In a feature for the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell reported on Viktor Orbán’s leadership of Hungary and the future of Europe. Caldwell joins the American Mind podcast to talk about Orbán’s Hungary and the course he has charted on matters of immigration, culture and economics in contrast with some of his peers. Caldwell also addresses the ongoing battle between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism as caricatured by Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Emmanuel Macron, and elucidates the ties between European populism and American populism. During the conversation, Caldwell and host Ryan Williams also touch on the multiculturalist challenge to America.
Christopher Caldwell was a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and author of Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West (Anchor, 2010).
Williams: Chris, welcome to The American Mind. So you and I just participated in this conference that The Claremont Institute put on with the uncontroversial title of “Multiculturalism vs. America.” I thought we’d pick up on a few of the themes from your remarks and talk a bit about some aspects of those, and then I thought maybe we could talk a bit about populism in the West, both in Europe and maybe a little bit in the United States.
Caldwell: Sounds great.
Williams: Excellent. So you opened your remarks with the discussion of, I think, three parts of multiculturalism as you put it. There’s the fact of it, the kind of social phenomenon of it; there’s the value judgment about it, either negative or positive; and then there’s it as a system of power. I wonder if you can just lay those out for us, and we can discuss them.
Caldwell: Right. I think an easy way to do it might be by sort of telling a little story so you can get the fact of multiculturalism. You can imagine a neighborhood that has some restaurants in it and it’s been the same neighborhood for a long time, and one day a Salvadoran woman moves in and she opens a pupusa truck. The neighborhood has now become more diverse. It’s become more multicultural, right? That’s multiculturalism as just a sociological fact.
Then there’s multiculturalism as a value. You’re going to have people in the neighborhood who say, “Well it’s really excellent that this woman has moved in and opened her pupusa truck.” And you will have other people who say, “This is really a shame. The old restaurant that she replaced was really much better.” You will have a judgment, and if you have a positive judgment, then you are a multiculturalist. So that’s a second sense of multiculturalism.
And then the third is a more political type of description, which arises from the second. Since the 1960s, we have had a number of governing structures—some of them in the bureaucracy, some of them just ways that the justice system tends to interpret things—which gives certain power to those who give a positive valuation of this kind of diversity. And so if someone comes in to the neighborhood and says, “You know, the woman who owns a pupusa truck would like her children to go to the local school, but for some reason the child is not allowed in the local school, and so you are going to be questioned by the authorities about why that child cannot go.” That’s a sort of, a kind of multicultural power, and I think it’s the exertion of that power that certain, let’s say, citizens are disquiet about when they think about whether they like multiculturalism or not. When someone says, “I’m sick of multiculturalism, and I want to vote for Donald Trump,” that probably has to do with the exercise of multicultural power.
Williams: Right. Rather than mere anxiety about foreign folks in your town.
Caldwell: Right. Although—
Williams: That is there, of course—
Caldwell: Right. Yes.
Williams: That’s part of human nature.
Yes, so we made clear—or I have in print—and we did today a bit at the conference that, of course, we mean the latter, that is the sort of ideology and governing structure of power by “multiculturalism.” I mean America’s always been alive with many cultures, ethnic, religious, various types of traditional cultures, and it’s always been a part of the beautiful mosaic of America, but it’s really this legal apparatus that grows out of a certain philosophical understanding of groups and group rights that we’re talking about.
Now, you and I have talked about this before, but let’s unpack that notion of the ’60s a little bit. Now your argument—you’ve made it elsewhere and have been thinking about it a lot—is that this new understanding—and multiculturalism is a part of it—but this new understanding of rights and new understanding of the purpose of American government emerges after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
I mean I think we both agree that the ’64 Civil Rights Act in its original intent was meant to be finally the realization of the promise of equality and liberty, both properly understood, put in to practice finally that you find in The Declaration. It’s, of course, in the civil rights era. But your argument is that it’s morphed since then or it has grown in certain ways, so what do you mean by that?
Caldwell: I want to be careful how I say that—
Williams: Sure. Of course.
