December 7, 2022
If to look at Poland, Hungary, and other new European Union countries from Western perspective, one may think that the experiment with democracy simply tends to fail here. It is just a part of the world where crises of this kind happen naturally, so to speak. Democratic traditions are shallow here, and our societies have incomparably longer learned to live in foreign occupation than in a culture of responsibility for the common good and freedom, in respect for minorities and the institutions of a democratic state, in a community culture in which a dispute does not mean war, and an opponent is not an enemy. Unlike in the countries of well-established democratic tradition, where politics, luckily for their citizens, can be boring, in Poland every political dispute instantly acquires ethical meanings and becomes a fight between good and evil. We got used to it, struggling for decades and centuries with evil that was not imaginary, but very real. Anyone who was told fairy tales as a child, or who grew up on their modern equivalents in the cinema, television, on the Internet, can easily understand such politics. The same Polish naivety straight from the black and white world of legends pushed us to great and commonly admired historical deeds – and to today’s acts of madness. The thing is, we are not the only ones who got mad.
We live in a part of the world that Western Europeans may soon mark on their maps, as the Romans once did: “here live lions.” Indeed, there are plenty of lions here, and they are dangerous. Before they eat us, however, the message in a bottle that maybe someone will find: “better watch out, lions are everywhere”.
The specifics of the region, even though real and important, is not a valid explanation of the crisis. We are a part of some more general process. Suffice it to mention the characteristic unpredictability of rapid political change. In 2015, in Poland, it was Bronisław Komorowski who was sure to win his second term – we had not been able to predict his defeat even shortly before he lost. Soon after, the British were supposed to stay in the EU, and yet they left it, and so did the US – a victory for Donald Trump seemed impossible. All these disasters not only happened, but – which is more important for a proper diagnosis and therefore worth noting – their arrival was overlooked by mainstream public opinion, despite all the sophistication of its advanced tools and institutions. The disease seemingly affects not only young democracies, but also the cradles of democracy in the West. It always comes as a surprise. The election results in France, Sweden and Italy are yet other examples.
The Eastern European specificity makes us more exposed to autocratic populism, but at the same time makes the symptoms of the disease more pronounced, and perhaps it is easier to see the mechanisms here. It is for this reason, and not because the threats are greater here, that Poland and other countries in the region are worth a careful look. It is a kind of diagnostic laboratory. But perhaps a cure can be traced in this lab as well. Something that works here will be even more effective where the immune system works better.
One of the paradoxes of our presence in Europe: for all our weaknesses, we know something about democracy here that the stable democracies of the ‘old Union’ do not know. We know how democracies die. We experience it daily.
Message in a bottle – “Save your Souls” – it is not about us anymore.
Some Good News
Poland would have become a Russian-style autocracy a long time ago if not for the EU and its institutions. And it is not about Putin whose predatory appetite and aggression is held back by the strength of the EU and NATO. However understandable the criticism of the EU’s excessively formalized, bureaucratic, detached, and therefore seemingly empty democracy, every institution and every single politician responsible for the most fundamental democratic values failed here in Poland – except for the EU. Europe should know this. The Union is priceless and has proven its worth in Poland.
Polish civil society, which must not be overestimated, after all, because it inherits all the weaknesses of Polish democracy, has carried out its biggest campaigns in recent difficult years. Alongside major and so far futile protests in defense of women’s rights, the largest and the most effective protest was the one in defense of the courts and the foundations of the rule of law. It involved not only hundreds of thousands of people in the campaign of protests that lasted for years, but also entire social groups refusing to obey the authorities, consciously provoking repression and facing it. It also took determined resistance of independent judges and prosecutors, and finally the hard work of the most outstanding Polish lawyers who managed to set an unprecedented path of EU procedures for infringement of EU law.
