History can be circular in parts of Europe. The divide that has severed Polish politics is very similar to the divide that split France during the Dreyfus affair. The rhetoric employed by the European radical right such as the demand for “revolution against the elites,” the desire to cleanse those who don’t fit into their desired narrative, which is scarily similar to the language once used by the European radical left. This is upheld by the presence of dissatisfied, discontented intellectuals, who believe that the rules aren’t fair for them and that the wrong people have influence. (Isaac 2019)
Warning signs of democratic backslidingemerged with political attacks on press freedoms and scientific expertise, thepractice of majoritarian politics and loosening of institutional constraints, and the vilificationof political opponents with polarizing rhetoric(McCoy 2018). Throughout Europe, the two primary illiberal parties in power are Law and Justice Party in Poland and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions and retain wide support nationwide and often throughout the EU. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents, but utilize both legal and illegal tactics to reduce their opponents’ ability to operate and act as competition. These parties oppose foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit themselves or their supporters and undermine the established meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the idea of neutrality, professionalism, freedom of the press or legitimate media services, and civil rights for all.
The Law and Justice Party in Poland has embraced a new platform, not just xenophobia, but also open authoritarianism. After the party won a narrow parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the Constitution by appointing new judges to the Constitutional Court, and again years later in the Supreme Court. They took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular radio voices; and began running propaganda ads, filled with easily disprovable lies, often at the taxpayers’ expense (Applebaum 2018). The government received international attention when they suppressed discussions about the Holocaust among citizens. Although this was shifted later due to American pressure, but was strongly supported by Law and Justice’s ideological base, who believe anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, in theory, through competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests for civil servants. Today, in Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, these countries have assumed that competition is the most fair and efficient way to distribute power and wealth. The best-run businesses should make the most money; most qualified politicians should rule; contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome. However, in Poland, this assumption is being challenged. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
This stark polarization has caused wide divides among social groups and even in families. These estrangements are solely political, not personal, causing Poland to become one of the most polarized societies in Europe.
The rhetoric is increasinglyleaning towards an “us versus them” rivalry.The consequences ofhyperpolarization “preventcompromise, consensus,interaction, and tolerance.” Onceset in motion, it becomes more convenient for individualsto allow and enable it, and “ifa critical mass is reached, bandwagon effects will occur.” This polarization means lesser social interaction between groups, which meansfurther polarization. This “aligns group interests around one social cleavage, while suppressing and reducing the importance of other cross-cutting cleavages.” As a result, electoratesare “losingconfidence in publicinstitutions”and democracy. (McCoy 2018)
In Poland, there are a multitude of examples of what happens when a blatant lie or conspiracy theory is proliferated by a politician or political party, sometimes with the full force of its followers behind it. Similar to Trump using birther movement and the false threat of immigrant crime to rally support for his wall, Kaczyński used the Smolensk tragedy to galvanize his followers, and compel distrust of the media. His purpose? In a society where former Communists had mostly disappeared from politics, it gave a reason to distrust the politicians, businesspeople, and technocrats who struggled through the 1990’s and now held powerful positions in the country. It helped Kaczyński define a new elite class. There was no need for competition, or exams. Anyone who expresses their belief in the lie is considered a true patriot, and therefore, may qualify for their desired job. This is problematic because “Elites play a critical role in constructing and/or intensifying existing cleavages or resentments with a divisive rhetoric of “us versus them” intended to mobilize a (perceived) marginalized or disunited sector of the population.” (Lebas 2018).
Polarized societies make democracies vulnerable. It “benefits democracies by mobilizing political participation, simplifying political choice for voters, and strengthening political parties. Each camp questions the moral legitimacy of the others, and believes their policies will ruin the nation. Alternatively, one camp may become hegemonic and curtail liberties, tend toward authoritarianism or even establish an autocratic regime.” This is something, as citizens of the world, we have to be increasingly careful about.