How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Not since the days of the Cold War has a Polish government received as large an amount of criticism from Western media and institutions as that run by the Law and Justice Party (PiS). The right-wing populist party swept to power in Warsaw two years ago this week, winning 37.5 percent of the vote and with it a parliamentary majority.
Since then, Poland’s ruling party has come under fire for truncating democratic norms and institutions through policies set up to neuter judicial independence, weaken civil liberties, politicize the civil service, and exert control over media. PiS has also faced much criticism in Europe for its migration policies, particularly for refusing to accept any relocated refugees despite the previous Polish government’s pledge to accept 7,000 of them. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski even suggested that migrants could bring “epidemics” to Europe and that they carried “various parasites and protozoa, which don’t affect their organisms, but which could be dangerous here”—language that recalled anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
The European Commission has pressed Warsaw to stop its attacks on the rule of law, threatening to potentially scrap Warsaw’s EU voting rights if it does not. The U.S. State Department has also warned of dangers to democracy in Poland. Yet PiS has either ignored such criticisms and demands or reacted with scorn.
Despite the barrage of criticism from abroad, PiS is more popular today than it was two years ago. Recent opinion polls suggest that if elections were held today, PiS could count on an easy victory. One survey suggested that the party would garner 41 percent support, while its closest rival, the center-right former ruling party, Civic Platform, would be backed by 18 percent of voters. Another poll had PiS with as much as 47 percent backing, compared to 16 percent for Civic Platform. Until recently, no Polish government could have survived such widespread criticism from Western institutions and opinion-makers without losing credibility at home. It is worth examining, then, why the PiS has remained so popular.
MORE NATIONALISM, MORE SOCIAL SPENDING
First, Poland’s ruling party has responded to two of the major issues of contemporary European politics—identity and inequality—by effectively combining social conservatism and nationalism with welfarism. In 2016, it implemented a system of unconditional cash payments amounting to $140 per month for parents with more than one child towards the upkeep of each subsequent child until the age of 18. Under this rule, for instance, a household with three children receives $280 per month. (For single-child parents, the payment is conditional on low income.)
To Westerners accustomed to life in the modern welfare state, this program might not seem significant. Yet all of Poland’s previous post-communist governments, both right- and left-wing, had insisted that the country could not afford generous social spending as Poland’s richer Western European peers could. For many years, this was indeed the case, as Polish governments had to make do with very limited resources during the economic transition to capitalism. That did not change even after a quarter-century of rapid economic expansion, in which Poland went from a GDP per capita of $1,727 in 1990 to $12,355 in 2015.
PiS is the first party in power to have asserted that Poland is now rich enough to afford significantly more social spending. In a country where most people’s net salary still amounts to just over $500 a month, the cash payments have provided a significant boost to family incomes. This is particularly true in rural areas, where people tend to be poorer and have more children. It is these citizens who are particularly grateful to PiS, both for the cash and the emotionally important acknowledgement of the cumbersome financial demands that parenting involves. PiS’ reversal of the previous government’s decision to raise the retirement age to 67 for both men and women (from 65 and 60, respectively) has also proved popular. Poland’s budget remains in good shape despite the increased spending.
Poland’s ruling party often deploys a language that emphasizes the need for state protection and support of the elderly, the less well-off, and the family unit in general. After 25 years of government emphasizing individual success, many Poles seem to find this more communitarian approach not only beneficial to their pocket-books but emotionally reassuring, as well, providing a sense of security and community. This helps explain why many Poles are willing to turn a blind eye to PiS trampling on some democratic norms. For instance, in late 2016, despite the European Commission’s repeated criticisms of PiS for its underhanded takeover of the country’s Constitutional Tribunal earlier that year, only 39 percent of Poles saw this issue as “very or somewhat important.”
Poland’s ruling party often deploys a language that emphasizes the need for state protection and support of the elderly, the less well-off, and the family unit in general.
Moreover, PiS has cleverly positioned itself as an anti-establishment party representing the Polish people against corrupt liberal elites who want to control the state and its resources under the guise of empty phrases such as “rule of law” and “separation of powers.” Shortly after PiS took power in 2015 Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said that the liberal elites criticizing PiS for its actions against the Constitutional Tribunal “are not doing this because of democracy.” She went on, “This is about defending their interests and influence. It is not about citizens’ rights, but the defense of bank lobbies and foreign corporations, all those interest groups, which in the past eight years got rich at the expense of Poles. It was a golden era for them, but that era is now over.” PiS portrays the judges and lawyers protesting its curbing of judicial independence as part of that corrupt establishment: they are, in PiS’ telling, simply trying to preserve their own influence. For now, the strategy seems to be working.
