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The Five Lessons of Populist Rule

WARSAW – Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto leader, has become, next to Donald Trump, an avatar of the populist threat to the Western democratic model. As we await Trump’s inauguration as US president on January 20, it is worth pondering the first year of populist rule in Poland. The results have run contrary to expectations.

The conventional view of what awaits the US (and possibly France and the Netherlands) in 2017 is an erratic ruler who enacts contradictory policies that primarily benefit the rich. The poor will lose, because populists have no hope of restoring manufacturing jobs, despite their promises. And massive inflows of migrants and refugees will continue, because populists have no plan to address the problem’s root causes. In the end, populist governments, incapable of effective rule, will crumble and their leaders will either face impeachment or fail to win re-election.

Kaczyński faced similar expectations. Liberal Poles thought that he would work for the benefit of the rich, create chaos, and quickly trip himself up – which is exactly what happened in 2005-2007, when Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) last governed Poland.

But the liberals were wrong. PiS has transformed itself from an ideological nullity into a party that has managed to introduce shocking changes with record speed and efficiency. Other countries currently anticipating populist rule should take note of its key hallmarks.

No to neoliberalism. In 2005-2007, PiS implemented neoliberal economic policies (for example, eliminating the highest income-tax bracket and the estate tax); this time, it has enacted the largest social transfers in Poland’s contemporary history. Parents receive a 500 złoty ($120) monthly benefit for every child after their first, or for all children in poorer families (the average net monthly income is about 2,900 złoty, though more than two-thirds of Poles earn less). As a result, the poverty rate has declined by 20-40%, and by 70-90% among children.

The list goes on: In 2016, the government introduced free medication for people over the age of 75. The minimum-wage now exceeds what trade unions had sought. The retirement age has been reduced from 67 for both men and women to 60 for women and 65 for men. The government also plans tax relief for low-income taxpayers.

The restoration of “order.” Independent institutions are the most important enemy of populism. Populist leaders are control freaks. For populists, it is liberal democracy that leads to chaos, which must be “put in order” by a “responsible government.” Media pluralism leads to informational chaos. An independent judiciary means legal chaos. Independent public administration creates institutional chaos. And a robust civil society is a recipe for chronic bickering and conflict.

But populists believe that such chaos does not emerge by itself. It is the work of perfidious foreign powers and their domestic puppets. To “make Poland great again,” the nation’s heroes must defeat its traitors, who are not equal contenders for power. Populist leaders are thus obliged to limit their opponents’ rights. Indeed, their political ideal is not order, but rather the subordination of all independent bases of power that could challenge them: courts, media, business, cultural institutions, NGOs, and so forth.

Electoral dictatorship. Populists know how to win elections, but their conception of democracy extends no further. On the contrary, populists view minority rights, separation of government powers, and independent media – all staples of liberalism – as an attack on majority rule, and therefore on democracy itself.

The political ideal that a populist government strives for is essentially an elected dictatorship. And recent US experience suggests that this can be a sustainable model. After all, everything depends on how those in power decide to organize elections, which can include redrawing voting districts or altering the rules governing campaign finance or political advertisements. Elections can be falsified imperceptibly.

Might makes right. Populists have benefited from disseminating fake news, slandering their opponents, and promising miracles that mainstream media treat as normal campaign claims. But it is a mistake to think that truth is an effective weapon against post-truth. In a post-truth world, it is power, not fact-checking, that is decisive. Whoever is most ruthless and has the fewest scruples wins.

Populists are both unseemly and ascendant. Trump’s supporters, for example, have come to view tawdriness as evidence of credibility, whereas comity, truth, and reason are evidence of elitism. If people are worse off under liberal democracy, so much the worse for liberal democracy.

Those who would resist populism must come to terms with the fact that truth is not enough. They must also display determination and ruthlessness, though without becoming the mirror image of their opponents.

The current situation in Poland can serve as a useful example. After a year of retreating, the two largest opposition parties have begun to occupy the Sejm (Poland’s parliament) to protest an illegal vote on the state budget. They are laying a trap for Kaczyński’s government: back down or resort to violence. Either way, he loses.

Nationalism is not dead. Unfortunately, what won’t lose, in Poland and elsewhere, is nationalism – the only ideology that has survived in the post-ideological era. By appealing to nationalist sentiment, populists have gained support everywhere, regardless of the economic system or situation, because it is being fueled externally, namely by the influx of migrants and refugees.

Mainstream politicians, especially on the left, currently have no effective message on the issue. Opposing migration contradicts their ideals, while supporting it means electoral defeat.

But the choice should be clear. Either populism’s opponents drastically change their rhetoric regarding migrants and refugees, or the populists will continue to rule. Migrants and refugees lose in either scenario, but in the second, so does liberal democracy. Such calculations are ugly – and, yes, corrosive of liberal values – but the populists, as we have seen, are capable of far nastier tradeoffs.

After a year of populism in Poland, Kaczyński has succeeded in establishing control over two issues near and dear to voters: social transfers and immigration. As long as he controls these two bastions of voter sentiment, he is safe. Those who seek to oppose Trump – or France’s Marine Le Pen in April’s presidential election – can draw their own conclusions from that fact.