American Values

American Values

Autocracy is not one of them.

The Michigan primaries are now behind us and we’re headed into the election season. In the coming months, we’ll be making decisions about who will lead Michigan. Never before, in our lifetimes, have these decisions been more critical, and that’s not hyperbole. The trends we see in our body politic are creating fault lines between what’s left of our democratic institutions and a full dive into autocracy. And what this means for sustainable business, and our survival as a species, couldn’t be clearer: continuing down the path of autocracy will be our death knell.

What do we mean by autocracy and why does it seem we’re headed toward such a system of governance? What are the narratives –the stories and explanations – that lead many of us to embrace autocracy as a viable alternative to democracy? Is there a better narrative, one that could lead us to a fuller embrace of what it means to be an American, a citizen of the nation that brought modern democratic institutions to the fore?

The textbook definition of autocracy is “rule by one person”. It’s hard to imagine, with the numbers of people engaged in our systems of governance that the US would wind-up becoming an autocracy. How could we give-up so much to one person? It may not seem possible, but it can happen here. And the way it happens is not all at once, but gradually. Most historians agree the Weimar Republic, which preceded Hitler’s reign, was a reasonable democracy. The process by which Hitler took power was methodical, persistent and successful. And it didn’t happen overnight.

From August 4th to 7th, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will host CPAC Texas in Dallas. According to its website, “CPAC brings together and energizes over 18,000 people – from college-aged to retired – who represent leading conservative organizations, educational institutions, elected officials, thought leaders, media personalities, and grassroots activists who fight for conservatism in America and abroad.” This year, a heading speaker at CPAC Texas is Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. Why does this matter? The obvious answer is that conservative “thought leaders” seem to think it’s important to hear from Orban. And why this is so provides an insight into what American conservatism has become and why we ought to be concerned.

Viktor Orban has been a key figure in Hungarian politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At the time, the 26-year-old Orban gave a compelling speech that drew international attention and set the now head of the Hungarian government on his path to power. When Orban gave his speech, he was “the charismatic and fiery co-founder of a youth movement called the Federation of Young Democrats, or Fidesz.” Since then, Fidesz, which changed its name to The Hungarian Civic Party, has become the ruling party of Hungary, with Orban as its head.

In 1998, Fidesz won a majority of seats in the Hungarian parliament and Orban became prime minister. His term was short lived, and in 2002 he lost re-election. At that point, Orban vowed to regain power and make sure he maintained it. In 2010, Orban’s Fidesz party again won a majority and Orban became prime minister; he’s held the job ever since and recently won re-election to another four-year term. What’s important to understand is how Orban made good on his promise to regain power and never let go.

As soon as Fidesz gained power in 2010, it began dismantling Hungary’s democratic systems. Within one year, Fidesz rewrote the country’s constitution, which paved the way for ensuring it would hold on to power led by Orban. Over the years, and in very discrete and difficult to detect ways, Orban and Fidesz have managed to transform Hungary from a reasonable democracy into what is best described as an autocracy. Orban’s power is nearly absolute. As a result, Hungary’s economic system – the ways in which businesses function – is an example of crony capitalism. Those businesses, generally large corporate entities that toe the Fidesz line grow; those that do not, usually small to medium sized enterprises, either fail, or simply struggle to stay viable.

Conservative thought leaders lionize Orban, which is why he’ll be speaking at CPAC Texas. Tucker Carlson, conservative journalist and host of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight once said of Orban, “Of the nearly two hundred different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orban.” Rod Dreher, another conservative thought leader told New Yorker journalist, Andrew Marantz, “Orban was so unafraid, so unapologetic about using his political power to push back on liberal elites in business and media and culture…It was so inspiring: this is what a vigorous conservative government can do if it’s serious about stemming the horrible global tide of wokeness.”

“Liberal elites” and “wokeness” are dog whistles that conjure images of evil doers bent on destroying “American values” and thereby keeping us from making America great again. But what exactly are American values, and if we are to make America great again, then how ought we go about doing so? If we are to uphold and strengthen our democratic systems, and avoid following the likes of a Viktor Orban, we will need to articulate a new narrative, one that reflects the truth behind the term “American values”.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills makes the case for how the Declaration of Independence is the document that articulates the core of American values. In that document, we read Jefferson’s words, which state that we are created equal and that we have inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That these words reflect fundamental truths about human nature need not be argued. That they were written by a slave holder, a person who lived nearly three hundred years ago, is not what’s important. What’s important is the extent to which we struggle, collectively and united against the tide of autocratic movements, to live the fundamental truth of these words more completely. And this is the point of Wills’ thesis: The struggle to uphold American values starts with the simple truth that, as human beings, we are equal. The way in which we live out that equality is through democratic, not autocratic institutions.

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