Analysis | The Orbanization of America: How to capture a democracy

(Chelsea Conrad/Washington Post; Photos by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters/The Washington Post)

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This is the third installment of a three-part series on the shadow cast by Hungary’s leader over U.S. politics. Read parts one and two.

Last month, after securing a fourth consecutive term, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had reason to gloat. “We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” said Orban, scoffing at his legion of critics among elite circles in the European Union.

Orban was right. His Fidesz party and its allies came away with more than 50 percent of the vote and a two-thirds supermajority in the country’s unicameral National Assembly. Even considering the vast electoral machinery stacked against them, a united bloc of the Hungarian opposition had hopes of at least weakening the right-wing nationalist’s mandate. Those hopes were dashed.

Far across the Atlantic came the sound of jubilation, at least from some corners of the American right. “Congratulations to Viktor Orban on winning a victory well deserved!” wrote far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in a tweet where she also said that Orban’s anti-LGBTQ rights legislation should be pursued in the United States. “He’s leading Hungary the right way and we need this in America.”

That followed an unusual endorsement before the April election from former president Donald Trump, who had issued a statement in January hailing Orban as someone who “truly loves his country and wants safety for his people.”

A month later, reports circulated that Orban had invited Trump to pay a visit to Hungary and perhaps keynote a major gathering of Western nationalists. While Trump won’t be in Budapest this week for an event hosted by the Conservative Political Action Conference — the major convening organization of the U.S. right — a host of other U.S. and European far-right politicians and pundits will.

It’s unlikely anyone in attendance will condemn the anti-democratic political maneuverings that have come to make Orban seem impossible to defeat. Indeed, they might celebrate his strategic ruthlessness.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban and Fidesz have steadily tightened their grip on the Hungarian state. The country’s media ecosystem is dominated now by entities loyal to the ruling government. The independence of the country’s judiciary has been eroded over Orban’s dozen consecutive years in power. And, though Hungary’s elections are free, it’s hard to call them fair.

That’s in part because Orban’s government used its overwhelming parliamentary powers to amend the country’s constitution and rework how elections play out. Hungary has a mixed-member parliament where seats are elected both by geographic districts and party lists allocated in proportion to the popular vote — a system many political scientists consider admirable, but which, in Hungary’s case, “is warped,” as the Economist noted.

“Hungary’s electoral playing field is heavily tilted against the opposition. In 2010, Orban amended the Constitution to cut the size of the parliament in about half, after which he gerrymandered the entire country,” explained political scientist Kim Lane Scheppele.

Orban and his allies also scrapped the two-round voting process for geographic districts. The move allowed whichever party candidate won a plurality of votes to claim the seat instead of entering a second runoff with their closest challenger. The cumulative effect of many of these changes was to confer disproportionate power to Fidesz.

In 2014, for example, Fidesz needed only 45 percent of the popular vote to win two-thirds of parliamentary seats. Other parties secured a collective 55 percent of the vote but only occupied a third of the seats.

“The will of Hungarians was in no way represented by the outcome of the elections any longer,” wrote Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, a former Hungarian parliamentarian.

A program for indefinite majoritarian rule seems underway: Hungary’s prime minister may flout his nation’s commitment to E.U. principles. He may have constructed a powerful network of patronage and crony capitalism to reinforce his rule. But he and his allies can almost always argue that everything they do is within the bounds of the law in Hungary.

Elected strongmen like Orban are “hollowing out democracy from the inside through an incremental process,” wrote Marianne Szegedy-Maszak in Mother Jones.

That’s a situation toward which many experts fear the United States is sleepwalking. “If the water temperature increases only one degree per hour it may take a while before you notice it is too hot and by that time it is too late,” Michael Macy, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, told New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall.

The temperature in the United States is no doubt increasing, particularly on the right. Each new election cycle turns up more and more extremist Republican candidates who say they don’t believe in the legitimacy of President Biden’s 2020 victory and who explicitly call for new legal measures to restrict the franchise in various states and tip the scales for a Republican presidential candidate.

“Both Orban’s Fidesz party and the U.S. Republicans have changed electoral rules to ensure that their party gets the disproportionate proportion of seats,” Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and an advocate for proportional representation, told me. “The ways with which they have done that are different because the underlying political systems are different,” he said, “but there is a shared logic” about how they see electioneering.

Hyperpolarization in the United States has exposed the ways in which its aging institutions enable a form of minority rule. Republican presidential candidates have not won the popular vote in close to two decades. The disproportionate power of the Senate — where, because of rural-urban polarization, a solid Republican majority can dominate with a minority of American votes — has in turn led to a decisive conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, often the final arbiter on the country’s most contentious policy decisions.

“Democracies depend on an institutional framework and on a cultural background: the acceptance of democratic norms,” Szelenyi wrote. “In Hungary, the institutional framework is formally still there, but Orban’s government gave up on democratic norms and used government power to capture the institutions, which are not fulfilling their roles as checks and balances.”

The same could soon be said about the United States. “Democracy — meaning equal representation of all citizens and, crucially, majority rule — has, in fact, become the enemy of the contemporary Republican Party,” Edsall wrote.

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