The authoritarian nationalist playbook
By Scott Sumner
There’s a sort of boomlet in authoritarian nationalism, with some prominent conservative leaders touting the Orban regime in Hungary, or even the earlier Salazar regime in Portugal. But what is authoritarian nationalism?
This term has been applied to regimes as dissimilar as the governments of Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Russia, India, China, and Brazil. Some of these countries are democracies, some are dictatorships, and some fall in between those two extremes. So what do they have in common? I see a few patterns, although the following traits don’t fit all the aforementioned countries:
Nationalism: Nationalists focus on unifying around a given ethnic group, rather than people who happen to be living in a particular political entity. Thus to the Chinese leadership, Han people in Taiwan (or even Singapore) are far more “Chinese” than Uyghurs living in western China. To the Hungarian leadership, an ethnic Hungarian living in Romania is more Hungarian that a Roma individual living within Hungary. Nationalism is not patriotism! A French patriot roots for their Olympic basketball team; a French nationalist grumbles that almost all the players are black.
Nationalism has both a geographical and a temporal aspect. Minority groups are viewed with suspicion, as they are seen as weakening tribal identity. Note that “identity politics” is not an inherently left or right wing idea. Where it favors minority groups, it is typically framed as left wing. When it favors the majority ethnic group (or more precisely the group in power–recall South Africa before 1994), it’s typically viewed as right wing. Thus nationalists tend to oppose immigration, which threatens to dilute the dominant ethnic group.
This desire to preserve the tribe also leads to resistance to cultural change over time. Nationalists oppose globalization, as it threatens to upend traditional ways of life. Similarly, nationalists oppose cultural liberalism, viewing ideas such as women’s rights and gay rights with a high degree of skepticism. Universities are viewed with distrust, as they often embrace cosmopolitan ideas. Nationalists favor an approach to teaching history that whitewashes any past atrocities committed by their nation. If the dominant tribe is not viewed as being morally superior, then the argument against cosmopolitanism is weakened.
Authoritarianism: In many cases, a nationalist government attempts to consolidate power by exerting control over alternative branches of government and alternative sources of information. The primary targets are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as the media and the universities. The goal is to eliminate any sort of “checks and balances” that might restrict the ability of outside forces to constrain the power of the regime.
Why is nationalism often combined with authoritarianism? Perhaps because they know that if the government were to alternate between nationalist and cosmopolitan regimes, then the nationalists would lose in the long run. What good does it do to restrict immigration if the next government allows a massive inflow of refugees from the Middle East?
The term “authoritarian” usually connotes non-democratic. And yet there is no reason to assume that a democratically elected government cannot become authoritarian. Often there are constitutional provisions or informal norms that limit the power of a government, but those restraints can be changed, particularly if the government wins a large enough number of seats to change the constitution.
Authoritarian nationalism is by far the most important political development of the 21st century—nothing else even comes close. This is not because authoritarian nationalists have control in most countries; rather it is because this is where all the energy is. Support for Biden is wide but not very intense, whereas support for Trump is consistently below 50%, but quite passionate. (Because of its diversity, the US is not fertile ground for nationalism, but is fertile ground for a left wing version of identity politics.)
As someone who came of age in the 20th century, I’ve been disappointed by the weakness of classical liberal parties all over the world (albeit pleasantly surprised by the weakness of socialist parties.)
Because the authoritarian nationalists have all the energy, the prospects for liberalism are not bright. Laurent Pech points out that the EU has been rather toothless in trying to prevent an erosion of liberty in Hungary and Poland:
To begin with, simply publishing an annual report will not help contain and address rule of law backsliding in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Indeed, an annual reporting cycle will not, in and of itself, help prevent deliberate/systemic violations of the rule of law or deter legal hooligans, as the Report is a mere after-the-event reporting mechanism making no concrete recommendations. After all, there have been 13 years of reports regarding the rule of law situation in Bulgaria and Romania and nobody would seriously claim that the “cooperation and verification” monitoring mechanism made any difference. Worse, in Bulgaria, the exercise was used, at times, to whitewash inconvenient developments. . . .
As observed by Professor Bárd, by failing to make clear “how authoritarian regimes are qualitatively different from resilient democracies”, the annual report cycle risks normalising the abnormal; facilitating whataboutism and praising features (e.g. the adequate funding of a captured Media Authority) which only serve to consolidate autocracy in practice. It is particularly irresponsible to claim, for instance, that “nobody’s perfect” when it comes to the rule of law, as this rhetoric only ends up normalising the systemic, deliberate and deceitful annihilation of checks and balances in both Poland and Hungary.
When I look at the EU today, it’s hard not to think of that famous line by Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.