Viktor Orbán's Culture War
A dispatch from the Hungarian capital.
Hungary is the most controversial small nation on Earth. The headlines in the international press sound the alarm: Hungary represents the “death of a democracy,” the “rise of illiberalism in Europe,” and a “glimpse of our authoritarian future.” Viktor Orbán, the country’s prime minister, is described as a monster—the embodiment of nativism, nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism. Meanwhile, a faction of right-leaning intellectuals has heralded Hungary and its policies as a model for a new conservatism that asserts national sovereignty and uses state power to support families, civil society, and national identity.
Inside the country, the atmosphere is more normal than these polemics suggest. Life proceeds as usual: People spend the day working, political parties squabble, everyone is worried about inflation. Despite his reputation abroad, most Hungarians support Orbán and his Fidesz political party; others oppose him, but with nothing of the fervor of American journalists and international NGOs.
I spent six weeks in Hungary as part of a visiting fellowship with the Danube Institute, in part to learn more about Hungary’s hotly-debated culture war policies. I passed most of this time in Budapest, the capital city, with side trips to Debrecen, Miskolc, and the Hungarian countryside, which is home to approximately one-quarter of the country’s ten million inhabitants. I spoke with diplomats, journalists, academics, strategists, officials, students, and regular citizens, all of whom helped paint a more complex picture of politics in their landlocked nation.
My deepest interest was to understand how Hungary, which emerged from Soviet communism just thirty years ago, is attempting to rebuild its culture and institutions, from schools to universities to media. They are not pursuing the path of maximum laissez-faire, but using muscular state policy to achieve conservative ends.
Viktor Orbán has been at the center of this effort since the beginning. Even his enemies concede that he is shrewd and capable. In a way few others have managed to do, he has outmaneuvered his opponents and defied the Brussels consensus.
This essay is an attempt to understand Orbán’s culture war and to sort the good from the bad. Hungary is a small, homogenous nation and its policies cannot be directly transposed onto a large, multiracial society such as the United States, but still, there are lessons—and caveats—for American conservatives. Hungary’s leaders are serious people combatting the same forces confronted by conservatives in the West: the fraying of national culture, entrenched left-wing institutions, and the rejection of sexual difference. They may not win this fight, but their story is worth telling.
János Csák, minister of culture and innovation, greeted me with a strong handshake. As a secretary brought caffè espresso on a silver-plated tray, he delivered the set-up, explaining that, as the English writer Paul Johnson had argued in his 1983 book Modern Times, the West was in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein had, respectively, undermined the certainties of the metaphysical, psychological, and material world. As culture minister, Csák believed it was his responsibility to help stabilize a sense of national identity and lead the nation through this epoch of dissolution, so that “Hungarians will be living as Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin for the next two hundred years.”
Hungarians, Csák said, see the world very differently than Americans. While Americans think in terms of causality and linear progression, Hungarians think in terms of networks—the dangerous tribes looming at the edge of the steppe—and historical cycles of domination and freedom, sustained by a faith oriented to the highest, fixed point: the Christian God. Because of the constant threat of conquest, Hungarians had forged an enduring sense of identity. The Mongols, Turks, Austrians, Germans, and Russians had all put the Hungarians under the yoke. In contrast to the bland public relations-style language of most Western leaders, the minister described his role in robust terms. The purpose of statecraft, he said, was to “build institutions that create healthy attachments to family, nation, and God.”
The immediate circumstance facing Csák and his boss, Viktor Orbán, is Hungary’s continuing transition from communism. Orbán made his first entry in politics in 1989, when, as an idealistic young leader of the newly-founded Fidesz opposition party, he delivered a daring speech calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. “Democracy and communism are incompatible,” said Orbán. “If we believe in our own power, we will be able to finish the communist dictatorship.”
But Orbán’s idealism was not meant to last. After Hungary’s democratic transition, he watched the ex-communist officials divide up the spoils of the state and smoothly transform themselves into the new oligarchs. They bought villas in the Buda hills, stage-managed the operations of civil society, and sold out to the Germans, who snapped up factories, newspapers, radio, and television stations, allowing most of the ex-communist publishers and editors to retain their positions.
The Hungarians had democracy, but not freedom. The old regime no longer had direct control of the social apparatus, but controlled it nonetheless, through cutouts, intermediaries, and outright corruption. And when Orbán, building support from resentments in the countryside, was elected to his first term as prime minister in 1998, he was unable to break the old guard’s hold over the institutions and was defeated in the next election. He realized that he was in office, but not in power. The naïve young orator had seen through the façade—and vowed never to play the fool again.
