This essay is part of our collection on nationalism. See the full collection here.

In elite political and intellectual circles, a consensus has emerged: a dangerous populism, bordering on fascism and the worst political currents of the 1930s, is haunting Europe, Britain, and the United States. The election of Donald Trump, the prospect of a British exit from a Euro-Behemoth, and the rise of populist parties in France, Italy, and Austria are major pieces of evidence for the prosecution. In this narrative, contemporary “democracy,” pure and innocent, and beyond reproach, is under assault from new authoritarians. But there is no evidence that any of these developments or movements has threatened, or will threaten, public liberties.

In late January, thirty leading intellectuals signed a manifesto along these lines, which was written by the flamboyant French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. The manifesto spoke of a “new battle for civilization” in which “arsonists of soul and spirit” threaten fundamental European freedoms. For these self-proclaimed defenders of democracy, Poland and Hungary are at the center of the conflagration threatening to set fire to European freedoms.

A Tale of Good versus Evil?

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Anne Applebaum, one of the signers of the new manifesto, has sounded the alarm with a depressing regularity both in her column in the Washington Post and in a widely read article in The Atlantic. Even as she invokes the horrors of a past about to repeat itself, Applebaum nonetheless admits that the “populist” regimes in Poland and Hungary tolerate opposition, do not resort to tyranny or terror, do not lie in the “surreal” manner of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, and have widespread popular support.

Still, she sees them as conveyors of a series of pernicious, middle-level lies that are paving the way for a far worse form of authoritarianism. Applebaum sees in Poland a replay of the Dreyfus Affair that split France in two at the end of the nineteenth century. One side represents a noble set of “abstract values”: justice, honesty, and a “neutral” judicial and bureaucratic class, paired with support for globalization, immigration, and European integration. But were the ex-Communists who dominated Polish politics for much of the 1990s “neutral” in their approach to the judiciary and the bureaucracy? Did not the previous centrist government in Poland appoint many last-minute judges to stymie the freedom of action of the new Law and Justice government? The other part of the nation, represented by the ruling Law and Justice party, stands for xenophobia, paranoid patriotism, religious zealotry, and hostility to European values. Applebaum doesn’t seem to remember that when the Dreyfusards came to power in France in 1903 they outlawed religious orders and closed Catholic schools. They were fanatical in their own way. So much for a simple morality tale of good versus evil.

Applebaum is also completely blind to what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls the “fanaticism of the center.” Such fanaticism erodes national identity and sovereignty, identifies European values dogmatically with aggressive secularism, and displays contempt for what used to be called “Western civilization.” Can one imagine any of the signers of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s appeal invoking “the survival of Christian civilization,” as Europe’s two greatest anti-totalitarian statesmen, Churchill and de Gaulle, did over and over again during the Second World War? Never. The Old West has been left behind, condemned in a thousand ways.

That is why Daniel Pipes, in a recent piece in Commentary, refers to Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz party as “civilizationist” parties. These groups are wary of transnationalism, and they are suspicious of an Islam that has yet to make its peace with modern civilization and political moderation. They are deeply committed to a rich and capacious notion of the West and of European liberty—one that does not confuse freedom with radical autonomy. Pipes believes that such parties, movements, and governments need to be tutored in the arts of political responsibility, not declared beyond the pale by elite consensus. In his view, they are not “dangerous,” they do not have totalitarian ambitions, and they can play a constructive role in defending what is left of the “Old West” against the acids of modernity and the assaults of militant Islam. And they are recognizably more responsive to public opinion than governing European elites who associate “democracy” with a determined policy to depoliticize and de-Christianize Europe. When European peoples vote “No” on a project supported by the European Commission in Brussels (as the Danes, Irish, French and Dutch have done on various occasions), they are usually told to vote again until they get things right. The Poles and Hungarians are right to reject such a demeaning, not to mention Orwellian, conception of self-government.

For her part, Applebaum believes that Europeans must choose between the National Front and the political correctness bandied about by Emmanuel Macron. Macron tells the French they have no distinctive “culture,” properly speaking, and he incoherently cites de Gaulle as a political inspiration even as he supports the evisceration of the traditional nation and the building of a European super-state. Macron perfectly embodies the contempt for self-government in a centrist elite that confuses “democracy” with abstract values that cannot be challenged by self-governing peoples without the specter of populism or fascism being raised by guardians of a democracy who refuse to consult the unsavory demos.

How would essentially conservative patriots such as Churchill and de Gaulle fit into this false and debilitating choice? Anne Applebaum herself once identified as conservative. But what kind of conservatism unthinkingly identifies with the entire cultural project that arose out of 1968? What is wrong with European peoples attempting to defend their way of life against those who contemptuously reject the old “spiritual contents of life”: the nation, the Church, and a culture rooted in beauty, truth, and the old classical and biblical verities? Why should they be told to adhere to new European “values” that are at odds with everything they hold dear and that are, truth be told, of relatively recent provenance?

Are Poland and Hungary Still Free?

