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Did you know that democracy is dying in Eastern Europe? That is the accepted consensus among the foreign policy establishment, from the New York Times and Washington Post to the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute and John McCain.
Well, it’s not exactly democracy that is dying. Even these critics admit that the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Fidesz in Hungary have been democratically elected in free and fair elections and remain popular to this day. Rather, these states are said to be transforming into “illiberal democracies,” or countries where the majority rules but the government lacks traditional aspects of liberal democracy such as checks and balances and respect for civil rights.
Considering that this is now conventional wisdom among the foreign policy establishment, we may want to look for examples of Poland and Hungary actually arresting political opponents or putting them on trial, traditional hallmarks of dictatorship. I have not been able to find a single case, and interestingly that is more than one can say about many of the so-called liberal democracies in Western Europe.
For example, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, the leader of a political party that may finish first in elections next year, was recently convicted not of inciting violence, but “inciting discrimination” by telling a crowd he wanted fewer Moroccans. National Front leader Marine Le Pen recently faced similar charges in France for saying that immigrants were occupying her country, a comment that wouldn’t raise eyebrows if made by an American conservative.
None of these are outlier cases. Across Western Europe, states regularly bring criminal and civil cases against individuals for criticizing immigration, multiculturalism, feminists, or sexual liberalism. Yet one never hears a word about democracy being under threat in any of these countries.
So what exactly are the crimes against democracy committed by Fidesz and PiS? As these parties are said to be clamping down on press freedom, it is worthwhile to investigate such claims in depth. Dalibor Rohac, a scholar at AEI, says that the Polish government committed a crime against democracy when it decided to subject public broadcasters to political control.
Like other European countries, Poland has a rich landscape of public-service broadcasters, including nine television channels and five national radio channels, which account for large segments of the respective media markets. We might or we might not like the idea of public broadcasting, but to the extent to which it does exist, there is a case for insulating it from political pressures, instead of turning it into an arm of government. The new media law will do the opposite, making Polish public broadcasting look less like NPR or BBC and more like government media in countries to the east of Poland.
This argument is somewhat bizarre. Imagine a conservative saying, “I don’t agree with having a Department of Education, but if we do, at least let it be an unelected bureaucrat rather than someone appointed by the president. For the sake of protecting democracy, of course.” I think most people would suspect, rightly, that the person making such an argument just likes the idea of an independent Department of Education but doesn’t want to say so.
Furthermore, the idea that an independent public broadcaster will provide an equal check on all governments is striking in its naivety. As a group, journalists are about as unrepresentative of the public as a profession can be. For example, 96% of their donations in the US presidential race went to Hilary Clinton last year. We don’t have statistics on Eastern Europe, but one suspects that the governments of Hungary and Poland are taking action in the first place because they live under similar circumstances. A government directly controlling parts of the media can create conflicts and distortions in coverage, but so can a public broadcaster that is run by an unaccountable and unrepresentative elite.
One suspects that if a government was funding a profession that was almost universally right-leaning, we wouldn’t be hearing about its independence being essential for democracy
Since 2011, the press freedom rating of Hungary has been downgraded from “free” to “mostly free” by Freedom House. The report complains about things that seem par for the course in other established democracies, like campaign finance laws affecting advertising or parties suing public figures over comments they don’t like.
Law and Justice has also been criticized for trying to take control of the highest constitutional in Poland by installing justices that are favorable to its agenda and taking away certain powers from the body. It is interesting, however, that the foreign policy establishment practically never says that courts themselves are a threat to democracy, regardless of how much power they claim for themselves. If one was truly worried about checks and balances, then sometimes you might believe that elected officials overreach, while at other times you would criticize judges for doing the same. Yet it is only right wing elected officials that are ever taken to task for engaging in what other contexts is seen as the unremarkable jostling over power.
With regards to public broadcasting, the worst that can be said about Poland and Hungary is that the governments are trying to make their respective media institutions align closer to the politics of the state. If this is “soft totalitarianism,” then what should we call what has been going on in the so-called liberal democracies? What one does not find in the criticisms of Hungary and Poland is one example of a politician being arrested or put on trial for his political beliefs.
The Western democracies do not only use hate speech laws to after politicians, but regular citizens too.
To take one example out of many, in the UK Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in jail for making racist remarks about a soccer player while drunk on Twitter.
In Germany, a couple that founded a Facebook group critical of migration was given a nine month suspended sentence, with the judge promising that the defendants would go directly to jail if they dare discuss the issue again.
Perhaps no country has gone as far as Sweden in enforcing state-mandated political correctness. In action that was affirmed to be lawful by the European Court of Human Rights, the government prosecuted four individuals for passing out leaflets critical of homosexuality. Åke Green, a Pentecostal pastor, was convicted for preaching against homosexuality in a sermon before the decision was overturned by the Swedish Supreme Court. In 2014, a street artist was sent to jail for six months for creating “racist” posters meant to be a protest against restrictions on speech.
While Poland and Hungary are criticized for taking control of public broadcasting, Germany and Sweden are telling private media and social media platforms that they must take action against speech offensive to the state. In 2015, Chancellor Merkel was caught on hot mic telling Mark Zuckerberg that he needed to do more to censor Facebook posts critical of her immigration policy. Later that year Germany set up a task force that included representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. They agreed to try to delete all illegal postings within 24 hours. Having decided that the tech giants have fallen short of that goal, the Merkel government is now considering fining them for not doing enough to combat “hate speech.”
Last year, the former head of the German public broadcaster revealed that journalists regularly take their orders straight from the government, and this is partly why they covered up the Cologne sex attacks last New Year’s Eve. In 2014, Sweden passed a law that may in all practicality shut down all criticisms of immigration and multiculturalism on the internet.
Western European democracies have fully decided that certain issues cannot be discussed, and they go after all dissenters with the full power of the state. In case you are wondering, Germany and Sweden are still considered completely “free” according to Freedom House.
When the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot was arrested and sentenced to prison in 2011 for protesting inside a cathedral, they became known as free speech heroes. Protests were held outside the Moscow embassy in Washington, the usual suspect celebrity airheads like Madonna weighed in, and members of the band even starred on House of Cards where they stood up to a character clearly based on Putin. The Russian government convicted the band on the grounds that their actions were offensive to religious believers, a justification that is similar to that used by Western governments when they go after “racists” or “homophobes.” In this case, however, because the tribe that the state was protecting was white Christians, Western elites suddenly became free speech absolutists.
The story of Pussy Riot explains what the foreign policy establishment means when it talks about “illiberal democracy.” Clearly, liberal democracy does not mean fair elections, rule of law, individual liberty, or decentralized power. Rather, a country is only a democracy if it accepts mass immigration and promotes the tenets of multiculturalism and the sexual revolution. The true sin of Hungary and Poland is not that they are no longer “democracies,” as the phrase has been traditionally understood, but rather that they offend 21st century liberals who put hostility towards western identity above all else.
It is probably too much to ask liberals to consistently defend free speech abroad, when they rarely do so at home. More focus should be put on convincing American conservatives that a resurgent Eastern European fascism is not their enemy. Rather, it is the same groups and institutions that have succeeded in ending free speech in Western Europe and college campuses that would like to take their model to countries where people are still allowed to debate the issues affecting their futures. Hopefully, the Trump administration will stay clear of those that claim that democracy is under threat in Eastern Europe, and appoint individuals that understand who the true enemies of Western values are.