It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.
Zach, Bret, thank you guys so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Hey, this is great.
And let me introduce you. Bret Stephens is a Times Opinion columnist, and Zach Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox. And normally, this would be extremely annoying to me. But we are in part here to talk about a tweet. Zach, will you please read your tweet for us?
Yes, I’m glad that I got cited for a good tweet as opposed to a bad tweet.
Because I feel like most of what you get picked up on for is for saying something that makes someone mad.
So I wrote that, quote, “The biggest challenge for liberalism today is the use of its own key features against it: free speech enabling the spread of authoritarian propaganda, democracy empowering illiberal leaders and markets producing an unresponsive oligarchic class.”
So, yeah, we’re here to talk about liberalism, which is a value everyone in this country has a stake in, whether they like it or not. It’s like the force. It’s the superstructure that surrounds us. It binds us together. And we’re not just talking about this because of the tweet, but because of Viktor Orban’s election victory in Hungary, leading to what has been called a soft autocracy and what he himself calls an illiberal democracy. And in the U.S. we see some on the right who are celebrating Orbán. For instance, here’s Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, on Tucker Carlson’s show.
- archived recording (peter szijjarto)
What they say is that the only way to have a progressive successful political system is that you have to be extremely liberal. And our existence makes it very clear that, no, this is not the only way to be progressive, to be successful to fulfill the interests of your nation, but our way, the conservative, patriotic, Christian Democratic way, you know, respecting our historic and religious heritage, respecting our values like family. This brings success also.
I think that’s kind of ridiculous. But I think that gets at the big question I have, is that if we’re thinking about liberalism, are we thinking about it as the means to an end or an end in and of itself? Bret, I’ve talked to you before about how you think that America needs a new liberal party because you think both the right and the left have become intolerant to ideas that don’t match their worldview. Before we get into Zach’s problems with liberalism, I want to ask you how illiberal a country do you think we are right now, and why do you think that?
Well, just to be clear on the semantics here, just because there’s usually a confusion, I don’t think any of us here is speaking about liberalism in the sense of Nancy Pelosi, welfare state —
— liberalism. We’re talking about —
We’re talking Western democracy.
Right, democracy is hardware. It’s institutions and procedures that create representative government, right? I mean, elections, houses of Congress and parliament, executives, and so on, expressing the will of the people. Liberalism, in my view, stands for the set of values, the software, that typically undergirds those procedures and those institutions.
So free speech is a liberal value, tolerance, pluralism, a belief in freedom of conscience, all of these things that I think used to be the taken for granteds of American politics, and that, by and large, leaders from both political parties subscribe to these values. And so when someone like Viktor Orban talks about illiberal democracy, he’s talking about keeping the democratic institutions in terms of representative government, but none of the values we typically associate with democracy.
So with that out of the way, one of the things that has been probably my central political concern for the last six or seven years is the way in which the United States at a cultural level, I think, is moving away from liberalism. It’s one of the reasons I became a Never Trump conservative because I thought the conservatism I grew up with was broadly within the family of liberalism. The conservatism of Donald Trump and his followers with its emphasis on nationalism, closed borders, protectionism, and so on, struck me as foundationally, or at least directionally, illiberal. And I’ve also written a lot about what I see as a creeping illiberalism on the left when it comes to canceling speakers they don’t like or de-platforming people they don’t like. So I think liberalism is under profound threat in the United States, even more so in states in Europe. And the person who is effectively the global champion of that illiberal worldview right now strikes me as Vladimir Putin.
So there’s a few things I’d like to add to Bret’s clarification. Part of it is a central point of disagreement in this conversation, which I don’t know if it’s worth getting into in significant depth, but I —
Oh, it’s always worth getting into the central disagreement on “The Argument.”
Because I don’t see there being a parallel level of illiberalism on the left and the right in the United States. I don’t see it being particularly comparable. And I think the Hungary example, Jane, you started this conversation with, is really useful in thinking through this. There’s no contemporary left-wing equivalent to Hungary, which is not just an illiberal democracy, by the way. It’s not a democracy. It pretends to be.
