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Freedom and responsibility can turn back the tide of populism

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“Today, populism is a global plague.” However, a thought-leader who played a pivotal role in weakening populism in Europe has shared the antidote in a speech to the European Liberty Forum in Budapest.

Zoltán Kész, a founder of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary,  who was elected to parliament in 2015, gave one of the keynote addresses of the two-day forum, organized by the Atlas Network, last Thursday. In addition to leading a think tank dedicated to liberty, Kész was elected as an independent member of parliament in 2015, breaking the two-thirds supermajority held by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. His speech is published for the first time today in Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.

Kész greeted attendees by saying:

Dear friends, welcome to Budapest, the beautiful European capital of populism! How did Hungary, which was the most advanced Eastern Bloc country in terms of freedom and acceptance of Western values, and served as a beacon of Western spirit during the 1980s and ‘90s, become a black hole sucking up individual freedom, civil rights, and freedom of the press?

How can a nation that erected statues of George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan be anything other than a tributary of freedom? Kész cites reasons as diverse as Hungary’s historic occupation by the Soviet Union, complacency at home at in the West, and economics. A populist leader could easily leverage such widespread discontent, he writes, because populists invariably exploit cultural flashpoints to accumulate political power. Because their ideological compass is set by popularity rather than conviction, they have a remarkable ability to cling to power – and to transform the system to assure their grip never weakens:

Populists are especially dangerous enemies, because they are strategizing in the terms of democratic competition. That is the main principle of populism: gaining power once and never, ever letting it go, reshaping democracy and deconstructing the rule of law step-by-step as if it was made of LEGO bricks.

Zoltán Kész.

As he details, populism is on the rise on every populated continent in the world, posing a challenge to classical liberalism. A report released earlier this year by the European Policy Information Center found, “Authoritarian-Populism has overtaken Liberalism and has now established itself as the third ideological force in European politics, behind Conservatism/Christian Democracy and Social Democracy.” (The report uses “liberalism” in the European sense of classical liberalism, typified by limited government, free markets, and respect for individual rights.)

Kész draws on his own experience as a public intellectual, and then a politician, in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to outline how others can win victories against popular forms of illiberalism. A partial list of observations on “How to defeat populism”:

  • Putting populists into a quarantine does not work. Political powers deemed undesirable by the establishment just become more attractive to voters. Populists must be fought with reason and engaged in open debates. They cannot be ignored.

  • We must stay honest, even about controversial, sensitive topics which are the domain of populists.

  • According to populists, all problems are caused by external powers (e.g.: George Soros, Jews, Chinese, etc.). They must always fight against something. But people do not want to live in fear forever. This can be used to beat them.

  • If we cannot appear on national media, we have to be present online and go to even the smallest rural villages personally. On the few channels we have access to, we must communicate better than the populists do.

Kész offers an authoritative firsthand account of how populism grips a country, transforms its institutions, and how those who cherish ordered liberty can – and must – respond.

You can read his fully essay here.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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