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Populism’s Corrupt Core

Corruption is both a cause and an effect of today's populist surge around the world. From Hungary to Turkey to the United States, autocrats have won power by tapping into anger over violations of the public trust, only to feather their nests once in office.

NEW YORK – Populist electoral victories around the world in recent years have led many to conclude that liberal democracy is under assault. But the arrest this week of Malaysia’s former prime minister on corruption charges is one of several signs suggesting that widespread predictions of the global demise of liberal democracy are premature.

The implication of the doom-and-gloom view is that liberal democracy’s defenders cannot reclaim the moral high ground until they have reexamined their own political and economic assumptions. Yet it is a mistake to think that the rise of autocrats is all about ideology, or that it represents a widespread rejection of democracy, liberalism, or human and civil rights. Today’s elected demagogues are motivated not so much by principle as by power and greed – they are in it for themselves, their families, and their cronies. Restoring balance to our off-kilter world requires that we expose the rank corruption at the heart of the new illiberalism.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s friends and family members have grown rich on government loans and public contracts. In Orbán’s hometown of Felcsút, one crony has overseen the construction of a soccer stadium that seats 4,000 people, even though the total population of the town is just 1,600. Whereas “corruption before 2010 was rather a dysfunction of the system,” notes the watchdog group Transparency International, “Today, it’s a part of the system.”

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