Former Obama administration deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes clearly had this sentiment in mind last week when he tweeted, “If you want to know where Trump wants to take America in a second term, look at Russia, Hungary and Poland.” While comparing the United States’ potential future to Russia’s mafia-state was a stretch, Rhodes’s references to Hungary and Poland were not.
In both countries, conservative parties have pursued power at all cost in recent years, including by abandoning any pretext of adherence to a previously agreed-upon set of norms for governance. The result has been a resounding, if slow-motion, decline in democratic health.
Freedom House removed Hungary from its list of democracies last week, calling the country’s decline “the most precipitous ever tracked” by one of its flagship reports. Freedom House now labels the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban a “hybrid regime,” meaning that it marries some elements of democracy with those of an autocracy.
Under Orban, Hungary maintains some democratic traits; for example, it holds elections, albeit ones in which Orban’s government provides his party significant advantages. Yet Orban and his ruling coterie have neutered a once-vibrant media, politicized the administration of justice and promoted the interests of regime insiders such as the prime minister’s son-in-law, all while scapegoating migrants and asylum seekers. Orban recently dropped any semblance of adherence to democratic rule and used the fight against covid-19 to have Hungary’s parliament grant him indefinite rule by decree.
In Poland, a similar story has played out. Poland’s elections remain largely free and fair, and last week the conservative ruling party agreed to delay a scheduled election that would have been riddled with problems. Yet the governing party has largely succeeded in bending a once-independent court system to its will. A once-diverse public media also spouts the party line, with popular broadcasters advancing the ruling party’s political objectives.
There’s a reason all this may sound familiar. As multiple political scientists, intelligence officials and historians have documented, governments that turn away from democracy and the rule of law increasingly follow a consistent pattern. Summarized as a slow roll of subversion, elected autocrats chip away at democracy’s foundations in the courts, media and civil service with the grudging (or sometimes energetic) support of their political allies. As Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put it, “Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.” Yet that erosion is real, and the United States is experiencing it, too.
As many Americans hunker down at home, fearful for their health and livelihoods, the Trump administration has continued its unrelenting assault on democratic institutions and norms.
Appointing political allies to senior positions in intelligence? Check.
The United States of course differs in many important ways from Poland and Hungary. It would, however, be the height of folly to believe that the forces that have demonstrably curtailed democracy in Budapest and Warsaw could not have the same effect in Washington.
To endure, democracy requires more than free and fair elections. It requires a system based on the rule of law, as well as an understanding between political foes that winners actually don’t take all. Following President Trump’s impeachment and Senate acquittal, the president and his enablers seemingly have dispensed with any semblance of adherence to such a long-standing norm. That is the context in which Americans go to the polls in November. The stakes could not be higher.