And this is my issue with the category of illiberal democracy to begin with, is, oftentimes, governments will say, OK, all we are doing is pursuing conservative cultural values or you know, leftist economic policies in the case of something like Venezuela. And in that sense, we’ve abandoned a certain level of liberalism. But what they’re actually doing is violating democratic freedoms that are liberal freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom of an opposition to organize, freedom of the press, and grinding them into dust in order to secure their own hold on power. And that’s what Orban has done without formally outlawing elections or stuffing ballot boxes. And you can see this, for example, in the recent Hungarian election, right?
The districts in the sort of U.S. style single member districts were so absurdly gerrymandered that it was something like out of the capital of Budapest, his party won 86 out of 88 districts. And that’s not reflecting just a random distribution of support, right, or stronger support in the countryside for his party, though there is some of that. It’s that the districts were designed by them and completely transformed the electoral system to favor them. We can go on down the list. About 90 percent of media in Hungary is owned by the government. And you know, these facts typically get washed away when people celebrate Orban as a model for a conservative polity or a right-wing movement in the United States and this movement. There’s no equivalent on the American left. And that, I think, is telling about the asymmetry that’s at work here.
I think that’s just not true. And it’s one of the things that I think would behoove us all to pay closer attention to what’s happening on our own side before making arguments about the opposing side. My hometown is Mexico City. Mexico elected a populist left-wing leader, Lopez Obrador. And literally, right now, he is in the process of dismantling 30 years of hard won Mexican democratic institutions. And I think part of the problem is that I hardly see anyone noticing.
Right, but I want to get back at something that we’ve been talking about a little bit. But Zach, you wrote a piece in 2019, saying that critics on the left and the right are waging war against the fundamental ideas that define our politics. And you said that liberalism was in crisis. But like my question is, when was liberalism not in crisis? Was there a high point of liberalism that we have fallen away from? Was liberalism in crisis in 1965? Was liberalism in crisis with McCarthyism? Or is it a crisis of comfort?
So I think it’s right to say that liberalism periodically experiences a wave of internal threats. That’s sort of the nature of liberal politics, right? When you have a society that’s defined by tolerance and polyvocal centers of conversation and different people who disagree with each other, trying to participate in the same system, inevitably, you’re going to get people operating inside the confines of that system who challenge its fundamental core values. And there are also issues where it’s not obvious what a liberal polity should do. There’s actual significant tension between different liberal values. This is classically the case with issues related to religion or the status of life, like abortion or animal rights.
But what we’re seeing right now globally, I think it’s not one of the normal ones. And I don’t want to say liberalism had these long placid periods where everything was fine. Arguably, the U.S. didn’t become a liberal democracy until 1965, depending on who you’re listening to, right, because of the widespread persistence of a system of apartheid and authoritarian government control in the South, right? That’s what Jim Crow was.
So what I think is happening, especially in the West, right, and by the West here, I want to be clear on what I’m talking about. I mean North America and Western Europe, right? This kind of anti-democratic right-wing populism is, again, not a uniquely modern phenomenon, but one that has gained a particular amount of power since the Brexit referendum, Trump’s victory, the rise of Viktor Orban and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, right?
It sort of has a generally coherent ideology that leads to cross national connections, which makes it, I think, fair to describe as a kind of united international challenge to liberalism, even if they aren’t always constantly coordinating. But there are mechanisms and organs of coordination. So I’d say, yes, it’s a very particular kind of crisis with a lot of political momentum behind it, an attempt to turn the clock back on certain liberal gains that we’ve seen recently and even undermine the institutions of democracy itself.
