Liberalism itself seems likely to generate demotic demands for an illiberal autocrat who promises to protect the people against the vagaries of liberalism itself. Liberals are right to fear this eventuality, but persist in a willful obliviousness of their own complicity in the birth of the illiberal progeny of the liberal order itself.

It’s a dark time for liberals. The leaders of the world’s three most powerful countries—China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the U.S.’s own Donald J. Trump—are all authoritarians of one kind or another. Each, in his own way, wraps himself in the mantle of “the people,” and targets independent institutions, especially the press and the academy, as “enemies of the people.”  And each hates liberalism.

Yet, the leader who has articulated perhaps the most cogent rationale for such authoritarian exercise of power governs a small country in what was once known, wistfully, as “Central Europe.” This leader is Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of the country that used to be called The Republic of Hungary, but that under his tutelage, and the radical constitutional revisions he has rammed through parliament, is now called simply “Hungary.” Orbán first proclaimed Hungary an “illiberal democracy,” and then proceeded to expand on the national and Christian character of the Hungarian state, considered as one sovereign and independent state belonging to a Europe of similarly “Christian” nation-states.

Orbán hates liberals. He hates liberal notions of civil freedom and he hates liberal notions of human rights. He is greatly troubled by the anxiety, promoted by far-right ideologues, that Europe is in danger of a “great replacement” of white Christian people by people who are neither white nor Christian: he stands, above all, for a state centered on “procreation, not immigration.” Finally, Orbán hates what he and his supporters alternatively call “genderism” or “genderology.” Toward this end, his government actively promotes “traditional family” policies, and has passed a decree banning gender studies degrees from Hungarian universities.

Like many scholars who care about the precarious future of liberal democracy, I pay attention to what Orbán says and does, because of its impact in Hungary, in Eastern Europe, and in the world more generally (where he has made common cause with Putin, Trump, Erdogan, and Netanyahu).

I noted with particular interest this very recent post on the official website of Hungary’s Prime Minister:

State must help to strengthen national and family communities

November 14, 2019 8:00 PM

On Thursday afternoon in the Carmelite Monastery in Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received American Professor of Political Science Patrick J. Deneen whose book ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ will be released in Budapest shortly, Bertalan Havasi, the Prime Minister’s press chief told the Hungarian news agency MTI.

At the meeting, the American conservative academic spoke about Hungary’s family policy measures in words of praise, underlining that the future belongs to local communities resting on national and family values, instead of liberalism which still continues to prevail in many places. The parties agreed that it is the responsibility of the state everywhere to reinforce these communities. Professor Deneen repeated an earlier thought of his, stating that [the] nation is complete if it is ruled by God because it is thereby able to counter, with humility and self-criticism, the deficiencies of human institutions, and becomes worthy of using the term ‘national conservatism’, Mr Havasi said.

Being a colleague of Patrick Deneen familiar with his work, having respected and even taught some of his writings, and seeking to learn more, I turned to Hungary Today, which featured a photo of Prof. Deneen and PM Orbán shaking hands. Some more searching led me to a much more impressive photo, Tweeted by the conservative writer Rod Dreher, which features the two sitting in Orbán’s office, which appears to be a library stocked with a great many presumably Very Great Books.

Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has received extraordinary attention and is in its own way an interesting, in some ways even serious book. It is typically erudite, containing some nuanced cultural criticism of modernity and its hollowing out of social life (of the sort that has been more carefully articulated over the past thirty years by the likes of Alasdair MacIntrye, Jean Elshtain, Robert Bellah, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Putnam). At the same time, it is essentially a screed with an overall tone relentlessly hostile towards liberalism. Deneen considers liberalism a form of “enslavement,” “bondage,” and “captivity” that is “more insidious than” totalitarianism” and that is producing an “accumulating catastrophe.” According to Deneen, liberals are “anti-culture,” and through their control over modern universities, they are “strip-mining” morality and undermining community. 

Deneen is above all a partisan of the traditional family and what he calls “healthful family life” centered on heterosexual marriage, parental authority, and the regulation of erotic desire designed, as he quotes Wendell Berry, “to reduce the volatility and dangers of sex.”  And among his many indictments of liberals, perhaps the most powerful for him is the charge that they are contributing to the “dissolution of sexual norms” by politicizing gender and promoting feminism: “today we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology.” 

