Lessons Learned from My Hungarian Adventure
Both the American Right and Left misunderstand this small, Central European country, which I found to be both personally and professionally fascinating.
It’s been a week since I returned home from my European odyssey, which I previewed two weeks ago. After some “bonus tourism” in Brussels, where I hadn’t been since spending half of summer 2002 there as a Big Law summer associate, I arrived in Budapest for a week of activities hosted by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. MCC is a hybrid organization mixing aspects of a university, educational enrichment facility, think tank, publisher, and academic exchange center. They filled my schedule with panels, moderated conversations, research seminars, media interviews, and even a doctoral work-in-progress presentation where I was expected to spontaneously comment on an analysis of EU competition law. (Thank God I had that Brussels experience 20 years ago!)
There was also a full plate of recreational and cultural enrichment, some organized by MCC and others that I arranged on my own. In addition to the wonders of beautiful Budapest, with my hotel strategically situated right on the Danube River near some really cool thermal baths, I got to visit Lake Balaton (practically an inland sea) and the town of Zalaegerszeg near the Croatian border, as well as attend and participate in a legal academy (enrichment for law students) on the shores of the small but scenic Lake Valence.
This small Central European country (pop. <10 million) seems to hold an outsized importance in American political discourse, but both the Right and Left get it wrong. So I thought I’d write up an “after-action report,” which at the very least will serve as a souvenir for myself for when these experiences are less fresh in my mind. Be warned (or relieved) that this will neither be an expert country report—I don’t claim expertise from one week on the ground—nor a travelogue. You can also hear my midstream impressions from the podcast I recorded with Peter Boghossian.
To receive new posts, support my work, and offer suggestions for future writings (and trips, and stream-of-conscious musings) consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The work week began the first Monday of October, which legal junkies know as the first day of the new Supreme Court term. Accordingly, it was appropriate for me to start singing for my supper, so to speak, by engaging in a discussion of the high court, including its historic past term and swirling political tensions both inside and outside the institution. Other professional highlights included:
Giving the keynote lecture at the book launch of the English-language edition of Lenard Sandor’s Constitutional Law Journey in the United States. Lenard, who in addition to being a leading young scholar, coordinated my visit and was my sherpa for the week. For this book, he interviewed dozens of scholars and effectively became a Hungarian Tocqueville.
Conversing with Gergely Deli, the rector of the National Public Service University, which hosted that book event. Deli is a leading legal philosopher and, like so many academics and practitioners I met on this trip, was about my age (mid-40s).
Appearing on a panel with Istvan Stumpf, former justice on the Hungarian Constitutional Court and a fascinating legal scholar. Perhaps even better than talking constitutional law with him was sharing palinka (the local fruit brandy).
Meeting Balazs Orban, no relation to but political director of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz Party. I found Balazs to be personable, genuine, sharp, intellectually curious, and clear-headed in pursuit of his goals (about which more later). His Hungarian Way of Strategy is essential to understanding the country. Balazs is also chairman of MCC’s board of directors.
Pushing outside my intellectual comfort zone by ranging into political anthropology with a discussion of the challenges to American and European “ways of life,” riffing off the work of British sociologist David Goodhart on “somewheres and anywheres.” This event was in the aforementioned mid-size town of Zalaegerszeg (pronounced as spelled, of course), with a lay rather than academic or professional audience.
This “way of life” concept was everywhere, by the way. It was quite striking, because the phrase—not necessarily the concept—sounds a bit antiquated to the American ear, like a Cold War relic. There are many American ways of life, really, so I’m not sure how useful it is intellectually, even as the less-diverse “Hungarian way of life” may be under threat from harmonizing EU bureaucracy.
The other subject that dominated my week was the impact of the war in Ukraine on Hungarian energy prices, and the downstream political effects from that. I didn’t realize that Hungary is pretty much hardest hit by the sanctions on Russia and resulting restrictions and cost-increases on natural gas (the principal form of heating). Being landlocked and without access to alternative pipelines, the country is stuck—but it can’t exactly veto EU sanctions lest it become an international pariah by suggesting that it sides with Putin in his war of aggression (which it doesn’t). In the meantime, winter is coming, public finances are exploding, and large public facilities are announcing they’ll be closed until the spring because heating is unaffordable. There’s even gasoline rationing—though without the 1970s-style car lines.