As a result, the destruction of the rule of law in Poland was largely stopped. Although the political and legal attacks on courts continue, judges today demonstrate their actual independence from the authorities on a scale never seen in the history of Polish democracy. It was the Union and its politicians that tipped the scale, finding the sense and value of a policy free from anyone’s interests, focused instead on the pure cause of fundamental values. Another Polish paradox: it was Poland in a severe crisis and disastrous relations with the rest of Europe that made the EU – helpless until recently, even in the face of extremely anti-democratic and by nature fascist Hungarian practices – finally be able to react decisively and effectively. So, with all the trouble we cause, we have managed to make the Union stronger. Today, the European Commission has a real influence on the member states, which it did not have yesterday – it happened thanks to Poland and previously unknown solutions developed here. Polish civil society has – it turns out – a greater influence on the EU than on the policy of its own country. An important lesson.
We have managed to contribute to European integration. We have set an effective path of possible further change. This path is worth following by others in Europe and such a recommendation from Poland should be significant.
The Deceptive Comfort of the End of History
The Berlin Wall fell, and Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History. Poland joined NATO and soon the European Union. From then on, we lived in the conviction that History had indeed stopped moving its Iron Curtains here with a dreadful clatter. The Poles sighed with relief because their experience of History was just that. Different than, for example, the French, who were convinced – even though a bit overly – that they destroyed the Bastille with their own hands, building a new order and writing the Declaration of Rights with their own hands. This is their order, their Republic, their Historic work. In Poland things are radically different, Polish History has always been written for us by strangers and they did not have good news for us in it. The state was not a common good, but rather an expression of alien oppression. Nostra Res Publica? What’s this?
The time of sorrow was about to end, and we welcomed The New with joy. Well, Fukuyama’s verdict should always have raised doubts – after all, at the time The End of History was published, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia began, and we saw not even the continuation of History, but a repeat of its darkest, bloodiest pages. It is not only today’s ominous war in Ukraine, not only the rising waves of great migrations, not only the increasingly clear omen of a climate catastrophe that make us abandon Fukuyama’s serene idleness. 4/5 of the inhabitants of the Earth lived then and still remain outside the zone of this incredible comfort that allowed Fukuyama to make such optimistic prophecies. The prophecies of someone content, safe, well-fed, and full.
Fukuyama wrote about global history and today we know that Samuel Huntington was rather right in this regard, warning against the Clash of Civilizations – this time not of ideology. But what is way more important than all that discussion among the two gentlemen, the conflicts of ideologies or civilizations – it turns out – do not come from outside. The thing is, they grow inside. It is not about foreign ideologies and cultures of distant lands – not about Islam, Russia and China, although of course also about them – but about people from the neighborhood. In Poland, no one has ever seen a jihadist bearing a machete, but football fans with machetes in their blooded hands – yes.
Apart from the violent brutality of wars and beyond their terrifying proximity, it turned out above all that even safe and well-fed people do not want the End of History. They want it to last, they want a place for themselves on its pages, they find a meaning for themselves in it. This trait is all too clear in all those “getting up from their knees” and making their countries “great again”. A comprehensive diagnosis is not possible here, but at least some of its aspects are worth attention.
One of them is the media, especially the new ones. They play a role that we all recognize, but perhaps we do not understand properly enough.
Peter Pomerantsev, a British TV producer of Russian origin and exceptional fondness of political philosophy, an expert on the media market and its’ specific in imperial Russia, was one of the very few Westerners (there were always more in the East) who saw the Russian annexation of Crimea as foreshadowing of imminent catastrophes. Pomerantsev noticed all these pre-War Munich analogies, now clear to everyone, since his dark prophecies have come true. Pomerantsev claimed that this was always the case, and pointed out other correlations, as if discovering a new general law of History. These similarities concerned the media. The annexation of Austria, Munich, the occupation of Czechoslovakia – all that followed a great career of contemporary novelties, i.e. radio and film in the hands of powerful tyrants. Today’s annexation of Crimea and the further stages of the war seem to follow the powerful propaganda machine of Russian television and especially the Internet. Pomerantsev wrote that whenever people get their hands on new means of expression, demons come out of them. Those demons have always been there – we only have not noticed, because they were suppressed by obvious requirements of political correctness of traditional media. That’s a very accurate observation.