Caldwell: —I’m not sure it’s morphed.
Caldwell: But I mean that certainly was the feeling when the Civil Rights Act was passed. There was a paradox about it. In fact, the race problem in the United States from passing through—from slavery through Jim Crow was a problem of such enormity that it seemed perfectly reasonable to pass a law to fix just that. I don’t think that the public, when they assented to the Civil Rights Act was looking for a law that would give them an entire new way of doing politics in all walks of American political life. I think they were looking to solve this one big problem.
The reason I’m reluctant to say that it morphed is that it escaped the question of race so quickly that actually people have been debating rights-based solutions to, let’s say, women’s issues since the 1960s, immigrant issues since the late ’60s, gay issues since the early ’70s. It rapidly became an entirely—it became an alternative way of conducting politics in the United States, and I think that multiculturalism has to be understood as part of that.
Williams: And in many ways conducting politics through the courts, right?
Caldwell: Yes, that’s a big part of it.
Williams: I think one aspect—Henry Olsen in his remarks touched on it, and then you talked about it in the Q&A this morning, and everyone can find this video at AmericanMind.org. It will be up soon. But Henry talked about honor and fear, which led you in the Q&A to talk about mattering. That is, a big part of the anxiety around Trump voters or maybe the core of Trump’s base is that—Henry talked about this cultural anxiety. So you think that that’s a key component, that people somehow felt that they didn’t matter anymore and that that’s how you would put the honor question.
Caldwell: Yes, I believe the question that came up was someone accused Henry of having mixed up two things. One was objection to multiculturalism came because people felt frightened. One was fear, and the other was that they objected because it was an assault on their honor; and it seemed to be that one was—that these people felt two contradictory things. “I’m too strong for this,” or “I’m so weak that I’m afraid of this.”
Caldwell: I actually think that the injured feelings of honor and the feelings of fear are basically the same thing. I think that in the last 50 years the degree to which governments serve their people by recognizing them, by sort of validating them, by saying, “You’re one of us. You’re really okay. We value what you do”—that’s become much more obvious to us. I think that’s always been a function of government, but I mean now it’s become an explicit demand of people, and it really plays in to multiculturalism. I mean we often parody the way it comes up on university campuses when people say, “I want a safe space,” you know. But if you look outside of campuses all around—when I read newspaper articles, I notice more and more people using the word “safe” to mean like, you’re going to be validated here, you’re not going to be insulted here, we’re not going to discuss anything controversial in front of you.
Williams: Right. No, it’s very much a talking point of young millennials and gens’ ears, right, is that “I felt unsafe,” or “I was made to feel unsafe, and this is unacceptable.”
Williams: Because of the way we conduct modern government—that is, kind of programmatic liberalism and the positive rights infrastructure that really was inaugurated in the ’30s with F.D.R.’s manipulation of the—with basically his talk of positive rights and a new Bill of Rights. This really gets juice, in a way, post ’64 it sounds to me—I don’t want to put words in to your mouth. That has a lot to do with so now not only are you recognized and honored and you matter—in the old regime of America that meant your rights were respected and then you had duties as a citizen and part of the community to protect the rights of others—but our new way of thinking about it, especially post ’60s, is you now are entitled to a set or a basket of benefits, prestige, access. So the mattering becomes that much more valuable.
Caldwell: Right. You know I think I understand what you mean. I don’t really understand at a philosophical level what it was that F.D.R. was doing, but certainly things have changed to make positive rights more important or relatively more important than they were. And by positive rights, I think if I understand you correctly, we mean you have a right to do this, to be this, to be seen as that; and negative rights being we’re not going to bother you if you want to be this or that.
Caldwell: Okay. You know I would say that—
Williams: It was Isaiah Berlin’s formulation I think, but I could be wrong on that.
Caldwell: Okay. I would say that a lot of our thoughts on rights are pretty much in continuity with what’s gone before, and I was saying that, you know, in multiculturalism, for instance, certainly it gets a lot of its of power from the moral legitimacy that surrounds civil rights legislation. But it also gets a lot power from just the ordinary logistics of politics. It allows—it is amenable to a kind of classic patronage politics, which for much of the twentieth century, you know, well-meaning American mugwump-types tried to erase from American political life, and apparently it’s something irrepressible in politics, patronages. So it is in continuity with patronage politics that way.
