In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offer a list of warnings. Four red flags that signal when anti-democratic politicians’ behavior has become so dangerous that a bipartisan coalition of leadership should rally against them. First, do these leaders’ rhetoric or actions reject the rules of the democratic game? Second, do they deny the legitimacy of their political opponents? Third, what about violence? Do they promote it, or tolerate it when convenient? Finally, do these leaders exhibit a willingness to deny their opponents’ civil liberties? Any one of these features is cause for concern (Levitsky, 22). An unfortunate recent example is the Law and Justice (PiS) Party’s scapegoating of the Polish LGBTQ community. Applying Levitsky’s and Ziblatt’s criteria, we find more than one reason to worry about the country’s current path.
Since March 2019, 80 Polish municipalities have passed resolutions declaring themselves to be “LGBT ideology-free zones” (Tidey). Poland is a conservative, majority-Catholic country, so hostility to the gay community isn’t shocking in itself. Further, the resolutions appear to be symbolic finger-waving; they don’t explicitly act against gays within their jurisdictions. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of PiS politicians and their allies in the Polish Catholic Church, suggest a strong possibility of democratic decay.
First is the denial of legitimacy to gay Poles’ very existence. The resolutions allege that gays are a threat to Polish children, families, and the country’s overall way of life.
As PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski put it, “Christianity is part of our national identity, the [Catholic] Church was and is the preacher and holder of the only commonly held system of values in Poland” (Easton). According to Kaczynski, “gay ideology” is a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state” (Noack). Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, also warned in a sermon last year that Poland was being occupied under a “rainbow plague” (Reuters).
Messages like those, combined with government resolutions to liberate towns from “LGBT ideology,” hint at something more worrisome than nominal moralizing. Polish citizens in those towns who happen to be gay or show support for their gay neighbors are being depicted as a foreign disease. Party and government officials that claim to be democratic are using their positions to narrow the scope of who they represent. This official othering is indicative of democratic institutions in decline.
The second issue is the obvious desire in these PiS strongholds to curtail the civil liberties of gay citizens. Looking broadly at the European Union, we see that gays are afforded both longstanding and newly acquired rights and protections. The Polish resolutions not only reject this trend which has unfolded for several decades, but also step conspicuously in the opposite direction. Not long before PiS came to power in Poland, Russia passed its infamous “Gay Propaganda” law in 2013 (Human Rights Watch). That law, which also boasted enthusiastic clerical support, aimed to shelter children from ever hearing about homosexuality in a positive light. Gay-affirming information on health, education, or social advocacy can be legally suppressed by the government. In this way, the traditional holy view on the topic is allowed free reign with young, impressionable minds.
Poland’s resolutions are provincial, legally frail attempts to the same end. Where PiS lacks Vladimir Putin’s power to lawfully silence opposition, they make effective use of popular and pious contempt. The results are similar. Delegitimization and othering of a vulnerable minority is a troubling sign of a ruling party flirting with authoritarianism. And as Levitsky and Ziblatt indicate, it’s their apparent desire to strip away rights from gay citizens, and emulation of Russian practices that point to a withering of Polish democracy.
True, PiS maintains an outward appearance of respecting electoral institutions and doesn’t use violence against its political opposition. But what else would we expect in 21st century Europe? Kim Lane Scheppele’s conception of a “Frankenstate” explains how the brute authoritarianism of the twentieth century has evolved into a savvier creature and is instructive when gauging democratic decline through Levitsky and Ziblatt’s scale. For their own survival, new authoritarians mix democratic structures with anti-democratic practices, resulting in systems that are “neither fully repressive nor fully free” (Scheppelle, 5).
Therefore, while documenting this type of democratic backsliding in the present, we shouldn’t expect a reemergence of the Gestapo before raising alarms. Note Levitsky’s third warning signal involving government support for violence, applied to Poland. While the vitriol continues to spill from PiS officials and the pulpits — outright violence is limited to the right-wing hooligans they inspire. That is a critical layer in the observation of new authoritarianism and how democracies die.
As with last year’s mob attacks at the Lublin and Bialystok pride parades, PiS duly sent riot police to defend marchers and condemned the violence. (Heinrich Himmler may be rolling in his grave.) Yet, as the following passage from the Reichsführer-SS makes clear, the vestiges of authoritarian zeal remain with us: “Just think how many children will never be born because of this, and how a people can be broken in nerve and spirit when such a plague gets hold of it […] We cannot permit such danger in the country […] The homosexual is a traitor to his own people and must be rooted out” (Plant, 99).
When regimes take even baby steps in the direction of dehumanizing a despised minority and making it invisible, we should recognize the danger not only to them, but also to the institutions that are meant to represent and protect all citizens.
Easton, Adam. “Polish Election: Leader targets gay rights as threat to society”. BBC News. October 8, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49904849
Human Rights Watch. “No Support: Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law Imperils LGBT Youth”. Human Rights Watch. December 11, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/12/11/no-support/russias-gay-propaganda-law-imperils-lgbt-youth
Levitsky, Steven. Ziblatt, Daniel. 2017. How Democracies Die. 2017. New York: Crown.
Noack, Rick. “Polish Towns Advocate ‘LGBT-Free’ Zones While the Ruling Party Cheers Them On”. Washington Post. July 21, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/polands-right-wing-ruling-party-has-found-a-new-targetlgbt-ideology/2019/07/19/775f25c6-a4ad-11e9-a767-d7ab84aef3e9_story.html
Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. 1986. Henry Holt and Company LLC.
Rueters. “Unrest feared as Poland Catholic Church doubles down on anti-gay rhetoric” NBC News. August 2, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/unrest-feared-poland-catholic-church-doubles-down-anti-gay-rhetoric-n1038656
Scheppele, Kim Lane. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” 2013. European Politics and Society Newsletter (Winter) Tidey, Alice. “These Photos Highlight the Hurt Over Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’”. Euronews.com. January 23, 2020. https://www.euronews.com/2020/01/23/these-photos-highlight-the-human-hurt-over-poland-s-lgbt-free-zones