Hungary Is No Model for the American Right
The new right's infatuation with Viktor Orbán places the culture war over the common good.
If you don’t spend much time online, diving into the deep waters of the civil wars on the right, you might not be aware that Hungary is having a Moment. My friend Rod Dreher has been staying there for weeks, filing dispatches. Tucker Carlson has been broadcasting from Budapest, declaring that “if you care about western civilization and democracy and values and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here, right now.”
Carlson has interviewed prime minister Viktor Orbán, Dennis Prager is reportedly set to give a speech in Budapest, Patrick Deneen has visited (and also met with Orbán), and National Review’s John O’Sullivan serves as president of the Danube Institute, a think tank based in Budapest. I could go on, but you get the idea—think of Hungary as the Scandinavia of the new right.
If you’ve been a conservative for any length of time, you’ve likely had what I like to call the “Sweden conversation,” or perhaps the “Denmark debate.” A socialist-leaning progressive friend will wax eloquent about the Scandinavian countries that combine high standards of living with generous welfare states and ask, “Why not here?”
Setting aside that nations like Denmark are not quite the democratic socialist paradise that many progressives imagine—my friend Kevin Williamson is fond of pointing out that Denmark enjoys more economic freedom than the United States—the discussion has always suffered from a rather fundamental flaw: Scandinavian countries aren’t much like the United States.
They have tiny populations. They’re far more culturally homogenous. They’re culturally distinct from the United States. In fact, the differences are so dramatic that the entire discussion has always felt somewhat like a sideshow—except to the extent that powerful people (like Bernie Sanders) thought they could import the model to the United States.
Well, Hungary is the new right’s Denmark. Except that Hungary is a much worse place to live than Denmark. At least when progressives were lauding Scandinavia, they were lauding countries that enjoyed higher standards of living than the United States.
Hungary’s median household income, by contrast, is a fraction of America’s.
Yes I know money isn’t everything, so let’s look at other measures of national well-being. Hungary’s life expectancy is lower than America’s. Its birth rate is lower—lower, in fact, than the EU average. It’s less free than the United States. Corruption is endemic.
And if you think the new right might love it because of its religiosity, Hungary is far, far less religious than America’ least religious state. Only 33 percent of New Hampshire residents are “highly religious” according to Pew Data (Alabama is our most religious state with 77 percent of its citizens highly religious). Hungary, by comparison, is a religious wasteland. A mere 17 percent of its citizens are “highly religious.” Only 14 percent say religion is very important to their lives.
One measure of national well-being is the extent to which your own citizens want to leave. Hungary has a profound problem with emigration, so much so that it’s contributed to a worker shortage that’s required the Orbán regime to quietly welcome more immigrants, a reality somewhat at odds with the regime’s anti-immigrant past. (Prior to the current wave of new right enthusiasm for Orbán, he gained considerable right-wing praise for shutting his borders to people he called “Muslim invaders.”)
So what’s the source of the affection? I’m unconvinced that it’s rooted all that much in Hungary’s pro-natalist social policies. Carlson, for example, trumpets Hungary’s policy of granting a $35,000 low-interest loan to young women when they marry, to be forgiven when they have three children. But that’s not more generous than, say, Biden’s direct payments to families (much less the Romney child allowance plan). And multiple European countries less adored by the right have extremely generous family leave and social welfare policies that make child-rearing far more affordable than in much of the United States.
Orbán, however, is a very effective culture warrior. Much more effective, in the eyes of many on the right, than the hated “GOP Establishment.” Hungarian press freedom is far more constrained than in the United States. Its press is among the least free in Europe. The regime doesn’t recognize gay marriage. Only heterosexual couples may adopt. And the regime just passed a law sharply limiting any promotion of homosexuality or gender transition to children. He has banned gender studies programs at Hungarian universities.
While Hungary’s policies would be flatly unconstitutional in the United States, they’re consistent with the new right philosophy of wielding government power to aggressively confront your culture war opponents—and with the new right's fascination with such power even when it’s entirely unattainable in the United States.
Moreover, as my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty has pointed out, even the restrictive immigration policies that inspired some conservatives here at home have extremely limited applicability to the United States. In his words, Hungary is not a “land of opportunity, so it can’t be a land of immigrants.” It does not have the resources to share with newcomers, and it will not retain immigrants when other nations not only offer greater economic opportunity, they also have large, existing immigrant communities that can welcome new arrivals.
I would say that this makes discussions about Hungary largely irrelevant. Its social policies would be unlawful in the U.S. Its immigration challenges are fundamentally different. Hungary is far more different from America than, say, Sweden or Norway.
But here’s what the right can emulate about Hungary—and here’s what’s ultimately ominous about the honestly weird embrace of one of Europe’s poorest and weakest nations. The new right can substitute effective governance for constant culture war and measure effectiveness not by the extent to which its policies improve the liberty and prosperity of the American people but rather by whether the nation’s leaders can frustrate the far-left.
Indeed, one can even see the glee in “triggering the libs” that new right figures derive from their dalliances with Orbán. For example, here’s Tucker Carlson relishing the backlash:
This is a terrible measure of national leadership and effectiveness, but it does illustrate the extent to which many on the new right are driven by deep animosity against their political opponents (and, yes, I know that’s far from an exclusively right-wing phenomenon).
I’m not going to join those who call Hungary “fascist.” That’s a word with a dark meaning, and we should be careful in its use. It is, however, orders of magnitude more authoritarian than the United States, and admiration for such a regime is problematic on its own terms. It’s rendered more problematic when one considers that there’s far more evidence the regime enriches its allies than there’s evidence it effectively advances the liberty and prosperity of its people.
Writing in National Review, the American Enterprise Institute’s Dalibor Rohac details the regime’s corruption and its failures:
Yes, Orban has a record of “winning,” but has he advanced conservative principles or made Hungary a better, more successful country?
If you are a politically connected “entrepreneur,” such as Istvan Tiborcz, Orban’s son-in-law, or Lorinc Meszaros, the mayor of Orban’s home village of Felcsut, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Worth $1.2 billion, Meszaros and his wife own over 100 companies that have been extraordinarily successful in winning government contracts. Eighty-three percent of the earnings of the family’s companies are believed to come from EU funds distributed by the Hungarian government. When asked once what he owed his success to, he responded, “God, luck, and Viktor Orban.”
While some have done extremely well under [Orbán’s party] Fidesz, the gap between Hungary and its neighbors has widened since 2010. Once the second-most prosperous of the four Visegrad countries, trailing only the Czech Republic, Hungary now comes last, behind Poland … Since 2019, Freedom House has classified Hungary as merely “partly free.” Before discussing the organization’s real or imagined left-wing bias, note that Hungary has also dropped on the World Bank’s Doing Business and Worldwide Governance Indicators (showing, notably, worsened corruption and less rule of law), Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and the Cato Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index. Even on the economic-freedom index produced by the Heritage Foundation, the past decade has been one of stagnation, at best.
In the last five years I’ve heard quite a few new right pundits wax eloquent about the “common good” and denigrate concepts like liberty or freedom. The presumption is that the new right will use government power to lead the nation into a new era of broad-based prosperity and public virtue. But if their model is Viktor Orbán, I see culture war and corruption, but not the common good. Hungary is a land that too many of its own citizens want to leave.
One last thing …
Lest you think I’m too down on Eastern Europe, let me close with this great Olympic video. I never like to see the U.S. lose, but if we have to lose, it’s fun to see the sheer joy of Poland—yes, Poland—outrunning our best. Enjoy!