I think the new thing, though, might be the media. I mean this multicultural regime has arisen in a time when Americans were all reachable by, you know, not just radio and television, but I think that it’s even gained momentum from the internet. There’s a great media penetration of people’s lives, and just telling them that they’re all right on their own is maybe less sufficient to them when they’re sitting in front of their screens every night seeing images of people who have things that they don’t and seem to have privileges that they don’t. So Americans will be much more receptive to messages about what they deserve and what they have a right to.
Williams: Yes. All I meant by F.D.R., just for our listeners, is that in his talk of the “Second Bill of Rights” he took the original and sort of deftly wove The Declaration in to it and then pointed it in the direction of so this means that we need a right to housing, a right safety, a right to good health, etc., etc.
So this led you to claim today, and then we can move on to the subject of populism, that really only an outsider could have challenged this multiculturalist arrangement because—and you meant Trump of course—because in two ways, at least, it meant blaspheming against a sort of central idea of justice, at the new way of doing politics post-’60s; while also it meant the giving up of—as a politician and an actor—the giving up of this efficient tool of government dispensation of both goods and then also control this sort of new patronage in a way. It’s a giving up of an immense amount of government power. So it’s a huge tool. Why wouldn’t one use it? And it also blasphemes against our new piety.
Caldwell: That’s exactly what I said. Yes. A politician who went against it would suddenly feel himself, you know, deprived of both the moral ground on which he spent his whole life standing and the tools that he uses to go about his daily work.
Williams: And in your view is this very much a bipartisan elite consensus—that the new piety is pious and that it ought to be exercised?
Caldwell: No, I would not say that. You know, I would say that the whole paradigm for looking at this has changed with Trump. Basically from the time the first critiques of, let’s say, multicultural or identity politics began to arise in the ’70s—and I think they arose pretty much contemporaneously with the movement to elect Ronald Reagan president, maybe there’s a bit of them in Nixon as well—from that time, you know, it was generally assumed on the Right that multiculturalism was a Democratic Party operation and that Republicans were against it.
Donald Trump ran on a very different platform. Donald Trump ran on a platform which held Republicans to be sort of collaborators in this multicultural regime, and I think that to an increasing extent Republicans have—you hear more and more Republicans saying there’s really not much difference between Republicans and Democrats on these questions. I would favor a view of this somewhere between the old 1970s view and the post-Trump view.
While it is true that both parties have made their peace with multiculturalism, they’ve done so in very different ways, and I think that the reason is multiculturalism, the foundation on which it’s built, the real enforceable legal power that it has comes from our laws protecting minorities from majorities. Although, as I’ve said, this style of governing by rights has spread to women, for instance, who are a majority, multiculturalism is generally a style of government that is exercised on behalf of minorities, and just as a sociological matter, Democrats are much more highly represented among minorities than Republicans are; and in fact, I would go further on that. You know the Democrats have become the party that defends this multicultural style of government, if we want to call it that, multicultural identity politics, whatever word we want to choose.
Williams: Sure. Part of our argument this morning was–Claremont’s that is, not necessarily yours—was that this new understanding of group rights is un-American in a way, but when you put it merely in terms of the protecting of the rights of the minority, of course, there’s nothing more American than that because if all men are created equal, a decent democracy or a republic based on those truths would have to defend, of course, the rights of minorities. That goes as a matter of course. I mean what’s changed really is our understanding of rights and the role of government.
Caldwell: Well, yes. I think generally when you hear conservatives sort of try to draw this distinction between the way minorities are protected today and the way they were protected in the old days, the distinction they will draw is between individual rights and group rights. They will say that minorities were always protected as individuals, and today they’re being protected as groups. This is a sort of complicated question. Certainly you can point to a lot of cases where the rights of minorities were not protected as individuals in the old days—
Williams: Right. Or as groups.
