Just a few years ago, it seemed that Poland had reached the end of history. The country appeared to be a fulfillment of Francis Fukuyama’s 1990 assertion that liberal democracy was the final, ultimate form of government. How could it be that a nation showcased as the most successful example of democratic transition in East-Central Europe has become the site of a conflict between an increasingly despotic strain of illiberal populism and a feeble, un-imaginative liberal opposition?
Two explanations for the victory of illiberal populism dominate many of the responses to the question both in Poland and across the West in general. Each is equally useless—both as attempts to under- stand the process as a whole and as a formulation of a successful strategy to defeat illiberal populists.
The first explanation is succinct: illiberal populism literally “fell out of the sky,” like a black swan that unexpectedly appeared on the waters of world politics and proceeded to lay waste to all that had developed after 1989. In Poland’s public debate, the argument goes as follows: everything that happened in our country’s politics was fine until 2015, when Jarosław Kaczyński of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came along and began waging a completely incomprehensible personal vendetta against the architects of the Third Republic of Poland, drawing public support in an unexplained way. As one Polish political scientist wrote in the wake of Law and Justice’s ascent to power, “At the end of 2015 there were no real reasons for Poles to embark on a wholesale and revolutionary change of their country, since most Poles were satisfied with their salaries, jobs, households, and life in general.” In other words, anything that had gone wrong politically had to be chalked up to a bug in the electoral arithmetic. In the view of this author and his ilk, the outcome of the 2015 election was simply an un- fortunate mishap, one that took place “partly due to the unexpected results of electoral technicalities and procedural accident.”
This approach to explaining the reasons behind the victory of Kaczyński’s form of illiberal populism hinges on two implicit—and particularly harmful—assumptions. The first is the well-disguised, undemocratic belief that when someone whom we do not approve wins an election, the event is not a consequence of voters expressing their will, but rather a side effect of procedural accidents and in- comprehensible electoral technicalities.
The second assumption is less succinct than the first, but no less blinkered: if Law and Justice is so harmful, and if the party’s victory was a black swan event, then all we need to do is get rid of Law and Justice, and the former—read “correct”— order will be restored. This assumption is based on a peculiar oversight. Even if it’s true that some of the polls conducted in the run-up to the 2015 election did not reveal dissatisfaction among Poles, two possible factors explain those findings: either voters were in fact dissatisfied, or there were issues that these polls did not address. In other words, they were incomplete. Anyone who claims that PiS’s victory was largely accidental is not considering these possibilities at all, almost as if quantitative studies conducted on the greatest possible sample group could not fail to ask questions that would reveal more complex aspects of reality.
This first explanation somewhat resembles the arguments put forth by opponents of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, according to whom the problem at hand could be solved simply by holding a second referendum on the question of whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU, or impeaching the president of the United States. This belief is plainly false. Much like the choice made by British citizens in 2016, the decision Poles made in 2015 was reaffirmed in the subsequent parliamentary election. Removing Donald Trump from office through impeachment wouldn’t re- solve the polarization tearing apart the American public; nor would the immediate removal of PiS heal Polish politics, because the Law and Justice party is, in fact, in the final stage of a longer pro- cess—the effect, rather than the cause, of many problems. When societies elect illiberal populists, it’s important to consider much more than just the “mistakes” our compatriots made at the ballot box, or procedural accidents.
A second explanation for the electoral triumph of illiberal populism in Poland involves a superficial self-critique of the liberal elites. We are told that illiberal populists won because they spoke to a segment of society that had been forgotten or neglect- ed by liberals. Various interpretations identify this forgotten group as “nationalists” (as opposed to “globalists”), “communitarians” (as opposed to “cosmopolitans”), the “losers of the democratic transition” (as opposed to its “victors”), or, as some might have it, “infrequent fliers,” as opposed to those who fly often and have therefore seen more of the world. According to all these claims, one part of society has benefited from globalization and is more educated and flexible in adapting to change, whereas those in another have largely failed to cope with what’s been going on around them. Liberals, in their attempt to build society in the pursuit of education and mate- rial success, have forgotten about those infrequent fliers. This category of explanations inevitably features the go-to concept of neoliberalism—that evil variety of liberalism that would deregulate every- thing and tell those struggling to stay afloat that they’re unworthy of care and attention.
