*The Roots of Polish Populism*, Slawomir Sierakowski & Irena Grudzińska


Irena Grudzińska Gross: With Poland’s parliamentary election coming next month, your new book, Society of Populists, co-authored with Przemysław Sadura, is being widely read and discussed. Even Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has commented on it, though he belongs to the populist ruling party. What does your title mean, and how are you defining populism?

Sławomir Sierakowski: We wanted to understand populism as a social phenomenon. That meant examining the specific societal factors behind populist victories, and then studying how populist victories have changed society. No one else has approached the subject like that.

Populism is a reaction to the unfulfilled promises of democracy. Or, rather, it is a reaction to globalization and the perception that decisions are increasingly made by experts and financial markets that exist beyond the scope of democratic structures. Populism is an attempt to reclaim people’s voices. But an interesting question remains: Why does this supposedly healthy reaction lead to such poor results – from the crisis of democracy to the rise of international conflicts? Our book is the culmination of research conducted over four years. We surveyed more than 20,000 Poles, held dozens of focus groups, and interviewed experts on various topics. It was the most comprehensive research project on Polish political life since 1989. The book, however, is a polemic. It belongs next to other recent works on populism such as Jan-Werner Mueller’s What Is Populism?, Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, and Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works. The main conclusion of our research is that Eastern Europe’s distinct political culture of populism cannot be lumped together with that found in Western Europe. Painting with too broad a brush leads to very trivial conclusions. We need to focus less on superficial similarities like nationalism or the cult of the leader, and more on underlying social processes.

IGG: But doesn’t that conclusion repeat the old east-west divide that has long shaped political analyses of Eastern Europe?

SS: No, because that perspective is never actually extended to the analysis of populism. Commentators generally have reduced populism to the phenomenon of a single leader – be it Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, or Donald Trump in the United States. Populists are much more likely to come to power in Eastern Europe than elsewhere. In Western Europe, you have only Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni; but in Eastern Europe, it is easy to lose count of how many times a populist has served as head of state or government. Another major difference is that in many Western European countries, well-consolidated state institutions can often curb populism. In Poland, Hungary, Serbia, or Slovakia, by contrast, populists have been able to take over state institutions with little effort.

Liberal No Man’s Land

IGG: What explains this lack of resistance to populism in Eastern European countries?

SS: The first factor is the absence of a liberal tradition. Though liberal thought had been emerging in Poland since the nineteenth century, partition and the lack of a Polish state meant that it was pushed into the background. The national imperative took priority, both before the restoration of sovereignty in 1918 and before 1989. More broadly, even when liberal principles are written into the constitution – as they were in the Stalinist constitution – they will not succeed if they are not internalized. Populists, in pursuing control of all state institutions, will exploit this fact. Political liberalism works only when it has social support.

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A second factor is the extremely low level of interpersonal trust and confidence in state institutions across the region. When we ask survey respondents about their trust in people and the state, we find levels of social and public trust in the range of 40-70% in Norway and Western European countries. In Poland, it is 15%.

In the absence of trust, and when there are essentially only two parties, one promising cash and the other promising prudent reforms, Eastern Europeans will almost always take the cash. They see control of the state as an opportunity, and anything else as a threat. When problems arise, they look for someone to blame. Their social attitudes are not cosmopolitan. When refugees from Ukraine arrived in Poland, anti-Ukrainian resentment immediately increased. It was not as dehumanizing as the past treatment that, for example, Iraqis received; but it served its purpose, satisfying the need for someone to blame. When you combine the lack of a liberal tradition with extremely low trust, the idea of checks and balances becomes merely an abstraction to most people.

IGG: But weren’t Ukrainian refugees enthusiastically received?

SS: This is exactly how it works. When the government gave subsidies to families – zł500 ($120) per child – the initial response was enthusiastic. But after a few years, public support fell as people realized that it was a universal benefit – that the rich also received the payments. It was similar with the Ukrainians. The initial enthusiasm was real, but enthusiasm alone cannot sustain assistance for millions of people. Moreover, one must remember that the enthusiasm also reflected a fear of Russia. The state should have stepped in, but it abdicated instead. The burden of helping Ukrainians has largely fallen on civil society. For Kaczyński and the PiS government, transferring cash is easy; but anything more complicated than that is beyond their capacity. That is why queues for doctors are twice as long as in the past, and why court cases take twice as long. Kaczyński succeeded early on in deepening social polarization, by tapping into an old Polish dispute over political values. Do we want freedom or equality? Traditional elites expect the people to join the struggle for freedom, but the people expect equality from the elites. Both end up disappointed, and it becomes easier to pit one side against the other – as Kaczyński has done. Back in 2007, when Civic Platform defeated PiS in parliamentary elections, both parties had the same profile as catch-all political groupings of the left and right. After that, Kaczyński instituted what would become a fundamental change. He threw the elites out of the party and set his sights on the much larger provincial electorate. He knew that support for political liberalism was weaker in the provinces, and that people in Poland are traditionally averse to elites. This new strategy garnered PiS the support of up to 35% of the electorate, which is enough to make the party viable.