A more significant factor in PiS’ sustained popularity is that Poles are nowhere near as admiring of Western social models as they used to be. The government has found fertile ground for its portrayal of Western Europe as a place run by fanatical multiculturalists and militant secularists who are so obsessed with political correctness they have lost all sense of self-preservation—revealed most clearly, this story runs, by its acceptance of Muslim migrants who don’t assimilate to their new societies and are potential terrorists. In a speech this year justifying the current Polish government’s continued refusal to accept any relocated migrants, Szydlo said that “being in the EU does not mean accepting political correctness. It means accepting responsibility [for the safety of our citizens] when political elites in Brussels, blinded by political correctness, won’t accept this responsibility.”
According to PiS, Western Europe has forgotten its roots. As Kaczyński said: “There is a very deep crisis in Europe…it is a serious crisis of European consciousness, a crisis of identity, which is coupled with the collapse of values and basic social institutions.”
In order to avoid a similar crisis of identity, Kaczyński maintains that the country can reach a level of economic development on par with the West while keeping so-called traditional Polish values and maintaining its homogenous, Catholic, white demographic makeup. “It is completely untrue that to achieve Western levels of development, we have to adopt their social models,” Kaczynski said in 2015. “That is hogwash.”
If the polls are any indicator, this message is resonating. PiS finds it relatively easy to deflect Western criticism of its policies by portraying them as instances of cosmopolitan fury at the existence of a traditionally oriented conservative government that has refused to toe the politically correct line by accepting Muslim migrants.
The liberal worldview generally assumes that the more people interact with members of different cultures, the more tolerant and open to difference they become. Poland demonstrates that this is not always the case. In the 13 years since the country joined the European Union, millions of Poles have travelled across Western Europe for work, study, or vacation, interacting with various nationalities and peoples. These interactions have not fostered a desire among Poles for their society, which is 99 percent white, to become more culturally diverse. In , according to a poll conducted by Pew, only 14 percent of Poles agreed that “having an increasing number of people of different races and nationalities” in one’s country makes it a “better place to live.” Twenty-six percent of Germans and 36 percent of Swedes did. On the contrary, 40 percent of Poles believe that a more multicultural Poland would be a “worse place to live in,” and roughly a third think that diversity has a neutral effect.
As of April, 74 percent of Poles were against their country accepting any asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa. And in a July 2017 survey whose results shocked many in the Polish establishment, 51.2 percent said that Poland should refuse to accept Muslim migrants even if it meant that the country would have to leave the European Union. This despite the fact Poles are generally very pro-EU, with 88 percent supporting Poland’s membership in the bloc.
These attitudes reflect deeper values that had remained latent for much of the transformation period. For most of this time, Poles were anxious to be accepted by Western Europeans, and thus often outwardly pretended to share the cosmopolitan values they perceived as dominant in the Western hemisphere. Today, with Poland economically stronger than ever, Poles feel more confident about asserting their more sincerely held worldviews.
PiS is now offering its own contesting vision of what it means to be a European—broadly speaking, that a true European is a white Christian with generally traditionalist beliefs on family and sexuality and a careful wariness towards non-white people, especially Muslims. In this construct, Christianity is less important as a set of beliefs than as a civilizational marker distinguishing Europe from the Muslim world. This vision of Europeanness evidently appeals to enough Poles to be considered mainstream. PiS should not be viewed as having somehow brainwashed Poles into the xenophobic views many now seem to subscribe to; rather, it simply tapped into underlying worldviews and emboldened the expression of them via the legitimizing power of the state.
THE OPPOSITION'S UNCERTAIN FUTURE
PiS’ success signals a change in Polish society’s view of the West. It continues to admire Western economic development, but rejects liberal values like secularism, equal rights for LGBTQ people, and welcoming, so-called politically correct attitudes towards peoples of other cultures and races. This will have long-term implications for Polish politics, both domestic and foreign, as the logic of democracy dictates that future governments will have to take into account the attitudes that PiS is now legitimizing.
For now, the opposition remains weak, divided, and apparently unsure of how to deal with the eruption of Polish nationalism. If opposition groups adopt PiS’s ideas and rhetoric, then there will be nothing to differentiate them from the ruling party. But if they try to paddle against the current, they risk being out of power for as long as the current atmosphere prevails. A nationalist genie has been let out of the bottle, and there are few forces that could help restrain it anytime soon. For now, the nationalists have it in Poland. In order to regain the political initiative, the liberal opposition will have to come up with an attractive alternative vision for dealing with issues of identity and inequality in twenty-first-century Poland. So far, it has clearly failed to do so.