Pomerantsev’s historical remarks are impressive indeed, my own fears are the same as his, but the media analogy is probably false. The Internet does indeed aid the “getting off our knees” and all that twisted but somehow real emancipation of the hitherto “excluded” simply by giving them a voice – while radio and cinema did not do exactly that, amplifying the tyrant’s voice instead. Although the web can serve the same purpose – to mold the masses according to a pattern convenient for the tyrants – perhaps a more correct analogy would be the press of the end of the 18th century and its huge role in shaping the ideas of the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the Great French Revolution. The rapid growth of free press and political pamphlets gave a voice to new people, hitherto absent in history. In addition to the idea of Enlightenment, we also saw previously unseen demons. More than Enlightenment ideas, it was the presence of the new masses that mattered in History. This would make a slightly better news than Pomerantsev’s warnings about Hitler and Stalin, although all the slaughters that followed the Great Revolution must be remembered, some of them – like the slaughter of Vendea – a direct result of the emancipation of the revolutionary people.
Democratization sometimes has such effects, which already the Greeks knew. One of the first things we did in Poland after the fall of communism was to take away women’s rights – we did so in the name of “Polish tradition” that the communists had suppressed. Examples like this can make an endless list.
This is a complex and fuzzy problem, and observations of this kind do not form a complete diagnosis. Nevertheless, Polish “excluded ones”, “getting up from their knees” wining the 2015 elections and lauching the unprecedented destruction of democracy as we know it, were people from outside the mainstream of public opinion, they were indeed absent and unrepresented in politics. In a perverse way, the “rebellion of the excluded” and their advance helped by the unprecedented and wild democratization of new media stands today behind the scenes of global democracy crisis, just as the emancipation of the masses once determined the fall of the monarchy. The “revolt of the masses against the elites” is the hallmark of all current upheavals – from the French Yellow Vests to the storming of the US Capitol.
Thus, the Polish crisis did not stem from the rejection of democracy by the rebellious people. It is not “down with the freedom, glory to the chains!” from The Phantom of Liberty by the great Luis Buñuel. On the contrary, the rebels were disappointed by democracy as we know it. Downing the unwanted and hated political and media elites, the people rejected the existing bonds of political correctness, and often even sheer common sense, which was so striking in Brexit and American Q-Anon pure nonsense beyond Buñuel’s wild imagination. If this is true, our resistance looks like old time longings of for the ancien regime and not only do we have as many chances as did Louis XVI, but we also have pretty much the same historical right. This lesson of the Polish crisis is perhaps the most difficult of all.
It poses dramatic challenges to the Polish “political class” and politicians fail to meet these challenges. In Europe, it is worth looking for similar traits of the disease that affects democracy. The trend that Poland has fallen victim to may turn out to be just inevitable. Moreover, the trend may be just the History herself. Not only necessary, but perhaps we should want it – if we see it as the arrival of great masses of people seeking their presence and meaning. Perhaps the right answer would be not so much the otherwise much needed fighting the wave of fake news or the propaganda subversion of Russia and China, not looking for smarter techniques of political campaigns, but rather reinventing democracy or even the very politics understood as Aristotelian care for common good. So, everything is ahead of us – and Europe – everything but the End of History.
Clash of Civilizations in Social Policy and Social Hatred
The following story should be told in the West as an anecdote, which would surely be more instructive there than here, where it happened. It is worth quoting to provide a real social meaning to the sentences about “reinventing democracy”. For the use of people from outside Poland, it should be mentioned that one of the key elements of the 2015 election campaign, victorious for the populists, was the promise of a social benefit called 500+ (a little over EUR 100) paid for each child in the family. In Poland it was a significant amount. The program was supposed to reverse the negative birth rate, which could not succeed and indeed failed, but at the same time it was also a kind of a guaranteed income paid to everyone, regardless of wealth. And that experiment was successful. It also went astonishingly well in the deepest political sense. This social policy provided an identity to the crowd of rebellious new people who appeared in politics.
The project had several flaws, but Polish liberal politicians criticized it mainly for its ruinous impact on the budget, for enhancing parasitic and demanding social attitudes, and for political bribery. Also for incorrect addressing – according to critics, aid should go to those most in need, and not equally to everyone, including the richest. This last detail is important because it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the very idea of a guaranteed income. More important and serious arguments about social parasitism were accompanied by a whole lot of extreme comments, in which echoes of class related contempt and hate sound as if echoing from the 19th century. The Polish Clash of Civilizations was all about that. We failed in it. Not because autocrats successfully bribed voters. Because we, liberal democrats, have gone bankrupt ideologically.