The more credence these sorts of explanations gain, the more concerned we ought to be. One reason is that dividing society into two clear-cut populations is what happens when we pander to the basest instincts that drive our behavior in moments of crisis and threat. Dividing reality (society, social groups, etc.) into two highly distinct parts makes evolutionary sense because it once enabled us to make quick decisions in moments of danger, but it has little in common with finely tuned analytical instruments.*
The other, more important reason we should treat such explanations with suspicion is that while they ostensibly attribute the victory of illiberal populism to the liberals’ autocratic stance, they in fact introduce a convenient distinction that gives liberals a smug sense of superiority over the constituents of illiberal populists. After all, does this argument not rely, at least in part, on the convenient assumption that some people in society are smarter and better educated than others? And somehow the smart and better-educated people just happen to vote for liberals, while the less smart and less worldly cast their ballots for illiberal populists? This convenient distinction allows its proponents to enjoy a state of cognitive comfort and, as was the case with the “illiberalism- fell-out-of-the-sky” argument, leads to an equally convenient and magical solution to the problem.
Instead of calling for the removal of illiberal populists so that everything can return to normal (i.e. the previous, desirable state), all liberals need to do in this version of events is realize that they had left half of society to its own devices, and to look favorably upon that half. Thus, the argument goes, the whole problem of populism would simply disappear. In reality, however, this approach would merely serve to strengthen illiberal populism, because the oft-repeated argument for the abandonment of neoliberalism is regularly brandished against liberals by the left, which then ends up taking the populists’ place on the side of anti-liberalism. As a result, instead of defending liberalism, and with it respect for rule of law and the dignity of the individual, this mindset contributes, often inadvertently, to the dismantling of liberalism into its constituent parts.
Illiberal populism cannot be clearly understood with any of these explanations. The consequences of this fact extend beyond the boundaries of academic debate. Liberals’ blindness to the true causes of the crisis that has plagued liberal-democratic countries in recent years directly translates to an inability to act under these new circumstances. It’s as if an entire class of formerly successful politicians had become passé overnight.
Only through attentive analysis and a steely readiness to perceive and describe what’s in front of our very noses—even if it is something we’d prefer not to see—will we understand the recent victories of illiberal populism as something other than the end of liberal democracy. We will learn to see it as a necessary crisis, a source of experience and knowledge about how to safeguard liberal democracy—the greatest achievement of the West after 1945—and prepare the adjustments required.
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After 2015, the public debate in Poland became extraordinarily animated. The disruption of the country’s previous path of development was exceptionally bitter, especially for those Polish liberals who had built the Third Republic, evoking in them a pro- found existential angst about the future of the state, and a sense of personal injustice over the disrupted continuity of their own biographies. But bitterness was also felt among younger liberals who came of age in the Third Republic and dreamed of assuming responsibility for their country one day. Instead, these “children of the revolution” found themselves taking to the streets, waving European flags in protest.
Some commentators descended into unproductive alarmism, mindlessly stoking fears that Poland was witnessing the return of the 20th century’s most terrible political systems: fascism and Communism. While these statements came from a place of justified concern that thirty years of liberal democracy were about to be dismantled, they proved to be hackneyed rhetorical weapons. First, they were repeated too frequently, and everyone quickly became desensitized to them. Second, the honking of these Capitoline geese hardly rang true to a society that had experienced a military coup a mere four dec- ades earlier, complete with tanks in the streets. Finally, these warnings were intellectually unsatisfying: while illiberal populism may be tangentially related to bygone political systems, it cannot be understood simply by applying these criteria to it. It is a new type of political phenomenon, even if it resembles previous political aspirations in some ways.
After 2015, however, another group of analysts appeared in Poland, offering a particularly astute description of the process and the causes of the country’s illiberal turn. Their intellectual efforts are particularly relevant, because if Polish poli- tics has, for the past few years, been a laboratory of illiberal populism in which certain phenomena emerged earlier than, say, in the United Kingdom, the United States, or even Germany, then present- ing the essential foundations of their views from a Polish vantage point can offer meaningful lessons to other countries.
This book is a collection of the best analyses of the genesis and character of the Law and Justice government in Poland, and potential exit routes from it. Each of the authors whose essays appear in these pages has published a book that has sparked a national debate in Poland over the last five years. We have asked the authors to distill their arguments into the essays that comprise this collection. Each chapter is based on several core premises:
—The rise of Law and Justice in Poland is no accident. It is the result of profound social and political processes that have enabled PiS to retain power and maintain a significant lead over its rivals in public opinion polls. The nature of these processes is the subject of debate, and each author featured in this book has a different opinion on the matter.
—Some of the causes that contributed to the political shift in Poland are local in nature and as such should be analyzed and discussed in the context of a single country or region. However, some causes are reflections of global phenomena and warrant precise descriptions, since these may provide us with a better understanding of the international popularity of illiberal populism and what can be done to challenge it.
