The Curious Case of Hungary

The rapid emergence of anti-liberal political movements in a number of countries over the last few years has taken many political scientists and psychologists by surprise. And the rejection of the liberal democratic model is indeed puzzling, since Western liberal democracies have produced unprecedented levels of freedom, justice, fairness, equality, prosperity, and tolerance. Over the past 12 years, Hungary has become Europe’s self-professed champion of illiberalism, having metamorphosed into a de facto one-party state under the autocratic rule of Putin’s closest European friend and ally, Viktor Orbán. During the unfolding conflict in Ukraine, alone in the EU, all Hungarian state media have faithfully echoed Russian propaganda, blaming NATO and US arrogance for Russia’s horrific crimes.

Why Hungary matters

Normally, Hungary is not an important country—it provides barely 0.8 percent of the EU’s GDP, and rarely commands global attention. This time, however, will be different. Hungary’s slide into a populist autocracy has international ramifications because the pattern is being repeated elsewhere. Orbán’s government has reshaped the country’s political culture and institutions, demonstrating how propaganda, conspiracy theories, and identity politics can be harnessed in the service of ethnonationalism to destroy democratic norms. Orbán already has many followers in Central and Eastern Europe, and has been actively promoting illiberalism in the Balkans.

Unsurprisingly, Orbán managed to make quite an impression on Donald Trump, who showered him with praise for doing such a “tremendous job” during a White House visit in 2019. David Cornstein, meanwhile, an American businessman and close friend of Trump, spent his time as US ambassador in Budapest (2018–2020) undermining efforts to clean up Hungary’s political system. “Cornstein is the worst, most detrimental of diplomats—not just of the United States, but of all the countries,” Transparency International representative and former Hungarian minister Miklos Ligeti told the New York Times in 2019. “He is actively working against the voices of anticorruption.”

Orbán likes to present himself as a champion of conservative values, the family, and Christianity, and as the sworn foe of a destructive neo-Marxist ideology sweeping Western universities and institutions. Some on the Right have eagerly embraced this manipulative narrative, and today Orbán receives a warm welcome at conservative gatherings at which he is invited to thunder against Western godlessness and left-wing tyranny. Paradoxically, then, Hungary’s lurch towards autocracy is drawing a perverse legitimacy from the West’s broader shift toward identity politics.

The growing backlash against political correctness and gender ideology led Orbán to realize that attacking the corrosive influence of radical Western progressivism and its theories generates significant domestic and international support. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the success of the Orbán regime is built on the same populist strategies and ideologies routinely employed by autocracies since the 1930s. As a result, Hungary has become an example to populist political movements and leaders such as the Germany’s AfD, the French National Front, Salvini, Kaczynski, Erdoğan, and Putin, all of whom consult Orbán regularly.

Those of us who value liberty, individualism, and rationality must be careful not to make common cause with right-wing autocrats openly disdainful of Enlightenment values. It is profoundly disappointing to see how some Western conservatives inadvertently legitimize Orbán’s regime. Conservative academics and public intellectuals from the US and Europe have flocked to events organized by Matthias Corvinus College and other Orbánite front organizations. Apparently sanguine about Hungary’s increasingly repressive domestic rule, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has been happy to embrace Orbán as a defender of conservative values, while ignorant of his systematic destruction of democracy. These endorsements risk inflicting catastrophic damage on the credibility of classical liberalism.

From democracy to autocracy

Following the collapse of the Soviet system, Hungary was widely seen as one of the post-communist countries most likely to make the successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Unfortunately, this is not how things turned out. Over the past 12 years, Orbán has systematically subjugated democratic institutions and turned the country’s political system into what he euphemistically calls a “System of National Cooperation.”