Comments about the ruin of the budget – the most important in the assessment of the project – were, despite all appearances, largely false. And they were basically the same in the mouths of liberal politicians and, unfortunately, also experts, who certainly cannot be excused by ignorance – without doubt, they deliberately departed from the truth in that regard. Only the budget expenses were estimated. In fact, a huge part of the money pumped into the market and mostly spent directly on consumption, immediately returned to the budget in the form of taxes. At the same time, the same money boosted the demand on the internal market, which saved the Polish economy from recession many times in the past. This was the case, for example, in 2008, when thanks to huge money poured into the concrete of highways as part of European cohesion programs, Poland was the only country in Europe that maintained GNP growth during the crisis. Economies incomparably stronger than ours scored declines at that time. Therefore, the giant program of the new political majority could not be assessed economically by calculating costs only. The accounts of the liberal critics of the new social policy were therefore clearly false and immediately turned out to be wrong – the 500+ project was implemented and did not cause any catastrophe. On the contrary it seems to have stimulated growth, just as did the large sums of European funds spent in Poland back in 2008. Although the current Polish budget deficit reminds the situation of a completely ruined economy inherited after the fall of communism, but – contrary to the opinions of liberals who just keep repeating the same – it would be difficult to associate it with this particular project. Falsehood in the opinions of the “establishment” at that time was, it seems, clear to everyone in Poland. And it sounded like “the defense of class privileges”.
The social effects were therefore much greater than just the lasting support of the grateful people for the populists giving away money taken on loan. Class-like hostility replaced ideology, giving a stronger sense of identification to victorious rebels. American research shows it more precisely: mutual hostility between Democrats and Republicans is asymmetrical. The hostility of the Democrats is greater. So is their tendency to dehumanize “others”. Well, the civilized people of the American coasts have many real and rational reasons to look down on the “savage” of the Midwest (ubi leones, to recall Latin descriptions from Roman maps) – but the latter get even more reason to revolt. It is quite similar in Poland. In Belgium or France, in Sweden and Italy, it is difficult to see this pattern – but it is even more worth taking a closer look at Poland. Here we can clearly see the even deeper asymmetry of mutual relations, not yet explored so well and still insufficiently described. Not only is the hate itself unevenly distributed, but above all, the distribution of disdain and hatred is extremely asymmetric. And these are two very different things. Disdain is the domain of civilized liberals, hatred of the despised “savages.” Only hatred can kill, scorn does not lead to it. But disdain hurts incomparably more and feeds aggressive hatred. That’s the thing.
When the social project of authoritarian power became – like everything in Poland – the subject of cultural war, when truths about “selling freedom for a few hundred in the wallet” dominated the public debate along with pictures of “demanding mob” and its “wild behavior”, the liberals bore one of their most painful defeats, the extent of which they seem to be unaware of to this day. Political liberalism contradicted itself and its own values because emancipation has always been its most important message, not a free market. Political liberalism has become an ideologically empty defense of the status quo. The “political class” and the “media people” associated with it defended just their own positions in this war. That’s what the rebellious people saw, anyway: the lies of the establishment and the promotion of class contempt. And the crowd hated the liberals even more.
Somewhere in the evolution of this conflict there is a point of no return, one that we went through long ago in Huntington’s international politics in the Middle East, as we learned the hard way in Afghanistan. When the internal policy slides into a bipolar division – which always happens imperceptibly – when the system is not adapted to such division as it is in the US or the UK; when a foreign crowd with its own media, its own identification, a language in which similar-sounding words mean something completely different stands against the existing mainstream claiming equal rights; when culture clash is followed by the emblems of the parties leading the fight; when people are driven by hate and fear – then it is definitely too late. The powerful emotions of scorn, hate and fear already make the identity of the warring parties and cannot be removed. You can still win battles (although not in Poland recently), but you cannot settle wars. This warning is worth a careful look because not only Poland is slipping into a bipolar conflict in which “democrats unite” becomes the most natural choice, and the scorn for “savages” seems so well justified that it imperceptibly becomes the only identity, replacing liberalism itself.
