Talking Points in an Illiberal Democracy

As an American, I have lived under illiberal democratic governance in Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia, but never have I experienced an organizational tool as far-reaching and destructive of civic life as the "mafia state" of Viktor Orban as it currently exists in Hungary. Americans are high on the list of Orban's persons of suspicion (along with Jews, Roma, international businesspersons, Europeans, migrants, refugees, professional women, social scientists, journalists--just to open the list).

Happily, Hungary is not one of those countries where one runs the risk of official harassment or worse when one does not speak in reverential terms about the wisdom of the governing elite. To be sure, Hungarians who speak out are often blacklisted from employment or addressed disrespectfully in the state media (pretty much the only media around). Critical American voices are simply ignored by the rulers, which may serve the purpose of rankling the critic, but also saves on the state's correctional budget.

I have struggled, now that I live most of the year in Hungary and have served two terms as a Fulbright Specialist here, to find a voice that is both appropriate and effective. I have developed a list of talking points I employ when the occasional journalist asks for an interview following on the publication of my newest book, The Hungarian Patient. Readers might find these responses, presented below in Q and A format, useful when they find themselves in serious conversation in any one of the increasing number of illiberal democracies around the world (or even as they prepare for their new potential life under President Trump...)

Q: YOU HAVE SAID THAT YOU BELIEVE THAT THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT WILL REMAIN IN POWER OVER MANY ELECTIONS TO COME. WHAT DO YOU ADVISE THE REMAINING PARTIES TO DO OVER THIS LONG PERIOD?

I think they have three choices, none of which will be very pleasant to them. 1) They could continue as they have, a set of small parties contesting for a few seats in parliament and the prerogatives that pertain to such standing. From this position, they could continue to express their perspectives on policy. 2) They could recognize that Hungary has become (once again) a one-party state. Their leaders and their members could join that ruling party and seek to work for change from within. 3) They could make a grand agreement to work as a single party for the purpose of gaining election, by means of the organization of a new party which will present a single slate at all coming elections.

Q: WHICH OF THESE CHOICES DO YOU SEE THE PARTIES MAKING?

The traditions of multi-party organization are well established in Hungary. I think the small parties are likely to continue to try to establish coalitions for electoral purposes, but will be highly resistant to giving up their names and separate identities. These coalitions have not seemed to be very solid when tried in the past, however.

Q: WILL THE RULING PARTY BE ABLE TO ESTABLISH TOTAL CONTROL OVER HUNGARY?

Not at all, because the third sector in Hungary will continue to blossom into hundreds of flowers in this age of internet access and diversity. Some of these discussions and initiatives will lead to effective group advocacy and action--linking into freshly organized groups and established civil society groups alike. Pluralism, the ability to represent a wide diversity of positions and interests, can be achieved by effective partnerships between social media and a variety of associations. The government will have to stay on its toes to respond to the variety of ideas for change and reform that such an active society can present.

Q: ARE THERE GOOD REASONS FOR THE GOVERNING REGIME TO LISTEN TO CITIZEN VOICES IN THE YEARS AHEAD?

Yes, indeed. Hungary faces serious problems as it moves into the future. 1) Economically, it runs the risk of becoming just one more "flyover country" in the global economy--troubled by too much poverty and lack of skill in its workforce to attract investment and to sustain consumer spending--and seen as too corrupt politically to be worth the entry of non-Hungarian corporations and entrepreneurs. Hungary can't support its national economic needs by being a Disneyland for tourists who float down the Danube for two-day visits, however many museums or ruin pubs they manage to visit. 2) Socially, a surly and discouraged population bodes poorly for solving the many problems that modern societies address through civic and philanthropic initiatives. 3) And politically, it runs the risk of becoming a global laughingstock if it doesn't clean up its problems of transparency, favoritism, and corruption.

Q: HOW MIGHT THESE VOICES BE ORGANIZED SO AS TO BE HEARD?

Many Hungarians have worked with methods of public deliberation over the past 25 years. Combining community conferences and study groups with sophisticated interviews and surveys can bring new ideas to the attention of media, civil leaders, and governing elites. I think Hungary can deal with its many difficult problems if it brings people together over the fences that separate them--political affiliation and religious background and city-countryside. Hungary needs not continue to be a gated society, both at its borders and within its neighborhoods. A well-designed set of futures deliberations can address the problems that all Hungarians worry about but do not see being dealt with at this time.

Q: CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF SUCH A PROBLEM?

I think the main one has to do with the future of the country's children. If the best and the brightest of Hungary's graduates continue to be pushed (by limited jobs and wages) and pulled (by the prospect of better jobs and wages) from this country to other countries in Europe and beyond, many Hungarian parents will be faced with the bitter loss of being able to remain in contact with them. Even more agonizingly, will not be able to see their grandchildren grow and progress. Hungary's close family life has been one of its great cultural strengths. These ties are in the process of rapid dissolution in this time of out-migration. I believe that almost all Hungarians would be willing to join with their fellow citizens to give time and thought to working out solutions to this problem.

Q: DO YOU THINK THAT THE PRESENT GOVERNING ELITE WOULD BE WILLING TO PARTICIPATE IN SUCH OPEN PROCESSES OF SEARCH AND PROBLEM SOLVING?

I can't answer that, as I know nobody in the inner circles of Hungarian power. But I do know that it is in their interest to solve the many problems in their society. I feel strongly that many of these people do not want to go down in history as being just a cogs in an ordinary political machine; I think there must be those who want to do great things for their country, its people, and others in the world. This is their time now to do the right things. I do believe that this can be done, and that these far-seeing and capable folks can join with a diverse group of their fellow citizens to make it happen.

Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR HUNGARIANS AT THIS TIME?

It's one-party state time once again in Hungary. I wouldn't predict out for too many years, but it would take real bumbling for the present regime to fall out over the next decade or so. I think the best role for thoughtful citizens is to pay as little attention to the outcomes of elections as they might be able to stomach (like holding voting strikes on election days). Their major focus could the be directed toward building a robust and active third sector to keep the rulers on their toes, and their hands out of the collective till. Perhaps a new philanthropist will appear, funding a set of truly independent third sector organizations, and join with George Soros in telling the regime to take its responsibilities to govern seriously, and to do that important job well. Money talks when partnered with internet activism and knitted into effective organization. The civic sector has the potential of leashing a government now acting out beyond almost all citizen control.

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