Orbán’s philosophy has been described in Western headlines as an attack on democracy. It is more accurately described as a passionate defense of his own vision of democracy. Orbán’s vision is different from the one that prevails in the West today. It is closer to the understanding of democracy that prevailed in the United States 60 years ago. For Orbán, democracy is when a sovereign people votes and chooses its destiny. Period. A democratic republic need not be liberal, or neutral as to values. It can favor Christianity or patriotism, if it so chooses, and it can even proudly call such choices “illiberal,” as Orbán did in a 2014 speech.
The detractors of Orbán-style democracy consider democracy a set of progressive outcomes that democracies tend to choose, and may even have chosen at some time in the past. If a progressive law or judicial ruling or executive order coincides with the “values” of experts, a kind of mystical ratification results, and the outcome is what the builders of the European Union call an acquis—something permanent, unassailable, and constitutional-seeming. If a democratic majority were to overturn, say, a country’s membership in the European Union, or a state’s laws establishing gay marriage, that outcome would be called “undemocratic.” Of course it would be no such thing. What would be threatened in this case would be somebody’s values, not everyone’s democracy.
That is our problem. Liberalism and democracy have come into conflict. “Populist” is what those loyal to the former call those loyal to the latter.