Reading Rick Lyman and Alison Smale’s reporting on Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban steering Hungary away from Western, European influence, and instead towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I have been fascinated by how unstable the concept of democracy has become. Orban’s arguments, which cite the financial crisis of 2008 as an indictment of “liberal democracy” and which openly look to the “illiberal democracy” of a Russia or Singapore as a better model for future development, seem to me to hint at a great fissure opening up in the world. Arguing that the 2008 financial crisis was as epochal of a moment as the end of the Cold War, Orban seems to be striking at the America and Western Europe’s long-running—and lucrative—stranglehold on the ideological concept of democracy.
Given the massive scale of income inequality in a country like the United States (on which, see these recent analyses), it is hard not to see why Orban’s calculations about the self-defeating nature of “liberal democracy”: citing the coming “race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful,” Orban clearly believes that “illiberal” models such as Russia’s or Turkey’s will thrive as the contradictions of “liberal” states become unmanageable.
That the United States continues to present itself as a fount of “democracy,” even as ballooning income inequality is matched by some fairly questionable modes of managing voter representation, suggests that Barkan’s Hungary may not be the only state that begins to be disillusioned by Western confidence in free-market capitalism. The notion of direct democracy in the United States becomes questionable when one looks at a number of factors, such as the disproportionate value of representation in the US Senate: as I have written of here before in the context of the counter-democratic UK entity known as the House of Lords, a citizen of the state of Wyoming, with an estimated population of 576,626, has exactly the same Senatorial representation as a citizen of California, with an estimated population of 38,332,521. But, more nefariously, who is allowed to vote in the United States seems to defy any attempt at direct representation, and seems very much a factor in the ongoing reproduction of social inequality. A disparate array of state laws limiting the rights of individuals with criminal records to vote after having served out their sentences leads to significant disenfranchisement, particularly for African Americans and other groups disproportionately represented in the criminal system: as the Sentencing Project reports, some 5.85 million citizens are currently being prevented from voting in US elections due to prior felony convictions, with a whopping 2.2 million of these being African Americans (by the way, that’s about ten times the entire population of Wyoming). And such counter-democratic procedures show no signs of abating, as seems to be clear from the rash of Voter ID laws that have developed over the past years, which many analysts attribute to efforts to limit the number of votes cast by ethnic minorities and students (see this seemingly non-partisan list of recent law from the National Conference of State Legislatures). Wherever one falls in the debate about whether Voter ID laws are simply reasonable precautions or nefarious efforts to manipulate election results, it is hard not to imagine that figures like Orban or Putin will be able to paint their states as no less “democratic” than a United States in which state legislatures actively work to limit the number of citizens voting in their elections.
What most intrigues me about this situation in the context of this blog is the geography of the debate, which is in some respects strikingly reminiscent of Cold War divides, and yet in some respects seems to mark a new ideological terrain. Much as in the case of conflicts in Ukraine, about which I have written much in this blog, the status of Hungary is depicted very much in Cold-War geographical terms as an Eastern or Central European entity being pulled in opposite directions, in a struggle between a Russian East and an American-European West. However, Orban’s references not just to China, but to Turkey and to Singapore indicate a much more complex divide than the outdated binary of capitalism-communism—and all of these states can be marked as state success stories that do not base themselves in neoliberal doctrines. With increasing questions about the fairness both of the economic system in the United States (see this NPR chart on patterns of income inequality among average households, as well as this PBS comparative analysis of US income distribution on a global scale, and also Estelle Someillier and Mark Price’s EPI analysis of US income inequality) and the ways in which citizens’ votes are linked to governmental representation, it is hard not to think that there will be many more prime ministers using what appears to be both social and economic injustice in the most prominent capitalist state as an impetus to look to other areas for the future of what will count as democratic management of territories and populations.