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As a Hungarian-speaking, outside observer of Hungarian politics and public affairs with strong conservative sensibilities, I have often wondered what to make of Hungary’s “two-thirds revolution” and its recent constitutional accomplishments. Those who have been following the public discourse surrounding the Fidesz led government’s travails know that much of the reaction both inside and outside Hungary has been extremely polarized: One side’s “national renaissance” is the other’s dangerous “slide into authoritarianism.”
As someone with deep ethnic and cultural ties to the Hungarian community in Transylvania (I was born and raised there and immigrated to the United States at age 18), yet steeped in the American conservative tradition, I applaud the new Hungarian constitution’s open affirmation of national solidarity, as well as Christianity and traditional values. At the same time, it is especially important for people of Hungarian origin living permanently outside of Hungary to reject extremes—both right and left—and to refuse to be spoon-fed empty slogans, platitudes, and partisan rhetoric.
Many have characterized Fidesz and its new constitution (or “Basic Law”) as signifying a radical conservative shift in Hungarian politics. Conservatives and people of faith do indeed have legitimate reasons to celebrate the explicitly Christian preamble (or “National Creed”), and the pro-life and pro-marriage clauses of the new constitution. But while the Fidesz-KDNP government may be “right-wing” in many respects, I do not think the party or the new constitution represents anything resembling conservatism in the Western, Anglo-American sense, in the tradition of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, or William F. Buckley, Jr. Nevertheless, cries of Hungary’s “slide into authoritarianism” are likely overblown, but not because Fidesz is somehow exempt from unbridled political power grabs. Rather, it seems that the Fidesz-Christian Democratic coalition government is too incompetent and mired in its own Manichean partisan rhetoric (“Hungary against the world”) to transform Hungary into anything approaching, for instance, Russia’s genuine authoritarian order under Putin.
There are many reasons why I think “conservative” is a misnomer for Fidesz and its regime. The most important of these is that conservatives as the name implies tend to want to conserve and cherish an existing social order and patterns of institutional and class relationships within a society. Hungary, however, has seen over forty years of a soul-crushing Communist regime that effectively transformed much of the social landscape and the Hungarian national psyche not necessarily destroying everything that came before it, but certainly transmogrifying it into something radically new, certainly more plebeian, more secular, and less traditionally “national” or religious in character. The obvious question must then be raised: what does Fidesz wish to conserve?
A “return” to any real or imagined pre-Communist political and social tradition in Hungary (which the wording and tone of the new constitution’s Preamble, the “National Creed,” seem to imply) would involve uprooting or radically transforming much of the existing web of complex interrelationships in Hungarian society, the results for better or worse of decades of totalitarian and genuinely authoritarian rule. Given that Hungary lacks a solid, deeply entrenched tradition of strong property rights, well-functioning republicanism, and respect for the rule of law, Fidesz and its style of governance represents more of a right-wing, nationalist populism with a very strong statist bent, more akin to French dirigisme. In many ways, this approach is the opposite of small-government conservatism in the English and American political tradition. This is an important distinction for conservative or classical liberal Hungarian-Americans to keep in mind, since they often read or are told about the “conservative” turn of events in Hungary, not necessarily knowing that the term has little applicability in the traditional American sense. They are, therefore, highly susceptible to political manipulation by the Hungarian government in the name of right-wing and national solidarity, especially given the (often outrageous) outside attacks on the legitimacy of Hungary’s current government.
The most important thing for Hungarians living permanently abroad is to continue caring and advocating for Hungary and her right to self-determination, without taking Fidesz’s “with us or against us” bait. Now that many Hungarian ethnics have also applied for and received Hungarian citizenship under Fidesz’s new naturalization law, they must avoid the temptation to give uncritical and unconditional support to the Fidesz government. Fidesz is certainly not above manipulating feelings of gratitude to further its own political ends. Hungarians everywhere, especially the large contingent of Hungary’s newest citizens, must remember that their ultimate political loyalty should be to nation, not party.
—Tom Bako is a native of Sepsiszentgyörgy, in the Székelyföld region of eastern Transylvania. He immigrated to the United States in 2005 upon graduating from high school. Tom holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science from Towson University and works at a higher-education nonprofit foundation in Washington, DC. He and his wife Victoria reside in Alexandria, Virginia.