does not in fact describe the existing character of the political ideology of any regime.

Liberal, it isn’t. But there are many ways to be not liberal. One can be respectful of human difference or incite fear of it. One can be phobic of all community identities except for those related to the family and the nation — but that’s not a necessary component. An illiberal regime may be more or less corrupt in the name of national interests or anything else, it may or may not be devoid of social solidarity with the poor and downtrodden, etc. “Illiberalism” in the Orbanian sense is thus a moving target, allowing the steady disassembly of the rule of law, democratic freedoms, the imperative of rational evidence and policy making without clearly and transparently specifying a set of institutional practices which are being systematically enforced.

Imagine for a moment, the government of any member of the European Union or that of the United States forcing a new law through Parliament practically overnight which in effect closes down the best university in the capital city? Not realistic, right? It would have been unheard of in Hungary too before this spring. Yet this is exactly what happened in April 2017 when a new piece of legislation was passed which threatens to close down the operations of the Central European University in Budapest. The CEU, a Hungarian-US institution, was founded in 1991 and has by now become the most prominent graduate school in the region and beyond. (The full story has been described at length in the international media and the university’s website, and analyzed here at Public Seminar.)

The faculty, students, alumni and administration of the university protested vehemently, tried to explain the school’s perfectly legitimate legal and financial situation, asked for consultations, negotiations, explanations. The whole world expressed support, condemned the new legislation and the process by which it was passed. The European Commission called for the suspension of the law and started infringement procedures against Hungary.

All to no avail. The government refused to talk to representatives of the university, to negotiate in any shape or form, and shrugged off the concerns of the European Commission as soon as the Prime Minister left Brussels. Instead, government representatives spread an ever-changing set of lies and accusations in the media, most of which they closely control. Within days the President of Hungary — recently re-appointed by the ruling party of which he is a card carrying member — signed the bill into law and expressed no concerns, legal or political, even in the face of the rather vocal urging of some 80,000 protesters in the streets of Budapest.

I am a member of the faculty of the CEU and part of the administration of this university under attack. Thus while agreeing with the usefulness of the three aspects of “illiberal democracies” Jeffrey C. Isaac proposes to study, I’d like to add a fourth: the experience of living and protesting it. It is this experience that leads me to highlight the central importance of the ever-shifting nature of the regime and the usefulness of these shifts to retain power and at least a semblance of legitimacy within and outside of the country.

On the one hand, fighting “the good fight” to sustain the operation of a university, which had been my home, not to mention the livelihood of colleagues and friends, is exhilarating. It is heartening when your institution is the recipient of support from a wide range of people from Nobel Prize winners to the greengrocer on my corner. But on a deeper level, the driving experience of the ongoing attacks against CEU has been that of vulnerability and frustration. We feel vulnerable because the events demonstrated clearly that we live in a political regime over which we have very little influence. We have little influence as academics that rely on evidence based reasoning, as citizens who protest, as politicians who garner support from the European Union or the United States legislature. New legislation can be created overnight without warning and consultation, without a reasonable argument that justifies it, fully disregarding the pleas of those affected and the protests of those who are knowledgeable in the area.

Frustration is also pervasive: as soon as we responded to a false claim of the government a new one was pulled out of the hat and floated. As soon as we believed we had explained our position, the same issues came up as if we had said nothing about it. Only a small handful of media outlets have let us voice our opinion in public; the others simply have repeated the government line or allowed space for government representatives only. None of our official inquiries to the government were answered. One time I asked the government spokesperson, an adamant representative of the party-line, what sense it would make for us to operate a campus in the US — as the new law now requires- when our accreditation and international reputation were spotless and it would just take resources away from Hungary? Why would new legislation mandate that?   His response was epic: “It makes sense because it is the law.” In other words, the government pushed an arbitrary legislation through Parliament and then expected everyone to abide by it claiming that all they require is lawful behavior. It doesn’t get any more circular, cynical and frustrating than that.

The ongoing experience of vulnerability and frustration are generated by and simultaneously sustain the regime: people are more likely to abandon their cause if they fear their livelihood (as did several colleagues who were threatened with disciplinary action after they signed petitions to support CEU or some of our students who were accosted because they helped organize the protests or while wearing “I stand with CEU” badges) and frustration often leads to resignation, holing up in one’s own immediate community and shunning public life altogether.

The CEU experience is far from unique, and it is not over. It is changing in real time, as does the nature of the regime. It does so slowly and gradually, one auspicious step after another. Occasionally a half step back to appease, and then forward.

Remember the urban legend of the frog and the boiling water? If we do not acknowledge that “illiberal democracies” are essentially different and truly threatening to values we hold dear, we will never jump out of the water. And that water is getting hotter and hotter.

Eva Fodor

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