That liberal democracy as a distinctive form of governance is in crisis requires no argument here, and skeptical readers need go no further than the many essays published right here, at Democracy Seminar, to find evidence if evidence is needed.
Democracy Seminar, as a platform and as a network, is a global collaboration of scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens interested in sharing experiences and thoughts about the general challenges facing liberal democracy and the specific challenges they confront in the countries in which they live. It would indeed not be too much to say that we are motivated by the thought, beautifully and famously articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our goal is to share information and perspectives, to learn from each other, to support one another, and to work together on behalf of the liberal democratic values we share.
Liberal democracy faces many challenges, from responding to the opportunities and displacements caused by new forms of capitalism to wrestling with vast population movements that defy the boundaries of nation-states to managing the inevitable constraints imposed by global warming. At the same time, the most immediate challenge facing liberal democracy today is the ascendancy of leaders, parties, and movements that claim to represent a more authentic “will of the people” and that use political power to attack civil liberties, social, intellectual and political pluralism, and liberalism itself.
Poland is by no means the most troubling instance of this. But troubling it is. It is also in many ways exemplary of the dangers we face, and of the difficulty liberal democrats continue to face in their efforts—our efforts—to respond to and allay these dangers.
Poland’s turn towards illiberalism, especially since the 2015 victory of the (perversely named) Law and Justice Party (PiS), is well documented. According to Freedom House’s recently-published Nations in Transit 2021 report, entitled “The Antidemocratic Turn,” Poland and Hungary “stand out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade.” According to V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2021, entitled “Autocratization Turns Viral,” Poland is now “the most autocratizing country,” surpassing even Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
Of particular concern has been the PiS government’s effort to marginalize opposition, and constrict public discourse, by tightening control over both public and private media. The International Press Institute’s February 2021 Report, “Democracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland,” documents that “Media freedom in Poland now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media to muzzle critical reporting and undermine watchdog journalism.” The2021 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Poland 64th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, placing it directly below Malawi (62nd) and Armenia (63rd) and above Bhutan (65th) and Côte d’Ivoire (66th). And according to a recent piece in Notes from Poland, the Journalism Society (Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie), a Polish NGO, has recently published a “Report [that] identifies 187 state-linked lawsuits ‘harassing’ media under current Polish Government.” The article reports that while most of the 187 cases are civil suits, 58 are criminal cases; and that the target of the greatest number of lawsuits (73) is Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s leading liberal democratic daily newspaper.
Adam Michnik, Gazeta’s founding editor and publisher, published an essay on this back in February entitled “Polish Democracy in the Crosshairs,” warning that “the Polish government’s attack on the economic underpinnings of free media is no less an assault on democracy than the January 6 storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters. Behind both are lies, violent rhetoric, and the perversion of politics and public life.”
The publication last year of The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics furnishes us with a welcome opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing liberal democracy in Poland and how they relate to the challenges faced elsewhere. The book is an edited volume, put together by Jarosław Kuisz and Karolina Wigura, the editors of Kultura Liberalna, a Polish left liberal journal that is also the volume’s publisher. And it brings together six authors from across the Polish political spectrum—Rafał Matyja, Stefan Sękowski, Maciej Gdula, Tomasz Sawczuk (also with Kultura Liberalna), and Kuisz and Wigura themselves—who articulate interpretations of the current moment that are both similar and different, and who speak powerfully to each other across their differences.
We invited a group of Democracy Seminar participants from a range of countries to contribute to our symposium. Each was asked to comment on the book and the arguments contained within it, and to reflect on the Polish situation from the vantage point of their own experiences. Many colleagues agreed to contribute, but the personal challenges of 2020—the Year of the Plague—were many, and some of these colleagues were forced to drop out. The reviews included here offer perspectives from five different countries: Romania (Oana Băluță), Hungary (Szabolcs László), Slovakia (Dagmar Kusá), the U.S. (Jeffrey Goldfarb) and Poland itself (Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer). Needless to say, each individual speaks only for themselves and not for the country in which they live, even as they reflect on the distinctive situation of the countries in which they live.
The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics is a particularly fine launching point for our discussion because it exemplifies the kind of engaged scholarship that brings political theory to bear on the challenges of practical politics. These three brief quotations from Wigura’s Introduction neatly sum up the basic premise of the volume, shared by all six contributors:
“The rise of Law and Justice in Poland is no accident.”
“These recent political disruptions are structural, rather than episodic, in nature.”
