Orbán as Ideologue

by Zsolt Enyedi

There is little debate in political science about the autocratic ambitions of Viktor Orbán. There is also consensus on the constituent role of institutionalized corruption within his regime. But analysts disagree about the utility of ideological categories for explaining the functioning of the current Hungarian political system. According to the dominant position, the drive for wealth and power leaves little room for ideology.

In contrast, I argue that Orbán and his entourage labor for ideological goals. The regime advantages a well-defined set of values through the allocation of resources and its signatory policies are based on a coherent set of ideas. Scholarly accounts that question the role of ideology have certain tendencies: they assign too much weight to cross-time continuity of specific policies, they define consistency based on some textbook definition of ideologies, they do not pay enough attention to the consequences of the discourse for the socialization of citizens, and they attribute too little relevance to the linkage between the governing party and its constituency.

The last point is understandable –  after all, elections in post-2010 Hungary are not fair. Nevertheless, Fidesz needs to be treated as a political actor that is supported by the voluntary work of tens of thousands of individuals. While many voters chose the party for materialistic reasons, the core electorate has stable ideological features. Across the 17 years of Fidesz government this constituency has always been served through various traditional right-wing policies, from the reconstruction of Transylvanian monuments to the flat tax, or from the clerical control over large segments of social care and education to the regulations leading to a sharp increase in the number of marriages.

The authenticity of Fidesz in the eyes of its core constituency is supported by the fact that the party occupies the same end of the nationalist-internationalist, conservative-progressive, and clerical-secular continua as 30 years ago. Most of its ideological and strategic modules, like the alliance with established churches, the dislike of a value-neutral state, the focus on Hungarians in neighboring countries, or the identification of opponents as “foreign-hearted” and/or Communists, have been continuously present since the mid-1990s. When change in policies was necessary, like the replacement of Western alliances with a pro-Eastern orientation, the U-turn was explained with the logic of the culture-war.

It would be difficult to find a leading official today whose discourse is dominated as much by radical right-wing references as Orbán’s. He may be the only head of government who recommends racist literature (such as Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints). He portrays Hungary as a bastion against transgender operations, critical race theory, leftist cancel culture, woke demands in higher education, aggressive homosexual propaganda, multiculturalism, and the expansion of Islam. The radical message is disseminated through a wide range of journals, media-outlets, and educational institutions sponsored by the state. He is also exceptional in terms of investing energy in building an international network of illiberal intellectuals.

Ideological policies that have long-lasting consequences abound in the Orbán regime. The citizenship law that resulted in 1.2 million new citizens, the church law that created a hierarchy among the churches, the school curricula that reflect a nationalist-conservative understanding of the world, the imposition of this curriculum on all public schools, and the codification of a particular type of historical memory in museums and in state-run exhibitions are cases in point. The fence erected around the southern borders, the rejection of virtually all Muslim asylum seekers, the banning of the display of books about homosexual relations, or the lavish spending on family-support schemes are all socially consequential and ideological policies. The strengthening of conservative institutions, the marginalization of foreign capital in specific sectors, or the increase of xenophobia through the governmental anti-foreigner campaigns are likely to shape Hungarian society for decades.

As argued in a recent CEU Democracy Institute Working Paper, most of the ideas and policies of the regime can be grouped under three headings: illiberal conservatism, civilizationalist ethnocentrism, and paternalist populism. The ideological character of the regime, built on these three pillars, is bound to become even more pronounced in the coming years. The structural incompatibility between Orbán’s rule and European politics, his self-perception as culture warrior and the demands of his hard-core supporters socialized into radical right-wing mentality, combined with the hope for an illiberal breakthrough in the United States, will keep the Prime Minister on the trajectory of radicalization.

There are many ways to accumulate wealth and power. Orbán’s way is an ideological one.

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