It was another bad week for the West’s great Enlightenment tradition. On Monday, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leader of the highly conservative Fidesz party, introduced its controversial new constitution allowing itself discretionary authority over the media, courts, the central bank and even personal conscience.
There is to be no division of powers in Hungary between the executive, legislative and judiciary; no guaranteed freedom of the press, nor judicial impartiality; no freedom of worship. Abortion and same-sex marriages are outlawed. And echoing other horrific moments from Europe’s dark past, Orban proposes to offer ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries Hungarian citizenship, rather as Hitler did for ethnic Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The European Commission raps the Orban government for its attack on press freedom and is set to pronounce on whether the wider constitutional changes are compatible with ongoing membership of the EU, with what consequences nobody knows. It is too little too late, testimony to the EU’s weakness and lack of grip on what must count as core values in today’s Europe.
On Tuesday, the US delivered its own grim echo of Europe’s woes. Republican voters in the Iowa caucus delivered an astonishing endorsement of Rick Santorum, an American cut from the same cloth as Orban. Santorum is as anti-abortion and as anti-same-sex marriage as his Hungarian counterpart, similarly combining aggressive nationalism with ferocious social conservatism, all excused by a twisted understanding of Christianity.
He would use US power to “nuke” Iran if it does not comply immediately with US wishes. He wants to shrink the US state and then organize this shrunken — or as he would say “focused” — government around hard Christian principles, a kind of theocracy. Yet such a man polled just eight votes fewer than Mitt Romney, himself hardly an advertisement for Enlightenment ideas.
The dynamic element on the political right across the West is giving up on the Enlightenment. No longer does it want to embrace tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society. Tolerance is dismissed as an indulgence and a lack of moral standards; progress is trashed as an opportunity for social engineering and a cloak to enhance state power and also as featherbedding the feckless, undeserving poor.
Reason, this argument contends, too often identifies problems that require collective rather than individual responses, amplifying the dreaded power of the state, and democracy means respecting opponents who have views you consider noxious. Away with the whole damn thought system. Altogether, Enlightenment values are not the reason why the West has advanced so far so fast for the last two centuries and more; rather, they are why the West’s economies are in crisis and its societies are fragmenting.
Look at China, continues the argument. It does not worry about press freedom, democracy, respect for dissent, the rule of law or essential human rights. China’s growth is driven by millions of unfeatherbedded Chinese compelled to work and organized by one repressive political party. On the right and on the left alike, there is growing impatience with liberal Enlightenment ideals. They get in the way of the party’s freedom of action. What matters is belonging to the right tribe — whether that be Hungarian, American or Zulu.