Lessons from a convening between pro-democracy organizers from the U.S. and Hungary. Gordon Whitman explains how grassroots organizations can adapt as authoritarians change the rules of the game, and how neoliberalism paves the path for dictators.

White Nationalist politicians and activists from the U.S. have beaten a path to Hungary, lionizing Viktor Orbán as a role model for crushing liberalism by any means necessary. But what can people organizing for multi-racial/multi-ethnic democracy in the U.S. and Hungary learn from each other? And what role can grassroots power-building play in countering authoritarian movements that aim to break democratic norms and institutions? 

To help answer these questions, U.S. organizers traveled to Budapest in June 2023 to compare notes with Hungarian organizers and activists. U.S. participants had a chance to see Hungary’s other side: grassroots organizations working to restore democracy, within a long Eastern European tradition of civic and labor organizing. This article explains how Viktor Orbán took and has held onto power, and offers five shared lessons for organizing for social change in the face of rising authoritarianism.

How Hungary became a poster child for authoritarianism

The end of the Soviet Union brought formal democracy to Hungary and other Eastern Europe countries, along with economic and social dislocation. Many Hungarians lost jobs and social benefits. Western governments preached civic participation –– often conceived as professionalized NGOs –– while demanding countries deregulate their economies and dismantle social welfare systems. 

Viktor Orbán was first elected Prime Minister in 1998. He replaced a government led by the Hungarian Socialist Party, which had embraced neo-liberal economic policies. After Orbán lost power four years later, in 2002, his conservative Fidesz party (Alliance of Young Democrats) invested in widespread civic organizing, albeit more top-down than is common among social justice organizers. Fidesz unified many Hungarians around a shared nationalist identity and agenda. These organizing efforts, combined with the failures of the incumbent government, helped Orbán regain power in 2010. His victory took place in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis, which caused many foreclosures in Hungary, and the larger failure of Western neoliberalism to deliver on its promises of economic prosperity. 

After regaining power in 2010, Orbán moved quickly to dominate ever-larger parts of Hungarian society. Over the past thirteen years, his regime has taken political control over the judicial system, media, universities, cultural institutions, churches, and economy. The government tells successful companies that they need to sell themselves at a favorable price to someone connected to the ruling party or be driven out of business. It provides capital and operating costs to churches aligned with the government.

Political scientists call Hungary a competitive authoritarian regime, in that elections happen and matter but take place under conditions where once-democratic institutions are structurally tilted to the regime in power. Something similar could be said about some U.S. states, such as Florida and Tennessee, which have seen a serious erosion of democratic norms. In Hungary, people engage in civic and political activity without repression. Opposition politicians and activists are routinely smeared by the government-aligned media, but they are not put in jail or threatened physically for speaking out against the regime, at least until now. Police rarely use violence to break up protests. Fidesz engages in vote buying and pressures people who are dependent on state jobs and workfare, but votes are fairly counted. 

From a hardcore base of one-third of voters, Fidesz has been able to win four national elections with between 45-55% of voters since 2010. While Hungary is in many ways a multi-ethnic country, long home to Roma and other non-Hungarian ethnic groups, Fidesz has successfully promoted Hungarian nationalism. Orbán has positioned himself as the sole leader able to defend White Christian Hungary against the forces of migration, liberalism, and globalization. 

To consistently win elections, Fidesz extended voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, and has continuously gamed Hungary’s already complex election law. The ruling party has been able to maintain total control over the parliament and judicial system and to amend the constitution at will. The only public institutions not controlled by Fidesz are some municipal governments. In 2019, opposition parties with support from civic groups that stepped more directly into local elections exceeded expectations in winning control of the City of Budapest and other important cities and towns. 

Orbán and his supporters in the U.S. portray Hungary as a “developmental state” focused on improving the lives of the Hungarian people, with an emphasis on promoting strong families. However, participants in the study trip learned the reality that Fidesz’s economic policy relies on holding down wages and social benefits so that Hungary can serve as a source of low-wage labor for Western Europe. The regime has under-invested in health care and education, targeted tax credits and subsidies to middle and upper-middle income Hungarians, and used public works programs to employ the poorest workers at low wages.

While cultural, economic, and political dynamics in Hungary and the U.S. differ in many ways, organizers from both countries were struck by common insights and challenges.  

Five shared lessons for organizing for social change in the face of authoritarianism


#1 The road to authoritarianism is paved by neo-liberalism

A key lesson from Hungary (and the U.S.) is that the failure of neo-liberal economic policies sets the stage for authoritarian politics. During the study trip, Hungarian organizers explained that liberal and center-left governments administered much of economic shock therapy following the end of Soviet rule. As a result, left-liberal politicians and lofty ideas about liberal democracy lost credibility with regular people. 

