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From Budapest to Washington, the Illiberals Are Winning

Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump thrive on creating chaos and blaming their opponents. The only solution is for liberals to show voters what they stand for.

Viktor Orban speaks before a sea of microphones.
Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks to the press after casting his ballot on April 3.

So Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party won a big victory in Hungary this weekend.* While six opposition parties formed a united front, the country has been so aggressively gerrymandered (sound familiar?) that the opposition needed to win by around 5 percent to gain a legislative majority. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, president of neighboring Ukraine and lately a hero to democrats everywhere, denounced Orbán in the lead-up to the vote as “the only leader in Europe who openly supports [Vladimir] Putin.” Unfortunately, to a significant percentage of Hungarian voters, that’s a plus.

Next weekend, France votes. President Emmanuel Macron leads in current polling, but Marine Le Pen has crept up; Eric Zemmour offers Le Pen a foil to her right, making her look reasonable in comparison. The French system dictates a runoff between the top two finishers, which likely means a Macron-Le Pen showdown two weeks later. The head-to-head polls are tight. Macron leads, but he’ll need steadfast support from voters on the left to defeat Le Pen. (Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon is polling better than he finished last time but is still well behind Le Pen.) It’s not crazy to think that Le Pen, who has performed a little cosmetic surgery on her party’s extremism in the last four years, could be president.

Here at home, the midterm elections are still months away, but we all think we know what’s going to happen. The party that is increasingly extremist in its views and openly against democracy is going to win. Probably win big. The Republican Party, like Fidesz, will benefit from aggressive gerrymandering. But the GOP’s real advantage is the climate of chaos and instability it has done so much to create.

And this is one of the big questions of our time: Why do liberal political parties pay the price for the disorder created by illiberal parties?

Let’s first agree that it’s the illiberal parties that sow disorder. I don’t think there’s much disputing that. In the United States, your average person looks at Washington and sees polarization and dysfunction. Democrats have to shoulder some of the blame for this. More specifically, one Democrat, Joe Manchin, who single-handedly killed his party’s president’s centerpiece legislation, shoulders some blame.

But Manchin wouldn’t matter so much if the Republican Party was still a normal American political party. Historically, normal American political parties have some ideological diversity. Fifty years ago, this was very true of both parties. Now it’s far less true, but it’s still the case with Democrats to a considerable degree. They range from Manchin to the Squad. If we ranked members of Congress and senators on a 1 to 10 scale, 1 being Ilhan Omar and 10 being Madison Cawthorn, the Democrats occupy space from 1 to about, oh, 6.5, or maybe 7.

Republicans range from 10 to 7, and there aren’t even many 7s. They’re mostly 9s and 10s. With a couple 11s. If the Republicans were still a normal party, Joe Biden would have gotten a few GOP votes for some compromise version of Build Back Better. Republicans would be working with the administration to try to come up with some solutions regarding inflation, the way Democrats once worked with Ronald Reagan and Republicans even worked with Bill Clinton on certain things, after Newt Gingrich lost the 1995 government shutdown showdown and Clinton won reelection. But today’s Republicans are under marching orders from Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, major donors, and the Trumpist base to oppose everything Democrats try to do tooth and nail.

Throw the Big Lie on top of that, and the other assaults on democratic norms, and we have a party that is wrecking our system. And yet that party will benefit electorally. Voters will punish Democrats for chaos Republicans have done most of the work of creating.

This is what I call democracy’s accountability problem. In any other realm—the law, any normal workplace, what have you—the people doing the lying and demagoguing would likely be punished. That’s because there’s a person or persons who sit in judgment and are in a position to penalize the guilty party. A judge, a jury, a boss.

But in a democracy, there’s no such person or persons. There are only the voters. The voters aren’t terrible judges. They did throw Donald Trump out of office, albeit barely. But they’re a lot less reliable than we’d prefer, especially with half the population imbibing a steady diet of lies and disinformation from a right-wing media whose purpose is not to inform but to inflame. I saw over the weekend that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked why her country has been largely spared the rage of its older white men, and she replied that it was “because we’ve never allowed Rupert Murdoch to set up a media outlet here.” That seems exactly right.

Macron said it well in a speech Saturday. From the Financial Times (paywalled):  

“The world of peace that we used to think was eternal, the world of continuous forward progress that we used to think was unstoppable, all this seems to be falling apart in front of our eyes,” he said.

“What we are living through is a kind of great disorder,” Macron said, citing the troubles of the natural world and the environment, of capitalism and the rise of inequality, of religious extremism and conspiracy theories, and “geopolitical disorder with the return of wars and dreams of empire, and the specter, perhaps, of global armed conflict.”

That’s the world that Putin, Orbán, Le Pen, Trump, and so many others are making. And liberal democracy seems at times powerless to stop them.

The only thing the world’s liberal parties can do is produce results for people. That’s why Build Back Better was, and I hope still is, so important. If the Democrats give people subsidized childcare and universal pre-K and paid leave and the rest, enough people ought to be pleased enough with the results that they’ll vote Democratic.

But that looks like it isn’t happening, and it’s not just Manchin—recall the shameful trio of House Democrats who killed prescription drug reform. These Democrats don’t understand the stakes or the consequences of their inaction. I wonder what they’ll think in 2025, when it may well be the case that Ukraine as we know it doesn’t exist, Putin is all-powerful, and the man sitting in the White House is Putin’s best friend. Will they get it then? 

*This piece has been updated.