I want to go back to Zach’s original tweet, and it’s very weird to just keep referring to a tweet. It makes it sound like we are just having the most online conversation ever, but we aren’t. Zach, you listed three features of liberalism that you see as both necessary and facing real challenges right now. Free speech, democracy and free markets — all things, big fan, love it. But let’s start with free speech because I think you and Bret might have different opinions as to what the problem is. And one point you made in your tweet was talking about the rise of authoritarian propaganda. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yeah, it’s interesting because typically, we just think of that as being a top-down phenomenon, where a government is using state organs or state-controlled media to issue propaganda dictates out to the public. And then people learn that, and other sources of information are repressed. That’s how things work in Russia. It’s how things work, to a lesser and more subtle degree, in Hungary.
It’s not really what’s happening inside advanced democracies, where I see sort of a different kind of problem, which is that there are authoritarian political movements, primarily affiliated with the trend that I was just talking about, that are using techniques of authoritarian governments to dismantle the idea of a shared reality and to ensconce their followers in a separate and alternative world where they don’t have contact with certain key features of actual shared political reality.
And this relies on different mechanisms in different places. In the U.S., it works because of hyperpolarization. There’s a lot of political science evidence about how polarization fuels democratic backsliding in authoritarian movements, but in this case, when you become so deeply and fundamentally attached to your political identity and to your tribe, your team, you start to become suspicious of information that contradicts that worldview. And that’s a tendency in both right and left.
We saw during the Trump years is that there’s this very particular infrastructure on the American right centered, but not exclusively residing in Fox News, that allows people and political leaders to disseminate basically falsehoods to turn them into a sort of totem of belief or an image, right? Like, you have to hold out this thing, like the 2020 election was rigged, in order to be a member in good standing of this particular political movement.
And so for the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party, this really does create an anti-democratic authoritarian propaganda effect, where you have to accept the certain dictates that exist inside that world, right? And there are all sorts of different specific ways through which this consensus is enforced, but it pushes people away from participation in a shared democratic reality and one where to talk about some recent events, anyone who’s advocating for L.G.B.T. rights can be described as a groomer, right? Like trying to recruit kids to some kind of nefarious sexual thing, which turns them into existential enemies, right? People who need to be not just defeated at the ballot box, but repressed. That kind of language and the spread of that kind of thinking through these controlled mechanisms is very harmful for democracy.
But the language, I would say, it’s very similar to what authoritarians have said, what, the way that Maoists put the logic of Maoism in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea that there is disorder and inequality in the world, and only I can fix it. Only we can fix it. And Pat Buchanan was saying vaguely authoritarian things in 1991. I would say that what’s being said hasn’t changed as much. It’s just who is saying it.
But Bret, I’m interested in your thoughts because you were talking about speech, and you had a line where you were talking about how compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their every word for fear that a wrong one could wreck their professional lives. And I think that that’s a concern about speech.
But again, both of you are concerned about speech and the curtailing of speech, but not necessarily from an authority. Neither of you are saying like, the government is going to come in and shoot you because you tweeted something. It’s other people. It’s your fellow citizens who are enforcing this authoritarian conceit.
Well, yeah, I mean, I think we’re losing our grip on what it means to live in a free society, where you not only should accept that other people have a right to say things that you find offensive or misinformed or downright dangerous, but actually go so far as to celebrate living in that society. And it used to be a foundational American value. Now, that’s not the country that many Americans feel that they are living in. And that’s, I think, a fairly widespread phenomenon.
Now, what’s changed? You asked a question a while back about whether this is any different from 1965 or ‘75 and so on. And I think it has changed in a material sense for two reasons. Number one, in 2016, an illiberal nationalist gained what used to be called the commanding heights of American politics, which is different. I mean, there was Joe McCarthy, but he was opposed by President Eisenhower. He was opposed by President Truman. There were the segregationists in the South, but they were owned by Lyndon Johnson.
So the question of who had the commanding heights has now shifted since 2016 in a way that profoundly worries me. The second thing is that social media, digital media, has essentially reintroduced mob politics into democratic, or at least, American life in a way that I think would have been unimaginable for the last 100 years.
