An important aspect of Hungarian politics in 2019 has been the declaration of a culture war, or rather the equivalent of the conservative countercultural revolution. This should not come as a surprise though. An intellectual debate about the nature of Hungarian conservatism has been steadily evolving since 2006, far before Viktor Orbán had ever spoken of an illiberal democracy. This debate has leaned heavily on the works of traditionalist conservative authors such as Russell Kirk and has been primarily theoretical, not political. It was not a return to the pre-war right wing ideas but focused on values such as the importance of family and religion. The members of this group were not trying to change the Hungarian political system but trying to forge a space for conservatism in Hungarian cultural life in face of what they felt was a liberal dominance of media, theaters etc. In a country where conservative traditions were suppressed for decades, agreeing on conservatism’s points of orientation was of vital importance.
While this was beneficial for the rise of the currently governing conservative-right wing party Fidesz in the past few years there has been a shift in how they are using this “movement” for intellectual self-reflection. This is due mainly to the appearance of the countercultural movement in the United States and the election of Donald Trump with the aid of Stephen Bannon. To be precise, the countercultural movement had appeared during the Bush years as a critique of mainstream Republicans, it was only later that Steve Bannon “hijacked” it for his own purposes. The origins of the movement rediscovered the traditionalist ideals as a way of fighting against both liberal identity politics as well as Republican consumerism and individualism. The Bannon version stripped it of its intellectual debate and used it to provoke and polarize America, attracting a voting base that felt that it had not been well represented by either party.
The think tank network of the third Orbán-government closely followed the transformation of the counterculture movement in the United States and uses both the intellectual and the political approach to it. Many conservative authors from abroad are invited to present at Hungarian conferences, and at times, such as in the case of Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Failed, even Prime Minister Orbán meets with them. It is also worth noting that at times liberal authors have been invited as well, such as in the case of Ivan Krastev, who also deals with the topic of the crisis of liberalism and Orbán has met with his harsh critic Bernard-Henri Lévy.
While this network continues to support the intellectual reflection through organizing conferences, publishing books and so on, it also wishes to make direct political use of the ideas, which is not unilaterally supported by the group of thinkers who started this intellectual self-reflection. In this sense there is starting to be a slight but nevertheless existing resemblance to the Bush years when American conservatives became critical of their party on the grounds that it was not representing the values they held to be important. The aim is partly to bypass the original group of thinkers and use more popular means to further their agenda such as online news portals or magazines. The necessary ideological backing is no longer a question for academics, it is a public issue that is connected to all aspects of culture from the theater to movies, to the media.
The political approach is that the culture war is not a conservative invention it is a matter of self-defense. They are just balancing the field. The only way to do that is to create their own versions of the outlets, where liberal thought can reach people. This can be seen as an equivalent of the post-Bannon countercultural movement in the US. The desire to reclaim cultural space from the liberal side can also seen as an extension of Hungary’s EU policy. Viktor Orbán has said that the way he sees it there isn’t a culture war in Hungary the culture war is within Europe. According to him, the debates over the different cultural philosophies that can be seen in the media are a part of modern life, the European culture wars on the other hand are about preserving European cultural heritage. Therefore, any funds that go towards the support of Hungarian cultural life is an investment into the future. In this sense Orbán’s approach is more like the original traditionalist conservative countercultural movement, that talks more about values than institutions. Yet we have to see that the political approach cannot avoid thinking about institutional matters, their approach is a pragmatic one. The ideological backing of conservatism matters only if it has political power, in other words support to achieve it.
If we want to understand the current debates around the dominance of cultural life we have to understand the development and transformation of the Hungarian conservative countercultural movement. In the eyes of the government the years in opposition spent with reflection were the years of cultivation and now is the time for harvest. They want to use what they have learnt for political purposes which puts reflection a bit on the back burner. The basis of the countercultural argument remains the same though. It is rooted in the desire to define what conservatism is, in the desire to return to more traditional values, and to fight against liberal identity politics. The opponents in their culture war must understand that it is about more than just institutions or power politics, it is a desire to regain the right for the definition of values. Even if their answer is political, it would be valuable to have an intellectual argument against it as well.