With the rise of populism in places as far apart as Brazil, India, the United States, and Europe, democracy seems to be on shaky ground.
This surge in authoritarian populist movements has caught many off guard, but Dr. Steven Jobbitt has been watching this phenomenon unfold for more than a decade. He is a Lakehead professor of eastern and central European history with a particular interest in Hungary.
He was researching early 20th-century right-wing movements and intellectuals in Hungary when the Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, won Hungary’s 2010 national election. Fidesz is an unapologetically right-wing populist group.
“Orbán’s victory was seen as a rebuke of Europe,” Dr. Jobbitt says. “Until 2010, Hungary had been regarded by many as the poster child for post-communist integration into the European Union.”
As Hungary’s new prime minister, Orbán set about dismantling his country’s democratic institutions and aligning himself more closely with Russia and the policies of Vladimir Putin. The parallels between Hungary’s past and the present were striking, and Dr. Jobbitt began focusing his research on contemporary Hungarian politics. What he witnessed was disturbing.
By 2012, Hungary’s constitution had been rewritten to curtail civil liberties, undermine free and fair elections, and destroy the independence of the judiciary and the media. Other repressive measures followed.
Prime Minister Orbán has also stoked anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility towards Jews and the Romani, an ethnic minority group in Hungary.
“They still have elections, political parties, and a parliament,” Dr. Jobbitt says, “but if you define democracy as a thriving civil society, there is no democracy anymore.”
How did Hungary’s populism of fear and resentment take root? “The general consensus was that fascism had been defeated after World War II and that communism had been defeated with the end of the Cold War,” Dr. Jobbitt says. “Liberal democracy had triumphed.”
Almost immediately, though, seeds of discontent were planted. The expansion of the European Union provoked a rise in nationalism and fears of losing cultural identities. There was also a backlash against aggressive globalization and capitalism that promoted the free market at all costs while slashing funding to education and social programs.
Prices went up and salaries went down after the fall of communism. Combined with climate change and population movements, people’s lives became more
precarious. Hungary’s rural areas were struggling, then the 2008-09 global financial crisis hit.
Orbán’s Fidesz party positioned itself as the defender of Hungary, but instead of rejecting capitalism, they co-opted it for their own financial benefit.
“One scholar refers to Orbán’s Hungary as a mafia state,” Dr. Jobbitt adds. Despite this, the middle class has rallied behind Orbán. “For them, it’s about holding on to their privileges. They don’t want to share with other people. They say, ‘Why should students have free tuition? Why should we help the poor or refugees?’”
Dr. Jobbitt believes that populism is animated by a drive for revolutionary solutions and that this energy can move to the left or the right. In Hungary, it has definitely moved to the right.
“It would be a mistake to think that these forces – in Hungary and around the world – are going away. We have to come up with policies that will address the needs of the
people. Otherwise, we will reap what we sow.”