One of the participants in the study trip to Hungary, Doran Schrantz, then-Executive Director of ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota, shared how a similar failure by liberal elected officials to deliver material improvements for working people paved the way for a conservative resurgence in her state in 2014. After Democrats were voted out of office, labor, community, and faith organizations in Minnesota regrouped. They engaged in a decade of strategic and persistent organizing to change the state’s political environment. Once Democrats narrowly regained control of all three branches of state government in 2022, this patient organizing made possible a string of transformative pro-working family policy victories, including paid family leave, universal school breakfasts and lunches, and increased school funding. 

The best way to defend and deepen democracy is to make government accountable to poor and working people. Opposition to authoritarian politics must go beyond fair procedures and good government. Extreme norm-breaking policies and rhetoric by White Nationalists are meant to not only show strength to base supporters but to disgust and alienate less-engaged voters. Efforts to increase voter participation among people open to pro-democracy ideas need to be tied to substantive policy demands grounded in listening to the concerns and common sense of voters. Organizers can play a crucial role in reconnecting ideas about democracy to policies that address the pressures people face in their daily lives.

#2 Total warfare over institutions

The hard nationalist right in the U.S. sees in Viktor Orbán a playbook for total warfare over institutions, including the economy. This approach is more statist than traditional small-government conservative ideology. Not only are its proponents explicitly racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ, they have reoriented conservative politics away from elitist free-market ideas. They are willing to use state power and programs to win over middle and working-class voters. The goal is not just to win elections and implement conservative policies, but to dominate cultural, educational, and economic institutions that shape society. The prominence of attacks by U.S. conservative politicians and activists on corporations, such as Disney and Comcast, colleges and universities, and school boards echo Orbán’s approach.

The focus on control over institutions puts people working for an array of social justice causes, often with different theories of change, in a larger, more existential struggle over the future of democracy. People who take democratic norms for granted may be slow to realize that the rules of the game have changed. As Karen Stenner argues in The Authoritarian Dynamic, people who value individual freedom and autonomy often “remain inattentive to the collective until it imperils the individual.” People may be slow to recognize that influential players who control political parties and governments are operating without traditional guardrails, as has become increasingly evident in U.S. politics. Every institution is now a site of political conflict and polarization, from churches to school libraries. 

To retain and regain control over cultural, judicial, media, and other institutions that make multi-racial democracy possible, we need to change how civic organizations, campaigns, and networks of organizations are structured and funded. In the U.S. and globally, too much social justice infrastructure is locked into well-meaning programs to advance specific issues and policies. But these are no ordinary times. To effectively confront movements and regimes that aim to break democracy and dominate institutions, we need to devote more resources and energy to building cross-issue and cross-constituency coalitions. These coalitions need a focus beyond specific issues to the larger struggle to protect and expand democracy and advance a vision of society that makes sense to regular people. In the U.S. that shift is most clearly underway at the state level, where base-building organizations and funders are investing in long-term, multi-issues strategies to build governing power.  

#3 Align constituencies around a shared power-building strategy

Coinciding with the June study trip, thousands of teachers, students, and parents gathered at the national parliament building in Budapest to protest legislation that would strip teachers of their status as public employees and make it easier to transfer or fire teachers who organize. This so-called “revenge legislation” followed months of protests across Hungary against low teacher pay and poor working conditions. Over the years, Fidesz underinvested in education, reduced the autonomy of schools and teachers, and took ideological control over curriculum and textbooks. These changes have made teachers and students key constituencies in opposing the regime. 

Nonetheless, large and frequent demonstrations over the past decade have not dented Fidesz grip on national politics in Hungary. Participants in the study trip reflected on this dynamic and agreed on the need to align constituencies around a shared pro-democracy strategy and agenda. For example, teachers, nurses, and public sector service workers have unique needs but a common interest in social spending and professional autonomy. A lesson from both Hungary and the U.S. is the urgency to strengthen the organizing capacity of workers in specific sectors, connecting workers more closely to the people who benefit from their work, such as students, and build long-term alliances across different sectors. The success of the Chicago Teachers Union in building the movement that elected Brandon Johnson as a progressive mayor is a good example of this approach in the U.S. Any pro-democracy playbook needs to include patient organizing that brings more people into political life and aligns organizations around a larger vision, agenda, and strategy.