Meanwhile, the Hungarians I met were uniformly proud of their country, wanting to live a normal life, and puzzled at the “woke” and election-denying extremes they see across the Atlantic. There are large differences and inequalities as between Budapest and the rest of the country, but the capital is booming with new construction and dynamic energy. The young people I met are a charming mix of those “somewheres” and “anywheres.” Some personal highlights include:
Visiting the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe, on the eve of Yom Kippur. I’m not very religious—I joke that I’m Jew-ish—but this was a moving experience, and to see evidence of a revival of Jewish life and an absence of evidence of antisemitism (unlike either the woke Left or the Charlottesville Right).
Exploring the Terror House Museum, located in the building on Andrassy Street (the main boulevard) that served as headquarters for the secret police under both fascist and communist regimes. The most memorable part of the multi-faceted exhibit—which included the basement cells where political prisoners were held and tortured—was the “Changing Room.” This evocative space told the story of how, after the Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands had to renounce their former lives to survive the terror. At the same time, the official Communists welcomed into their ranks many Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) rank-and-file who were perfectly willing to continue terrorizing, dehumanizing, and killing regardless of who their ideological masters were. It was a simple matter of changing uniforms.
Finding statues of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in Liberty Square, opposite a huge memorial to the Soviet “liberators,” which is apparently the last Communist-era monument left standing. Rumor has it there’s a sort of Mitteleuropean standoff whereby the Hungarians preserve the memorial and the Russians preserve the graves of Hungarians who perished in the Gulag labor camps.
Taking in a classical-music concert at the Liszt Academy (Zeneakademia in Hungarian). In addition to a concert hall, this is also a university, museum, and broader cultural center. Tickets were amazingly cheap, $11 under the extremely favorable current exchange rate. Before the concert, I can recommend the 1960s/1980s retro-styled restaurant Menza.
Attending an informal “salon” at the Common Sense Society, an international network that promotes liberty, prosperity, and beauty.
Having dinner with several high school students and their English teachers. I was generally impressive with most people’s language skills. Hungarians know that exceedingly few outsiders can learn their language, but the level of English (plus typically another language or two) is fantastic. This is one of the striking differences from my previous visit to Budapest, in 2000.
Finally, I guess I have to address what many people are curious about regarding Hungary. Is it a model for the New (New!) American Right? Is it some sort of authoritarian throwback in league with a modern day Axis of Evil? The answer is neither—not even close to either. America is a large, diverse place based on ideas and civic nationalism, while Hungary is a small, culturally coherent place with an imperial past, an exemplar of blood-and-soil nationalism. The current government is certainly populist-social-conservative, but it’s no threat to anyone other than perhaps those who want to instruct children on the 52 genders or introduce hierarchies of intersectionality and privilege. As a classical liberal, I wouldn’t use the state quite as much as Hungarians seem to want to do, but they’re not really an outlier in that regard compared to other Europeans.
My hosts were surely trying to show me a “way of life” aligned with the current political mood—Fidesz won a 2/3 parliamentary supermajority in this spring’s elections—but people, including young people, generally seemed happy with the direction the country was going (apart from the short-term war-related energy crisis). This is not a place with secret police around the corner or persecution of minorities. Hungary got a bad rap from its handling of the European migrant crisis, a subject far beyond this post, but the much different approaches by France and Germany didn’t exactly lead to social peace.
You can’t mention Hungary in American discussion without someone raising Orban’s “illiberal democracy” speech. My sense is that the prime minister can be needlessly provocative at times, but this was a misnomer. He largely meant either non-progressive or “nation-minded.” Far be it for me to tell the Hungarians what kinds of policies they should pursue, but the spirit of academic freedom lives here—while cancel culture doesn’t.