Orbán was elected in 2010 in a free and fair election to replace the discredited previous centre-Left government, and he immediately set about dismantling the institutions obstructing his pursuit of absolute power. Hungary, he announced, would henceforth be an “illiberal democracy.” He enacted a new constitution supported only by his own party, and changed the electoral law to entrench his control. Although his party failed to win more than 50 percent of all votes cast in either the 2014 or the 2018 elections, on both occasions it nevertheless secured a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

In an extraordinary speech delivered on July 26th, 2014, Orbán declared that Hungary would be turning its back on liberal democracy. Praising autocratic states such as China, Turkey, and Russia, he renounced liberal methods and organizing principles, as well as a liberal way of looking at the world. Contemporary liberal values, he explained, produce corruption, sexual degeneracy, and violence. In illustration of this contention, he is fond of contrasting the vital, work-based economy of healthy Eastern peoples with the tired and immoral Western citizens he says are enslaved by finance capitalism.

Key positions like the public prosecutor’s office, judicial authorities, heads of government agencies, and the tax office were duly staffed with party loyalists appointed for up to nine years. The public broadcaster and 90 percent of the media are now under direct party control, and taxpayer funds are shamelessly used for party propaganda. Corruption has reached unprecedented levels under Orbán’s rule. His childhood friend—a barely literate former gas-fitter—has become the richest man in Hungary in just a few years as the fortunate recipient of countless EU-funded government contracts. Orbán’s son-in-law has been accused of racketeering and criminal conspiracy to defraud the EU by OLAF, the EU’s investigative agency, which has recommended prosecution. But Péter Polt, Orban’s man at the head of the public prosecutor’s office, has done nothing.

Orbán’s strategies to entrench his power are not without historical precedent, but he has been more cunning and successful than many would-be populist autocrats. Political scientists debate how best to characterize Hungary’s autocracy. Some call it a quasi-fascist state, as Orbán’s propaganda fomenting division, hatred, and nationalism employs similar methods to those used by Mussolini, Goebbels, and Hitler. Others, like Bálint Magyar, define it as a post-communist mafia state, on account of the omnipresent corruption and Godfather-like hierarchical power structure documented in Magyar’s carefully researched 800-page book, The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes. Transparency International confirms that corruption has become endemic in Hungary since 2010.

In sum, Orbán has used EU taxpayer money to consolidate his illiberal regime, while the EU has been powerless to stop the power-grab and the plunder. The state favours Orbán’s cronies and family members with government contracts, punishes independent media owners, NGOs, and opposition supporters with arbitrary tax investigations, and uses state resources for party propaganda. His party has effectively destroyed the independence of the judiciary, a development documented in Judith Sargentini’s extensive 2018 report for the European Parliament. In many ways, Orbán has excluded himself from the democratic West, and he and his government should be treated accordingly. Criticism from the European Parliament, the Venice Commission, the European Commission, and the Sargentini report have had no discernible effect. Nor has the threat of EU sanctions against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU constitution.

Unrelenting government propaganda has played a crucial role in legitimizing this process, fueling a sense of nationalist self-pity, grievance, and collective narcissism. It instrumentalizes Hungary’s traumatic history to present Orbán as the triumphalist savior of a nation for the benefit of his credulous disciples. The Hungarian electorate is comprised of roughly eight million voters, about a quarter of whom are solid Orbán supporters, and their loyalty has been secured by a combination of ethnonationalist propaganda and targeted favors and benefits.

The coming election

It is against this depressing backdrop that the forthcoming election on April 3rd is being held. But for the first time in 12 years, the opposition has managed to get its act together, and democratic parties from across the political spectrum have formed a common platform to unseat Orbán. In a series of pre-selection votes, a single candidate was chosen for each electoral district to prevent fragmentation of the opposition vote. And in Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative Catholic father of seven, the opposition bloc has found a prime ministerial candidate who actually believes in and lives the conservative Christian values that Orbán only pretends to represent. Márki-Zay is the mayor of a provincial city, lived for many years in North America, has multiple university degrees, and appears to be a decent person and authentic democrat. Needless to say, Orbán’s propaganda machine is now in full swing, attacking him with transparently dishonest accusations.