But suddenly, at least in the last 10 years, those mobs were able to once again collect in the form of digital space and create a very active public pressure that canceled the careers of a few people, but much more importantly, created a culture of people thinking that it’s wiser to keep their mouths shut. And that, I think, is another distinction between now and, say, 50 or 40 years ago that just makes our era different. Now, whether we have the resources to change that, that’s an open question.
I want to push back on you on a couple of things there because I am curious about this. First, with regard to kind of the historical analogy, I think that the concern here is, first and foremost, when we’re thinking about McCarthyism, McCarthyism had its own web and network of language and ideas. And a lot of that was based on the idea that liberalism was itself a problem because it was allowing people to do things they did not like people doing.
And so I think that people, obviously, the mobs online are different than the mobs that would be formed in the streets, but the self-censorship that you’re thinking about, I think, would have been very common to many people who were writers or thinkers in the ‘50s. It’s just that the self-censorship would be coming from different entities. It might be coming from the government with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and it might be coming from the people you work with. So how do we differentiate between self-censorship now and self-censorship then?
Well, that’s a great question. And I imagine, I mean, a just first pass answer to a really smart question, it’s very hard to quantify because you can never really get a grip on just how many people are self-censoring and what is the distinction between self-censorship because you’re just trying to find your way to saying something halfway intelligent and self-censorship in the sense that you have something intelligent to say and just are terrified for reputational reasons or professional reasons.
There’s something of a difference in scale today, simply because there were only so many people who could be hauled before the House on Un-American Activities Committee and screamed that. These things are sort of seared into our minds because they’re relatively rare examples. Now this is extraordinarily common. The other difference, obviously, is that that was in the 1950s. That was a government agency, a body of Congress that was doing this. Now it’s not.
Obviously, there’s always been a profound streak of a liberalism in any democratic culture. And we may find 30 years from now that we’ll think, oh, that was really just a blip. It wasn’t so bad. It was hysteria about something that was a recurring feature of American life. That would be great if that’s the case. I don’t think it’s going to be the case. I think we’re going to remember this period as a uniquely dangerous period for liberal sensibilities in the American Republic.
So my money is on that second theory, Bret, if I had to bet on this particular thing for a few reasons. First, social media does make it easier for us to identify instances of individuals being, you know, repressed or punished for their speech through social sanction, but that’s an issue of identification, right, not an issue of whether or not it was happening.
So let’s say you were a communist in a suburban neighborhood, let’s say, outside of Chicago in the 1950s. Do you think that would have been comfortable talking about your political beliefs? Do you think if you did talk about them publicly, you wouldn’t have suffered social sanction? You wouldn’t have suffered maybe even professional consequences at the height of the Red Scare? I think the answer to that is, obviously, yes, you probably would have, or at least, would have been afraid of those things. It’s much —
Not my relatives.
Some, maybe not — I don’t know.
It depends on what neighborhood of —
It depends on the community.
— Brooklyn you were living in at the time.
But exactly, right? That depended on community then. It depended on where you were. It depended on who your social circle was. And the same thing is true today. And this is probably a feature of democratic politics basically everywhere. Social media allows us to make it more visible. And what it does do that I think is unique is it can hold up random people to a much greater scale of social opprobrium. But that, I don’t think, is the same thing as it being a whole new type of experience. Right?
I think the second thing is that there’s just a difference in sort of qualitative difference, really, between the two kinds of illiberalism, Bret, in your framing that you were describing. On the one hand, you have sort of nebulous, vague, sometimes popping up impulse to attack people viciously and even try to impose professional consequences for their opinion.
And on the other hand, you have a political movement that is basically dedicated to imposing an Orban style, Hungarian style political system on the United States and is doing it in a variety of different ways using the immensely powerful levers that are available, particularly at the state level. So it’s just, it strikes me as two different things that almost don’t even belong in the same conversation with each other, right? Like, one is a concern, to be sure, but not a kind of existential extinction level event for American democracy, which the Trumpist movement is.
