Democracy vs Liberalism – the worrying but significant 2014 speech of Viktor Orbán

29th May 2021

One of the more complacent views of the last few decades is that there is a necessary link between democracy and liberalism.

The notion that if you believe in one then you believe in the other.

And, in turn, there is the converse view – that illiberals will tend to be undemocratic, if not actively anti-democratic.

This is assumption is evident in a spate of books over the last few years about the death of democracy where, if you read carefully, they describe the (possible) death of liberal democracy.

For – and this is still a shock for many – there is nothing necessarily liberal about a democracy.

It is possible – and indeed not uncommon – for a conservative bloc to mobilise sufficient support to prevail in elections.

There can sometimes even be sufficient conservative support for illiberalism to be majoritarianism.

Liberal democracy is only one form of democracy (and, also, of liberalism).

The notion that illiberals are also undemocratic, if not anti-democratic, is a comforting notion for the superficial liberal.

The truth is that in any democratic system there will be a great deal of opposition to liberal views.


Here it is instructive to read this 2014 speech (in translation) by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán – who visited the United Kingdom this week.

It is a speech that should be read in full by any liberal and anyone else who wants to understand the illiberal turn in modern politics.

It is perhaps, in its way, one of the most politically significant speeches of recent years – though what it signifies is not pleasant.


One of the things that stands out is in the speech that it is openly – explicitly – ‘illiberal’.

An exposition of liberalism is set out (and not altogether inaccurately) and then critiqued.

This dismissal of liberalism is unapologetic.

It is blatant, with no sugar-coating.

Orbán is an illiberal and he knows it, and he claps his hands.


Another thing that stands out is that – unlike many Western (supposed) defences of (and apologies for) liberalism, it is not flimsy.

It is an articulation of an illiberal position.

The position being articulated is vile and wrong, but it is not superficial.


A third thing that stands out, of course, is that it does not really explain, still less justify, the specific assaults on civil society in Hungary of his government – it is a speech which largely stays in the realm of the abstract.


And the fourth thing which is striking about the speech is that – on the face of it – it is not an undemocratic speech – it is the speech of a politician who seems confident that there will be sufficient political support for illiberalism within a democratic system.

It is even a speech of a politician who does not see membership of the European Union as being incompatible with his illiberalism.


This blog is written from a liberal, constitutionalist perspective.

But as a practical blog, it is not enough to disdain illiberalism, let alone deride it.

As the old saying goes: know your enemy.

Scoffing at Orbán – just like sneering at Donald Trump or Boris Johnson – is not a complete political answer to the challenges presented by modern illiberalism.

As long as these individuals and their parties can mobilise their bases, they will use political means to defeat or hinder liberalism, and they will claim to be democratic in doing so.

The ‘will of the people’ is rarely invoked by those who respect the wills of individual people.

And what happens when liberal democracy is, well, trumped by democracy itself?


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9 thoughts on “Democracy vs Liberalism – the worrying but significant 2014 speech of Viktor Orbán”

  1. I think a confounding factor is often the idea that democracy is a binary when applied to governmental system, that a country is either democratic or it isn’t. When really democracy is a principle or a tendency, and systems are either more or less democratic: usually democratic in some elements, non-democratic in other elements, actively anti-democratic in yet more elements.

    It’s a problem not because the shorthand of pigeonholing into “democratic” and “undemocratic” is particularly unhelpful in itself, but because it leads people take a side, either anti-democracy or (more usually) pro-democracy and then overlook the fact that their real Utopian ideal contains elements of both: ways for democracy to be expressed and deliberate limits on democracy being expressed. They then find it very uncomfortable, and unusual, to have to make arguments for “the other side” because of the binary labelling. Most often I think found in people making arguments for limits on democratic power within a system, but tying themselves in knots in refusing to acknowledge that this is precisely what it is: an anti-democratic measure, and that there needn’t be anything intrinsically wrong with that but that the argument needs honestly making.

    1. Yes – a very good comment. Binary thinking is a curse – one to which, incidentally, I suspect Anglo-Saxon dominated cultures are particularly prone – shown, for example, in our confrontational legal and political systems. Ironically, I think you almost fall into the binary trap yourself when you refer to arguments for limits on democracy being anti-democratic. Rather I think they might be seen as analogous to pruning and training a plant, which produces a better plant even though it involves cutting it and preventing it from growing as it naturally would.