Applebaum is not wrong that the governing elites in contemporary Poland are prone to conspiratorial thinking about Poland’s foes. They see Russian machinations everywhere. In Orban’s Hungary, there is a willingness and ability to distinguish between the Soviet Union and Russia. This distinction is impossible for the passionate Polish patriots of Law and Justice to affirm. For them, alas, Russia is the “eternal enemy” and is even said to be behind the 2010 Smolensk plane crash that took the lives of many Polish and military figures. Even Applebaum, a generally wise and judicious student of Soviet totalitarianism who does not believe this conspiracy theory, sees Putin as an unreconstructed Leninist and KGB man. Most Russians, in contrast, see him as a White, as an enemy of Communism, rather than as a Red or a neo-Bolshevik. But in this, Applebaum (who resides in Poland with her husband Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister) reveals herself to be very Polish, indeed.

Do Poland and Hungary remain free countries? Yes. Is there fear in the streets of Warsaw, Budapest, and other Polish and Hungarian cities? No. Observers should not confuse Orban’s animosity toward George Soros with anti-Semitism. Soros, a partisan of transnationalism and radical libertarianism, shows little respect for the Jewish religion and is no friend of the state of Israel. Applebaum is right about one thing: Polish elites are divided in two, and old friendships, including political friendships, have been severed. But elections are free, and political liberty is intact.

The Law and Justice government is sometimes clumsy and inept, as when it sponsored legislation criminalizing those who blamed Poland for the Holocaust. To be fair, they do have reasons to be defensive, from American reporter Andrea Mitchell’s recent conflation of the “Polish and Nazi regime” to Israeli officials’ linking of Polish anti-Semitism to the genocidal crimes of the Nazis. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, militant and aggressive anti-Semitism flourishes unchecked in Islamic and Leftist circles. Have these critics no eyes to see?

Hungary remains a free country, even if Victor Orban’s Fidesz party has largely consolidated political control. People demonstrate, an opposition exists, there are no political prisoners, independent views can be freely expressed. Hungary, too, is countercultural in its response to the new European civil religion of radical secularism and unthinking cosmopolitanism. As the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko has pointed out, Hungary proudly affirms her sovereignty and her character as a Christian nation (going back a millennium to her great founder King St. Stephen). On abortion, same-sex marriage, and open-ended Islamic immigration, Hungary, like Poland, refuses to be intimidated by the “fanaticism of the center.” These supposedly “extremist” governments defend positions that were commonplace in Western Europe until a generation or two ago.

David P. Goldman goes too far in calling Orban a European Christian Democrat of the old kind. A European Christian Democrat might speak of a conservative democracy, but not an illiberal one, as Orban has done on a half dozen occasions. Orban is surely not a model democratic leader, but as Scott McConnell has recently argued in The American Conservative, he is not an “aspiring dictator” either. And David P. Goldman is right, absolutely right, that Hungary cannot reasonably be accused of anti-Semitism. Orban’s Hungary is a great friend of Israel, and Budapest’s 100,000 Jews are safer and more secure than Jews in most nations of Europe, France and Britain included. Orban’s decision not to accept Islamic migrants and refugees during the recent great migration no doubt has something to do with that climate of safety for Hungarian Jews. And yet articles in the Western press published the last weekend of March suggested that Hungarian Jews are too “fearful” to speak out against an essentially anti-Semitic government in Budapest. Orban is habitually compared to Hitler in a shameless resort to the old reductio ad Hitlerum.

The Fanaticism of the Center

Let us return to the question of the “fanaticism of the center” of which Pierre Manent has spoken. As Daniel Pipes points out, the “6Ps: police, politicians, press, priests, professors, and prosecutors” in the rest of Europe remain blind to Islamist fanaticism. They are fully convinced of the historical “culpability” of the old “liberal and Christian civilization.” In Ireland, Catholic hospitals are now commanded to perform abortions, an abomination by any standard. In France, one can be imprisoned for two years for trying to persuade a pregnant woman not to have an abortion. In Canada, a refusal to endorse and uphold the “metaphysical madness” of the new language of human self-identification that accompanies gender theory is punishable under the law.

Is this the noble democracy that our ancestors swore to uphold?

Legutko makes the wholly persuasive case that the Poles associated with Solidarnosc thought they were fighting for truth, moral nobility, classical metaphysics, respect for religion, and the family. They believed in a democratic republicanism that bowed before the goodness and greatness of God. They were, Legutko suggests, insufficiently appreciative of the nihilist turn taken in the West, which began in the 1960s but whose theoretical roots long predated those momentous days.

We should not romanticize the countercultural efforts of the Poles and Hungarians. That is even more true of the more unsavory civilizationalist parties and movements in Austria, Greece, and elsewhere. But until the broad center of the intellectual and political spectrum steps away from its flirtation with nihilism and post-political illusions, we must show more understanding for those who wish to save the remnant of Western civilization that still exists.

Lévy and Applebaum confuse conservative patriotism, albeit of a clumsy and defensive sort, with an incipient authoritarianism, even totalitarianism. They could not be more wrong. They are blind to the myriad ways that late-modern democracy is in the process of losing its soul. They do not see that it is becoming a new form of coercion and authoritarianism, not unlike the “democratic despotism” of which Tocqueville warned. The conflagration is much broader and deeper than they suppose. True liberals, who are also true conservatives, have every reason to be wary—and not just about events in Poland and Hungary.