August 10, 2021

Aside from the occasional rogue economics professor, conservatives have been thoroughly routed from American academia, and Britain is not far behind. In Hungary, however, higher education is still a contested ideological space. The Central European University, a liberal, American-style institution, was forced out of Budapest by government pressure in 2019. Last autumn, protesters marched through the capital to oppose the appointment of conservative partisans to the board of Színház és Filmművészeti Egyetem (SZFE), the national university of film and theatre. This June, thousands of Hungarians defied Covid restrictions to rally against a proposed Fudan University campus in downtown Budapest, a joint project of the Chinese and Hungarian governments.

Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Budapest has revived a longstanding debate over Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is, depending on your political sympathies, a would-be dictator or a conservative statesman of the first order. Whatever happens after Carlson’s visit, the battle for Hungarian higher education is a better guide to Orbán’s politics than the travel itinerary of a cable TV pundit.

Orbán and Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling conservative party, are often accused of building an authoritarian state. This overstates both the extent of their political control and their ideological ambitions. The Hungarian Prime Minister is best understood as a conservative institutionalist who seeks to seize the commanding heights of Hungarian society by influencing the country’s key organisations and cultural organs. In pursuit of this goal, Orbán is often opportunistic and unscrupulous, disregarding norms and playing political hardball with his opponents. Although these methods fall short of an authoritarian takeover, they will shape the playing field of Hungarian politics for years to come.

The Prime Minister’s critics typically conflate his take-no-prisoners political style with a more potent and far-reaching form of autocracy. This tendency is evident across the political spectrum, from President Joe Biden’s remarks lumping Orbán in with Belarussian Dictator Alexander Lukashenko to recent broadsides from neoconservative writer David Frum.

A recent post by the liberal pundit Heather Cox Richardson is typical of the genre. Richardson says Hungary is a “one-party state”. This would be news to Gergely Karácsony, the opposition Mayor of Budapest and an oft-mentioned candidate to succeed Orbán as prime minister in the 2022 parliamentary elections. Karácsony was elected in 2019, along with anti-Fidesz mayoral candidates in nine other cities and towns across Hungary. In a country of 10 million people, this counts as a significant political rebuke. One-party states do not allow opposition figures to run the capital, speak at protest rallies in front of Parliament, and lay the groundwork for a national campaign.

One senses that many of Fidesz’s foreign critics are motivated by something other than a sincere interest in Hungarian civil liberties. Once again, Richardson’s post is revealing. According to her, Orbán “wants to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture”.

This is a curious understanding of Hungarian democracy. Hungary has not been a multicultural society since the end of the First World War. The country has been remarkably homogeneous for the entirety of its post-1989 democratic period, and the same is true of most of its neighbours. The most recent example of a multicultural society in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, dissolved into sectarian violence over two decades ago.

If Orbán isn’t the illiberal bogeyman of Richardson’s nightmares, what is he? A common lament from American conservatives is that the Left’s dominant cultural position effectively nullifies Republican electoral victories. In Hungary it is the Right that exercises commanding influence over many vital cultural organs. Independent media exist but state news outlets dominate the airwaves. Universities are career-oriented and bereft of typically Left-wing departments. State-supported theatres produce rock operas about Hungary’s history and national heroes. The Hungarian cultural and political environment has been shaped by a conservative government that is comfortable wielding the levers of institutional power.

The recent government grant of $1.7 billion to the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a residential college that offers conservative students fellowships, stipends and networking events, is characteristic of this strategy. The college was founded in the 1990s to train Hungary’s post-communist elite and is unabashedly patriotic and conservative in its emphasis. It now has access to a source of funding that exceeds Hungary’s annual higher education budget.

If you visited Budapest at any point last year, you probably noticed people wearing yellow “Free SZFE” masks on the streets. These are markers of another institutional battle, this time over the national academy of film and theatre. Like almost every university in Hungary, SZFE is a public institution. Last August, university management resigned en masse to protest the installation of a new government-appointed Board of Trustees, which they described as a threat to institutional autonomy and artistic freedom. Sporadic student protests have continued since the resignations.

From local theatres to national institutions like the Mathias Corvinus Collegium and SZFE, the Hungarian Government’s involvement in education, culture and the arts is extensive, at least by American standards. This gives the ruling party considerable powers of patronage to shape the country’s cultural output. Orbán has enthusiastically used these levers to push the Hungarian mainstream in a conservative direction.

A similar process can be observed in Hungarian media. Critical voices are not banned or suppressed, but Fidesz-friendly outlets receive a disproportionate share of revenue from government advertising. The staff of Index, a popular independent website often critical of Orbán, all resigned last summer to protest the ouster of a top editor under suspicious circumstances. Before the resignations, Index received almost no government advertising, despite having among the highest traffic of any news sites in Hungary.

Yet it would be wrong to describe Hungary as a reactionary monoculture. The Index resignations provoked a firestorm on social media, a sphere that remains unregulated, open and contentious. Former Index staffers quickly launched a subscription-based news outlet, Telex, to replace their old website. Hungary is also awash in Western media and cultural products. In 2018, the Luxembourg-based RTL Klub was the country’s second most popular television channel by audience share. The tens of thousands of Hungarian expatriates who live and work in Western Europe reliably transmit news, gossip and criticism to their friends and relatives back home.

Instead of throwing critics in jail, Orbán is attempting to create a conservative version of the “opinion corridor” of acceptable Left-wing views described by the writer Karl-Ove Knausgaard in Sweden, or the progressive environment at elite American media and academic institutions. Unlike in the United States, this environment did not emerge from non-state actors. It has been fostered from above by a ruling conservative party that is not constrained by small government nostrums or overly-concerned with procedural niceties.

Orbán’s critics may indulge in hyperbole, but there are real dangers to this approach. Creating a state-based network of patronage invites favouritism, corruption and the erosion of public confidence in government agencies. The declining credibility of Hungarian state media, which is widely viewed as pro-Fidesz, is just one example of this. Another is the well-founded allegation of corruption surrounding the Government’s purchase of Covid vaccines. A lack of concern for procedural fairness can bleed into a disregard for basic civil liberties. The recent Pegasus disclosure of state eavesdropping on independent journalists is a worrying sign that Orbán is open to more explicitly coercive measures to suppress his critics.

The Carlson visit to Budapest is a footnote in American politics, but the Fox TV host’s sudden interest in a small Central European country does signal an interesting transatlantic convergence. European conservatives have traditionally been more comfortable with big government than their American counterparts. Carlson’s meeting and related developments within the Republican Party suggest that American Right-wingers are getting over their aversion to state activism.

Carlson began his career as a libertarian-ish magazine writer and cable TV commentator before becoming the media standard-bearer for grassroots conservatism during the Trump era. Orbán was a young anti-Soviet dissident turned pro-Western political leader who later pivoted to a populist brand of conservatism after becoming prime minister again in 2010.

Whether these ideological shifts were motivated by sincere changes of opinion, new conditions, or canny opportunism is probably unknowable. However, they do reflect profound changes in their respective societies. Rapid cultural and economic upheaval since the 1990s have made many Hungarians skeptical of the EU, market capitalism and, more broadly, the liberal Western order.

In the United States, the Left’s cultural dominance, a widespread sense of economic precarity, and the rise of Donald Trump have given big government conservatives an opening. Orbán may lose the next election and Carlson may be forced off the air by his critics, but the underlying conditions that gave rise to both figures will be with us for some time. And if American conservatives do jettison their traditional attachment to small-government ideology, they may look to figures like Orbán for a new political blueprint.