Between 2002 and 2010, Orbán spent his time patiently building Fidesz into a viable opposition to the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party. His great innovation was to establish a network of counter-institutions, including media, that could contend against the ex-communists and their allied oligarchs.
Orbán matured. He put on some weight. He began to strike more traditional themes of faith, family, and national identity. He played bare-knuckle politics, polarized issues in his favor, and exploited his enemies’ mistakes. He was, for many Hungarians, the only man strong enough to rid the country of domestic corruption and foreign influence.
Finally, after eight years in the wilderness, Orbán returned to power. He won a shocking two-thirds majority in parliament—enough to amend the Constitution—and he was ready to punish his enemies and reward his friends.
The second Orbán government immediately set about using its authority to disrupt the socialist left’s soft-power hegemony. The Fidesz-led supermajority in parliament voted in a new Constitution, which, in the preamble, declared Hungary a Christian nation, and reformed the electoral system, reducing the number of parliamentary seats in a way that benefited his party. Later, on domestic policy, Orbán enacted a 16 percent flat tax on personal income and a strict immigration policy that prohibited illegal immigrants from settling in the country.
But the Orbán government’s most significant policy gambit, which is little understood outside Hungary, was to reshape the institutions in both public and private life to create an enduring conservative counter-hegemony. This agenda includes far-reaching reforms in schools, universities, nonprofits, media, and government. The goal is to strengthen Hungary’s cultural foundations—family life, Christian faith, and historical memory—and to create a conservative elite capable of maintaining them.
The man in charge of operationalizing this strategy is Balázs Orbán—no relation to Viktor—a thirty-seven-year-old lawyer who wears glasses and tweeds. Balázs has cultivated something resembling court politics in Budapest, with a busy itinerary of dinners, lectures, salons, and galas designed to nurture the conservative movement. I saw him throughout my time in Hungary, crossing paths at a number of events, including a reception for foreign intellectuals at a Scruton Café, part of a chain named after the British philosopher Roger Scruton, who worked with anti-communist dissidents in Central Europe during the Soviet era, smuggling in samizdat literature and leading underground seminars.
At his office in Budapest’s Castle District, Balázs Orbán described the component parts of the government’s strategy. The starting point, he explained, is education. For decades, the schools and universities promoted communist ideology and rewarded politically loyal teachers and faculty, many of whom remain in high positions. To break this cultural monopoly, the government initiated a campaign to rapidly decentralize primary and secondary education, enlisting mostly Catholic and Calvinist churches to take over the schooling function for a large number of Hungarian children. According to Balázs, the number of government-funded, church-run schools has increased from 5 percent to 30 percent in recent years, allowing families to provide a religious rather than secular, left-leaning education for their kids.
Next, at the university level, the Orbán government has administered fundamental changes to the way higher education institutions are governed. In 2021, the Fidesz-led parliament passed a law that converted 11 state universities into private foundations and provided them with multibillion-dollar endowments, including significant real estate holdings and shares in Hungarian companies. The prime minister appointed conservative stalwarts to the governing boards of these new institutions, with a mandate to advance a “national approach” to education, rather than continue to serve as centers for left-wing ideology. These changes will be hard to roll back—the legislation can only be reversed by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
The European Union has punished Hungary for this policy, threatening to revoke the country’s participation in the Erasmus exchange program, but Balázs Orbán said the government was working on a counter and, in any case, could find other options. During our conversation, Balázs asked if I knew of any American universities that were up for sale. The government, he said, was interested in purchasing a small liberal arts campus to create its own study-abroad program.
The final component of Orbán’s educational reform initiative is the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, or MCC. Although their parliamentary majority has power over educational governance, Fidesz leaders have found that many mid-level managers and faculty in the schools and universities, including many older members who studied in or entered the academy under communism, have proven intransigent. Rather than wage a prolonged battle over all of these positions, Orbán decided to establish a new program, MCC, that provides a parallel education to the country’s best students.
The Collegium program starts in elementary school and culminates in graduate school. Beginning in the early grades, the state conducts standardized tests to discover the ten-thousand most talented students in the cities and the countryside. Then local administrators recruit the top prospects into MCC’s after-school programs in thirty-five cities, which provide English lessons, civics education, and extracurricular opportunities—all oriented toward the transmission of Hungarian identity and culture.