Caldwell: Yes. And then you come to another question of whether—of what groups deserve this special added level of protection, and that’s where we get drawn back to the 1960s again. I think that when we first embarked on this new system of government, the idea was that it really took a pretty spectacular injustice to call it in to being, you know, which is the historic race problem. And I think that viewed from the position of the 1960s, I think that most people then would have seen the expansion of both the groups covered under that dispensation and the measures undertaken to carry it out—they would have seen that as sort of overbroad.
Williams: Right. Was it Hubert Humphrey who said, “If this results in affirmative action, I’ll eat the bill,” or something like that? [Laughs]
Caldwell: Yes. You know if you go back and read the Congressional debate, there are tons of those things, sort of absolutely mocking people who worried about things that actually came to pass.
Williams: Right, and Humphrey, of course, was no right-winger, far from it. [Laughs] This is interesting. It’s a conversation we’re going to keep having at Claremont, and I know you and I will keep writing and talking about it.
I wanted to move now or shift now to this question of populism, which you have written a lot about. Why don’t we start with Hungary just because I know you were there fairly recently and you have an essay coming up the Claremont Review of Books, which will be in mailboxes in about 12 or 14 days. What’s the state of politics and populism right now in Hungary? I know that’s a large question.
Caldwell: Yes, and you know I tried to deal with every last corner of that question, and I fear I might have bitten off quite a lot. Hungary is—I was going to say it’s complicated. It’s not that complicated. It’s no more complicated than any other country, but what’s interesting is that Viktor Orbán, who is the country’s leader, he’s managed to carve out for himself a very different kind of politics within Europe. Now Europe, like the United States, has a regime of human rights that sort of sets itself above the preexisting democratic regimes, and in Europe this regime is the European Union, which is a union that began in the 1950s of half a dozen countries. It’s now up to 28, and they have been moving towards a so-called ever-closer union giving, you know, more and more of their national prerogatives to this multi-national organization. Although that is never what politicians say they are doing. Okay? Now, one of the things that the European Union demands that its member-states undertake is to treat migrants in a certain way, and this is, in a way, sort of conducive to mass-migration. And this is not such a problem in countries like France and Germany, which have already so filled up with migrants that really there’s not that much opportunity for them there, and countries which are distant from the European Union’s borders.
Williams: Not much opportunity for the migrants?
Caldwell: That’s right. But it’s a huge problem for countries that are on the borders and without migrants. You know? And it’s a big liability for politicians there, and I mean countries like Italy and Hungary.
Caldwell: Those are places where till five years ago you would rarely see a migrant. You’d see a few in Italian cities. So their voters have not been hardened to this transformation in the way, say, a French or a German voter who’s been through, you know, a half a century of having their cities look kind of global. The voters are not hardened to it the way those people are, and so there’s a lot of pressure on politicians to make this stop. But another thing is these countries are right on the border, and they’re getting massive flows of migrants, and right now Italy has been receiving hundreds of thousands of boat people coming across from Africa. They began to try and limit that number through a series of programs and patrols and things about two years ago before the present populist government came to power. But there’s still a lot of migration pressure. There’s still a sort of boats coming from N.G.O.s every week.
Hungary has got something similar. Hungary is the main root in to the European Union on the southeast. In 2015, when migrants began to flee the Syrian war, it was to Hungary that they came first, most of them. Once this migrant stream started flowing, and once it became clear that the European Union was not going to stop them, they were joined by hundreds of thousands of people from across the Muslim world, from Iraq, from Iran, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, Bangladesh. And so Viktor Orbán decided to build a wall to keep them out—to build a wall around the external border with Hungary—which is actually what the European Union treaties envisioned, that each country will protect its own outside border—
Williams: Constituting thus a kind of a super-border.
Caldwell: Yes. But that shocked the European authorities and more importantly the leaders of the biggest countries in Europe and particularly Angela Merkel, who issued an invitation to migrants to come, and then eventually Germany got, I believe, over a million of them. So Orbán managed to keep them out of Hungary. They passed right through Hungary and in to Germany, and Hungary is now the same relatively immigrant-free country that it was three or four years ago, and Orbán is enormously popular. He is the most—with the possible exception of Putin if you count Russia as part of Europe—he is the most popular leader in Europe, and so that is the position he’s in now.