Leaving nothing to chance, Orbán has done everything in his power to ensure victory. Tens of thousands of loyalist voters from neighbouring countries will be entitled to a postal vote without proper certification, opening numerous avenues for electoral fraud. Meanwhile, more than half-a-million Hungarians who emigrated to Western Europe to escape Orbán’s regime will only be permitted to vote in person at embassies—an unambiguous attempt to reduce their participation. Several fake parties supported by Orbán cronies have also been registered to try and split opposition support. Most state institutions are now run by Orbán loyalists; higher education institutions have been handed over to front foundations run by Orbán appointees for life; the art world, theatres, museums, and granting organisations have all been centralized and are now generally run by party apparatchiks.

Even if the opposition succeeds in winning power, it will be confronted by a phalanx of well-funded and hostile institutions, and barren state coffers emptied by reckless pre-election spending. But this is what makes the coming Hungarian elections so fascinating. We are about to discover whether or not elections alone can provide an autocratic one-party state with a peaceful path back to functioning pluralistic democracy. Many Hungarian commentators are not convinced. Reversals of populist autocracy by democratic means, they point out, are rare in our political history. Some argue that Orbán’s entire 12-year rule was a violation of fundamental constitutional principles, and that a new constitution will be needed to bring those who destroyed our democracy to justice. But this move will no doubt produce new and bitter divisions that make it impracticable.

Those who sincerely oppose the creeping authoritarianism of left-wing revolutionaries, neo-Marxists, critical race theorists, and gender ideologues in our institutions (and I count myself among them) must not allow themselves to be seduced by reactionary authoritarians from the far-Right. We cannot make common cause with genocidal dictators like Putin just because he shares our opposition to political correctness and institutional capture. In the same way, cooperation with an authoritarian like Orbán, whatever its short-term benefits, can only harm the cause of liberty in the long run. Can Orbán still win the election, or can the opposition at last place Hungary back on the road to liberal democracy? We will have to wait to see what happens on April 3rd.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/03/16/the-curious-case-of-hungary/

We can hope that the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Hungary, courtesy of Orbán’s mate Putin, will go a long way to sinking him at the election.

Edit.
Thinking in terms of those refugees being an illustration of the hardship Orbán’s mate and dictator idol has caused.

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CdtcMo4XIAIVjrx

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Like most of your memes, this is rubbish. There is, of course, a robust debate in Europe about the impact of immigration; one must either be ignorant or dishonest to suggest otherwise. In contrast, Orban is a self-declared paragon of “illiberal democracy” who has actively suppressed criticism of his regime. As usual, your understanding of the situation is exactly backwards. At least you’re consistent.

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This says nothing about what was posted.

It also says very little taken on its own.

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Hope you don’t mind if i post in short little stints cuz I’m busy tonight but does liberalism inherently imply the willingness to allow the rape of one’s homeland by violent sexually repressed theocratic imperialists? If so, illiberal may not be such a bad word.

You’re going to say it’s not inherent of course but certainly liberal nations are the only ones who embrace this.

Is the notion of illegal opinions and illegal jokes a liberal one? If so it’s not so different, except that Orban is honest about it.

So liberalism allows for both cultural enrichment such as mass new years eve curbsstompings AND the arrest of people who don’t like that kind of thing and have the gall to say so.

Is there a reason I’m supposed to stand against Orban which sets him apart from any other European leader?

Not even just European. Is this any key difference that truly sets apart a Trudeau from an Orban besides which faith they promote (love thy neighbor vs kill the enemy where he stands?). Both are corrupt and above the law, both nakedly grab for power via various institutions and the media. Both take punitive measures against the opposition and do they they can to prevent them ever taking power… it really does seem the main difference is one is more honest about it.

Also, it seems to me that there isn’t just one answer that’s the ideal way, but rather that things ebb and flow in waves. It’s not as though liberalism is the divine way that will set everyone free if you just keep pouring on more and more of it. At some time it becomes too much and needs to be tempered. Am I wrong about that?

Sure but I didn’t suggest any such thing. To suggest you can glean my full understanding from a simple image file posted (esp when you know I’m simply spamming them to help speed up my departure) is what I’d say is truly ignorant and/or dishonest. Come on now.

Truth is I know a bit about Hungary. My BFF hail’s from Hungary and tells me these things and about some of the illiberal stuff. It’s just some of it makes sense to me, like for example the priority on the family. He doesn’t support Orban one bit.

