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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Galston Warns of Growing Threat of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Many Americans are understandably concerned about the future of a democracy in which the candidate who lost the popular vote wins the presidency twice in 16 years. But what may be even more alarming than America’s weakening of the principle of majority rule, is the erosion of the values that make our diverse, pluralistic society governable.

William A. Galston’s Wall St. Journal column on “The Growing Threat of ‘Illiberal Democracy’: What happens when rule by the people conflicts with individual rights?” reports on a frightening trend of minority-bashing in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary, where the ruling regime is encouraging vicious, Nazi-like rhetoric attacking minorities, particularly Jews, but also the Roma people. In Hungary, writes Galston,

Hungary’s Order of Merit, its second highest state honor, recognizes individuals who have demonstrated excellence in service to Hungary and the promotion of “universal human values.” Last August, Mr. Orban’s government gave this award to journalist Zsolt Bayer.

Here is how Mr. Bayer has promoted these values:

Writing in 2008 about the “Jewish journalists of Budapest,” he said that “their very existence justifies anti-Semitism.” In February and March of 2016, he published an 18-part op-ed series on the origins of anti-Semitism in Hungary, asserting that it was a natural reaction to actions by Jews against non-Jews.

Writing in 2013 about the Roma, a disparate collection of ethnic minorities, Mr. Bayer said that “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist,” adding that “this needs to be solved—immediately and by any means necessary.” At a public rally in Budapest in 2015, he described the Syrian refugee crisis as a weapon guided by a hidden conspiracy against the “white race.”

Is this what illiberal democracy portends—state-endorsed hostility toward historically persecuted minorities, endorsed by the state? Are we facing a future in which national majorities may act without restraint, whatever the human costs?

It’s not just Hungary. Galston also notes that cotempt for liberal democracy seems to be spreading to Poland:

Mr. Orban’s approach is gaining ground. As early as 2011, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s then-minority Law and Justice party, said that he would “bring Budapest to Warsaw.” Today, a majority government led by his party is doing what he promised, starting with an attack on Poland’s constitutional court before moving to restraints on the public media, public prosecutor, and freedom of assembly.

Political observers have also noted the worrisome rise of intolerance of minorities in political movements gaining ground in Austria and France. In the U.S., rising intolerance also threatens foundational democratic values protecting minorities, as Galston notes,

There are signs of impatience with liberal democratic restraints even in the U.S., where constitutionalism and the rule of law are more deeply entrenched than in the newer European democracies. A June 2016 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found 49% of voters agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” This figure included 57% of Republicans, 60% of white working-class voters, 72% of Trump supporters, and—tellingly—59% of those who felt that the American way of life needs protection from foreign influences.

Even more worrying than the attack on liberal democratic institutions is the relegitimation of long-suppressed antipathies to ethnic and religious minorities.
When Donald Trump whipped up hostility to Muslims and Mexicans in the U.S., he not only encouraged  intolerance and bigotry; he also undermined the values of liberal democracy that have undergirded  America’s freedom. If further drift toward ‘illiberal democracy’ can be stopped, it’s clear that Democrats have to provide the leadership.

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