      Pruning and training alone isn’t enough though. You have to fertilise too. This is a function of opposition in a democracy. The untrammelled statism that Orban argues for might be capable of pruning and training but it provides no means of fertilisation.

  2. The Orban speech is profoundly worrying.

    His arguments vastly over-simplify ‘liberal democracy’ as a system dedicated to the preservation of mutual freedoms, in which the party with more power describes the freedom of the second party. Orban’s primary critique of the system is one that denuded Hungary of public assets, but it lays blame in the wrong place.
    Moreover, his suggestion that Hungary be organised on the basis of ‘do as you would be done by’ is no more secure than his critique of liberal democracy. Over the past decade, Mr Orban and his acolytes have become the sole arbiters of how others would wish to be ‘done by’, so legitimising their permission to ‘do’.

    Amongst the many interesting writers on the subject of modern Hungary, academic Kim Lane Scheppele stands out, for her work detailing the steps necessary to turn democracy from liberal to illiberal. She makes publicly accessible the ‘Orban playbook’, and as become persona non grata in Hungary for so doing.

    As David illustrates with references to the ‘will of the people’ arguments, the U.K. has moved far closer to illiberal democracy in the past five years than any might previously have imagined.

  3. “Nobody was appointed to decide” on civil disputes says he, disclosing total contempt for judicial process.
    He, quite naturally, despises those who’s rules he abuses yet then pay him.
    He claims that the state can help improve competetiveness as in China, Turkey + Russia. But these systems show only different systems of wealth distribution, not better wealth creation.

    I doubt whether illiberal democracy can exist. Like the many communist parties, once in, they will never be voted out.

    He may be encouraged by the libertarian wave which started in the US, infected the UK and now echoes through Europe. More waves will hit the beach before the tide turns. In the absence of a historic cause or threat to rally the West, we stick to our daily lives but we must still reinforce our institutions and wait for the tide to turn. Soviet communism was contained by Nato, but it was defeated by blue jeans & roch ‘n roll.

  4. Thank you for yet another wonderfully lucid piece, David.

    A thinker who wrote extensively on this subject is the Spanish philosopher and public intellectual, José Ortega y Gasset. His longest treatise on the subject is in his book “The Revolt of the Masses”, but he has a umber of essays dedicated to liberalism in the Europe of the 1920s and 30s, and to the collusion as he saw it between demagogues and the mass of the electorate in many European countries to destroy it.

    In this respect, Ortega’s observations are very much in line with your point here about Orban knowingly and openly exploiting the illiberalism of a large part of the Hungarian public. The so-called culture war we are watching Johnson and the media wage in the land of John Stuart Mill is an obvious manifestation of the same phenomenon.

    As Ortega says, the hostility — or to use his word, the ‘hatred” (‘odio’) –towards liberalism felt by a large mass of the population arises from the fact that liberalism at its heart is much more than a political idea, rather ‘it is a radical idea about life itself, namely the belief that each human being should be free to pursue his or her individual and untransferable destiny’ (these words are from his 1934 essay, “The Socialisation of Man”).

    I have never understood why Ortega is not better known in the English speaking world as he was a very profound observer of European society and politics (amongst many other things).

  5. Funny word ‘liberalism’. Seems to mean different things to different people, they pick it up as a nice sounding word and then wrap their own definition around it.

    Why do this? To gain advantage or to avoid perceived disadvantage. But generally my advantage is someone elses disadvantage. Not so much when resources are freely and easily available but as the world tightens up under population and economic pressures so it becomes more worthwhile to constrain liberalism (of others) and more important to retain such liberal rights as one has – or is allowed. All goes back to how rats in cages behave under assorted stresses.

    I think our governments are looking around with envious eyes at other regimes. Especially those with large populations to control. I reckon China has a lot to offer the illiberal politician.

    As a small example I recently got to see the UK Passenger Locator Form in action. Not a liberal thing at all, old ladies refused aircraft boarding and left to sort it themselves. They were British citizens and could not be refused entry had they got to Heathrow – but they stood no chance of ever getting that close. Too good to abandon once Covid is over, that UK PLF is here to stay I am sure. Just undo the Covid module and bolt in another – what is not to like….

  6. Another more insidious & less coercive means of maintaining control of a population in a seemingly liberal democracy is to allow political ignorance to thrive and political representation to decline. A so-called representative democracy based on a first past the post voting system, especially in the wrong hands, is a very effective tool.

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