Williams: He’s won, what, three rounds parliamentary elections? Is that right?
Caldwell: The last three consecutive ones, but he also had a short-lived—well, let’s see. He served a four-year term between ’98 and 2002. So he’s in his fourth term but not consecutive. But Orbán is under a lot of pressure from the European Union, and one of the things I outlined in the article was the pressure that he’s getting, not just from the German government but also from German politicians who have been managing to rally the German business world behind them because Hungary, it turns out, is very dependent on German auto industry. And that, I think, European politicians are beginning to hope is Orbán’s Achilles’ heel.
Williams: What do you see for the coming years in Hungary if you had to speculate? I mean Orbán still is very popular, but he’s trying to juggle this conflict with an E.U. that he would love to get out of but can’t really for—
Caldwell: Well, it’s an ambiguous thing because I’m not sure he would love to get out of it. I think that because of the—Hungary’s a very small country. It’s kind of a crossroads. It has a language that’s not related to anything else. So Hungary is very isolated. It cannot be part of the—it cannot be a modern economy without being part of the global economy. And so I think that Hungary to a very high degree values its international connections, including the European Union, but it wants a membership that permits it more autonomy; and I think that that is not the dominant view that—let’s say that states’-rights view of the European Union, if we could call it that—that’s not the dominant view in Brussels, which is the European Union’s capital.
So you have the people in Brussels trying to bring Orbán to heel and Orbán trying to carve out autonomy. Over the, you know, medium term Hungary has a—Orbán has said that he is going to need the help of other countries, other bigger countries, and that is why, as we speak today, Matteo Salvini is visiting Hungary, the Italian Interior Minister. I mean, Italy being the largest country in Europe that’s now governed by populists. So I would say that Orbán sees his big challenges as: one, winning allies in Italy and the United States and other large countries run by populist executives; and two, solving the Hungarian demographic deficit, which is—like other countries in Europe and perhaps more severely—they have a shrinking population, and that, while it doesn’t require them to have immigration, it makes it harder for them to resist immigration.
Williams: Well the balance sheet becomes difficult with a falling population, right, very quickly?
Caldwell: Yes, it does, but you know, it doesn’t necessarily make a government unpopular because if you have a tight labor market, you have rapidly rising wages and much less inequality than you have in other places. So the Hungarian—this is part of Orbán’s popularity—Hungarian workers are doing very well.
Williams: And it’s been a tale—under his tenure it’s been a tale of increasingly good times for them for the most part?
Caldwell: For the most part, yes.
Williams: Does he have any leverage over Brussels, or is it really just the courting of allies?
Caldwell: No, he does have leverage over Brussels. Brussels has an extremely complicated constitution, or they don’t call it a constitution, but it’s the set of rules governing how the European countries interrelate, and what is permitted to the countries, and what is permitted to the E.U. On much of E.U. policy it requires a unanimous vote of all 28 countries. So to that extent Hungary has a lot of theoretical power, but this theoretical veto is very seldom used. Greece has used it a couple times to veto measures against Russia on sanctions and, I believe, China, but don’t hold me to that last one. But when Greece has done it it has been seen as a measure of their country’s abject economic dependence on these trading partners.
Williams: Yes, you mentioned states’ rights as a loose rubric. It’s more actually like the Articles of Confederation, where every state had an absolute veto. We could quickly understood—well, not quickly, but after the course of a decade, you know—
Caldwell: Right. That’s it. There are a lot of people—a lot of the builders of the European Union, I mean, they have certain delusions of grandeur and they think of themselves as the Madisons and Hamiltons of Europe—but a lot of them do describe that they use exactly that metaphor that you used now.