It makes sense that he would meet with Orbán: they are ideological brethren.

Liberal democrats such as myself take very seriously the plurality of opinions and affiliations that characterize any modern society. There are many intellectuals who think as Deneen does. Some of them are even smart. Many such intellectuals have played and continue to play a role in the ascendancy of conservative authoritarian populists in the U.S. as well as in Hungary, where these reactionaries, it is important to say, come to power via electoral means—even if they typically use their electoral power to attack liberalism and tilt the deck in their favor. Some of these intellectuals also play important roles in the academy or at least some segments of it. As a liberal, and as a believer in academic freedom—a liberal value to be sure—I recognize and accept that. Patrick Deneen ought to be as free as I am to teach, to publish, to participate in book launches, and to meet with and offer support to whomever he chooses, Viktor Orbán included. From my liberal perspective, the best that I can do politically is to criticize Deneen and work as hard in support of liberal democracy as he seems to be working against it.

At the same time, a few things about this highly public meeting of Orbán and Deneen, apparently a photo op for both, are particularly troubling. And they leave me to wonder whether Deneen, who purports to stand for a more nuanced and intellectually elevated view of the world, has taken their full measure.

One is that Viktor Orbán is not simply a “national conservative.” He is an authoritarian populist whose party and government, under his leadership, has made the demonization of George Soros a pillar of their renascent Hungarian national identity. As many observers have noted, this active public relations campaign against Soros has drawn heavily on the rhetoric and imagery of antisemitism, and has been associated with a noticeable upsurge of antisemitism in Hungary. Orbán himself, alluding to Soros and his “cosmopolitanism,” has declared that “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Orbán has also promoted the rehabilitation of Admiral Miklos Horthy, the authoritarian and anti-Semitic leader of Hungary from 1920-1944, who made common cause with Hitler.

One must wonder where Deneen stands on all of this. The Prime Minister’s press release states that “Professor Deneen repeated . . .  that [the] nation is complete if it is ruled by God because it is thereby able to counter, with humility and self-criticism, the deficiencies of human institutions, and becomes worthy of using the term ‘national conservatism.’” Does the embrace of anti-Semitism and the glorification of collaboration with fascism represent such “humility” and “Godliness?”

Perhaps it does. Such affiliations have a long history and played an important role in the 20th century justifying forms of nationalism, and conservatism that perpetrated great violence. At the same time, some great religious leaders—here, I think particularly of Karol Wojtyła, the late Pope John Paul II—have very emphatically denounced racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. One doubts that Pope John Paul II, or Vaclav Havel—who Deneen, perversely, cites in his book—would be seeking the embrace of Viktor Orbán today. But there is Deneen, apparently glorying in this meeting.

I wonder about the kind of Aristotelian “philia” (friendship) that is on display here, but I also wonder about the gross hypocrisy on display. Deneen claims to be a besieged defender of academic values “undermined” by liberals. He is also a lover of Great Books. And so that library meeting with Orbán must have been particularly inspiring.

Does Deneen not know that within blocks of his meeting sits a major library that is virtually empty, and a major university that is almost completely vacant, because his glorious host—once a beneficiary of a Soros fellowship, now a vicious defamer of Soros—has forced Central European University to shut virtually all of its Hungarian operations and move to Vienna?

Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Political Science at Notre Dame University–a distinguished Catholic University that is perhaps the second best university in the state of Indiana—is making common cause with an authoritarian leader who has forced the closure of one of the most important universities in Central Europe. Orbán’s assault on academic freedom has been denounced by a great many distinguished academics; by groups ranging from Human Rights Watch, to the American Association of University Professors (see here and here), to the American Political Science Association (a full list of supporters of CEU can be found here).

This is sad and it is reprehensible. It is one thing to espouse conservative beliefs. It is quite another to embrace, and to pose for photo ops with brazenly anti-intellectual authoritarians. Whatever the genuine failings and limits of liberalism, if this is the alternative, I think it speaks for itself.

Re-read the epigram with which I began. which appears on p. 178 of Deneen’s book. It sounds like an expression of concern. But it would appear that beneath the surface it is something else: a hopeful prediction and perhaps even an invitation to a nice meeting followed by a book launch.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.