The Good Fight

The Failure of the Center-Right

Europe’s conservatives are failing to prevent the spread of right-wing authoritarianism.

Merkel and Orbán standing at podia during a press conference.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speak to the media following talks at the chancellery on July 5 in Berlin. Germany recently reached a compromise within its government over migration policy. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When democracies are under threat from the right, conservative movements have an especially important role to play in their defense. As the political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has argued in his masterful Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, conservatives act as a “hinge of history”: If they come to democracy’s defense, the system usually survives. If they make common cause with democracy’s enemies or prioritize short-term wins over a long-term commitment to maintaining democratic institutions, the door stands wide open for all manner of autocrats.

In 19th-century Britain, for example, the Tories managed to integrate royalists and reactionaries into the parliamentary system, isolating extremists on the fringes of the political spectrum. In the early 20th century, by contrast, established right-wing parties in Italy and Germany handed the reins of power to fascists and, in many cases, themselves morphed into outright enemies of democracy. As in many other cases, the result of the conservatives’ failure to come to the defense of democracy was political catastrophe on a vast scale.

For anybody who knows this historical pattern, the abject failure of the Republican Party to denounce Donald Trump in 2016 was deeply worrisome. Tested with its most important decision since the civil rights era, the conservative establishment failed in its most basic historical responsibility. Unwilling to prioritize the health of the republic over the prospect of filling a vacant seat on the Supreme Court and the fear of losing their regular spot on Fox News, conservative stalwarts who secretly detested Donald Trump invited his authoritarian brand of politics into the very center of power. Even if Trump is soundly repudiated at the polls in 2018 and 2020, it will likely take many years until we manage to clean our politics of the stench of autocratic aspiration.

Even after Trump’s shocking victory, it was still possible to think that the failure of America’s conservative elites was a peculiar outlier. Unlike most western democracies, the United States has a weak party system, making it harder for political insiders to exert control over their party’s candidates or policies. Perhaps, one theory went, the Republican Party simply lacked the organizational capacity to keep extremists at bay. What’s more, unlike leading center-right parties in most other western democracies, the Republican Party had moved further and further from the political center. Perhaps, another theory held, Trump could win control of the party because it had long ago undergone a process of radicalization.

Both purported reasons suggested that conservatives in other countries would prove more resistant to the lure of the antidemocratic right. Moderate leaders in countries with strong political parties, the theory went, would never follow the ignominious lead of men like Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie.

Like so many other beliefs that were widely held in the distant days of 2016 but now appear touchingly quaint, this hopeful story is no longer tenable. Over the past few years, conservatives in many countries with strong political parties have forged perilous coalitions with the far-right. In Austria, for example, Sebastian Kurz has taken power by delivering control of foreign policy and the security services to right-wing extremists with roots in the neo-Nazi movement and a deep affection for Vladimir Putin.

But perhaps the most shocking piece of news has come over the course of the past few days. For all intents and purposes, Angela Merkel is forging a tactical political alliance with the most sophisticated enemy of liberal democracy in Europe: Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary.

One reason why Orbán has, over the past eight years, managed to take quasi-dictatorial control over his country without engendering much opposition from European institutions is that he has always maintained links to mainstream conservative parties across the continent. The most important institutional manifestation of this link has been the continued membership of his political party, Fidesz, in the European People’s Party, the largest faction in the European Parliament. And the most important defender of Fidesz’s membership in the center-right EPP has, in turn, been its leader, a German politician by the name of Manfred Weber.

When the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs sounded the alarm bell about an erosion of basic individual rights in Hungary, Weber called its report “biased and politically motivated,” warning that the European Parliament was about to turn itself “into a Big Brother.” When Orbán was standing for re-election in a contest that many outside observers considered the last chance to oust him by democratic means, Weber called him “a strong prime minister” who “vivifies European political debates.” And when Orbán duly extended his hold on power in elections that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in unusually undiplomatic language, condemned as “free but not fair,” Weber congratulated him on his “clear victory.”

While it’s unclear if it’s motivated by tactical considerations, genuine ideological affinity, or some combination, Weber has perfected a deeply cynical dance to shield Hungary from being held accountable by the European Union. Each time the European Commission considers measures against Orbán, and each time other members of the European People’s Party call on him to expel Fidesz, Weber claims that he would finally act if Hungary crossed democratic red lines on issues like fair elections or the independence of the country’s judiciary. But each time that one of these red lines is blatantly violated, Weber pretends that minor tactical concessions by Orbán amount to a real about-face.

Significant electoral irregularities and the evisceration of independent media that allowed Orbán to cling to political power? Not a red line according to Weber. Extreme attacks on NGOs and universities? Worrisome but apparently acceptable. Blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric? You get the point.

As R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and one of the leading academic observers of central Europe has argued, Weber’s stance has fatally undermined Europe’s ability to hold Orbán in check. Because the most powerful faction in the European Parliament never broke with Fidesz, it proved impossible to build the kind of cross-partisan consensus the EU needed to sanction Orbán in a robust and timely manner. And the realization that member states could blatantly disregard basic democratic rules without inviting censure from Brussels has, in turn, emboldened other countries, like Poland, to copy the Hungarian model. “Partisan politics provides the most powerful explanation of why the EU has been so ineffective in opposing Orbán’s drive to consolidate power,” Kelemen concludes. “To understand why the EU has not done more to defend democracy in Hungary, one must look first to the leadership of the EPP.”

But even though Weber has, as the leader of the EPP, played a pivotal role in allowing Orbán to destroy Hungarian democracy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week backed his bid to become the center-right’s candidate for president of the European Commission. If he is selected as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, for European Parliament elections scheduled for next spring, and the grouping wins the most seats, Weber would likely take on the most powerful office in the European Union.

Because the politics of the European Union are so complicated—and, frankly, boring—the significance of these developments has widely been missed. And yet the basic takeaways are reasonably simple.

It is hardly a secret that Merkel has no particular love for Orbán. But she also appears to believe that she needs him to sustain a majority in the European Parliament and that parts of her own domestic coalition—including Weber’s Christian Social Union, led by the country’s fractious interior minister, Horst Seehofer—have deep admiration for the form of authoritarian populism he embodies. Faced with the heavy political costs of taking a principled stance, she has evidently decided to make her peace with the undemocratic right.

The implications for European politics are enormous. First, it is now clearer than ever that the European Union is willing to tolerate deeply illiberal and even undemocratic states as members in good standing. This will do massive damage to the legitimacy of the European Union: While German citizens may concede that it makes sense to pool their sovereignty with French voters in order to have a greater say in the wider world, it will be hard to explain why they should do the same with a Hungarian dictator.

And second, the bulwark that established parties on both the left and the right once formed against enemies of democracy now looks more brittle than ever. If Weber and Merkel are willing to sell out their principles in order to retain a majority in the comparatively unimportant European Parliament, it is hard to see why they should resist an alliance with the far-right populists of the Alternative for Germany if that should, one day, be the price they have to pay to retain power in Berlin. (Indeed, even as they were faced with the spectacle of violent far-right protests in the city of Chemnitz over the past week, some center-right leaders have been conspicuously reluctant to condemn their potential allies on the populist right.)

For many years, Merkel has widely been seen as a heroic defender of liberal democratic values. In the wake of Trump’s election, some overexcitable commentators even hailed her as the true leader of the free world. But the past few days suggest a much bleaker assessment of her career: If conservative politicians really are hinges of history, then Merkel may well be remembered as one of those who failed the most important test of their times and failed to stand up to the antidemocratic right.