Two stories this week from opposite sides of the world, but both showing the same phenomenon: the tendency for self-described lovers of freedom to endorse authoritarians.
First to Queensland, where Australia’s “libertarian” party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP), has welcomed into its ranks the state’s former premier, Campbell Newman, who resigned from the Liberal National Party two weeks earlier.
Newman plans to run for the Senate for the LDP at the next federal election. Last time around, the LDP had only 0.83% of the vote in Queensland; with his name recognition and the extra publicity Newman should be able to improve on that, but it’s a long way to go to get to the 14.3% needed for a Senate seat.
Across Australia, the Liberal Party (of which the LNP is a division) has provided ten state premiers over the last two decades. Without overstating the case, it’s fair to say that Newman had, probably by quite some margin, the most authoritarian reputation of any of those ten, although that may tell you more about Queensland than about him personally.
The Newman government was elected in 2012 with a record majority, a fact that clearly went to its head. It passed laws that weakened parliamentary scrutiny and threatened the independence of the judiciary, while attacking interest groups that it associated with its opponents. It was defeated in 2015 after only one term, with Newman losing his own seat in the process.
Why, then, is he the one to be poached by the LDP? If Newman is to be believed, his main gripe with the current Liberal Party is over policies relating to Covid-19 – or, as he puts it, “the destruction of people’s livelihoods, jobs and freedoms under governments’ heavy-handed response.” Since the LDP has become a refuge for anti-vaxers, Covid-deniers and assorted crackpots, it may be that he will fit in rather well.
But for anyone who remembers that libertarianism is supposed to about people living peacefully and freely together while respecting one another’s rights, it’s a depressing development.
The other story is the visit last week by Fox News host Tucker Carlson to Hungary, where he was feted by the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán. Carlson returned the favor, praising Orbán’s reactionary and anti-immigrant policies, and incidentally drawing attention to the fact that Hungary has become a popular cause for American conservatives, evidently unfazed by Orbán’s authoritarianism.
Carlson no longer even calls himself a libertarian (although he was associated with the movement prior to the Trump era), but he and his fellow-Trumpists regularly portray themselves as supporters of freedom. It does seem as if the same dynamic is at play: a conception of “freedom” that ignores (or even welcomes) threats to democratic rights, and focuses instead on protecting the “rights” of the privileged to ride roughshod over the more vulnerable.
One might say, of course, that an undemocratic government’s policy record can sometimes nonetheless be worthy of support – as some liberals did, for example, in relation to General Pinochet’s Chile. But this doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. There’s no sign that Carlson and the rest regard Orbán’s trashing of democracy as a regrettable but incidental feature of his regime. To the extent that they admit to it all, they treat it as something to be emulated; David French calls it “the new right philosophy of wielding government power to aggressively confront your culture war opponents.”
Trump-style attacks on democracy have (thankfully) not yet become an issue in Australia. But one can see something similar with the LDP’s last-ditch defence of group ticket voting in the Senate, the outrageous system under which its one previous senator, David Leyonhjelm, was elected. The party clearly accords democracy at best an instrumental value, one that takes second place to pursuing its policy agenda.
But what the Trump era has demonstrated for all to see is that democracy is not an optional extra: it’s fundamental to maintaining anything resembling a free society. Orbán’s doctoring of the electoral system is of a piece with his attacks on immigrants, gays and academics. Authoritarianism cannot be neatly contained in a place where only one’s opponents are threatened, because tomorrow the authoritarian may decide that a new target is required.
It seems the lesson has to be re-learned for each new generation. Musing on Tucker’s trip to Hungary, Nick Cohen reaches this depressing conclusion:
After Hitler’s defeat in 1945 and the fall of the rightwing dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s, western conservative parties committed themselves to observing liberal democratic rules. But the 70s are a long time back and the 40s further still. The lesson of recent history is that the right can abandon the constitutional order and be rewarded rather than punished.
POSTSCRIPT (16 August): Further to the above, there’s some particularly good commentary on Carlson in Budapest from Jon Chait and from Andrew Sullivan, who from quite different philosophical starting points reach much the same conclusion. Chait says that “What [Republicans] seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orban offers.” Sullivan accuses conservatives of being “so drunk with tribal hatred and paranoia they run away to a reactionary, all-white, authoritarian fantasy land in order to damn their own country from abroad.” Both well worth a read.