Central Europe’s republics of fans

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In Ferenc Karinthy’s dystopian 1970 novel Metropole, a talented Hungarian linguist arrives at the airport in Budapest but then goes through the wrong gate, gets on the wrong plane, and lands in a city where no one can understand him, though he speaks an impressive array of languages. Today, the unfortunate protagonist might find echoes of this tale in Central Europe, which has become one of the most politically confusing parts of the continent.

Though numerous opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks value democracy and the rule of law, the region has not reversed the illiberal turn it took earlier this decade. In 2015, Adam Michnik, the Polish anti-communist dissident and editor of the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, could say of the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s parliamentary election victory that, “sometimes a beautiful woman loses her mind and goes to bed with a bastard.” However, PiS’s repeat success in the October 2019 election suggests that the woman may have decided to marry him.

Why do voters who routinely profess a commitment to democracy also support political leaders who subvert it? Why do liberals’ attempts to position themselves as guardians of democracy fail to bring them electoral success? These are precisely the questions that Milan Svolik, a political science professor at Yale, asked in the July 2019 issue of the Journal Of Democracy.

Svolik’s answer is straightforward: political polarization “undercut[s] the public’s ability to curb the illiberal inclination of elected politicians.” When voters have a choice between voting for the party they support in the knowledge that its leaders have violated democratic principles, or switching to an opposition party they detest in order to save democracy, most let their partisan instincts override their commitment to democratic norms.

As Svolik puts it, “voters are reluctant to punish politicians for disregarding democratic principles when doing so requires abandoning one’s favorite party or policy.” For many voters in these politically polarized times, the gravest threat to democracy is that their least-favoured party wins an election.

Political polarization in Central Europe and elsewhere has turned the ideal “republic of citizens” into a “republic of fans.” Whereas liberal citizens regard it as a sign of a higher loyalty to point out and correct the mistakes made by one’s own party, the loyalty of fans is zealous, unthinking, and unswerving. The cheers of enthralled fans, with their critical faculties switched off, reflect and reinforce their sense of belonging, which is central to populists’ understanding of politics as a game of loyalty.

In this kind of political world, US president Ronald Reagan’s dictum “trust but verify” has given way to rowdy adulation: behold and adore. Those who refuse to applaud are traitors. Any statement of fact takes the form of a declaration of belonging. Any electoral defeat is unfair (or a conspiracy), and any criticism of one’s own party is treason. Even when they are in government, populists prefer to view themselves as a persecuted minority. Their goal is to be viewed as underdogs who are entitled to act as roguishly relatable villains.

In a republic of fans, only moderate centrist voters, who do not identify strongly with any political party, can still put democratic principles above partisan loyalty. But centrists are out of fashion in today’s highly polarized political environments, where the rejection of the other party defines how people vote, with whom they socialize, and how they view the world. In Central Europe these days, such voters are few and far between. Adapting a memorable line by Jim Hightower, a former Texas agriculture commissioner, to the region, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.”

Vilified by populists and anti-populists alike, many moderates prefer to move elsewhere. Thanks to the European Union’s open borders, dissatisfied Central Europeans who want more democracy may find it easier to change their country of residence than their own government.

Svolik’s research points to the critical problem facing liberal opposition parties in populist-governed Central Europe. As the recent municipal elections in Hungary and Poland’s parliamentary election demonstrate, liberals are doing well in large urban centres and among young and better-educated voters, but they lose big in small towns and rural areas. Moreover, the distinct voting patterns and xenophobic attitudes are less the result of economic factors than of unfavourable demographic trends such as high emigration rates, a rapidly aging population, and an overhang of men of marriageable age.

In a similar vein, studies of political trends in the US highlight the critical importance of the “density divide.” Support for US President Donald Trump is highest in less densely populated regions in which white, native-born Americans constitute a clear majority. These voters generally are more socially conservative, do not favour diversity, are relatively disinclined to move elsewhere, and have no higher education.

Svolik’s work also suggests that Central European liberals are doomed to fail when they attempt to reach out to culturally alienated voters by appealing to democratic principles.

In fact, liberals who try to identify themselves with democracy, and define populist parties as its enemies, themselves contribute to the confrontational atmosphere that fuels the illiberal friends-versus-enemies narrative.

By making the defence of democracy their main political message, Central European liberals may manage to unify opposition forces, as happened recently in Hungary. But they will not succeed in reaching the supporters of populist parties.

After all, voters living outside big cities expect liberals to defend not only democracy, but their interests, too.

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia.

©2015/PROJECT SYNDICATE



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