Clearly, we could talk — I was going to say that we could free speech some more, but this is a private platform. So I don’t have to let you guys keep going. This is my platform —
You can do whatever you want. You’re the dictator —
— of this conversation.
But that actually brings me to another challenge that Zach brought up in your tweet that a crisis facing liberalism is an unresponsive oligarchic class. And my first thought when I saw that was like, yeah, but every system has one, which is, I mean, I don’t know if that’s just how humans work, but like the Gang of Four in Maoist China was an unresponsive oligarchic class that made revolutionary ballets and killed people. The Soviet Union had the nomenclature.
And I’m curious, Zach, if this is a question of, is the problem the existence of the oligarchic class, or is the problem what they’re doing? In other words, if there’s a version of Rupert Murdoch, where all he’s doing with his money is just giving everyone a puppy, like, is that OK?
It depends on the puppy, Jane.
I think that it’s kind of tricky to do hypotheticals about what would people with extreme wealth do in a hypothetical world if they wanted to all be super generous, because that’s just not the case, right? Over the course of modern American history and even the long arc of history, generally speaking, the people who do extraordinary amounts of philanthropy with highly concentrated wealth are the exception.
And the rule is that when you get really, really, really that level of rich, it’s some combination of the incentives, the social circle that you live in. And really, the kind of personality that compels one to pursue that kind of stratospheric wealth tends not to incline one towards public works. So it is more that the existence of extreme inequality creates structural conditions that make it likely for that power to be abused in a way that damages or threatens democracy because it creates people who, by virtue of their wealth, are difficult to impose accountability on.
But I think the much more worrying stuff is — well, I mean, the obvious example is Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, right? And that wealth creates a set of institutions that can encourage anti-democratic trends inside societies that can’t really be effectively controlled or corralled through the use of democratic politics.
And in fact, maybe it shouldn’t be, but the other thing that I wanted to emphasize that I wrote in that tweet that we haven’t picked up on as much is that these are features of a liberal democratic society that are being weaponized against itself, right? It is the case that in a society where there is private property rights, non-public ownership of the means of production, that there’s going to be a significant level of inequality.
And part of that — and I think I buy the sort of conservative libertarian take that you need things like that as a bulwark against state power. You can’t just have everything owned by the government without serious risks of autocracy. But that does create its own set of risks. And I don’t think that’s a reason to tear down or eliminate capitalism. I do think that is an argument to think more creatively about what one does when the rich people, as I argue they almost inevitably do, make choices that endanger a free political system. That, I think, is the difficult question. And I don’t know what the answer to it is.
Well, I’m going to be here, and I’m going to stand up for capitalism, as Winston Churchill put it, that capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the other ones.
Doesn’t he say that about democracy? That’s a democracy quote you just —
I thought it was capitalism.
— repurposed for — no, it’s democracy.
Oh, dang it. Thank you, Bret. But I think that, again, if democracy itself is the challenge, isn’t that simply because people are going to use democracy to do things that we don’t like? I think that that’s something to go to talking about Hungary and Viktor Orban, someone made a really smart point to me a while back that was like, the reason why someone like Rod Dreher likes Orban’s Hungary is because he finds freedom there because the people he doesn’t like are repressed there, whereas I think he feels repressed here because the people he doesn’t like find freedom here. And isn’t that kind of an inherent challenge that people are going to use liberalism and use democracy to do things that we do not like? What do you think, Bret?
I mean, I agree with, I think, the implicit argument in your question, Jane, which is, I read Zach’s tweet only because it was sent to me, not because I read Twitter. But I read Zach’s tweet, and I thought, this is the kind of stuff sort of the far right — I don’t want to say the far right in a racist sense, but the anxious right kept saying during the Cold War, people like Jean-Francois Revel, democracy against itself, the idea that the institutions of democracy had become essentially useful idiots, as it were, for the ambitions of its totalitarian players. It’s a perpetual threat to any democratic system.