The Polish “social case” has no moral, and it should. We should at least ask some very basic questions, which no sane person asks today without visible embarrassment. These suspiciously subversive questions are, for example, why do we need a state at all, and why do people vote and participate in democracy – if they vote at all? Even if – as we described it in Poland, talking about populist voters “selling their freedom” – they do it to improve their own lot, it would make some sense. After all, what else is democracy for? If to ask people who support autocratic power and its social projects – instead of preeminently denouncing their “venality” – they would say, they voted for justice. But what did we, their opponents, vote for? We openly denied the sense of solidarity, talking about “savages” selling their freedom. Was it for freedom? Or for reason? We have shown very little of it.
This is the context of cultural change in Poland, in which new media – like free press once upon a time – helped the advancement of new masses. The effect was and remains electrifying. These remarks are important because they describe not only general problems of some abstract culture, but also the the upcoming elections. The chances even after the hoped-for victory (still problematic) are not great – until liberalism catches up with its message – suited to both the present day and to its own tradition.
If I lived in Germany or the Netherlands and if I looked carefully at this Polish case from such distance, I would thik of the European guaranteed income. Something that Europe – be it a state, a federation, or a union of nations – gives its citizens as a guarantee of social justice. Getting common appreciation. Let there be no misunderstandings – I am not a socialist – I am not agitating for a European guaranteed income. I also don’t know enough about economics to be able to do it responsibly. But professionals should be seriously questioned about this. And about what democracy is and what it is for. What is the European Union supposed to be in this context? There are many more such questions. It is important who is to ask those question to knowledgeable ones. It’s not about politicians putting together campaign slogans at election conventions. It’s about “people like us.”
We also need a serious debate with those of us whom we consider not deserving debate. And with those considered enemies. These are the new people in the Agora – and Aristotle once warned that democracy will end in Athens when they come from their villages claiming the same rights. Well, they have just come. They are alien, we do not understand their language, we consider them barbarians. By ignoring their “wild customs” with superiority, we are condemning ourselves to defeat. That is what we did in Poland. Friends from the still free world should be warned about this. It is worth thinking seriously about the European social and democratic standards. In Germany, unified by Bismarck, the public school and the social security system became a powerful state-building factor. It was something that the citizens of the new Germany identified with in their new state and appreciated. What is to be such factor for Europe’s identity? For Poles who oppose authoritarian rule, this is undoubtedly the rule of law. But for the others?
That’s what we must let “people like us” think about. Before we are all divided in a conflict that will permanently define politics as a Clash of Civilizations – as it happened in Poland.
Democracy 2.0. “People Like Us”
We choose representatives in the course of election campaigns using the most advanced PR techniques, investing a lot in them, even though PR techniques are designed to manipulate the “narrative” rather than communicate the rationale and logic of sound argumentation. At the same time, we know very well that the actual representation is easier and cheaper to randomly draw than to elect. Public opinion research agencies do this systematically, and we believe their findings without any major reservations.
In Ireland, a randomly selected group of ‘people like us’ was given a task to decide on a matter that was not very complex, but of such importance and difficulty that politicians were unable to make it. It was about abortion and the role of the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic. But also about the climate and the environment. The Parliament of the Republic of Ireland has deliberately decided to delegate its own power to the “Third Chamber” of the citizens. To some extent, this was done to avoid the politicians’ personal responsibility.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly, however, was not quite ordinary poll representative sample. It consisted of people “like us”, but at the same time completely “different” – in the sense that, unlike us, they took the trouble to acquire knowledge about the discussed issues at an almost expert level and they did it in the course of long-term work. They also did much to agree among themselves before they were finally voted on. The verdict of these people was trusted – something that rarely happens to elect parliaments. The debate, constantly present in all media, was also trusted. As a result, the referendum, which gave the decisions the necessary strong and final legitimacy – releasing politicians even more from responsibility – was not a concert of populist slogans, but a conscious and well-justified decision, which in democracies is even rarer than trust.