MCC’s university-level program is even more intensive. Since 2020, the Collegium has purchased and renovated a number of hotels in the country’s major university towns, which provide free residential accommodation, supplementary education, and paid work opportunities to six hundred students enrolled in external, degree-granting universities. In addition to their main academic studies, students attend lectures, seminars, and debates at MCC facilities; during holidays, they travel together for recreational trips, during which they learn about Hungarian history. Finally, as students approach graduation, MCC administrators connect them with internships and jobs at think tanks, academic institutions, private companies, government agencies, and foreign-exchange programs.
The intention of MCC is to create a new national elite. During my time in Hungary, I spoke at the MCC campuses in Budapest and Debrecen. As one MCC administrator explained, the government was making a massive, multibillion-dollar bet that it could train thousands of students to develop deep civic loyalties to the country and eventually take over its political, economic, and social institutions. The students I met at MCC were impressive: fluent in multiple foreign languages, studying a wide variety of liberal and technical fields, and optimistic about Hungary’s future. Most, but not all, were conservative; every one of them described the MCC program as open to spirited political and philosophical debate. And, they told me, the MCC centers also served as an informal marriage market.
The other elements of the Orbán government’s institutional strategy address media and culture. When he re-entered office in 2010, Orbán knew he had to implement reforms to the media system. After the fall of communism, German companies had snatched up approximately 80 percent of Hungarian non-state media and pushed a reliable liberal-internationalist line. In such an environment, Fidesz politicians found it extraordinarily difficult to match the raw messaging power of their opponents.
To rebalance the scales, the Orbán coalition adopted a realist, if heavy-handed, strategy: working with friendly oligarchs to purchase and transform media companies into conservative stalwarts; directing government advertising budgets to politically-aligned outlets; consolidating a large number of print, radio and television outlets into an independent nonprofit entity, the Central European Press and Media Foundation; and pressuring the holdover state media, which still accounted for 38 percent of the overall industry, to provide more favorable coverage.
These methods weren’t novel. The ex-communists who inherited the state after independence used comparable, heavy-handed tactics to establish hegemony; Orbán and his allies operated on the principle that turnabout is fair play. And, even after Fidesz’s aggressive maneuvers, the private media market remains balanced. According to independent analysts, 44 of the 88 most influential news outlets are aligned with Orbán. The largest and most influential television station, German-owned RTL, is a vociferous critic of the Fidesz government. The rapidly-growing online media sector is a hotbed for anti-Orbán opinion, reporting, and analysis.
Contrary to the international media, which has decried the “death” of press freedom in Hungary, the country has a media environment at least as competitive as that of many Western nations. After all, as Orbán’s state secretary for communications Zoltán Kovács recently noted, the “press in Western Europe is monolithic and totally biased” in favor of left-liberalism, while, in Hungary, conservatives have equal media power.
The final pillar of the Orbán culture-war strategy is the subsidization of culture. This might come as a surprise to American conservatives who have waged the culture war for decades without much concern for the production of culture, which is under the total dominion of the left, both in the public and private sphere. Orbán, who inherited a post-communist country with no private philanthropic infrastructure, has unashamedly used state resources for the development of a conservative cultural sphere. Budapest, in particular, is a buzzing hive of arts, philosophy, architecture, and literature with a conservative cast.
The centerpiece of this campaign is architectural renewal. The Fidesz government has allocated billions of dollars toward the reconstruction and improvement of castles, monuments, and historical buildings throughout Hungary. When I was visiting, Budapest’s Castle District, which had been the city’s home of royalty and rule since the thirteenth century, was a frenzy of construction. Many of the Castle District’s historical palaces and administration buildings had been destroyed during the Second World War; the Soviets, who sometimes saw them as a symbol of nationalist pride and imperial decadence, didn’t make much effort to restore them.
Viktor Orbán seems to have taken up the view of Roger Scruton, who believed that architectural beauty could be an expression of the national spirit. In Budapest, cranes, bulldozers, craftsmen, and labor crews are rebuilding the Castle District’s skyline. In the countryside, the government has financed the reconstruction of spectacular fortresses and castles, some of which had grown dilapidated.
The arts and letters, too, have seen a revival. The state has supported a network of foundations, research centers, publishing houses, magazines, museums, production houses, and event spaces. The Scruton cafés, which are privately run, provide another meeting place for conservative artists and intellectuals. Like the universities, many of these institutions have been endowed with state funding and spun off into independent nonprofit organizations. Orbán has learned the lesson of O’Sullivan’s Law, which holds that any institution that is not explicitly right-wing will become left-wing over time. In fact, John O’Sullivan, the amiable English journalist and namesake of the law, runs one of these foundations, the Danube Institute, which promotes conservative intellectual work and hosted my visit in Budapest.
