On a clear summer evening with a kaleidoscope of picturesque European architecture in the foreground, Tucker Carlson—one of America’s most popular cable news television hosts—introduces his audience to Hungary . It is a country the conservative pundit considers as an exemplar of western civilization and a defender of family values and democracy. Carlson’s perception of the small central European country couldn’t be more polarizing. His glowing reviews are counter to what most political experts consider a textbook example of “democratic backsliding “ which is the gradual degradation of democratic institutions . In fact, Freedomhouse, an organization that measures democracy all over the world considers Hungary to be a transitional regime; a country that’s adopting more and more autocratic features . Throughout the week, Carlson broadcasts his special from Hungary showcasing the country as a comparative study of what the United States could be, even asking “why we can’t have this in America?”. This comparison comes at a time when the United State’s great democratic experiment has lost some of its footing, being considered by some as showing characteristics of democratic backsliding . Despite Carlson’s lauding of American democracy and the importance of maintaining it, he is part of a growing trend in right-wing media in the U.S. that has drifted further into the radical right fringe. A political ideology that is inherently against liberal democracy . Carlson’s rhetoric isn’t just alarming for America’s precarious democratic position, it is also an example of agenda setting and normalization for an illiberal and less inclusive state.
Democratic backsliding has been a political hallmark of the 21st century, with the U.S. being no exception, but the process of a state becoming increasingly autocratic is gradual. For example in Hungary, democratic erosion has taken more than a decade to achieve. This is in part because the Fidesz party, led by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, has strategically and meticulously dismantled a collage of institutions that made up a free and competitive democracy . Even more, Orban has used almost entirely “legal” methods that helped consolidate his autocratic power in the country. This included constitutional “hardball” tactics like packing courts with Fidesz loyalists and changing laws that facilitated more concentrated power in the executive branch. As part of his consolidation of power, Orban also took control of Hungary’s free press and transformed it into a mouthpiece for the Fidesz party. He understood that the media plays a multitude of critical roles for a democracy to thrive. The media is part of a system of checks and balances, acting as a “scarecrow” and a “watchdog” in a democratic system . In addition, the media also has coercive power through agenda-setting because it affects the public’s understanding of the problems of society and what to do about them. Communications scholar Michael Kunczik described the media as “the feedback mechanism in democratic system management” . Distorted information, disinformation, and propaganda, can have real economic, political, and social consequences. Therefore, Orban’s capture of the media reflects a will to not only omit opposition concerns and possible problems with his administration but also to influence public discourse in his favor.
In contrast to Hungary, which has virtually no independent media outside of Fidesz control, Tucker Carlson’s show exists in a pluralistic media environment. However, the principles of media and its role in democracy still apply. Tucker Carlson’s ability to agenda set in America still has potential to be potent. Carlson’s show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” commands the largest cable news audience in the United States, having on average 3.2 million viewers . Like Orban’s Fidesz controlled media, Carlson has his own agenda in distributing his ideas. Much of Carlson’s show, which has been around since 2016, is conservative commentary. Carlson often does political analysis from a conservative viewpoint, and interviews with people from a wide range of political backgrounds providing his take on the world’s most current issues. However, Carlson’s show isn’t new to controversy, with a plethora of libel suits, airing a partisan and half-truthed exposé on the January 6th riots named: “Patriot Purge,” and interviewing conspiracy theorists on his show has brought him fans and critics alike. His broadcast on Hungary isn’t new to this style, however, it sends a more subtle and dangerous message that could be detrimental to an already ailing democracy. While much of Carlson’s Hungary special focused on right-wing talking points, such as immigration, cancel culture, and Christian values, the overarching theme is Viktor Orban’s ability to implement his far-right policies unabated by alternative views. Nonetheless, Carlson doesn’t outright embrace authoritarianism in his show, rather, he gets in front of criticism by identifying Hungary as an ideal “democracy” . He lambasts academic interpretations of Orban’s authoritarian regime as “liberal propaganda”. Carlson’s message, nevertheless, is still clear. Hungary is doing something right, and far right voters in the United State’s should take heed. This is an alarming idea welcomed by America’s most popular cable news talk show host and even more troubling if internalized by his audience.