This is one possible sample of what must be done if democracy is to survive. The good thing about this sample is that we at least know it, unlike many things that no one has ever seen. Poland is facing, for example, the reform of a completely demolished judiciary. Not the only one, but a very important function of courts, is to control politicians in power. It should be obvious – and it is not – politicians are not to decide the limits of their power. Similarly, politicians should not be responsible for decisions on electoral law and many other matters. Irish example has shown – things can and should be decided by ‘people like us’. The future of Europe, its constitution, the scope of federalism and many other things.
An important feature of the randomly selected “Third Chamber” is its specific “single term limit”. One cannot make a political career and get re-elected in a citizens’ assembly. There is no need to consider the future career while making decisions, because there will be none. No new elections, no next term to earn. Nobody will order any party discipline, no couch will advise anything, no tactics make sense here. When it comes to the climate crisis and decisions that are costly for large social groups, the traditional representative model must break down precisely because of the upcoming elections – the repeatedly exploited scenarios of catastrophic movies will come true, including the recently popular “Don’t look up!”. This excludes the possibility of solving real problems. “Don’t look up” is – let us not be fooled by the light convention of comedy – as true and as momentous as ancient truths of Aristotle.
The traditional representative model will not stand the test of demographics either. Societies in developed democratic countries are aging and seniors are already prevailing. Not active at work already, retired with benefits, requiring the ever-growing range of increasingly expensive medical services. Seniors will soon outnumber those younger and still working to maintain all the sectors suited for the elderly. Democracy in this situation will always resemble the voting of a pack of wolves and sheep, in which each of the animals has an equal vote. The decision to eat the sheep will be inevitable. It will also be indisputable. And it will be suicidal. In Poland, pensioners already outvote young people.
But the traditional representative system has shortcomings related not only and not primarily to the challenges of the future. Systemic flaws have already been revealed today, and the Polish crisis once again provides demonstrative lessons here. After all those remarks of such great generality, special and current flaw corrections should be easy. Nothing like this, unfortunately. It seems impossible that those who once believed Fukuyama’s promise will now look for a fundamental change.
Constitutional Guarantees of Trust
Civic activists in Poland have spent recent years repeating the truths about the division of powers. The problem is, we weren’t telling the whole truth – focused solely on judiciary system. In the classic Montesquieu triad, not only the courts are independent of and control political power, but the executive power is of course controlled and limited primarily by the legislative parliament. Today, Montesquieu’s views are considered an anachronism in this regard – especially where the political model causes the government to come from and rely on the parliamentary majority. But is it right?
It is generally believed that the control of executive is effectively maintained by free media and a free, parliamentary game between political parties of power and opposition. In Poland, we already know that all this does not work in the era of political bipolar polarization. The media naturally follow such polarization abandoning the mission of articulating public opinion in favor of educating the public – which would be considered a propaganda few decades ago. Party parliamentarism becomes only a ruthless competition for power, reasons give way to electoral agitation, and at the same time political convergence becomes the rule – natural, since opponents strive for the same electorate and read the same polls.
In Poland, the model turned the parliament into a machine for voting on government bills, devoid of any systemic division between executive and legislative. The law itself has become an instrument of power – simply a series of government decrees – and not the foundation of the state, hard boundaries that the rulers do not dare to infringe. The governed do not see their own representation in the parliament, but only the emanation of the ruling elite. Poles have a lot of real reasons for distrusting the parliament, which is consistently confirmed in all social surveys and polls. Knowing this, one also sees the inevitability of the crisis, and all that is to ask about is when and what will be the scale. We have escaped these questions and we pay the price – so the warning from Poland is that we must face them.
We should also know for certain that if the three powers were separated and could not be all taken by storm in single election victory, the misfortune that Poland suffers from today would simply not be possible. The Polish experience – unknown to the countries of the “old EU” – also shows that the system of checks and balances disappears not so much because of a coup d’état, but much earlier and unnoticed – because of the political polarization of two hostile camps. And this is already becoming the experience of many European countries. Echoes of this phenomenon resounded, for example, after the parliamentary elections in France, where the president is separately elected which gives chances for the division of power. However when the president’s political camp lost its majority in the parliamentary elections, there was talk of a defeat and failure of democracy, although – regardless of political sympathies – it is the “difficult coexistence” that guarantees the division of power at the constitutional level.
