19 May 2022

What Culture Wars Hide

The American Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) is meeting in Budapest on 19-20 May. The meeting signals that US conservatives have chosen Hungary as proof of concept for the politics they want. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is proudly illiberal and proudly politically incorrect. Having won his fourth consecutive election in April with his largest parliamentary majority yet, Orbán demonstrates to American conservatives that his brand of politics can triumph.

CPAC is America’s most influential conservative political organization. It is an umbrella group uniting the most conservative, Trump-following, part of the Republican Party with conservative organizations across the US. Its annual American-based conference brings together conservative elected leaders with the conservative “base” all in the glare of the conservative media that provide an alternative reality in which Trump didn’t lose the 2020 election, in which the Democratic Party is a conspiracy of authoritarian “globalists” and in which Trumpism is part of a world-wide populist movement to restore traditional values. Until recently, CPAC was an America Only phenomenon. Now it has gone global, taking its Conservative Political Action Conference show on the road to engage with aspiring autocrats elsewhere.

The conference’s website proclaims that Hungary is “one of the engines of Conservative resistance to the woke revolution.” Defending “God, Nation and Family,” CPAC Hungary will emphasize how to “protect our Western civilization, our true Western values, and face down the onslaught of the Left.”

Orbán’s culture war looks like its American counterpart, so it is not surprising to see that CPAC finds Hungary congenial. Coming to power in 2010, Orbán enacted in his first year a new constitution that boldly protects fetuses from the moment of conception and declares that marriage is between one man and one woman. Orbán approved endless new statues and memorials to anti-Semites of the 1930s, the Hungarian local equivalent of white supremacism. Orbán’s government revised the history textbooks to emphasize how superior Hungarians are to their neighbors and designed museums to whitewash history. Orbán campaigned to stop Muslim migration into Europe. The election campaign of 2018 denied Jewish-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros “the last laugh,” with a dog-whistle to anti-Semitism, accompanied by the accusation that NGOS funded by Soros were part of a globalist plot to make Hungary multicultural. And now Orbán has doubled down in protest of both “gender ideology” and LGBTIQ rights, insisting that parents must be able to shield their children from gender instability. Throughout, the EU was portrayed as a colonizing power forcing Hungary to bend to its will.

Last year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson held out Hungary as a model for his conservative audience with a week of live broadcasts. American Conservative editor Rod Dreher recently urged his followers to “Turn East, Young Conservative.” Former National Review editor John O’Sullivan moved to Budapest, where his Danube Institute hosts visiting American conservatives. For his part, Orbán has established the well-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium, to advertise Hungarian illiberalism to the world. American and Hungarian culture wars have followed the same script for years.

Culture wars bring energy to politics on both sides. They are fought out in the open, where those who oppose them can fight back. Orbán’s culture wars have not just rallied supporters, but they have distracted the opposition. What keeps Orbán in power is not just his anti-wokeness, though that is popular, but his persistent sabotage of democratic institutions which converts minority support into parliamentary supermajorities. The Hungarian culture war has drawn opposition attention away from Orbán’s consolidation of autocracy, and the danger for America is that CPAC will learn that too.

As Orbán’s culture war migrated from issue to issue, the Hungarian left protested each new outrage, failing to reckon with the hundreds of illiberal laws shoveled through the Parliament without fanfare. The Kulturkampf obscured the fact that Orbán’s new constitutional order cut the size of the parliament in half (which allowed Orbán to gerrymander all of the new electoral districts at once), compromised the independence of the judiciary (by politicizing the process of selecting judges) and locked Orbán’s minions into key positions (with nine and twelve year terms, after which only a two-thirds parliamentary majority could replace them, so the terms could be extended). The constitution took both power and resources away from local governments, required judges to apply a newly invented backward-facing originalism, and clipped the wings of the powerful constitutional court. The new constitutional order entrenched autocracy step by step.

Anti-Semitic statues were being erected all over the country while Orbán was attacking the media with a draconian law that set up a board of party loyalists wielding huge fines if the news were deemed “unbalanced.” Simultaneously, Orbán purged the civil sector, starting with the sudden removal of tax breaks from more than 300 religious organizations, causing many of them to fail. While the history books and museums were attracting attention, Orbán created a new secret police with unlimited surveillance powers and rigged the election rules so that he could never lose again. During the migration crisis, he instituted a state of emergency that gave the military police powers. The gender wars distracted from the coronavirus emergency that allowed Orbán to govern by unconstrained decrees outside the constitution.

What will CPAC take away as its Budapest lessons? That culture warriors have allies? Or that culture wars are effective at distracting defenders of democracy from creeping autocracy? CPAC may claim the former but if conservatives are learning the latter, America is in for a rough ride.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Scheppele, Kim Lane: What Culture Wars Hide, VerfBlog, 2022/5/19, https://verfassungsblog.de/what-culture-wars-hide/, DOI: 10.17176/20220520-062111-0.


  1. Alexander Faludy Mon 20 Jun 2022 at 10:31 - Reply

    There is much to agree with here, but I’d offer x3 caveats.

    1) ‘ Orbán enacted in his first year a new constitution that boldly protects fetuses from the moment of conception’.

    The boldness is rhetorical not substantive. Abortion access remains unconstrained on demand up to the 3month limit established in the Communist period. However this ultimately confirms Schepple’s argument: the culture war is theatric distraction it is not even ‘substantive’ on its own terms.

    2) O’Sullivan moved to Budapest to head the Danube Institute in 2013, not (as stated) ‘only within the last year’.

    3) Giving Police powers to the military sounds draconian but in truth it is about desperation. The police are so understaffed ( thanks to demoralisation and emigration) that in some parts of the country they can no longer have sufficient personel levels to mount regular foot patrols and therefore have to turn to the arm to supplement the rosta. It is a small, but telling, detail re the failure of authoritarian governance..

  2. N.W. Mon 20 Jun 2022 at 11:54 - Reply

    Leaving Hungary aside for a moment because I think that the US conservatives are missing the point on what is really happening there (and it’s not good), would you agree that the latest wave of the culture wars actually started on the left? Wasn’t it the woke crowd that started demanding that every cultural product include xyz percentage of this and that gender, race, religion etc.? Pronouns and such? To be fair to the conservatives, they rarely want to change anything, especially in the culture. They want to keep it as it as and the wokesters are pushing for change. So, in sum, if the conservatives are resisting the push for change from the left isn’t it the left that started the culture war? (not withstanding the possibility that the right is currently benefiting from its side-effects?) Also, wouldn’t it be safe to say that both sides love the distraction? I see very little difference between, for example, De Santis’ shenanigans with Disney and Biden’s ”I appointed first ever bipoc, gay, trans, other to an xyz position” announcements. As long as the people keep falling for this nonsense& the ”celebritisation” of the politics continues, politicians are going to keep on doing it.

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