None of this is authoritarian. All of it is done with the vote of the legislature and the consent of the governed. It is also standard practice in Western Europe and the United States, which devote significant public resources to monolithically left-wing public media, university programs, research centers, and arts and culture institutions. The only difference is that of friend and enemy. When it is the BBC or the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which toe the liberal-internationalist line, the Western intelligentsia considers it an entitlement and a mark of civilization. When it is the Danube Institute or the Hungarian Conservative magazine, however, it is suddenly considered illegitimate.
Orbán makes no apologies: If there will be a state, he has concluded, conservatives must be comfortable in administering it and, more importantly, orienting it toward their values. Otherwise, they will remain caretakers of their enemies’ institutions—pitiable custodians of their own subversion.
The international media and many left-liberal NGOs have condemned the Orbán government as authoritarian, autocratic, dictatorial, fascist. These accusations are overblown, but should be considered in some detail.
The first line of criticism is that Fidesz’s new constitution and electoral reforms have permanently and illegitimately advantaged Orbán, so much so that, according to the European Parliament, “Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy.” Specifically, critics allege that Fidesz has used gerrymandering, voter tourism, near-abroad voter registration, party-list counting methods, and other techniques to tilt the elections.
These accusations fall apart under scrutiny. A look at Hungary’s electoral map makes it clear that gerrymandering, while somewhat inevitable at the margins, is not a significant problem—congressional districts in the United States are much more aggressively contorted. Voter tourism, which allows voters to register in a different district than their permanent residence, and near-abroad voter registration, which allows Hungarian citizens in neighboring countries to vote, are allowed for both parties and, in theory, should not innately benefit one over another. And the party-list system is used by many other European nations.
The truth is that Orbán and his party are popular with voters. In the elections last year, the international press believed that Orbán was vulnerable, but Fidesz won 54 percent of the popular vote, beating the opposition coalition by 20 points and, under the mixed district and party-list system, yielding Fidesz a supermajority in the legislature. Seventy percent of voters turned out to the polls and European monitors reported that, although they objected to the messaging of pro-Orbán state media, the election process was “well-organized, orderly, and smooth.”
The second line of criticism is that Orbán and his country are antisemitic. Certainly, Hungary, which aligned itself with the Nazis and, after Hitler installed a puppet government, sent hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, has a dark history of antisemitism. Has this form of racism continued to the current era?
I posed this question to a Jewish Hungarian journalist, who explained that there are still antisemitic attitudes in Hungary, especially in the countryside; some political factions associated with the opposition Jobbik Party are expressly antisemitic. But, she told me, Hungarian Jews, for the most part, feel safe in their neighborhoods and do not fear violence. This perception dovetails with EU public polling data, which shows that Hungarian Jews have least fear of antisemitic violence of all countries surveyed. I spent more than a month living in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter and never saw armed or unarmed security outside the many shops, restaurants, and synagogues—which cannot be said of many Jewish neighborhoods in France, Germany, and other European countries that have experienced high rates of antisemitic violence.
As a matter of policy, the Hungarian government has outlawed Holocaust denial, supports synagogues and Jewish organizations with public funding, and maintains close commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, considers Viktor Orbán a “true friend of Israel.”
The third line of criticism is that Fidesz has enabled, or at least turned a blind eye, to economic corruption. The current government has come under fire for the sale of farmland, the selection of public works contracts, the distribution of public advertising budgets, and the transfer of state-owned investments to politically-aligned nonprofits. Critics have claimed that Orbán has helped his allies get rich, including his childhood friend, Lőrinc Mészáros, who transformed himself from a pipe-fitter to a billionaire thanks, in part, to lucrative government contracts. Mészáros himself has hinted as much, telling the newspaper that he owed his success to “God, good luck, and Viktor Orbán.”
I asked a number of right-leaning journalists, intellectuals, and politicos about the corruption question, and all of them blanched. Some threw up their hands; others betrayed a sense of embarrassment. One veteran bureaucrat justified it by arguing that this form of economic favoritism is the norm throughout the countries of Southern and Central Europe, which are roughly equivalent to Hungary according to Transparency International’s corruption index. “Money grows in the shade of power,” the bureaucrat explained, adding that, even in Northern Europe, where corruption perceptions are the lowest, the state plays an outsized role in boosting politically favored firms.