While Tucker Carlson’s show doesn’t mean a death knell to America’s democracy, it does show a new tolerance for more illiberal political systems if it aligns with far right ideology. Even more troubling, is Carlson’s potential to influence these subtle anti-democratic views in his audience. A part of Viktor Orban’s strategy to consolidate his control in Hungary and dismantle its democracy was through media control and influence. Likewise, Carlson’s show is agenda-setting illiberal views in an audience that is already on shaky ground with America’s democracy. In the global landscape of growing authoritarianism in the 21st century, democracies often don’t die with a single death blow. Military coups are few and far between, and dictators are often elected rather than created by force . For the fall of most modern Democracies it has been a death by a thousand cuts and Carlson’s show could pose a laceration in an already wounded American political system. “Hungarian prime minister hits back at Biden calling him a ‘thug’ on ….” 5 Aug. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s01ZL5TnBNY. Accessed 25 Feb. 2022.  “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” 18 Jan. 2018, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628. Accessed 25 Feb. 2022.  “Hungary: Nations in Transit 2021 Country Report | Freedom House.” https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/nations-transit/2021. Accessed 25 Feb. 2022.  “Tucker: Why can’t we have this in America? – YouTube.” 6 Aug. 2021,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXujFNBV63I. Accessed 25 Feb. 2022.  “Global State of Democracy Report 2021 – International IDEA.” https://www.idea.int/gsod/global-report. Accessed 26 Feb. 2022.  Mudde, Cas. The Far Right Today (pp. 27-31). Polity; 1st edition.  Lendvai, Paul. Orbán: Hungary’s Strongman (pp. 177-189). N.p.: Oxford University Press.  “POST-INDUSTRIAL JOURNALISM: ADAPTING TO THE PRESENT.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/26805941. Accessed 26 Feb. 2022.  Kunczik, Michael. Communication and Social Change: A Summary of Theories, Policies and Experiences for Media Practitioners in the Third World. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Publishing.  “Top Cable News Shows of 2021: Tucker Carlson Tonight Is No. 1 in ….” 3 Jan. 2022, https://www.adweek.com/tvnewser/top-cable-news-shows-of-2021-tucker-carlson-tonight-is-no-1-in-all-categories-for-first-time-ever/496940/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2022.  “Tucker: It’s hard to overstate what a momentous change this is.” 4 Aug. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9alsxM8SOM. Accessed 26 Feb. 2022.  Levitsky, Steven, and Ziblatt, Daniel. How Democracies Die (pp. 1-10). N.p.: Crown.
“Hungarian prime minister hits back at Biden calling him a ‘thug’ on ‘Tucker.’” 2021. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s01ZL5TnBNY.
Katz, AJ. 2022. “Top Cable News Shows of 2021: Tucker Carlson Tonight Is No. 1 in All Measurements For First Time Ever.” Adweek. https://www.adweek.com/tvnewser/top-cable-news-shows-of-2021-tucker-carlson-tonight-is-no-1-in-all-categories-for-first-time-ever/496940/.
Lendvai, Paul. 2017. Orbán: Hungary’s Strongman. N.p.: Oxford University Press.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. N.p.: Crown.
Végh, Zsuzsanna. n.d. “Hungary: Nations in Transit 2021 Country Report.” Freedom House. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/nations-transit/2021.
Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, no. 21 (January), 93-113. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.
YouTube. 2021. “Tucker: Why can’t we have this in America?” August 7, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXujFNBV63I.
Fantastic post, Neal. I particularly enjoyed your introduction as it did a phenomenal job setting the scene for a well-written and compelling post. I agree with your concern about the growing acceptance of, perhaps even support for, the declination of America’s democratic values in mainstream media. The power of the media over the political narrative in the United States cannot be understated. Both right-wing and left-wing pundits alike are masterful agenda setters who can steer their audiences of millions by telling them what to strive for, what to fear, and who to blame. None do this as effectively and to such a sizeable audience as Tucker Carlson. While both sides of the media are rewarded for partisan agenda setting, right-wing media in the United States particularly networks under the Murdoch umbrella, are crossing over into previously uncharted territory. The use of the media to instill ideologies is nothing new, but the right-wing anti-democratic narrative has never been packaged in such a consumable and agreeable way for the average consumer to enjoy. The subtle, to those who have not studied the issue, anti-democratic message being delivered on a nightly basis is only exacerbating the larger issue the nation faces. Democratic backsliding is real and it is happening all around us. The media is supposed to act as a check on government, as you mentioned, and if the media not only allows for this backsliding to go unchecked but encourages it, the very people with the power to buck this trend (voters) will be the last to realize how far our democracy has fallen.