In this spirit of uniting constituencies around shared democracy goals, Roma leaders in Hungary responded emotionally to Rev. Greg Edwards, the Chief of Staff of POWER Interfaith in Pennsylvania, who shared the history of the Black freedom struggle. He explained how POWER has carried forward that struggle by putting racial equity for Black students at the heart of its campaign to change how schools are funded in Pennsylvania and its 2022 statewide bus tour against White Christian Nationalism. He warned against tiptoeing around racism to avoid hard conversations, emphasizing that people are struggling not just for material improvements in their lives but to be seen and treated as fully human. They need to be fully included in democracy movements. Béla Rácz, a Roma leader with the One Hungary movement, explained how hard but critical it is to elevate Roma issues and leadership within struggles to restore democracy in Hungary.

#4 Invest in building organizations outside of large cities

Although it hasn’t always been so, Fidesz’s constituency is currently concentrated in smaller towns and rural areas. Rural communities in Hungary, like the U.S., are home to many poor and working people who have suffered from cuts to education and health and low-wage economic policies, yet have strong cultural, religious, and political ties to conservative movements. In Hungary, people in rural areas are often dependent on local elites for work, including through the government’s workfare program. People also have limited access to independent media not controlled by the government, and they don’t trust that middle and upper class liberals in Budapest have their interests in mind. As in the U.S., conservative organizations and politicians in Hungary have invested in building a base in smaller communities and rural areas over a generation.

In recent years, in both Hungary and the U.S., organizations working to defend democracy and promote social equality have begun to focus more resources and energy on people-centered organizing outside of large cities. Participants in the study trip from both countries shared that this work requires long-term thinking, persistence, and flexibility. The challenge is to start with people where they are at, tapping into local interests, networks, and issues while connecting people together across communities to work together on large changes.

#5 Make the most of elections

In 2022, civic organizations in Hungary, led by aHang (the Voice), organized a primary for candidates from six opposition parties for the first time. More than 800,000 people participated in two rounds of voting, with people casting ballots online or in person. Thousands of people volunteered time to make the primary successful. This massive civic action addressed the fragmentation of the Hungarian opposition by allowing pro-democracy voters to choose one candidate for Prime Minister and each legislative race. The primary was not enough to overcome the ruling party’s control over the media, the deep division among opposition politicians, and Viktor Orbán’s skillful use of the Ukraine war to rally Hungarians behind Fidesz. But, like the recent success of opposition organizations and parties in Poland, it highlighted how important elections are as moments of vulnerability for authoritarian governments. 

At the Our Common Power conference in Budapest in June 2023, during the Hungary study trip, Alejandra “Alex” Gomez, who leads LUCHA in Arizona, shared how young immigrant leaders in Arizona decided that they needed to engage in politics to bring down Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who terrorized Latino communities in Maricopa County, Arizona for 24 years. Even if they did not use the word authoritarianism, that is how they experienced Arpaio. Their struggle against authoritarianism in Arizona was won through years of grassroots organizing and their choice to engage relentlessly in building the political power of the Latino community and Latino youth. 

Over the past decade, many civic organizations in Hungary and the U.S. have built strategies and structures to engage voters and shape the issues around which elections revolve. But much of the civic capacity in both countries is still located in structures that prevent organizations from directly influencing elections. One shared lesson from Hungarian and U.S. organizers is that when given the choice between democratic and authoritarian futures, organizations and donors need to find more ways to engage more explicitly in elections. When democracy itself is at stake, remaining on the sidelines isn’t an option. 


Hungarians have told me they wished they understood sooner and responded more quickly to Orbán’s authoritarian turn. In The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argues that the delayed reaction is structural, not unique to Hungary. She writes that people with authoritarian outlooks –– who, for example, when asked whether it is more important for children to be taught to think for themselves or follow rules, choose rule-following –– are highly attuned to anything perceived as a threat to group norms. Stenner argues that people who feel a deep need for social order and uniformity can be found on both the right and left, and are especially agitated by rapid cultural change. Autocrats like Orbán and Trump play to this sensitivity. This helps explain a weakness in the narrative that conservative voters are voting against their interests, since people with authoritarian orientations perceive their interests as connected to group stability. In contrast, people whose orientation is live and let live, who value freedom over conformity, don’t necessarily see the threat to a system of democracy until they experience a restriction in their personal freedom. Then, it may be too late to act. That dynamic means that people who care passionately about democracy and human rights as tools for social progress need to be better organized, not only to respond to authoritarianism but to see how quickly the rules are changing around us. And since this struggle is global, we need to be as connected across countries as those who are willing to break democracy to get what they want.


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