—These recent political disruptions are structural, rather than episodic, in nature. They are a con- sequence of deficiencies in the political system as a whole or a crisis of liberal democracy as we know it. Therefore, they cannot be overcome simply by winning a presidential or parliamentary election. What’s required is a complete remapping of the political landscape and the redefinition of key political objectives, the sources of legitimacy of political parties, and the methods of civic participation. More importantly, we must find a way to counter- act the raging political polarization to keep Poland from replaying the fate of Venezuela, where the opposition became embroiled in such bitter in- fighting a mere two years after its temporary vic- tory over Hugo Chávez that he ended up regaining power for an extended period of time.
The collection opens with an essay by Jarosław Kuisz, based on his book Koniec pokoleń podległości (“The End of the Occupation Mentality”).** Kuisz is an avowed liberal and centrist and the founder of this book’s publisher, the magazine Kultura Lib-eralna (Liberal Culture). He offers a perspective rarely encountered in analyses of illiberal populism, which he examines through the lens of his academic background as a state and law historian. While most discussions of Poland’s illiberal shift focus on the short- or, at most, medium-term con- text spanning no more than a few decades, Kuisz examines the causes of the current state of affairs from a much broader perspective.
It’s true that the year 1989 marked a fundamental turning point in the history of Poland and East- Central Europe as a whole. We should harbor no illusions, however, that this turning point somehow removed the persistent collective habits that existed much earlier. And what habit is most significant in the case of Poland? To answer this question, Kuisz directs our attention to a phenomenon whose consequences have never been discussed in the context of the illiberal shift, namely, the collapse of the state. Polish society is one whose central experience, since 1795—the date of the Third Partition of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary—has been the repeated collapse of its own state, and with it the recurring disruption of institutional continuity and foreign occupation. It is here that Kuisz finds an explanation for many of the disrup- tions in Poland today, from the ease with which Kaczyński dismantled the Third Republic to Poles’ instinctive distrust of laws and the deep polarization of society. Kuisz’s argument is practically psychoanalytical in its potential: he argues that, like it or not, history has caught up with Poles, and until they understand this, they will remain trapped in the closed loop of habit.
The second essay is by Rafał Matyja, who has traveled an intriguing intellectual and political path. Originally associated with the conservative reformists that made up the post-Solidarity bloc, Matyja eventually left politics and took on the role of shrewd observer. He now serves a social advisor to the liberal-conservative 2020 presidential candidate Szymon Hołownia. Based on thoughts originally published in his book Wyjście awaryjne (“Emergen- cy Exit”), Matyja’s essay is a meticulous examination of the features of the Third Republic that paved the way for Jarosław Kaczyński and Law and Justice’s ascent to power in 2015.*** Tracing PiS’s roots to their origin, he arrives at the very same place from which Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform emerged: a sense of anger directed at the corrupt post-communist government that held power at the turn of the century. The problem, he argues, was that the leaders of both parties quickly realized that, from the political standpoint, they stood to gain most not from cooperating with the goal of reforming the state, but instead by engaging in a fierce winner-take-all battle. As a result, the two parties fought each other and coexisted in a paradoxical state of symbiosis, in equal measure. This persisted until 2015, when—for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which was Donald Tusk’s departure to Brussels—Jarosław Kaczyński secured his breakthrough victory, and rather than easing up after the elections, he proceeded to exacerbate the conflict by seizing control of state institutions on a scale never before witnessed in the Third Republic.
An even bolder argument comes in the third essay of this book, written by Stefan Sękowski, represent- ing the new generation of Polish conservatives associated with the magazine Nowa Konfederacja (“New Confederation”) and its milieu. Sękowski is the author of the book Żadna zmiana (“No Change”), whose title alludes to Law and Justice’s 2015 campaign slogan “Dobra zmiana” (“A good change”).**** The originality of his argument lies in his belief that Poland’s illiberal populism is a continuation, rather than a disruption, of the previous state. Sękowski doesn’t stubbornly refuse to address the elephant in the room. It’s apparent to him that Jarosław Kaczyński is violating constitutional principles, dismantling the judiciary and bending the rules of the system. What didn’t change after 2015, Sękowski argues, was the political elite’s approach to governing. PiS didn’t so much make the system dysfunctional as exacerbate its existing dysfunction. In this view, PiS’s symbolic proclamation of the “Fourth Republic,” an effort to sever ties with its predecessor, the Third Republic, is in essence a sad perversion of the latter.
