Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, is the latest symptom of a dangerous, poisonous idea that is spreading across the globe. Democracy, the idea goes, is a weak concept that is more trouble than it’s worth. From the central committee halls in Beijing to the Kremlin to the cabinet table in Budapest to the prime minister’s office in Ankara, the “strong man in charge getting things done” model is emerging as a viable alternative to the western democratic system.
It’s an attractive, simple prospectus to sell. I recall a lunchtime conversation once, with a work colleague and a Chinese consultant, where she espoused single party rule. My (Irish) work colleague was very enthused about the idea, and said Ireland should try it. When I asked why he wanted to give total power to Enda Kenny, he suggested “ah no, we’d have to get someone better” and I had to point out that under the Chinese system, “we” don’t get to decide.
That’s the thing about the Strong Man model. It’s pretty much a Hotel California style of election, in that the bastards pull the ladders up after them once they’re in office. But what worries me are the number of westerners, particularly European, who think that our system is cast in stone, that it can’t be overturned, or that it is some sort of irreplaceable natural phenomenon. That freedom of speech and worship, free elections, rights for minorities and women, the right to own property and the independent rule of law, that these are all just things that happen anyway, no matter who is in charge or how they got there. But it isn’t an accident, and things do change: most of Europe has experienced in recent history the transformation from democracy to tyranny. In the 1920s Germany had one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Within a decade its government was mass murdering its own citizens. Things change for the worse if you let them.
Yet in the west we spend more time pondering the hair-splitting of what freedom means rather than ensuring that we can actually, maybe even physically, defend that freedom. I meet so many people, many involved in politics, who just can’t comprehend that huge tracts of the world do not think as we do. Whilst we ponder the questions of the advancement of women, or LGBT rights, or the separation of church and state, or the difference between big or small government, there are regimes that do not even permit debate on those subjects, never mind pondering what outcome is the correct one.
What’s even more worrying, indeed infuriating, is the many citizens of the west who casually dismiss not only our freedoms but the willingness of others to deprive us of them. We tend to dismiss that moment when ordinary Jews in 1930s Berlin realised that they no longer were deemed ordinary Germans. Or when university educated women in Tehran in 1979, sitting in cafes suddenly found themselves beaten into wearing burkas. Or the Muslim mothers of Srebrenica of 1995 watching their sons, husbands and brothers being loaded onto trucks. Is there any more meaningless phrase than “Never again”?
In China, Russia, across large parts of the Muslim world and even as close as Turkey and Hungary, there are those advancing an agenda ranging from single party dominance all the way to killing homosexuals, turning our mothers and sisters to chattel, imposing single religious beliefs, or just plain stealing a nation for the sole benefit of themselves and their oligarch cronies. There are literally millions of people across the world who are subscribing to parts of that agenda.
We in the west do not have a monopoly on the future. The western way is not mankind’s default way, just one option, and we in the west need to recognise that we will have to fight to defend it, possibly with arms, because democracy and human rights are not a fait accompli.