Williams: Right. So in that sense their outlines of it would be quite different, but I should think that the transnationalists in Europe would like something much more like the United States as a federal system with a national center with real power. That would be an international center for them in Brussels, but—
Caldwell: Yes, and that actually is kind of the vision that Emmanuel Macron is trying to bring out and since he’s become President of France. He wants—you know, it is so complicated I don’t even want to describe what it is—but there’s something called the European Commission, which has 28 members. There’s one from each country, and this is the executive of Europe. So it’s a weird sort of Swiss thing where you have a committee that serves as the executive branch, and each one of these 28 commissioners has a specific policy area. So one country will get to name the commissioner on justice and one will get to name the commissioner on antitrust, you know. It gets confusing. Macron wants to take that unwieldy structure and shrink it down to something more like an executive, you see? So he is thinking in the direction of the Philadelphia Convention.
Williams: Right. Yes because our founders, of course, thought that a plural executive was a terrible idea. [Laughs]
Caldwell: [Laughs] Yes.
Williams: That’s interesting. Well, you mentioned Macron, so—you’ve written a lot about this as a way of understanding populist versus maybe transnational Europe and that is this question of Matteo Salvini versus Emmanuel Macron. Macron, you’re telling us—he’s the avatar of what the transnationalists in Europe would like it to be, and then Salvini’s the recrudescence of old politics, of you vote for something and you get to do it? Is that roughly—I’ve butchered the complex argument, but—
Caldwell: No, I think that’s right. Let me talk about one interesting aspect of each of these people. Yes, basically, you know, broadly stated the problem in Europe is very similar to the problem here. We used to have something that was called liberal democracy. We had a—it basically described two things: one, when we use the word “liberal” we mean, you know, a set of reasonable rules and outcomes of democracy. We mean a framework in which democracy takes place, and by “democracy” we mean majority rule, and they used to go together. The majorities that get elected in the United States and in Europe always voted for the same framework.
This century majorities are coming to think that the framework doesn’t suit them, and so you have what a lot of people characterize as illiberal democracy pitted against what other people characterize as undemocratic liberalism. If you wanted to sort of use those caricatures—and I’d say they are caricatures—then Matteo Salvini of Italy stands for illiberal democracy and Emmanuel Macron stands for undemocratic liberalism, and you know, you can see these things play out across a lot of areas.
Let’s say, for instance, in Italy—an interesting thing about Italy is that more than any other country in the world, except perhaps the United States, the judiciary in Italy has taken on a kind of legislative role to the point where conservative parties always consider it an abuse. So basically you had a—I won’t go in to all the details about what made the last election so strange—but by accident you had a kind of a left-wing populist party and a right-wing populist party running an overwhelmingly popular government, and the only opposition in Italy was the judiciary basically. So the judiciary, and not any opposition politician, has been the main opposition to Salvini’s immigration policy. Right?
In France, a lot of the complaints about Macron have concerned the way he’s dealt with the Gilet Jaunes protests, you know, the people who are protesting against high gas taxes and the difficulty of making ends meet out in the French equivalent of flyover country, and these arguments are basically that he’s curtailing the debate, he’s using excessive force against protestors, that sort of thing.
Williams: And the judiciary in Italy—by judiciary you mean both the prosecutors and the judges kind of as an institution, right?
Caldwell: Yes. Well, the interesting thing about Italy—and here’s where it’s actually more problematic from a political science point of view from the United States—it is totally independent of the rest of the political system, and you know, we give lip service to believing in an independent judiciary and kind of like a slogan; but in fact, in a democracy you don’t want the judiciary to be totally independent. You don’t want it to be beholden to political interests, but you don’t want it to be a sort of like freelance sniper on the political landscape, which is what it actually is in Italy.