Nearly everyone in my orbit in Budapest expressed private dismay at the presence of economic corruption, but the most grizzled political operators rationalized it in terms of realpolitik. The ex-communists had already created their oligarchs by the time Fidesz came to power, they said. The conservatives had no choice but to create their own oligarchs as a counter-balance.
For better or worse, Hungary is a country that is permeated by a sense of necessity. It is a relatively poor country, emerging from a half-century of foreign occupation and totalitarian government. Hungary’s per capita GDP is 73 percent lower than that of the United States and the country remains vulnerable geopolitically, dependent on Russian gas and at the mercy of the EU bureaucracy. The leaders of Fidesz have made their compromises, but they are not autocratic, antisemitic, or dictatorial. They win elections, build institutions, and reward their friends—just as the rulers of more liberal states do.
The final judgment is a democratic one. And, for the most part, Hungarian voters are happy with their government, which they have recently renewed for another term. Of course, this arrangement might not last. Voters might lose faith in their economic fortunes; they might get fed up with corruption, war, inflation, or the unforeseen. Certainly, Fidesz fears the return of the opposition, which would undo much of their work.
What does the future hold for Hungary? The governing elite puts on a brave face, but years of bad press have damaged the reputation of their country. The European Union has withheld billions in funding; the US State Department has poured significant resources into the political opposition. The fights over religion, migration, institutional reform, and gender ideology have put political leaders on the defensive.
The way out, according to some Fidesz strategists, is to tell the story of Hungarian politics through a new frame: family policy. In recent years, the Hungarian government has allotted generous financial benefits, including two years of maternity leave and child-care allowances designed to offer working mothers the choice to stay home with their children before they enter school. Married couples who start a family also qualify for low fixed-rate mortgages and other one-time benefits, with mothers who have four or more children earning a lifetime exemption from paying income tax. The total cost of this program is an astounding 5.5 percent of GDP—more than three times what the country spends on military defense.
The strategy behind this policy is threefold. First, there is the direct individual and social benefit of supporting families. Hungarians are family-oriented people and, like other Europeans, have no qualms about state benefit programs. The difference is that the Hungarian policy is intentionally designed to incentivize traditional marriage and family formation, whereas welfare programs in the United States, for example, have incentivized the opposite: single-parent families, long-term male unemployment, and broken homes.
Second, family policy provides a bulwark in support of normal life. The Hungarians are acutely sensitive to foreign ideologies, such as critical race theory and gender ideology, that threaten the normative social structures and are easily imported via streaming services and social media. “The sense of normality is still overwhelming” in Hungary, one politico told me, but the government would need to work hard to avoid the fate of other Western countries, which have degraded a stable sense of identity and elevated deliberately anti-normative ideologies into prominence.
And third, Hungary’s family policy offers a positive frame for addressing all of the controversial issues: family subsidies support traditional families, raising the native Hungarian birth rate obviates the need for foreign immigration, and the overall policy provides an easily exported counter-narrative that puts the country in a progressive light. People can easily see the benefits, explained the politico, while the ideology remains implicit, and, therefore, more effective.
There has been much debate recently about whether Hungary is a “post-liberal” society. But the question, in my view, is misplaced. All of the societies of the West, including the United States, are, in some ways, “post-liberal.” They have enormous state bureaucracies that engineer economic and social outcomes in a way Lockean liberals could never countenance. American economic conservatives—better described as “right-liberals”—still dream about cutting government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” But the Hungarian conservatives have taken a more practical view: they have made peace with the state and learned how to manage it themselves.
There is a lesson here for American conservatives. Hungary is not a model for everything—the economy lacks innovation, the state controls too much media, corruption remains a problem—but the basic insight of Fidesz’s cultural policies is worth considering. American conservatives have tried and failed to reduce the size of the state for nearly a century. While we should continue to work toward a more limited government, there will be, for the foreseeable future, a large state that has power over family, education, and culture, and conservative political leaders are abdicating their responsibility if they do not employ it to advance conservative aims.
There are caveats, too. Hungary has little experience as a liberal democracy, and none as a laissez-faire state. It is easy to imagine the country returning to a more state-centered way of life, under the rule of the right or the left. As such, Americans should observe cautiously and understand that while Hungary’s policies might offer fruitful points of comparison, they cannot be exported in toto and do not transpose neatly onto America’s vastly more complex and dynamic society.
I suspect that the real reason many left-liberals hate Hungary with such fervor is that its government has adopted their premise that the state has an abiding interest in managing and shaping society and used it to pursue goals opposed to theirs. To the consternation of many on the left and the right, Hungary is using progressive means to achieve conservative ends.
Originally published in Compact.
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