Ever made goulash over a fire?

Ever tried Palinka?

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I don’t really care how you post. Like I said, I’m not S. Cheung and have no intention of engaging beyond this comment. I’m fairly certain we’ve never had a constructive conversation on QC and I doubt that will change now that you’re in “burn it all down” mode. Looking forward to your imminent departure.

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I see your increased meditation regimen has given you a renewed peace of mind. I feel more at peace having just read that short post so full of blissful serenity, like a haiku gently touching me with its loving mist. Thank you and namaste!

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I might prefer a system where the opposing view points are less suppressed, In the US at least these attempts to cancel people and free speech are usually ruled illegal in the courts, often with compensation for the wronged party.

I suppose there’s not really a need to point out that in a sane world this is a discussion over a false dichotomy.
Both the illiberal extremes are in opposition to what the word liberalism used to mean.

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Whatever one thinks about populist movements or the phenomenon of Global Trumpism, we have to concede that these movements are largely caused by one single issue- the unprecedented levels of mass migration in the West whose only historical parallels are the migrations driven by Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun.

The West has done a pretty good job of constructing the only civilisation in history which is reasonably tolerant and inclusive in terms of differing ethnicity. Unfortunately, it is not only the case the same cannot be said of differing cultures, where certain numerical thresholds have been exceeded, but also that the entire enterprise hinges upon the migrant populations adopting the common culture of ethos, civic values, language and for the most part, the culture of the host nation. This is the lesson of the overwhelmingly successful melting pot period of American history- a Russian American or Nigerian American might proudly remember their families migrant roots, but to the average Brit or Australian hearing them and seeing them in an airport, their dress, language and mannerisms would be virtually indistinguishable from any other American- indeed it is far more likely that any of America’s cousins in the Anglosphere would be able to discern the city or region in America from which they hail- whereas they would likely have to consult the entrails to guess from where their ancestors originated.

The problem in its entirety stems from the fact that as the highly educated have come to dominate the upper echelons of society, so to have the brought along the unique cultural mindset which is, for the most part, only found in individuals born into Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic countries, or weird for short- and then only in hyper-liberal affluent and cosmopolitan circles. These Left-leaning liberals have two features which are not found in most people- first they lack the cultural preference or ingroup, the degree to which around 75% of people in most Western countries are more comfortable and at ease with people with whom they share a common culture, and second they tend to look at the world and experience it with a high degree of openness to new experiences ingrained in their mindset.

Now, when freely pursuing these drives and preferences as a matter of their own free choice, these individuals are not only harmless, but a positive benefit to society- they explore the boundaries and travel far and wide, writing and bringing back cultural influences from around the world, in areas as diverse as music and food, enriching us all. But the problem is that they have increasingly become the cultural, political and corporate elite throughout the Western world, to the extent that even those who populate the power elite of right-wing parties tend to fall into the category of reformed liberal, because liberals are best at both exploring and representing new ideas.

And the heart of the matter is that they misconceive this mentality of comfort with new ideas and new cultures as the product of experience and education, when the psychological literature is quite clear that cultural ingroup is a product of a normally highly fortuitous birth and family background (with educated parents being the greatest predictor) and that their higher degree of comfort with other cultures cannot be taught or learned by experience (except with the possible exception of very small children). In other words, their attitudes to other cultures, is pretty much ingrained and cannot be learned. It is a unique mindset and environmental development not found in any other culture in the world.

This is not to say that most Westerners from further down the socio-economic spectrum cannot be warm, kind, inclusive and tolerant towards individuals from other cultures, and above all welcoming. But we are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognise that it’s a numbers game. Westerners can ably manage large numbers of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds provided they share a common culture and they can also handle small numbers of people from other cultures, but there appears to be threshold to the number of people which a Western culture can hold, in terms of foreign-born citizens, before populism begins to emerge as a political phenomenon, as historian Niall Ferguson amply demonstrates in this Google Zeitgeist talk by analysing America’s four historical periods of populism. The threshold for America at least, appears to be 14% foreign-born citizens, and if Brexit is anything to go by, the same can be said of the general frontrunner in world tolerance and inclusion (with the possible exceptions of New Zealand and Canada)- the UK.

