Ideologues at both political extremes, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) on the left and Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the right, have recently pointed to pet foreign countries as exemplars of what America should strive to be. Yet Sanders and Carlson are each misled by a superficial understanding of what these countries are really about.
As a proud, self-described socialist, Sanders thinks Denmark is a socialist paradise. But in reality, it's far more free-market oriented than most people give it credit for. As a dyed-in-the-tweed conservative, Carlson has let his enchantment with Hungarian President Viktor Orban's tough talk against "the libs" blind him to that "leader's" cruel authoritarianism.
Let's look more closely at Denmark: Yes, the country has some big government policies that Sanders would love to see implemented by Uncle Sam, like a decadent paid leave program along with other mandated family benefits. That said, not only is Denmark more economically free than it is socialist, but the country has also spent the last 30 years running away from the socialism that Sanders wants the United States to run toward.
After experiencing the utter economic disaster brought on by a Sanders-like model of democratic socialism in the 1970s, Denmark substantially reformed and shrank its welfare state, making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers. Its government also introduced some competition into its public schools, a move that labor-union devotee Sanders would never support. Moreover, Denmark reduced taxes, including on capital—which American socialists would like to increase here. Denmark is also more open to international trade than the United States currently is, and more than Sanders would like us to be.
Many voters may not be aware of the full extent of Sanders' ignorance about the reality in Denmark, though conservatives were quite vocal in setting him straight. That included the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who told students at Harvard University in 2015 that "Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy." It's worth noting that in the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, Denmark's rank is 11 while the United States' rank is 20.
Now, fast-forward five years, and the conservatives—or at least a very vocal subgroup of them often referred to as "nationalist conservatives" (although the more accurate label would be "Christian nationalists")—are also being educated by a foreign leader, to wit: Orban. They claim that those critics who call him an authoritarian are wrong.
But let's look at his record: Orban has erected barbed-wire fences to keep out immigrants. That may not bother nationalist conservatives, but he has also co-opted the Hungarian press to serve his regime by putting the press in the hands of loyalists. He also packed the courts and cracked down on academia in the name of combating "woke" liberalism. He has created a patronage economy where licenses and aid are handed to businesses that are friendly to his administration. He even passed a law that gives the state considerable control over churches and other religious institutions.
Much of Orban's appeal to the Carlsons of the world springs from his unapologetic immigrant bashing, especially those from majority-Muslim countries, and his hostility to LGBTQ rights and other "woke" causes. My colleague Shikha Dalmia, a Visiting Fellow at the Mercatus Center's Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange, recently organized a conference called "The Real Truth About Hungary." It perfectly captured just how misguided American conservatives are in their admiration for Orban. She told me, "In the name of defending a Christian ethno-state, Orban has curtailed religious liberty, press freedoms, and free enterprise. He has also dismantled Hungary's already weak democratic checks and balances and rigged the electoral system to extend his hold on power."
But the irony is that such tolerance for these policies to "own the libs" could backfire spectacularly on these conservatives. Once the limits on state power are gone, if the progressive left truly gets into power, it will have a much easier time implementing the very agenda that these conservatives fear the most. Also, since imitation is the sincerest form of compliment, I wonder what we are to make of these conservatives who have become the biggest cheerleaders for many progressive spending programs.
The bottom line is Sanders and Carlson are idolizing the wrong models to achieve what they claim they want. The senator's mistake shows he's plain ignorant. Carlson's mistake suggests he's more dangerous.
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