The fourth essay is by Maciej Gdula, a left-wing intellectual associated with the magazine Krytyka Polityczna (“Political Critique”), author of the book Nowy autorytaryzm (“New Authoritarianism”), and a member of the Polish Parliament since the 2019 election.^ He suggests the events we are witnessing in Poland today are rooted neither in the country’s lengthy history nor in the specific features of the Third Republic, but are instead a completely new phenomenon Gdula calls “new authoritarianism.” The phenomenon in fact shares a number of features with authoritarianism in the more traditional meaning of the word, that is, iron-fisted rule. But many of its characteristics are completely unprecedented. Despite the fact that Law and Justice has turned public media broadcasters into mouth- pieces for government propaganda, the latter continues to exist outside the mainstream, unlike the propaganda of other authoritarian systems in the past. In an age of widespread Internet access, and particularly with the current popularity of social media, new authoritarianism occupies a variety of media niches, one of which is Law and Justice’s own “national media.” If people support Kaczyński, it’s not because they lack access to alternative interpretations of the political situation, but because they have made an identity choice. New authoritarian- ism has other significant aspects as well; for in- stance, it eagerly exploits democracy as a screen for its own actions, rather than rejecting it. All these features enable new authoritarianism to wield enormous political power, but as Gdula writes, it would not be true to say it’s invincible. On the con- trary, it is a kind of political strategy, and as such can be defeated with the use of political tools.
Of all the essays collected in this book, the fifth, written by Tomasz Sawczuk, goes furthest in postulating specific solutions. Sawczuk is an editor of Kultura Liberalna and the author of the book Nowy liberalizm (“New Liberalism”).^^ He is careful to distinguish between the causes that led to Law and Justice’s rise to power in 2015 and the new political quality the party has since created, arguing that no other approach allows us to formulate an effective response to Jarosław Kaczyński’s political project. The only successful way to challenge PiS, Sawczuk argues, is to take this new political quality into ac- count. Anyone who sees this as nothing more than direct money transfers and chaos in the legal and institutional realm is mistaken. What makes PiS truly powerful is its Identitarian agenda that Kaczyński has been consistently developing for the past five years. Its reactionism, anti-pluralism, nationalism, and revolutionary conservatism are all features that liberals cannot stomach. Nevertheless, this plat- form is a reality, and only when liberals start taking it seriously will they understand that the necessary response is to create their own alternative, comprehensive platform for identity, morality, and society. My extended conclusion of the book discusses the role and relevance of emotions in politics and the illiberal shift itself. Emotions are a hot topic today, but they’re often discussed without an understanding of what they really are, how they operate in politics, and what they have in common with reason. Emotions have become, in equal measure, an incantation and a method of curtailing any discussion. Instead, I take a serious approach, positing that the dominant emotion of politics today is a sense of loss. Populists have thus far displayed enormous sensitivity to this rather vague emotion, successfully translating it into other, more con- crete feelings: among them resentment, hatred, and fear, none of which, obviously, can find any support among liberals. My key argument is that the liberal reaction should not be to dampen emotions, but the contrary: to take this sense of loss seriously and translate it into other feelings that are more conducive to liberal democracy.
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As this book goes to print, a pall of near-perfect silence has fallen on Poland’s streets, a result of the restrictions introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic. While drones photograph the empty streets from above, one place remains feverishly busy. The government in Warsaw was among the first in Europe to close its country’s borders and impose a strict policy of social distancing on its citizens.
The future is difficult to predict, especially if we consider the fact that the silence in the streets has political overtones as well. One can hardly resist thinking of a chapter in The Spirit of the Laws, the outstanding 18th-century political treatise in which the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote about the silence that falls upon a town when the enemy is about to breach its walls.^^^ Our enemy today does not take the form of foreign soldiers. It is invisible, but no less threatening; to fear this enemy is there- fore justified.
The above reference to Montesquieu is warranted in that silence in the public sphere was often associated in classical political philosophy with the threat of despotism, a form of government that vacates the vitality and commotion typical of democracy. People’s interests and actions are pushed into the private sphere and redirected toward pleasure and material goods. This poses a threat to democracy, because while people are busy tending to their own affairs in their own homes, irreversible change can be pushed through in the public sphere under the pretext or cover of mitigating the effects of a disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is itself a disaster, and as such it can affect democracy. It may be placed alongside other catastrophes from the not-too- recent past, such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, and even the mass murders of the last century. Despite the many differences, it is important to perceive the similarities. Like 20th-century disasters, the pandemic has the potential to put the future of democracy in the backseat while we struggle to face the coming cataclysm. Our victory over the threat of annihilation cannot come at the cost of democracy’s annihilation.
* Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018).
** Jarosław Kuisz, Koniec pokoleń podległości: Młodzi Polacy, liberalizm i przyszłość państwa (Warsaw: Kultura Liberalna Foundation, 2018).