The other thing he notes in that all of these four periods of American populism were marked by the economic scarcity of an economic downturn. Populism simply doesn’t emerge when an economy has a requirement for labour and the economic opportunity this represents. So, we can be even more specific- especially when we look at the demographics which support Trump in America, and his equivalents throughout the West. It is the economic scarcity driven by the neoliberal requirement for cheap and undervalued labour in Western societies, and the social deprivation the competition between equally abused migrant labour and the blue collar class, which is the cause of such civil strife and societal friction.

Because when we look at Australia, with the way their commitment to drawing their huge requirement for new migrants with their Populate or Perish policy- a policy which sees 30% of Australia’s foreign-born- we see none of the strife and friction between migrants and the blue collar class which is a feature of every other society where mas migration has been tried. The key to this success is protecting jobs to which native-born kids who don’t do well at school might aspire- the professional trades and other highly valued blue collar work which has always been the staple and the aspiration of the children of the blue collar class.

Or at least this was the case, until Australia began to erode these blue collar class protections with their Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List- and as the class protections have been relaxed, so too has the Australian populism begun to emerge- finally, belatedly- compared to other countries with far lower levels of migration.

One of the tragedies of the lower value migration which inflicts such a nasty influence of Social Darwinism through economic competition between the blue collar and migrant classes, is that the two groups are so similar. Neither has anything in common with the cosmopolitans who seek to patronise them in both a figurative and literal sense. They both cleave to the comforting influence of their own culture, which is why even if one gave new poorer migrants access to an unlimited resettlement fund, they would cleave together and self-segregate into their own communities. This is also one of the main reasons other than the compelling existential economic threat to blue collar interest why low value migration causes such resentment- because as new communities move in and displace existing communities- there is a sense in which the normally socially conservative blue collar class mourns the loss of community they once felt. For those with high cultural ingroup, this is akin to loosing a family member, confining the feelings of comfort felt at having grown into a community, with painfully acute deep roots, to little more than a memory.

This is also why the Australian system worked so well for so long, by selecting for the highly skilled and highly educated market dominant migration- with schools and colleges in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe avidly watching the list and tailoring their course content accordingly (with Australia’s list highly reflective of global skills demands, for a long while)- Australia managed to sidestep the resentment and friction caused by lower value migration, with its natural tendency towards ghetto-isation and all the social issues this brings. Higher value migration tends to self-sort by wealth and class, and as such tends to integrate and acclimate into the host culture both far more rapidly and far more successfully.

And why have I focused so narrowly on this one particular issue? Because the evidence is now conclusive- without the low value mass migration for which neoliberalism thirsts endlessly, it is highly unlikely that any of the populist leaders we now see at the polar opposites of Left and Right would ever have gained any degree of popularity and certainly wouldn’t have gained power. Trump, Orbán and Brexit would have never happened, or least they never would have gained political power. Ironically, the Australian system tends to work out far better for the prospective migrant as well- education is generally far cheaper in their country of origin, and these days generally better (with the notable exception of a few medical and engineering schools)- and in order to have access to their aspirations, they don’t generally have to take out a mortgage-sized debt to fund their education…

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Or that used to be true, but surely the current liberal/woke alliance is more oppressive of ‘new ideas’ than anything since the Inquisition?

Only if one subscribes to the Infinite Growth economic model. Something of cognitive dissonance there no? On the one hand we’re all about reducing our CO2 footprint (not to mention a hundred other footprints) and on the other hand, it’s Infinite Growth. I’ve read that peak happiness in most Western societies was reached in the mid 70s. You could afford to live, you had room to breathe, your neighbors spoke the language. I don’t doubt that infinite growth works for the globalist plutocratic elite, but it sure doesn’t work for ordinary people.