But the Orban government, to me, is a perfect example of how you weaponize the mentality that you can’t allow too much liberalism or too much democracy because it might be instrumentalized by your enemies in order to create a political system that most of us recognize is not really democratic and is certainly not liberal. So it’s hard for me as I think of the potential cures that are sometimes suggested for reining in the excesses of liberalism or democracy, reining in misinformation, reining in far right extremism. And time and again, all of those cures strike me as really bad ideas.
And one of the reasons they’re bad ideas is that two can play the game, right? I mean, you want to rein in Fox News, eventually someone is going to do that to their opposite numbers on MSNBC. You don’t like the excesses of rich right wing billionaires giving money to candidates like JD Vance, whom you dislike? Well, eventually, that’s going to swing around to other liberal billionaires giving money to democratic causes.
Typically, the best response to the problems of freedom, in my view — this is kind of libertarian of me — is usually more freedom. I don’t apply that universally. There are exceptions, and those are interesting exceptions. But I think it’s really dangerous when people start going down the path and saying, capitalism, yes, but heavily regulated capitalism. Democracy, yes, but heavily regulated democracy. Same for free speech. I think you end up in a cul-de-sac with unintended consequences that are harmful to your own side.
I was so close to saying that I was going to agree with everything that you just said, Bret, and then you threw in democracy and capitalism there as the same kind of entity that, heavily regulated, should be viewed with extreme caution, and I was like, oh, oh, no, I’m going have to argue with him again.
But no, look, I mostly agree with what you’re saying. And I’d rather focus on that than a disagreement in kind about capitalism versus democracy or social systems, right? Because I really do think that part of being a liberal and part of taking the ideas of liberalism seriously is accepting that there are defects in the system that you can’t fix, or more precisely, you can’t use government power to fix, that it would be wrong for the state to be involved in a certain set of things.
You cannot excise sin from the nation, whatever you see it, by the use of the government. Like, someone somewhere is going to do something you don’t like.
Right, and that is just — that’s just a fact. It’s a feature of the system, right? Because what I don’t like might actually end up being a good thing, or, even better, an authentic representation of a certain strain of the people who would otherwise have to be repressed by force. And it would be really, really, really bad in a democratic system if you end up having people who feel like they can’t speak or participate in public life, unless they do so through the force of arms. Their viewpoint is so thoroughly repressed that they need to resort to violence.
That doesn’t obviate the need to analyze the way that liberalism generates its own problems and challenges internally, right? We can’t just be, oh, well, liberalism will just go solve things on its own through the magic processes of freedom, right? I don’t think that’s true either. We need to acknowledge the problems the system creates, while defending it and figuring out what kinds of solutions are compatible with the protection of fundamental freedoms and liberal values.
Yeah, and I think, I mean, I agree with what Zach said. Maybe this is contrary to the spirit of this podcast, but —
The agreement part. There are always exceptions to rules, right? I mean, even a crazy right winger like me is not for totally unregulated capitalism, right? I also believe that, you know, there have to be guardrails in all kinds of ways around certain kinds of speech, around democratic procedures. The question is what the tendency is, right? Is your tendency to censor or is it to disclose? It’s the instinct more than the rule that strikes me as what’s at issue today.
And one of the reasons I worry about liberalism today is I feel like our instincts are moving in the wrong direction, repeatedly towards censoriousness, towards shutting conversations and shutting lines of inquiry down, rather than saying maybe we need to check our instinct to suppress before we do that, because, again, this issue of unintended consequences is what repeatedly ends up hurting us the most.
What are you arguing about with your family, your friends, your frenemies? Tell me about the big debate you’re having in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324. And we might play an excerpt of it on a future episode.
I want to go quickly to — we talked about Hungary earlier. And I was saying that like the closest thing I could think of to how conservatives have been talking about Hungary is the way liberals talk about, say, Finland, which I always talk about like, yeah, it’s an extremely racially homogeneous country with a very different political history than ours. So it’s not like this. But Zach, I did want to ask you, what parallels are safe to draw between what’s happening with autocracy in Hungary and the rest of Europe and the United States, and what comparisons do feel like a stretch?
