Scholars of political science who study the phenomenon of democratic erosion often analyze the relationship of it with polarization. While there is no academic consensus on which one causes which, a correlation between the two is certain. A highly polarized society seems to be a fertile soil for parties wanting to erode democracy. However, Poland did not seem to be a country prone to polarization before the currently ruling PiS took over. As pointed out by Tworzecki, Poland had a steady economic growth, low income inequality, high levels of happiness and a representative parliamentarian system, which helped avoid polarization in the society for two decades.  But the autocratic PiS party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński had a lot to gain from polarization, and they undertook steps to enlarge it.
But why would a would-be autocratic party want to encourage mass polarization in a society? A study by Graham and Svolik conducted in the United States provides an answer to this question. Their findings show that a polarized society is more willing to trade off democracy against their preferred policy outcomes. As they argue: “In a sharply polarized electorate, even pro-democratically minded voters may act as partisans first and democrats only second”.  This is why would-be autocrats welcome polarization and, as in the case of PiS, may want to encourage it themselves.
As Tworzecki pointed out, during the 2015 election, PiS used a rather moderate rhetoric to put their presidential candidate in power. Their success in elections was enabled mostly by “a twist of domestic and international circumstances unlikely to be repeated” and not the highly polarizing rhetoric that followed only after their president Andrzej Duda assumed office in 2015. After gaining control of the presidency and both houses of the parliament, the new government launched a polarizing campaign using the subjugated public media, as well as sympathetic privately owned media outlets.  The narrative was aimed at delegitimizing the opposition and its supporters (for example when Kaczyński called the opposition’s electorate “the worse sort of Poles”). The attacks were directed not only towards the parliamentary and civic opposition, but also at ethnic and religious minorities, liberal and democratic values, with the European Union as the institutional embodiment of those values.
The strategy proved to be effective. In a study conducted by IPSOS in 2016, 60% of respondents approved of the pro-social policies of PiS. However, only 44% of respondents from the same sample group believed that the ruling party adheres to democratic norms and procedures. This means that there was a substantial group of voters who approved of the government’s actions, despite knowing that democracy was not being respected. This survey presents data similar to those collected by Graham and Svolik in the US – a polarized society is more willing to trade off democracy. This made the attacks on democratic institutions easier for PiS, as there was less civic resistance.
One might argue that the society had already been polarized before, and PiS and Kaczyński only took advantage of the fact, and the polarizing rhetoric used by them was a symptom, not a cause of mass polarization. However, data collected by PGSW clearly shows that this claim is not true. The data shows that the levels of polarization have been rather steady, with an increase in 2015. This year was also the first time in the history of Polish democracy when there was more respondents who voiced open dislike and contempt for a certain party than people who confessed alignment with a party.  This shows that there was more hate towards the opposing parties than identification with one’s own party.
All of the above proves that a polarized society is not a prerequisite for would-be autocrats to assume power and undertake steps to erode democracy. However, a polarized society definitely helps in pursuing non-democratic agenda, as the partisan electorate might turn a blind eye to democratic violations, as long as the ruling party adopts proper policies. The question of how to deal with this threat of top-down polarization, however, remains open.
 Tworzecki H. “Poland: A Case of Top-Down Polarization.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2019, p. 97.
 Graham M. and Svolik M. “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 2020, p. 1.
 Tworzecki H. “Poland: A Case of Top-Down Polarization.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2019, p. 100.
 ibidem, p. 106.