I mean the Italian constitution was written after the War under a situation where the Italian government, the one thing they wanted to make sure of is that no strong man like Mussolini could arrive in power and politicize the judiciary. So what they did is they created a judiciary system where both magistrates, lawyers and judges were independent of the legislature. They did not have to rely on the legislature for funding or anything. They’re totally free. They’re not answerable to anybody. Their taxes are self-regenerating or something. They get to name their own successors. So they are a—they are really a cast apart, and I could go on—
Williams: No, sure, and the same was true in a way—not precisely—in Hungary, right? The Hungarian judiciary was not quite as insulated—
Caldwell: No, it’s not quite as insulated. I think that the problem is a little bit different in Hungary and in Poland. Although Hungary is a little bit like, similar to Poland. You have legal systems that were formulated under communism—
Williams: Yes. No, I think I mean Poland more—
Caldwell: —and that was the case up until Orbán’s re-election. You know, Hungary did not have a clean break from communism. Hungary has a complex constitutional history. After its 1956 uprising, you know, which was brutally repressed, and it cost Hungary hundreds of thousands of its most productive people, who had to flee abroad. However, it was not a total loss for Hungary because I think the Soviet Union so feared Hungary that they allowed Hungary to open up its markets.
So under János Kádár, who was the person who was brought in to restore order—Kadar was allowed to borrow from western banks and sort of like open western hotels. So they had good restaurants in Budapest, you know, even before the Wall came down. So it was partially de-communized, but when the Wall came down there might have been less incentive to start from scratch, and so they didn’t. They reformed the old constitution, and that is what Orbán objects to in Hungary.
Williams: Let’s unpack these terms just a little bit. So the illiberal democracy—let’s take Italy—the illiberal aspect of democracy in Italy would be that it opposes the liberal pose one should take to migrants and immigration, if we take just that issue, that Brussels would like, and that’s what makes it illiberal; and the democracy part is, Salvini would say, “Well, look, I’m a popular elected leader.”
Caldwell: That’s right. So I actually don’t believe that democracy in Italy is illiberal. As I said, it’s kind of a caricature—
Williams: Sure. Yes.
Caldwell: —I don’t believe it’s illiberal in the sense that it is sectarian or violating the laws. Now the expression “illiberal democracy” was brought in to vogue by Orbán himself who used it in a speech in 2015, I believe, which has been, I think, much misunderstood, but it’s a very sophisticated speech and it really rewards re-read. I mean for students of political science it’s sophisticated because one of the things Orbán did in that illiberal democracy speech is he defined liberalism, and he defined it basically as John Stuart Mill’s harm principle—
Caldwell: —and he said this was the principle on which we rebuild Hungary after 1989—on the idea that you have the right to do anything as long as it doesn’t interfere with another person’s rights. And he said this sounded so reasonable, but we forgot one thing. When you have these sort of spheres of autonomy and no limits on freedom of contract, etc., people do bump in to each other. When they bump in to each other they must negotiate a modus vivendi. How is that modus vivendi negotiated between liberal individuals? He said, well, over time you develop rules of thumb. It’s not like you take one, I take one. It’s generally the more powerful of the two parties who gets to have his way, and over time habits of deference and servility form. So the liberalism winds up being highly inegalitarian.
Orbán would say that we need an illiberalism, and when he said “illiberal” he didn’t mean intolerant. What he actually was thinking of was Christianity, and he’s been more explicit about that as time has gone on. What Orbán says he is is the heir to European Christian democracy as it was understood, you know, in the 1990s, sort of say, under Helmut Kohl in Germany.
Williams: Right, and then if we took Macron as representative of undemocratic liberalism, it would just be the flip side of it. So it’s liberal in the ways that Brussels would like or our transnationalists would like, but in order to get that it needs to blunt the populist currents in Europe, and therefore, is a bit undemocratic.
Caldwell: Yes, but there’s another element that we need to introduce here, and that is the global economy. Macron, you know, is a product of the French École nationale d’administration, which he has discussed possibly suppressing, but the ÉNA as it’s called—the E-N-A—is the school for, sort of, people who want to go in to the business of running France. Okay? And it’s highly competitive to get in to, and a lot of its presidents have come out of it. It was established by de Gaulle in 1945, and it’s been—it’s a school for leadership, let’s say. Macron got out of the ÉNA. He became an investment banker, you know, making €1.5 million a year, and he loves the global economy; and he is pursuing an economic policy that is very very much like an American libertarian’s dream circa 1986, okay. Deregulate everything—
Williams: Neoliberalize, as the epithet goes these days.
