Kristóf Varga

Psychology and politics: Two studies

Today I would like to summarize two articles on Viktor Orbán and his political strategy.  One was written in July 2012 and appeared in Élet és Irodalom, unfortunately available only to subscribers. The author, András Bruck, spent the bulk of his lengthy article on the psychology of Viktor Orbán and came to the conclusion that “he betrayed not only his own past but also that of his parents.” Bruck fears “that for this betrayal, for his own conflict ridden soul, we, the whole country, are paying dearly.”

While Bruck tries to discover the inner workings of Orbán’s psyche, Kristóf Varga, a political analyst and a psychologist, attempts to interpret the psyche of the Hungarian people. He comes to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán found the key to the wishes and desires of Hungarians. His policies that on the surface make no sense in fact speak to the “anxiety” of Hungarian society, a state that was induced by the uncertainties of life after 1990.

For Bruck it is Viktor Orbán’s insatiable appetite for power that moves him. Orbán realized that he can establish absolute power, even a dictatorship, only if he turns segments of society against each other. Earlier he concentrated on the dividing line between the left and the right, but by now he is turning judges against judges, teachers against children, children against their parents. This way, claims Bruck, society’s connecting fabric will be completely destroyed and the road will be open to a dictatorship.

Varga is also aware of Orbán’s pathological attitude toward power, but he puts the emphasis on Orbán’s recognition of society’s expectations. Many Hungarians live in a state of constant anxiety because of the uncertainties of the world that followed what was a secure life in the Kádár regime. In 1989-1990 came capitalism, democracy, and globalization, all at once. This new world was about individual responsibility, competition, and the well deserved results of competition. The Hungarian people were not ready for such a leap. Their answer was to escape from reality.

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Anxiety by Joana Roja / Flickr

Many of us are prone to think when we encounter true believers that these people are under some kind of a spell. That their sense of reality is warped by some magic propaganda whose secret is known only to the leader of Fidesz and his small coterie. But, continues Varga, magic propaganda potions are only temporary. A smaller paycheck will not look bigger for long. The success of Fidesz, he argues, lies in “the presentation and transmission of  a behavior that helps the people cope with the anxiety that has been gripping a large segment of Hungarian society in the last twenty years.”

Post-1990 Hungarian politics discovered how to handle that anxiety. The strategy was “the establishment of a soft democracy.” You may recall that the later Kádár years are often described as “soft dictatorship,” which meant a regime that made life even in a one-party dictatorship bearable. Politicians realized that a rapid move to full-fledged “hard democracy” with its emphasis on individual responsibility, competition, and globalization might lead to social instability. Moreover, the immediate introduction of “hard democracy” would have endangered the position of the intellectual and political elite.

All parties adjusted their policies to this reality, but it was Fidesz that perfected the strategy of “soft democracy” by creating a closed community and offering membership in that community to all. The leadership of that community denied the necessity of competition, globalization, even the rule of law. They aroused a fury against the Hungarian reality, resulting in their landslide victory in 2010.

The reason for the hatred of the Gyurcsány era was Ferenc Gyurcsány’s insistence on precisely those “virtues” a large number of Hungarians were reluctant to embrace: individual responsibility, global integration, the necessity of competition, and meritocracy. He escalated tensions even as he was unable to carry out the necessary reforms that would have established a “hard democracy.” Fidesz, on the other hand, promised a world without tensions and thus without anxiety.

Orbán is trying to shield Hungarians from competition and globalization by turning against the very institutions that provide the critical ingredients of modern global capitalism. As Varga puts it, like Jim Jones who took his followers to the jungles of Guyana, “Orbán took his own people to the forest of HirTV, EchoTV, Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap, Heti Válasz, Helyi Téma, M1, M2, Duna TV, Kossuth and Petőfi Radios, MTI, Láncrádió, media outlets that hermetically seal off anything that might remind his followers of the threatening outside world.” Here Orbán and his closest associates are building a world that doesn’t exist while their followers are desperately trying to believe that the picture they receive from above is both real and promising.

The relationship of the individual to a therapeutic community is always irrational. Its members often support the cause even if it means going against their own interests. Also, the cult of personality is such that the individual follower can readily explain the inconsistencies that can be uncovered daily in the leader’s announcements. Moreover, the Fidesz true believers have no difficult reconciling their own tax evasion with their complaints about the rich who put their money in Swiss banks. They can easily vote against a 300 forint co-pay and at the same time give thousands to doctors in white envelopes.

“The anxiety-ridden people were not shocked–or more properly frightened–because Gyurcsány lied in his speech at Őszöd but because he admitted his lie.” The mutual lying–between the politicians and the people–was something they were used to and therefore were comfortable with. New rules totally alien to them were unacceptable.

Varga is optimistic that sooner or later the true believers will recognize that hiding in a forest that takes them away from the real world is no solution. First of all, Hungary cannot be hermetically closed off from the outside world and therefore even if Orbán has ideas about introducing a full-fledged dictatorship, it cannot be realized. Second, sooner or later the economic problems will be too daunting to paper over with communication tricks. And third, the anxiety that Orbán’s strategy was supposed to alleviate is in fact greater today than ever. The presumed remedy has failed.

Bruck, on the other hand, calls the present system a “pre-classic dictatorship.” He is certain that if it depended on Viktor Orbán he would introduce a full-fledged one. For such a move Orbán would have to take Hungary out of the European Union. Bruck thinks that this is not an impossible proposition. He predicted last summer that Orbán was preparing the ground for such a move.

Well, here I really can’t agree with Bruck. Yes, Viktor Orbán would love to get out of the uncomfortable embrace of the European Union, but after failing in his attempt to get financial backing from the East he cannot. Since Bruck’s article was written, we have seen a desperate effort to secure cohesion funds and other subsidies from the EU without which the Hungarian economy would collapse.

So, all in all, if Varga’s prediction about the disillusionment of the faithful if true and if I’m right that Orbán, whether he likes it or not, can’t jettison Hungary’s EU membership, I think we’ll see a growing weakening of the Orbán regime. It is up to the opposition forces to take advantage of this development.