What Illiberal Democracy Means

05-12-2019

By Roger Berkowitz
In the United States, terms like “academic freedom” and “free speech” have come to be scoffed at by many students and faculty. They have somehow been turned into conservative talking points.

So it is important to remember that as illiberal democracies blossom in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and elsewhere, academic freedom and free speech are essential bulwarks of a free society.

In a long essay, Franklin Foer offers a look at how illiberal democracy takes aim at academic freedom by exploring the war fought against Central European University by Victor Orbán’s government in Hungary. The attack on CEU is part of a larger attack on education and is designed to decimate and reduce the class of educated intellectuals in Hungary. Nearly 1 million Hungarians have left the country, many of them college-educated. The public universities, previously free, are now charging tuition and are inaccessible to most Hungarians. “Hungary used to have the highest level of university enrollment in postcommunist Europe; it now has one of the lowest.”

Hungary once had some of the best universities in postcommunist Europe. But Orbán’s government has systematically crushed them. His functionaries have descended on public universities, controlling them tightly. Research funding, once determined by an independent body of academics, is now primarily dispensed by an Orbán loyalist. When I arrived in Budapest, a pro-government website had just called on students to submit the names of professors who espoused “unasked-for left-wing political opinions.” A regime-friendly weekly published an “enemies list” that included the names of dozens of academics, “mercenaries” purportedly working on behalf of a foreign cabal.

Like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, Orbán dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, draining the public of education, and molding a more pliant nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.

CEU is a private university, accredited in both the United States and Hungary, and for that reason it has posed a particular challenge to the regime. The school was founded by the Budapest-born financier George Soros, whom Orbán has vilified as a nefarious interloper in Hungary’s affairs. Soros had conceived the school during the dying days of communism to train a generation of technocrats who would write new constitutions, privatize state enterprises, and lead the post-Soviet world into a cosmopolitan future. The university, he declared, would “become a prototype of an open society.”

But open society is exactly what Orbán hopes to roll back; illiberal democracy is the euphemism he uses to describe the state he is building. The prime minister and his allies did their best to make life unpleasant for CEU. Then, in April 2017, Parliament passed a law setting conditions that threatened to render CEU’s continued presence in the country illegal. All of Ignatieff’s hopes of settling into a placid academic life dissipated. Eighty thousand protesters filled the streets.

The effort to evict CEU rattled liberals across the world. Academic freedom—a bloodless term, but a concept at the core of all that the West professes to treasure—seemed to be slipping away in a country where it had looked firmly established. Universities rushed to declare their solidarity; 17 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter of support. Even the United States, run by a president who is no fan of George Soros, offered to help the university.
And so, for much of the past two years, CEU has been the barricades of a civilizational struggle, where liberalism would mount a defense against right-wing populism. The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe.