How Eastern Europe Blew Up the West

Like the rise of Soviet communism and both World Wars, the Western liberal order’s apparent collapse in 2016 could turn out to be yet another historic upheaval that began in Eastern Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s brand of “illiberal democracy” seems to be making inroads everywhere.

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BUDAPEST – Like the rise of Soviet communism and both World Wars, the Western liberal order’s apparent collapse in 2016 could turn out to be yet another historic upheaval that began in Eastern Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s brand of “illiberal democracy” was quickly adopted by Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, and is now making inroads in the heart of the West – first with the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum, and then with Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s nascent democracy has already given way to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strongman rule, and the Philippines is now led by a populist authoritarian, Rodrigo Duterte. As we head into 2017, something is clearly rotten in the state of democracy.

It may seem unlikely that Orbán and Kaczyński – who both trained as lawyers under their countries’ communist regimes – have become globally influential political entrepreneurs. But their political project has all the features of what management research recommends for a successful innovation strategy. Like many disruptive products and popular brands, illiberal democracy does not try to please everyone; rather, it targets a carefully selected segment of “voter-customers,” and gives them exactly what they want.

When Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” she quite accurately described one segment of the political market that Orbán’s innovation targets. But the illiberal democrat speaks not only to reactionaries eager to restore traditional social hierarchies, but also to working-class voters fearful of unemployment and downward mobility. The rest of society – ethnic, religious, and ideological minorities, including the urban “creative class” – then forms the opposition.