Yeah, I think there are a few substantive similarities, right? I think the most important one when it comes to the Hungary example is this concept that political scientists have called competitive authoritarianism. And the basic idea is that you have a political system that has formerly free elections in the sense that the ballot box isn’t stuffed. But you have rules that govern the way that elections are conducted that make them functionally unfair, so through things like extreme gerrymandering, government control over media, campaign finance rules that are rigged for one side. So free and not fair is sort of the tagline for this kind of election.
So Hungary is like the textbook example of this kind of system. And I’ve argued that increasingly, in almost like a unified ideological manner, but more sort of in practice, state Republican parties are starting to embrace this as a governing methodology. The best examples are Republican parties in Wisconsin and North Carolina that have embraced a variety of procedural tricks to make it extremely difficult for Democrats to participate in elections in the state.
And we can run on down the list, right, of the competitive authoritarian hallmarks that you see. So in Hungary, for instance, there’s an attempt to control the nature of education so that children are not exposed to narratives that they deem unpatriotic, essentially to manufacture consent for their particular vision of what Hungary should be. You can see versions of that in various different state laws that are proliferating right now — the, quote unquote, “critical race theory” bans, the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida.
And all of that suggests to me that there are very, very strong affinities between Fidesz, the party in power in Hungary and the Republican Party as it currently exists. That does not mean they are the same or that the U.S. is inevitably going down that trajectory. There are all sorts of differences, right? The federal system both enables this kind of political abuse and also puts a check on it, right? Because it makes it hard for them sort of to be issued from a top-down level.
So I don’t mean to be catastrophic here, but I do mean to say that there is a real parallel in the way the Republicans are approaching the electoral system in the United States and sort of the levers of democracy, the way they’re getting implicated and pulled into culture war concepts, right? Those parallels are real, and they really should worry us, especially if we don’t want to just assume that the end of the Trump presidency is the end of our problems, or even if Trump loses in 2024, because I just don’t think that’s the case.
Yeah, I think we have to be careful with comparisons. I mean, one of the things that amazes me — I’m no fan of Viktor Orban, but the coalition that was opposing him was the Jobbik party, which is a neo-Nazi party. It’s a profound difference with the United States. The other difference that — I think Zach puts his finger on this rightly — Orban just won his, I think, fourth election. Trump couldn’t even win his first election. I don’t mean it was stolen, but he certainly could win a majority of the popular vote, and he got decisively routed in the second one.
And I think from my conversations with Republicans, there is real, real misgivings about having him be the standard bearer the next time around. So we have to be, I think, somewhat careful with those comparisons. I would push back a little bit, Jane, that you know, if you go back to the year 2000, all the way up until around 2010, the extent to which there was left-wing enthusiasm for the Chavez government in Venezuela was astonishing.
This has all been swept under the rug, but just look at the tweets that people like Jeremy Corbyn sent when Chavez died, the fact that the district attorney of San Francisco spent time with the Chavez government. I mean, it was not just something to blink at. So I’m only saying that in that what’s the line of, don’t point out the moat in someone else’s eye when you have a beam in your own, I think is always pretty useful advice.
I mean, I think that we risk doing that thing where we’re just like, oh, my wide receiver’s arrest is fine. Your wide receiver’s arrest is a show of your ignominy and evil. But I do think that what gets me is, Hungary is a terrible country comparison for the United States in almost every respect.
But Zach’s point is very important, and I should stress this so there’s no misunderstanding. The right’s fixation with Hungary is really dismaying, because they are seeing in it a kind of an example of this kind of illiberal democracy, managed democracy that is sort of the high road to Putinism. But the central point, which is this idea on the right that we can have a form of democracy in which we tilt the rules so hard against our ideological opponents that they’re essentially shut out of power, has been the story of the Republican Party, or largely the story of the Republican Party, for the last several years.
