Saying The Polish Election Killed Democracy Isn’t Helping

This week democracy was on the ballot in Poland- and lost. Or, at least, that was what many of the English-language writers and journalists covering it seemed to infer from their coverage. Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic that democracy “suffered a stinging defeat that will have consequences far beyond the country’s borders,” as the country’s ruling PiS (Law & Justice) party cemented its parliamentary majority. PiS has long been criticized for its right-wing, illiberal tendencies including its social conservatism, hostility towards immigration, and perceived attacks on Poland’s judicial independence. More disturbingly, entering the Sejm (parliament) for the first time was the Konfederajca (Confederation) party, an alliance of far-right groups, frighteningly popular with young Poles, whose main beef with Law and Justice is that they don’t go nearly far enough in their policies. While this result is certainly alarming, this sort of response to it is no less so. Across the western world, populism has arisen in large part as a nativist response to perceived multiculturalism, or “globalism,” but also as a result of millions of people in countries such as Poland, the UK, Italy, the US and elsewhere feeling abandoned by uncaring elites- with, yes, at least some justification. Reactions such as that of Mounk and others will only serve to give populists what they want- and drive more and more people into their waiting arms.

To begin with, the idea of democracy dying by means of by a popular vote, while possible, is worthy of skepticism in and of itself. This was not a situation like the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, where, due to the truly undemocratic nature of the electoral college, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton despite receiving millions fewer votes nationwide. Nor was it in the vein of the “elections” held in Poland during the Cold War, an obvious rubber stamp for Communist rule even though other parties were technically allowed to field candidates. In fact, in this most recent election. the opposition even won control over Poland’s Senate. The Senate is a less important body in the Polish system than the Sejm, but still, hardly a result that a newly inaugurated totalitarian regime would have allowed to happen.

Writers like Yascha Mounk and Anne Appelbaum, the celebrated author who has also written in The Atlantic and other venues about authoritarianism past and present,wax poetically about how successful Poland’s transition to democracy was in the 1990s. More than any other former Warsaw Pact nation, Poland was a success story for the triumph of economic liberalism and cultural openness. This narrative is partly true- Poland has experienced a great deal of economic prosperity since the end of Communist rule in 1989, especially compared to the chaos and privation that engulfed former Eastern Bloc nations such as Russia, Ukraine, and others during the 90s. And yet, those who celebrated the coming of the end of history, the total victory of economic and cultural neoliberalism, neglected the fact that, even in Poland, globalization and liberalization left out more than its fair share of people.

What made the story of Poland’s rebellion against Communist rule in the 1980s so remarkable was the fact that it was led by labour unions, most famous among them Solidarity. This working class character of Poland’s dissident movement laid bare government’s claim of presiding over a socialist paradise for all Polish people to see. And yet, over the ensuing decades, Poland’s blue collar industrial jobs, such as shipbuilding, melted away. This echoed events that took place in the American Rust Belt, the North of England, and other industrial regions of the west. Things would only continue to get worse- on paper, Poland maintained high levels of economic growth even through the Great Recession, but that would be cold comfort to the 27 percent of the country’s youth who were unemployed by 2013, after five years of government by the liberal Civic Platform party. Small wonder that an alternative would be sought out.

The key difference between Law and Justice and other populists such as Trump, or the Tory Brexiteers of the UK, is that it must be acknowledged that they have delivered policies that will benefit the people they claim to represent, at least to a degree. This is through programs such as the Family 500+, a monthly allowance of 500 polish zloty (roughly $125) for each child a family has after their first, and a universal health care system modeled on the British National Health Service. Is it really such a wonder, then, that so many Poles marked off their ballots in Law and Justice’s favor?

These things do not, of course, absolve the current Polish government of what it has done to demonize migrants, roll back social freedoms, and more. But the first step towards solving a problem is recognizing how one got there in the first place, and with too many of the loudest and most prominent voices in the West, there is no such recognition with Poland. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as blue-blooded a son of the elite as any man has ever been, had the wisdom to do so at a time when fascism seemed to be on an inevitable upswing, and this clarity allowed him to implement his sweeping New Deal reforms.

Without the understanding that men like Roosevelt had, cries about the end of democracy at the first sign of unfavorable election results will only reinforce the perception of liberals as being out of touch elitists. The first step, both in Poland and elsewhere, is to recognize that the “end of history” mindset that pervaded Western society, especially among intellectuals and policymakers, was thoroughly misguided. Furthermore, the policies promoted by those who held this worldview had harmful effects on large swathes of the population. No less a figure than Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford professor who coined the very term “end of history,” has acknowledged the flaws in his vision, something which no doubt required swallowing of a great deal of his pride. If those who bemoan this week’s Polish election results do not wish them to be followed by more of the same or worse, then they would do well to follow his example.