Greatness Agenda

Victor Orbán’s Lesson in Prudence for Western Intellectuals

There is more to be said about this remarkably discrete teaching, but this is the necessary introduction. Intellectuals need to learn from the politicians.

To judge by what scares liberals internationally, the unassuming Israeli academic Yoram Hazony is the most dangerous intellectual active today. The National Conservatism Conference he organized in Rome last week has already been demonized in The Guardian and elsewhere. The one British member of Parliament in attendance, Daniel Kaczynski, was forced by the Tories to apologize publicly for being in the same room as the most successful politician on the continent, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

For his part, Orbán was a model of moderation and spoke in his typical direct style, cutting through the false pieties and not mincing words about unflattering realities, not even those concerning him or his country. He was interviewed by Hudson Institute scholar Christopher DeMuth and the entire conference hung on his every word, though it is unclear if his subtlety was well understood.

Orbán stated plainly that he’s been in politics for decades, about half in opposition and half in power, and he understands both sides. Although he was welcomed as a leader, he chose to speak as a follower. He said Hungary is a small country in need of allies and in need of the European Union, despite the enmity of the national conservatives for the EU. He also said small countries cannot afford not to have smart leaders, in the only moment he came close to bragging.

He began his remarks by deflating the hopes of intellectuals who want to believe that his success in Hungary means the EU is over the day after tomorrow. This was the first in a series of suggestions intended to remind wordsmiths of hard realities, to put the political back in their political science. Orbán also insisted on the difference between doers, like himself, and speakers, who are in a way more admired, because they don’t have to make compromises.

A Masterclass in Statecraft

Orbán seemed humble, as though he had come to the conference to encourage political allies whose cultural war on the EU can help him and other leaders better withstand the pressure Brussels puts on them.

But more than that, Orbán came to offer a masterclass in statecraft. To this end, he delivered a memorable line for national conservatism, both promise and warning: “Populism is when you make promises you can’t keep—if you can keep them, it’s democracy.”

In light of Brexit, the implication of his remark, if you think about it for a minute, is that Boris Johnson is offering democracy while Brussels is offering populism!

It’s witty to throw this insulting word back into the faces of liberal elites in Europe and America, but Orbán wasn’t merely joking or flattering his audience. He explained the paradox this way: Democracy means participation and opportunity, but it also means good government. He didn’t attack the EU as intellectuals tend to do, for its lack of consent, but for its incompetence. He didn’t point to Brexit or other anti-EU electoral revolts, but to the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent stagnation verging on recession.

All of this makes sense together with the observation that the EU really does have all the consent it needs in two ways. For one, all small countries in the East are afraid of Russia and Western countries, for their part, are suffering an identity crisis. For another, poor Eastern countries desperately need German money while Western countries need economic clout, against China especially. The only nationalism worth putting one’s faith in is one, like Orbán’s, which in creating vast numbers of jobs helps to secure a practical future.

Second, the future of nationalism is in state-building. Orbán told his intellectual audience that they cannot understand the complexities of Hungary without understanding that Hungarians don’t even share a language with anyone else in Europe, but are stuck between powerful peoples, Germans, Slavs, and Muslim Turks. Hungarians want freedom, like everyone else, but they must first have security because their situation is so much more precarious. They must be cautious and they must also be fiercely united.

Not “Who Decides?” But “Who Are We?”

Orbán pointed out that Eastern peoples don’t have a historical state strong enough to survive weak or bad government for long. In Western Europe, elections sometimes fail to produce decent government. In America, political polarization has crippled the government. But the state still functions and people go on with life, at least in the short term. But this is not possible in Eastern Europe. Even brief periods of weak government can be disastrous.

He also said that the unity of his people affords him an ability to speak frankly that is not possible for other leaders, even when they are just as Christian and committed to national honor, because they have to manage weak coalitions and face a press out to destroy them.

Putting these things together and one gets the suggestion that other states should imitate Orbán by creating unity in a crisis and forcing necessities that silence liberal elites. He called this having a brain for taking risks. He offered this lesson because much richer and stronger peoples are now paradoxically much more divided. The very reliance on apolitical state institutions had crippled politics in the West.

Third, whereas some of the intellectuals claimed the most important words in politics now are “Who decides?” Orbán said the words that count are “Who are we?” The urgent problem is not consent, but identity, the very ground of consent. In reality, national conservatives outside of Hungary have yet to persuade the people of their project. They talk extravagantly, but what have they achieved? Orbán insisted on jobs, not moral principles.

The problem with the EU shouldn’t be formulated merely as a moral or intellectual conundrum, but as a terrifying reality. People must be afraid of the chaos coming because of the incompetence in Brussels. Only then will national conservatism have a chance. Besides the incompetence the EU demonstrated during the financial crisis, Orbán cited the immigration crisis. The reason is obvious: We are people in danger of invasion by foreign populations—only in understanding that can a people-versus-elites conflict lead to the serious moral changes intellectuals expect from using words rather than facing facts.

An Appeal to Self-Interest

It’s no accident that Orbán reserved so much criticism for intellectuals, or that he formulated it so subtly. He practiced before national conservatives what he said he is forced by political circumstances to practice before the EU: the effort to reach a real lesson. Because in politics circumstances aren’t just an inconvenience, they are a necessity, and therefore a teacher. He wanted to point out that what you say and how you say it, in politics, depends on your power, if you are smart. It was prudent rhetoric prudently taught, to people habituated by the institution of freedom of speech to speak irresponsibly, and therefore not to listen carefully either.

Orbán explained that he learned how to win from losing, how to be strong from weakness. He learned to face necessity prudently instead of wishing it away in words. He then proved it by suggesting the powerful West is weakened and must understand its own weaknesses, expressed in comparison with Hungary, in order to become strong.

The reason Orbán didn’t appeal to morality is that he wanted to appeal to self-interest. His lessons in politics can be trusted because he practices them successfully. A Europe strengthened by national conservatism is useful to Hungary, it’s in his self-interest to help it come into being.

There is more to be said about this remarkably discrete teaching, but this is the necessary introduction. We intellectuals have to learn from the politicians. I hope to have shown how to begin.