“Democratic humbug”: A critique of Hungarian “political scientists”
Today I look at a highly charged criticism of Hungarian "political scientists" by József Debreczeni, one of my favorite political writers. For months I hadn't seen or heared of him and I felt deprived. It was only a week ago that he showed up again on "A tét" (The Stake) on ATV. It turned out that he was busy writing a book on Viktor Orbán. A second one. The first came out in 2002, shortly after Orbán lost the elections. The first book wasn't uncritical, but since then Debreczeni's opinion of Orbán has changed so radically that he obviously felt that a "revised edition" was in order.
Debreczeni has always struck me as a very moderate gentleman, and therefore I was somewhat startled when I saw the title of the article in the original. For this post I intentionally mistranslated the title as democratic "humbug" in place of the original "horse shit." Somehow I didn't think that the original title would look too good on The New York Times list of recent articles on Hungary! But from the original choice of words one can sense Debreczeni's utter frustration at reading and listening to "these young so-called political scientists who keep repeating the empty phrases of their profession."
I myself have often complained bitterly about the Hungarian version of political scientists. "Political science" in English means "a social science concerned chiefly with the description and analysis of political and especially governmental institutions and processes." A political scientist usually teaches at a university and writes academically vetted articles and books. American political scientists don't show up every second day on television or in the newspapers. By contrast, the garden-variety Hungarian political scientist is in fact nothing more than a political commentator.
Hungarian political scientists are often very young, almost straight out of college. Debreczeni calls them "the plastic political scientists" who try to dissect politicians' moves from a totally utilitarian point of view. No value judgment enters their conscience. As Debreczeni says, if these guys had been around at the time of World War II they would have measured Hitler and Churchill by the same measuring stick. They don't care a whit about morals, honesty, decency. They claim that if a strategy works, it is the correct strategy.
Debreczeni divides these so-called political scientists into two camps. There are institutions that are financed by parties. Századvég (Fin de siècle) and Nézőpont (Point of view) by Fidesz; Progresszív and Republikon by MSZP and SZDSZ respectively. Then there are the so-called "independent" ones: Vision Consulting, Political Capital, and Méltányosság (Equity). These three are not really independent either because they live off the marketplace, i.e. they sell their wares to parties in need of political advice. The "independents" are the tightrope walkers, the balancing acts. If they say something less than complimentary about Viktor Orbán, let's say, that he is a populist, then immediately they have to say the same about Ferenc Gyurcsány. If Orbán is an authoritarian type of politician, the "Führer"-type (vezér in Hungarian), then Gyurcsány must be the same.
These are the "boys" who, according to Debreczeni, are neither fish nor fowl. What these young people don't want to recognize is that Hungary fell victim to "political fundamentalism." I myself wrote about Orbán's penchant for using religious terms for political ends. American commentators have talked quite a bit about political fundamentalism in the Bush White House. The chief trait of political fundamentalism, just like its religious variety, is an ideology that thrives on simplification. Debreczeni claims that the appearence of this political fundamentalism is responsible for the dramatic changes that have taken place on the Hungarian political spectrum. Debreczeni believes that if these "political scientists" would begin to take this political fundamentalism seriously, their whole "plastic see-saw" between the two poles would collapse.
Debreczeni claims that the appearance of Jobbik came in handy to these "plastic political scientists." Suddenly they didn't have to worry about the balancing act between right and left. They could easily label Jobbik as extreme right and so suddenly Orbán and Fidesz became "the moderate force." But, Debreczeni continues, there is a bit of a problem with this interpretation because if Orbán and Fidesz are moderates then why doesn't the party chief condemn Jobbik? According to Debreczeni such a condemnation is unimaginable. It would be too much to ask the tiger to denounce the predatory nature of the jackal! Pretty strong words, but I am inclined to sympathize with Debreczeni's position.
But then came the European parliamentary elections where the extreme right received 15% of the votes. According to the logic of these youngsters Jobbik's results at a democratic election made the party legitimate, nay, democratic. Debreczeni adds in parentheses that following the same logic one must consider Hitler a democrat. At first blush I really thought that Debreczeni was exaggerating here. Surely, no "political scientist" could say such a stupid thing. But this morning I heard the same assinine comment from one of these people in the new "Ma reggel." Jobbik is a democratic party, said János Betlen; even the argument that Jobbik doesn't recognize the Hungarian Constitution didn't seem to shake his confidence in this idiocy.
According to Debreczeni, SZDSZ's institute, Republikon, came up with the following wise observation: Jobbik is "anti-liberal in the extreme, questions our constitutional arrangement and the market economy, yet it is a democratic party." How is that possible, Debreczeni asks and we can ask with him. "What kind of expertise is necessary to arrive at such absurd results?" Apparently "the boys of Republikon" were split on the issue into two extreme groups. One claimed that Jobbik was a democratic party while the other contended that it was a fascist party. So they had to come to some kind of consensus. "Jobbik doesn't question the existence of multi-party democracy … although at the same time … it is sharply against the existing constitutional arrangement." Again, Debreczeni doesn't understand the logic of it. (How could he, since it is utter nonsense?)
But that is nothing. The youngsters at Republikon–and keep in mind that this is allegedly a liberal think tank–continue: "Jobbik doesn't dispute majority rule based on free election" but "they would like to revive an electoral system that doesn't guarantee universal suffrage." At this point Debreczeni can only say: "This boggles the mind!" That is bad enough, but the young geniuses of Republikon go on and list all those characteristics of Jobbik that clearly prove that Jobbik cannot be considered a democratic party. For example, they have made no secret of their goals: if they form a government they will introduce censorship and will close two of their least favorite television stations and raze their buildings to the ground. "Jobbik is an illiberal party that wants to establish an authoritarian democracy … and it would narrow the guaranteed rights introduced at the time of the change of regime."
So we have a new concept: illiberal demoracy. What kind of democracy is it that limits people's political rights, that limits the freedom of speech or assembly? "Democracy is either liberal or it is no democracy," says Debreczeni. Republikon's study of Jobbik includes this sentence: Jobbik "in place of destructive neo-liberalism wants to introduce a value system based on Christian teachings." For Jobbik "national identity and Christianity cannot be separated." That is political fundamentalism. Again, Debreczeni emphasizes that democracy must be secular because otherwise it is not democracy. Political fundamentalism presupposes a monolithic structure in which anyone who opposes the religiously ordained political system is an enemy representing Evil itself. That person cannot really participate in politics because his activities are harmful to the people. Here we are talking about "a moral life-and-death struggle." In this world view people expect moral guidance from the politician. Debreczeni thinks that this description fits Orbán perfectly. "Who doesn't recognize Viktor Orbán in this portrait? Only those who don't want to. For example, Republikon and all the other institutes. They studied Jobbik scientifically and found it to be a democratic party."
The final straw for Debreczeni was this quotation: "In the opinion of the authors of the present study no one can be called antidemocratic in a democratic regime simply on the basis of rhetoric." Debreczeni's comment: "Boys! You can eat your science!"