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Well I dunno. Maybe this Orban person really is as bad as Nancy Pelosi, I’m not saying he isn’t, OTOH he is open about his agenda and so long as he wins elections I’d say that if Hungary votes for illiberal democracy then that’s what they get. I can’t help but suspect that the woke/liberal/globalists would slander the man for no other reason than that he’s not woke. His biggest crime seems to be that he doesn’t want Hungary to become a colony of Africa and Islam the way Germany and Sweden are. And I notice that his doors are open to the Ukrainians fleeing from his ‘friend’ Putin.

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All of it? Having enjoyed a visit to California relatively recently, it seems to me that you’re painting with an extraordinarily broad brush by pretending that the homeless encampments on the streets of L.A. and S.F. represent the entire state. Despite its very real challenges, California remains the most populous state in the U.S., the fifth largest economy in the world and the technological and cultural leader of the U.S. Moreover, even voters in the deep-blue Bay Area are pushing back against Woke excesses, giving hope that the political pendulum may be swinging in the direction of sanity.

Why not move? You may have given up on the Golden State – as have many of your former neighbors who have relocated to Texas, Florida, etc. – but many other Californians are still striving to address its problems. If I were them I’d encourage you to either help or get out of the way.

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Quillette must be getting really hard up to print this useless nonsense. I just can’t take any of your Ozie or Canuck writers seriously any longer as they insist on trashing anyone that doesn’t align with their delusional fantasy relative to believing their cultures and political environment represent the very best of the liberal democratic model. What a pathetic joke. The world watched as both Australia and Canada digressed into insanity specifically Australia’s COVID response and disdain for civil liberties. I would suggest that the writer’s alarmism relative to the “rapid emergence of the anti-liberal political movement” is in more prevalent in the streets of Sydney than Mr. Orbans Hungary.

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That’s somewhat true but it’s way more complicated. And many of us are in fact getting involved and supporting causes with dollars and other types of activism. Many that are leaving don’t want to. They are the middle class trying to survive in a state where the political class has nothing but disdain for them. The middle class simply cannot not survive the cost associated with living in California. In many cases they have no choice but to leave the state. Those that are moving in are highly paid professionals with advanced degrees that can afford the $800K average cost of home in my SoCal district that just surpassed the Bay area as the most expensive housing market. The poor are fine as they are heavily subsidized. That now includes undocumented migrants that receive free health care. The world sees an optical illusion in California that insist we are a progressive model to be mimicked. So those of us that do stay, are working to change the state with the highest poverty rate, 25th in school performance, the highest gas cost (now pushing $6 a gallon), a homeless crisis where billions of tax dollars are poured into corrupt government agencies with zero accountability and zero results, 3rd highest unemployment rate, a state that allows theft up to $900 receive no consequences, corruption were billions are lost and unaccounted for via fraud paid out in unemployment claims and of course a political class that refuses to abide by the destructive COVID policies that have a destroyed lives specifically children who were denied an education. Do you live in California? And if so, what are the helpful little hints you recommend we consider.

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Yep! Orban like Trump appears to have some magical mysterious power to get individuals brains to just simply implode into a strange psychotic episode. His very existence appears to drive them nuts. Maybe the writer truly believes that Orban presents such an existential threat that a few noble lies are in order. Strange!

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Nope, I’m a proud and happy inhabitant of the upper Midwest. I’m certainly not denying that California faces serious problems; I’m challenging the apocalyptic view that it’s on the verge of becoming a failed state due to the corrosive effects of Cultural Marxism. I don’t think that hyperbole (“zero accountability,” “zero results,” “destroyed lives,” “denied an education”) contributes to constructive conversations, whether it’s coming from the left or the right. But I get that sometimes we all need to vent and can certainly understand the frustration experienced by conservatives in a what has become a one-party state. I’m sure Democrats feel the same way in states which are dominated (and mismanaged, in their view) by Republicans, e.g. Florida.

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I’m surprised you settled on Mexico since all of those states have your preferred demographics (overwhelmingly white) in common. Given that you described it as a “compound,” I assume you’ll have measures in place to keep the undesirables out! :slight_smile:

I don’t know whether to wish you luck or not since I don’t think I share your politics, but I do have great respect for anyone who’s willing to throw their hat into the ring!

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