Certainly, no one in today’s Europe would be willing to take a serious look at what such guarantees look like in reality in their own country and to what extent they will do the job in the moment of test that we already took and failed in Poland. O matter how difficult the message is to accept, this is how it must sound from crisis-ridden Poland: power division needs to be fundamentally strengthened, because when it comes to trouble, it always turns out to be weaker than it seemed.
Another news from Poland: the institutions of the Union are the only ones able to control Polish authorities today. Therefore, it is perhaps the Treaty on the Union that should require hard-defined checks and balances standards from its member states. It is worth thinking about it – especially when you already know that, for other reasons, the system of political representation also requires a fundamental change.
Bosses of Politics
In Poland, a party with an authoritarian structure, bossed by an autocratic leader, turned against constitutional democracy. This, of course, was not a coincidence – it would be difficult to imagine any democratic organization in this role. The decision to assassinate the Supreme Constitutional Court cannot be made in an honest discussion and in the light of cameras. The guarantees of the tribunals’ independence will never be sound enough confronted with sheer naked violence by someone who openly breaks all the rules. But a ban on running for power of an undemocratic organization would be more effective – preventing the threat in advance.
Well, yet another party, previously in power, following the same path of a closed elite, discredited democracy in the eyes of the public so much that a coup became not only possible, but also gained clear social approval. This again was not a coincidence.
Legal standards of democracy within the parties seeking power is not the norm required in Europe, only a few countries here have laws like Germany and Denmark. With one minor exception, none of the Polish parties would meet these legal requirements and would not be registered, for example, in Denmark. It is not about any extreme ideology in political programs – it is about extremely anti-democratic practices of inner life. The Polish example shows how dangerous this may be. Poor standards of Poland are quite common in Europe.
A kind of Copernicus-Gresham law works here. The “charismatic leader” is a precious political PR asset. It spoils politics as once bad money spoiled the economy. When a political competitor reaches for such PR, you must respond with the same or accept defeat. This is in fact a suicidal strategy, also from the point of view of the parties themselves – it definitely excludes, for example, an effective succession of leaders, which can be seen among the liberals in Poland, where after Donald Tusk, successive four leaders failed and Tusk had to come back to raise the ratings of the party from what looked like an almost final collapse. Such experiences can also be seen in the “old Union”. Admittedly, the same applies to the succession of populists – where the dependence on the “charisma” of the leader is even greater. But it is way easier to become an alt-right leader than a liberal one. It is enough to set fire in the center of the capital, and it must be done at the right moment – and the turbulence of modern times will provide such opportunities in abundance, as the mature French democracy shows as an example. It will be extremely difficult to break the cycle of bad money in politics – but it is necessary to do so, because it simply leads to shocks beyond imagination.
It therefore seems reasonable to expect in the European Union at least that only parties meeting at least a minimum commodity value – a minimum democratic standard – may dare to stand as candidates in the elections to the European Parliament. In fact, it would be justified if violations of democratic standards by those seeking political power anywhere in the Union were treated as violations of its fundamental values – as is the case with an attack on the independence of the judiciary or freedom of the media.
The Future’s Question Marks
The future is uncertain – that much we all know. We should then have the courage to put the question marks ourselves. Starting with basic questions before drowning in a flood of trifles. When we ask about the new shape of Europe and the new democracy, we should try new solutions without fear, as was done in Ireland. I have not listed all of the Polish experiences of the crisis. But if we start thinking with even such a limited and naively simple set, we would be ahead of the time we lack. In Poland, none of these questions have been asked and we keep paying for it. Our friends in Europe are looking at us with our upcoming elections in mind. Whatever their outcome, the absence of the very questions that no one dares to ask will set our fate. Even if we win and the power in Poland changes. We can count on really good news from Poland when the political idea of liberalism catches up with its great value and grows up to it.