Caldwell: Yes, neoliberal. That is sort of what is meant by liberalism. I think as we have come to understand over the last quarter of a century, if you’re going to have an open global economy, you do need to set rules at the international level. So you need to remove a good deal of what used to be discretionary for countries. You have to remove that from democratic scrutiny. So in our country you’ve had fast-track for free trade deals, but if you’re going to have a free trade regime of the sort that Macron desires, you have to tell the French people that certain, not just regulations of goods and services, but also economic arrangements are out of bounds; and so there is something undemocratic about that.
Williams: Do you have any examples in mind of the economic arrangements?
Caldwell: You know, the most libertarian thing that Macron did, when Macron was Minister of Finance under Francois Hollande, Hollande passed two laws that were supposed to open up business. The one that they really really fought very hard for was opening shops on Sundays. For them this became a great symbol of whether France was open for business, to use the expression, you know; and the Prime Minister at the time, Manuel Valls, had to resort to a parliamentary trick to get this passed because it was unpopular. The parliament would have voted against, but he tied it to a vote of confidence and wound up getting this great big package of reforms, which included the Sunday shopping, it included a tax reform, I believe, and so these passed. Another one has been the wealth tax. France had a wealth tax, which was abolished, and Macron has refused to go back on reinstating it, although it does seem to be a winner, you know what I mean, in the polls.
Williams: This was the one that forced, was it Gérard Depardieu to move out of France because of the wealth tax? [Laughs]
Caldwell: Yes, but he has not a big—but he has not shown any sign of moving back.
Williams: [Laughs] Do you know—I’m just fascinated—I mean I knew about the national French schools credentialing their ruling class in various aspects. Do you know what they teach at the leadership école?
Caldwell: No, I don’t really know. I think it’s probably like a business school-type—
Williams: The management of accounts coupled with maybe ethics. We could probably put it together—
Caldwell: I don’t know. It’d be interesting to take a class there.
Williams: Very interesting. Well, let’s conclude with coming home a bit. Do you see any analogues in the United States? I mean, to what extent—this will be another big question. You take whatever piece you’d like. To what extent is there some continuity across the populist uprising in the West in general? So take maybe, you know, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and then the U.S.? Throw some Brexit in there, too. [Laughs]
Caldwell: I think the main continuity across the populist uprising is that they’re all democracy movements. They’re all people who correctly, actually, who correctly see that structures have been built up over the last half century that remove certain questions from the scrutiny of the voters and deliver them to regulatory bodies, bureaucracies, courts.
Williams: Our mutual friend, John Marini, wrote at one point to me that this—and he said it publicly too—Trump’s election was the most political—the biggest research in to politics that he’d seen in his lifetime in America, even eclipsing Ronald Reagan. But what John meant about that was that Trump sort of assembled this coalition on these great issues that had been neglected for decades by both parties, or the establishments of both parties, ran on them, won on them, and then low and behold tried to set about doing something about them; and he’s had very mixed success. I think standing in his way—and has an analogue with some trends in Europe—in his way, of course, is our bureaucracy, which is kind of a permanent state in the way, and parts of our judiciary—I mean it depends on who appointed our judiciary.
Caldwell: Yes, you know there are a lot of things—that’s an interesting view that John has because you would think that this would make think, “Wow, what an extraordinary event. Let’s try and fathom it.” But actually the reaction of so many people in this country has been kind of an obscurantism. It’s sort of like—it seems to me like one would want to explain what led a working majority of Americans to elect Donald Trump president, but so much of our public discussion since the election has involved not explaining the election but explaining it away, about how it wasn’t really an election. So although I think John probably is right, I’m not sure exactly what he means by it being the most political event, but I mean it certainly isn’t extraordinary uprising. It sort of fits the description of an uprising more than anything I can remember, except perhaps Ross Perot, which because it is not successful was less significant.
Williams: Well, good. This has been an excellent conversation, Chris, and I hope we’ll have many others. Thank you very much.
Caldwell: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Ryan.