And in that sense, it is, in fact, a really big deal because sure enough, there’s going to be a Republican president, whether it’s Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or someone else. You know, sometime in the next few years, there’s probably going to be a Republican Congress in 2023. And if Hungary is the country they look to as a kind of a gold standard for what a well-managed democracy should look like, then, in fact, it’s terrifying. So talking about Hungary is not at all a bad idea.
We spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of our current politics and how what we’re seeing abroad is influencing how we think about our own politics — too much so, I think. But I am curious to hear from both of you, how do we respond? What do we do about it? And is there a thing to be done?
What is to be done —
This is such a big question.
Such a Leninist question.
Yeah, I was about to say, we’re ending on our pro-democracy confrontation here with the Lenin question. It’s really certainly a choice.
It’s a good question.
Well, I really feel like the most important thing that those of us who consider ourselves liberals, whether you’re an old-fashioned liberal, or I should say, a progressive liberal or a conservative liberal, is to talk to your own side, fix your own problems. You know, it’s very easy to lob bombs at the other guy, and much harder and I think much more courageous when you take up the work of saying to people where you have standing to say, hang on a second. We need to check this illiberalism among us.
I mean, look, I tried to do that on the conservative side. Look where it got me. But I still think it’s actually morally important. And it’s the only thing that has a real hope of success to recenter the parties. Even if you’re of Zach’s view, you know, that the problem on the Democratic side is much smaller than the problem on the Republican side, well, fine. In that case, much easier to solve, right?
So take up the work, as I know Zach has, and call this stuff out. We’re not going to get very far if it’s simply a matter of, as you put it, I think, so beautifully, Jane, like, your wide receiver is worse than my wide receiver. It’s just not a winning political strategy. I guess, the other thing is, I think it’s a huge task for universities that we need to be educating particularly our elites for genuine democracy.
It would be amazing if more university professors and presidents and deans and provosts and so on could say, you know, we’ve got a problem here. There is a lot of illiberalism, too much illiberalism on college campuses. We can do something about it. And if they could do that, I think it would be a transformational shift in American culture with results we would know about in 10 or 20 years.
Zach, what is to be done?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, right? Because it is not easy. I think that there are a few things that one can look at. When it comes to the health of the democratic system itself, I think there are some encouraging signs that you can see especially from activist groups that are focusing on pro-democracy work at the very local level. As we’ve been stressing in this conversation, the U.S. federal system, it creates different kinds of points of vulnerability for democracy. Jim Crow demonstrated the way that you can have subnational authoritarianism in the United States.
So when you have groups that are contesting local elections, that are working against anti-democratic ordinances at the state and even the granular county level, right, that kind of political organizing and thinking, which I think has been absent from a pro-democracy perspective until very recently, you’re starting to see it with groups like Run for Something, I think is a really good example of this. On the ideological side, it’s a lot more complicated, right?
But one thing I would like — and this is almost directly a product of my disagreement with Bret about the significance of the sort of cancel culture or social media shaming stuff — is like, less focus on that and more focus on between people who believe in liberal principles to stop fighting about things like defunding the police or getting angry at each other about one person’s bad tweet or something like that, and much more focus on developing a kind of shared liberal ideological front, because I think a lot of the people who are on different sides of certain cultural disputes share a commitment to core liberal democratic values.
Bret, Zach, thank you so much. That was a great conversation.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Thank you, Jane. Thanks, Zach.
Bret Stephens is a Times Opinion columnist. Zach Beauchamp is senior correspondent at Vox and host of the mini series, “The War in Ukraine Explained,” airing on the podcast, “Vox Conversations.” You can read a lot more about liberalism in the Hungarian election in Zach’s pieces, “Europe’s Other Threat to Democracy,” and “The Anti-Liberal Moment,” both published in Vox. And don’t sleep on Bret’s column, “America Could Use a Liberal Party.”
“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon; with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker; audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.