When you hear about divisive, unpopular or outrageous policies, you may be tempted to think logically. You assume that they will provoke resistance and the leader losing supporters. It is not the case.
An outrageous, divisive or unpopular proposal is a friend of any autocrat:
- If he shoves it down people’s throats, he is established as daddy and reduces the chance of future resistance.
- If he foregoes public debate, he reinforces the all-important message that your opinion truly doesn’t count. You will come to feel that way.
- If even protests are ignored and people get eventually bored on the streets – he reinforces the basic authoritarian message that resistance is futile.
And even if he has to retreat he can still pose as reasonable – but that’s unlikely. More often The Good King will blame the idea on someone else – like the Bad Advisor.
1) Take divisive motions.
If the proposal pits people against people, they will be so preoccupied fighting each others, they will not stand in the way of the proposal. That is the case with 99% of policies, everywhere on the planet. They set interest against interest, may that be real or perceived, and they always ask the wrong questions.
Take the dog tax, recently proposed by Zsolt Semjén (or his proposal-writer, because he doesn’t come up with these himself). If you hate dogs, you can take it at face value and think up some sanitation excuse for the new tax. It is in its name, after all, and authoritarian minds always think up great excuses for new taxes and regulation, without even being prompted. If you hate dogs, you will bring up dog poop, people who walk their dogs, the cost of whatever to the public, and you can even pose as righteous dog-defender by mumbling something about apartments and dogs. Then of course, there is the ever-relevant demographic argument: Why don’t they have children instead to multiply the tribe?
See? It only took me 30 seconds to get overexcited and judgmental – and forget about the 1000 billion forints lost to government corruption every year. Whoever understands 1000 billion, anyway? And what can be done about that? Nothing!
But everyone understands dogs and happily vents frustration on someone who doesn’t hit back: other people. (Corrupt politicians would be risky targets.)
The media will naturally jump right in. The pro-government media will accuse dog owners of replacing sacred children with dogs and plotting to eliminate the nation. The independent media will react to these accusations and cause them nonsense. People only ever read what their side says so the pro-government party will seriously freak out at the news of dog owners feeding babies to their pooches – while dog owners will freak at at news of dogs found hanging from lamp posts. The latter may even happen.
Dog owners, in the meantime, will be forced to defend themselves and their life choices. But instead of telling the government to stop meddling and collecting revenues with outrageous excuses, they will apologetically talk about guide dogs, police dogs and therapy dogs for babies. In the end, new rules will be added to the proposal, and a surrealistic and Byzantine piece of regulation will be enacted.
There will multiple dog tax categories (by size of the breed or the individual dog, by function and number of dogs per square meter, by political clout of the owners, by date and mode of acquisition, etc.) and a new authority will be born to categorize dogs and ascertain tax to be paid. Vets will lobby to get the licensing rights and somehow they will go to friendly vets only. The whole farce will take a year and it will provide us with an extra layer of bureaucracy to dissolve our spines – but not much in terms of revenues.
Hunter dogs, for instance, will be exempted (true story, because Semjén is a hunter), so many chihuahuas will find themselves in the hunting dog category, their new dog ID travelling with them in their owners’ purses at all times in case they are asked to present their dog tax receipt at random police searches.
Some misguided Westerner would think it would be enough to calculate the revenue from the tax against the cost of enforcement – they may even be naive enough to count public opinion – but a local would know better. If it was decided, it will happen. If it’s irrational, even better.
The point is not the revenue, and not even sanitation. It is to distract and make you feel helpless.
It is easy to see how divisive motions debilitate public debate and eliminate resistance. These debates don’t serve us, whoever wins. But it is very hard to resist being drawn into them.
In the meantime, you will fail to ask why dogs needed to be taxed in the first place.
2) Unpopular proposals
Take the mandatory closure of retail shops on Sundays in Hungary. No one had ever asked for it, it wasn’t even in the cards – until the scandal de jour forced Fidesz to throw in a communication flash bomb. It worked. No one can tell anymore which grandiose corruption scheme we were upset about when this proposal came in.
Hardcore Fidesz followers naturally found it in themselves to embrace the new rules, suddenly realizing how much relief it is that they don’t have the suffocating choice of grocery shopping on a Sunday. (No one went to church.)
Others believed they were alone with their disliking of the new law – and what could be done anyway? Naturally, there was no public debate, not even an opinion poll. People’s interest was not the point. The Sunday closure had to be pushed through to 1) distract and occupy the opposition, and 2) to punish retailers because our government is at war with retailers. (Don’t ask why. Because.)
At the end, people learned that 70% of even the Fidesz fans were against the new law – but only after a private person ordered an opinion poll. And the government withdrew the law only because it threatened to give the fragmented opposition a cause to unite behind and a successful referendum.
3) Outrageous proposals also serve them well
Take Lex CEU. Or anything that was unimaginable – until it was proposed by no less but the state. Then it became the new normal.
Authoritarian governments are pushing us lower and lower in humanity and civilization – and we take it because of gradualism. At the end, shooting certain humans in a ditch would be like just another day, not so different from the day before, when they just chased them into suicide and gave them a gun. And the day before that, when they were just publicly humiliated and paraded naked on the street. Neither of this is a big enough step downward to facilitate resistance.
And this is why a little outrage never hurts an autocrat. Just widens the realm of the possible. Downwards.
The Good King and the Bad Adviser
What these three proposals (dogs, retail closure and Lex CEU) have in common: they were submitted by the Christian democrats, who are a parasitic twin party sticking out of Fidesz’ body. They only serve to propose outrageous stuff – and take the bullet for domestic policy failures.
Because sometimes even an autocrat has to backpedal (for now), and then he needs to throw someone to the wolves. And that is when The Good King will blame the idea on the Bad Adviser. In our case, the Christian democratic non-party, or KDNP. And its leader: Zsolt Semjén.
Semjén, is a useful tool of Orbán. And the Christian democrats are always a splendid source for sanctimonious, meddlesome, and misogynistic ideas. Fidesz doesn’t only embrace them, but uses them as distraction. Exactly because they provoke outrage.
So when something stupid, outrageous or risky is about to be pushed through, Semjén and his non-party are usually made to do it. This way Orbán has nothing to lose – not even among his own voters, who get an excuse to keep loving him, even when they hate the proposal.
And this is how an outrageous proposal is dangerous and not at all bound to fail.
Follow us on Facebook , Twitter @_MwBp , or subscribe to newsletter