“[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 counteract the raging political polarization to keep Poland from replaying the fate of Venezuela, where the opposition became embroiled in such bitter infighting a mere two years after its temporary victory over Hugo Chávez that he ended up regaining power for an extended period of time.”
Wigura’s Introduction beautifully summarizes each of the volume’s essays, providing useful context on the political backgrounds and affiliations of each contributor. Each of the essays collected in the volume develops the perspective also developed by each author, in a more sustained fashion, in a recently published book.
Jarosław Kuisz’s lead essay is based on his book Koniec pokoleń podległości (“The End of the Occupation Mentality”). The second essay, by Rafał Matyja, a “liberal conservative,” draws from his book Wyjście awaryjne (“Emergency Exit”). The third essay, written by Stefan Sękowski, a young conservative associated with the magazine Nowa Konfederacja (“New Confederation”), draws from his book Żadna zmiana (“No Change”). The fourth essay is by Maciej Gdula, a left-wing intellectual associated with the magazine Krytyka Polityczna (“Political Critique”) and since 2019 an MP representing the Left Alliance, and it draws from his book Nowy autorytaryzm (“New Authoritarianism”). The fifth essay, written by Tomasz Sawczuk, an editor of Kultura Liberalna, draws from his book Nowy liberalizm (“New Liberalism”). The volume concludes with an essay by Wigura that centers on the powerful sense of loss that sustains right-wing authoritarian populism, and on the need to counter this sense of loss with compelling narrative capable of motivating liberal democratic citizen action in the voting booth and on the street: “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.”
The contributors to The End of the Liberal Mind: Poland’s New Politics do not strictly speaking share the same intellectual or political affiliations, except in this sense: they are all public intellectuals committed to enhancing the quality of public discourse and public debate in their country; they all believe that the norms and rules of the liberal democratic game are in jeopardy and are worth defending; and they all believe that defending these norms and rules is no simple matter. In this sense, the book not only features a robust discussion and debate about the future of liberal democracy, but models the kind of public discourse that a flourishing liberal democracy requires. Whether one thinks of this as a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus,” a Habermassian “democratic rationality,” or a Foucauldian “ethic of agonistic respect,” what is clear is that it is something very different than what is on offer in official public life today, something in short supply that the authoritarians who seek to govern us seek to render even more precarious.
Our symposium will lead with the volume’s introductory chapter, written by Karolina Wigura, which offers a fine overview of the book itself, which will then be followed by the five reviews.
Each of the reviews blends concern about the fate of liberal democracy and a certain hopefulness. All recognize danger, and all note counter-tendencies, and possibilities within the present moment. The pieces by Szabolcs László and Dagmar Kusá are the least optimistic, the former writing from the country, Hungary, that is the vanguard of anti-liberalism in Europe, the latter writing from Slovakia which, since the breakup of Czechoslovakia and the rise of Meciar, has contained a strong illiberal tendency. Szabolcs sees some hopefulness in youth politics, though he also expresses some wariness, and skepticism, that generational change will necessarily bring a strong commitment to liberal democracy. Kusá sees some hopefulness in recent civil society efforts to address the Covid-19 crisis, and also in the 2019 election of Zuzana Čaputová as President of Slovakia, but she too worries that these things are being overshadowed by illiberal tendencies.
Both Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer and Oana Băluță underscore what was once labelled “the power of the powerless,” emphasizing a dimension of the current illiberalism that is given short shrift in the volume: the role of gender and “anti-genderism” in the politics of right-wing populism, but also the recent vitality and success of movements of resistance, such as the wave of Polish protests under the banner of KOD (Committee for the Defense of Democracy), Wolne Sądy (Free Courts), and Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), and the 2018 defeat of the Romanian constitutional amendment intended to define a family as a union of a man and a woman.
Jeffrey Goldfarb is the most hopeful, seeing the volume itself as a sign of a new thinking, and a bridging of divisions, that might portend a revival of liberal democracy in Poland and beyond, and regarding a Biden-type politics as exemplary: “I see an irony here, and not only applied to Poland. While the book’s title can be taken to imply a termination, the book indeed signals an opening. For it enacts the kind of mutually respectful, pluralistic praxis that is both a goal, an end, of the liberal mind, and a means of defending and advancing liberal democracy in these dark times.”
We envision this discussion as the first iteration of a more sustained discussion to follow, that will include responses from at least some of the volume’s contributors, other participants in the Democracy Seminar network, and other colleagues who have relevant things to say about the ways of “defending and advancing liberal democracy in these dark times.”
Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington