By Roman Broszkowski
The authoritarian right’s global resurgence is representative of popular discontent with a neoliberal world order. The vanguard parties of this right-ward shift are not only starkly more extreme than establishment conservatives in their social outlook, but are increasingly willing to co-opt some leftist economic points in order to attract non-traditional voters.
In Poland, a deeply reactionary party — Law and Justice (PiS) — has held power since 2015. For the last four years, PiS has cracked down on opposition in civil society, molded public television into a comprehensive propaganda apparatus, and transformed Poland into Europe’s black sheep. Yet despite these concerning developments, 43.59 percent of Polish voters backed the party in the country’s October parliamentary elections, allowing it to retain its legislative majority. The main center-right opposition, the Civic Coalition only managed to get 27.4 percent, even after four years of protests against the government. These election results and the new makeup of the parliament show that voters no longer react to centrist politics: they want alternatives — even terrible ones. Americans, especially on the left, should take notice.
This October’s elections were the culmination of nearly thirty years of recent Polish history. And although those three decades represent a complicated record of progress and failure, a popular disappointment with capitalism and a feeling of national loss are at their core — themes that are shared among many working class voters in economically advanced countries.
In 1989, Polish trade unionists succeeded in pushing the authoritarian communist government to accept reforms and begin the transition to a multi-party democracy. Part of this change was reintegrating the Polish economy back into the global capitalist system. To do this, successive Polish governments — both left and right wing — adopted harsh neoliberal economic policies which called for both reduced government involvement in the economy and reduced public spending. While the Polish economy revived, the growth was not evenly felt across society. Since the transition, many Poles have done very well for themselves, but many have also seen their living standards crater: a direct result of the decline in government spending relative to GDP.
The people of Poland have grown to distrust and even resent the establishment parties. PiS — like Trump — was able to capitalize on this frustration and turn it into a winning electoral strategy.
In order to mobilize disenchanted voters, PiS prioritizies convincing voters they belong to a shared and exclusive Catholic, ethnically Polish, traditional, and heterosexual community that is under attack from both inside and out. Similar to the 20th century German “stab-in-the-back” mythology, Poland — according the party — has been sold out to the European Union by greedy capitalists, atheist communists, and LGBT deviants in order to undermine Poles and their traditions. For PiS and its supporters, Poland is both strong and weak; unbowed and enslaved.
Now, it is easy to dismiss these myths as nonsense and to write off PiS voters as paranoid racists. But to do so would not only play in PiS’s characterization of the opposition as condescending elites, but it would also miss what policies actually give the party electoral staying power. While xenophobia and extreme nationalism may explain what first drew base supporters to Law and Justice, it does nothing to explain why so many have stayed with the party or why people continue to join the party’s electoral coalition. One explanation — and an important one for socialists — is that PiS remains popular because they have rebuilt a welfare state. And while PiS version of a welfare state is far from leftist — a key feature is that the government gives families 500 złoty (about $128) a month for every child they have after their first, but only if the parents are a married (and in Poland this means straight) couple — their policies are wildly popular and have had a real, positive impact on the lives of some of the most economically vulnerable Polish families. Voters have rewarded PiS with their support, helping PiS win control of both the legislature and the presidency in 2015.
The election this October was sold as a referendum on PiS’s last four years. While the centrist opposition focused on PiS’s anti-democratic actions, PiS ran on demonizing sexual minorities and expanding public welfare policies. This strategy succeeded in attracting almost 3 million new voters. But once you start to look outside of the top two parties and examine all the election results, an interesting pattern appears.
Five groups ran this year: one national conservative (PiS), two center-right (the Civic Coalition and the Polish Coalition), one leftist (the Left), and one far-right (Confederation). Of those, the two that gained the most relative to the previous election were the Left and Confederation. PiS maintained its number of seats, and the two center-right parties bled support. The Civic Coalition alone lost 21 seats in parliament and while the Polish Coalition nominally gained 14 seats, but only after it merged with another party (when those seats are taken into account, the party actually lost 28). By comparison, the Left and Confederation gained 49 and 6 seats respectively. And so, although more research needs to be done, it looks like voters continue to desert the center in favor of parties that offer significant change — in either political direction.
Despite our distance, these results should matter for Americans. While we shouldn’t risk drawing a one to one comparison between this election and our own in 2020, there are lessons here that socialists should learn.
First, the authoritarian right has benefited from neoliberalism. Around the world, we are seeing neoliberal governments replaced by right-wing populists who sweep into power based on broad promises of restoring past glories and reducing corruption. PiS is only one of many examples, but this pattern could as easily describe Brexit or Trump. Large numbers of people have been marginalized and electing people like Joe Biden won’t stop the right’s power consolidation. Voters are exhausted by the lack of dynamic change most centrist parties continue to peddle. For example, it does not appear that either the Civic Coalition or the Polish Coalition were successful in converting any meaningful number of PiS voters. As the Democratic primary heats up, and moderate candidates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg position themselves as candidates with the broadest ideological support base, we should call this argument what it is: disingenuous, and demonstrably false.
Second, right-wing voters are more open to leftist political ideas than traditionally thought. It may seem obvious, but people vote for parties that make their family’s lives better. When centrists talk about helping American businesses dominate the international market or about incremental change that won’t harm “economic growth,” they mistakenly turn personal issues into general ones. The authoritarian right has instead embraced policies like raising the minimum wage and increased welfare spending as a cynical way to build their base. While this has been successful for the right-wing, it has also opened the door for socialist ideas to become mainstream. Left-wing groups must take advantage by re-cooping these ideas and presenting an alternative that offers both social and economic liberation.
Third, outright racism or nationalism cannot build large electoral coalitions alone. Voters are people: they’re complicated and have many different motivations for voting for a specific party. While racism and nationalism remain pretty central to PiS’s messaging, these themes can only go so far since they are inherently exclusionary. It is telling that while PiS uses fear to motivate its base, it uses hope to attract new voters. This means it, and groups like it, is vulnerable as a large part of its voters can be peeled away by groups that offer similar benefits without the offensive social policies.
The same can be said about Trump and the Republican Party. Trump’s core supporters are electrified by his fire and brimstone rhetoric, but Republican voters — particularly farmers and working class whites have been directly harmed by his policies — are willing to stick with him because of a strong economy and some increased public spending (such as farm bailouts).
In Poland and around the world, the nationalist right implemented adulterated leftist economic ideas to gain popular support, while center-left parties urged moderation. Now they’re being punished for it. American leftists must not make the same mistake: by speaking to the now common American experience of economic discontent, we can defend this rhetorical terrain from the right. If we don’t, the conservative movement will no doubt cash in on this discontent to shore up support for their regressive agenda.