I have been generally supportive of the way the Hungarian political elite takes care of business and serves the national interest both in Europe and in transatlantic relations. But! There are issues that we keep avoiding and we tend to give an undeserved blank check to the same elite.
This time I will touch on an issue that is screaming to be addressed. There is a gigantic backlog in Hungary when it comes to democratic dialogue with citizens, voters and anyone who makes an effort to address an elected official, civil servant or parliamentary representative. If you don’t know what I am talking about, try writing to an elected or appointed official in Hungary and you will know. They will rarely respond to your letters, comments, ideas, remarks and proposals, if at all. There seems to be insufficient dialogue between citizens and the political elite. This lack of dialogue may hinder the democratic process and may pave the way to meritocracy.
How do we define dialogue? It is a narrative, philosophical or didactic device, chiefly associated in the West with the Socratic dialogue as developed by Plato, but earlier references are also found in other traditions including Indian literature. In the 20th century, philosophical treatments of dialogue emerged from thinkers including Mikhail Bakhtin, Paulo Freire, Martin Buber and David Bohm. Although diverging in many details, these thinkers have articulated a holistic concept of dialogue as a multi-dimensional, dynamic and context-dependent process of creating meaning.*
Why is dialogue important? Because it is one of the pillars of the democratic process. Try writing to a U.S., Swiss or Swedish official as a citizen of those countries and you are likely to get some kind of response within a couple of weeks. Yet, when you do the same in Hungary, your efforts to communicate with politicians seem to fall on deaf ears. This is very sad and unless this aloofness by the political elite changes substantially, Hungary’s infant democracy can ultimately be compromised.
Examples of ignoring citizens’ advances in Hungary are abundant. I could list dozens of examples whereas I solicited a response from elected officials and/or I attempted to communicate with them, but they ignored my pleas. The list includes ministers, state secretaries, mayors, parliamentary representatives and the like. They claim that they “communicate” with citizens through letter campaigns. These letter campaigns are essentially managed opinion forming efforts. They do not address real concerns like inequitable taxation, unemployment, low wages, a need for more power sharing and more social sensitivity.
Nowadays, the current political leadership has a tendency to admonish U.S. political processes, yet ironically, we still have a lot to learn from America and American democratic practices in general. Such lessons are openness, the “live and let live” tenets of doing business, flexibility, tolerance, essential freedoms standing up for your rights and the aforementioned practice of responding to citizens when they have something to say – the lack of which may jeopardize democratic freedoms in Hungary. I wrote letters to President Clinton, Vice President Gore, National Security Adviser Zbig Brzezinski and many other high-level officials in the U.S. Government in the past. It never happened that I was left without a response. Yes, of course, perhaps it was not their personal feedback that I received, but one of their staff officials wrote the response letter. But somehow they were at least cognizant of my efforts to address a particular topic or concern. The response letters were always attentive to the topics and concerns that I addressed. In Hungary, there is little hope for such reciprocal exchange of letters and thoughts.
What is the root of this lax behavior by the political elite? One of the underlying reasons for this smug attitude may be that dialogue was traditionally created and pursued by the civic class in Hungary (polgárok) and this class has been gradually extinguished by two world wars and 40 years of Soviet-style state socialism. The emerging proletariat was replaced during the late 1990s by a non-cosmopolitan class of rural origin at the helm of political leadership. It will take some time for civic society and the banished aristocracy to regroup and re-establish itself. Two-three generations perhaps. Until that occurs, we cannot count on too much dialogue between civilians and politicians to improve Hungarian society.
Dialogue is needed to build consensus. It is needed to foster a win-win scenario in political, commercial and cultural relations. It is also needed to create more understanding and calm throughout Hungarian society. Unless politicians wake up from their prolonged hibernation to realize this, democratic processes will be compromised. It is so, because without dialogue there is no chance to foster a win-win attitude in society.
Reckoning my friends! Let us send a message to the political elite that their first and foremost duty is to communicate with citizens. It is a duty because it is actually the citizenry that put them into positions of power to represent them (citizens). As Winnie the Pooh asserted in one of his basic tenets: “friends share”! Yes, good friends (and a caring political leadership) will always share their well-being, their power and their position of leverage with the common folks in society. In an ideal world, they delegate and decentralize. Also, in fair societies, progressive taxation has been a proven tool to balance economic inequities, by way of which the more fortunate would have to contribute proportionately more of their incomes to help the socially and economically disadvantaged segments of society. Even republicans in the United States accept this basic tenet. George H. Bush (senior) called it a “thousand points of light”. Donald J. Trump calls it empowerment and a fair shake for blue collar workers.
We should take these principles seriously. Despite major advances by the government of Hungary in economic management, national pride and infrastructure development, communication with the citizenry has suffered a backlash and the economic divide has deepened. Both exigencies need to be addressed or else economic and social progress may be compromised, which might take us back to where we started from some 27 years ago. Less arrogance and a gentle, open-minded, more caring national agenda should continue to be our guiding light in determining our future in central Europe. But this agenda cannot be accomplished or implemented without power sharing and a proper dialogue with the citizenry.