IGG: What sustains this support? After all, the government is notoriously corrupt, with constant scandals.

SS: Yes, the opposition and the media have been exposing PiS wrongdoing for many years, but without anything changing. As we show in the book, PiS actually has two electorates that are completely dissimilar economically and socially. The media focuses on the party’s fanatical supporters, but these constitute only 20-25%. The other electorate – the one that really gives it power – abhors the party but votes for it anyway out of cynicism. Neither camp is turned off by the scandals: the fanatics simply do not believe the reporting, and the cynics do not care. They are not surprised to see PiS attacking and politicizing the judiciary, so that issue is not going to change their minds one way or the other. After 30 years of political transformation, these voters have embraced the idea of “politics” at its transactional worst. The PiS propagandist Jacek Kurski once said (on TV) that, “The dumb people will buy it.” Today, people say, “The dumb elites will buy it.” Voters have learned to let the parties bid on who can give them more, faster. The past eight years of PiS rule and populist policies have further entrenched this view of politics. Moreover, with such deep polarization, politicians know that they will not win over voters from the other side, so politics becomes all about motivating the base and demotivating those who will vote against you. In our research, we found that around 12% of voters previously supported PiS but will not do so in the future. But when asked why, 71% cannot give a concrete answer. This suggests that their disappointment is rather superficial, and that they could be re-motivated by a compelling election campaign. The other disaffected PiS voters point to economic problems such as inflation (10% of this cohort), with only a few listing issues such as LGBT and women’s rights. Interestingly, across the entire survey group, we did not find a single person who would withhold their vote from PiS in response to its attacks on the courts and the Constitutional Tribunal – not one. The older, left-wing populism of Andrzej Lepper’s Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland (SRP) in the early 1990s was “healthier” than the PiS version. Lepper channeled people’s fear of losing their political voice in an age of globalization and technocracy. But while SRP’s demands for democracy were sound, its leaders were inept. Now, we have a new, more dangerous form of populism that reflects the postmodern turn and the arrival of a post-truth information ecosystem. Politicians have learned that it does not matter if they tell the truth, and that they might as well lie.

The Missing Modernization

IGG: Would you apply Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” label to Poland?

SS: Yes, it captures the fact that populists generally are not afraid of elections, because they know how to win them. The institutions they are dismantling are the ones derived not from democratic traditions but from liberal thought: independent courts, independent media, the separation of powers. Technically, totalitarian democracy and liberal authoritarianism are both possible. Democracy and liberalism each have their own traditions, and though they have often been fused, one must not assume that they are synonymous. There are two Polish realities today: the one most Poles live in, and the one the media live in. For eight years under PiS, the most important journalistic awards have consistently gone to investigative reporters; but until recently, not a single high-level minister was dismissed over a scandal. The PiS government has survived a hundred scandals, any one of which would have toppled the previous government. This marks a disturbing change. After 1989, corruption was almost eliminated in Poland, which emerged as the least corrupt country in Eastern Europe. Yet now we have corruption of the most ostentatious variety. The government doles out cash to foundations and other supporters, and voters do not mind, because they all think like politicians now. Again, this reflects the lack of political liberalism that makes Eastern Europe distinct. Whereas democracy can be introduced more or less immediately, a culture of liberalism takes generations to develop, and it will not emerge organically on its own. Since 1989, Polish elites have focused on modernizing roads, stadiums, airports, and highways, but not society. Poles were not introduced to the idea of liberalism. There may have been 15 political parties with “liberal” in their name, but nothing was added to school curricula or other mechanisms of social reproduction. It is little wonder that Poles are indifferent to politicians destroying liberal institutions. Worse, people can see that infrastructure and technology are becoming more modern, but they don’t see it in their pocketbooks. The previous modernization came through shock therapy – such as Leszek Balcerowicz’s extreme neoliberal economic policies – and the expected improvements lay in the future. When populists showed up and started handing out cash immediately, people perceived this as the establishment of a welfare state; paradoxically, the provinces came to regard Kaczyński as the most Western of Polish politicians.

IGG: What would social modernization consist of?

SS: It would have to involve the enlightenment of the population. Polish schoolchildren memorize facts about the United Nations, but they don’t know the difference between the right and the left. Liberalism remains uninternalized. After 1989, we introduced democracy at the level of procedures, but not, to use Václav Havel’s words, at the level of souls and hearts. This is why Israelis – to use a current example – protest vehemently against changes to the judiciary, whereas Poles show up to demonstrate in small numbers and disperse after just a few weeks. This lack of a backlash then reinforces the authorities’ sense of impunity, leading them to conclude that they can always wait out any demonstrations. When Trump took office and immediately banned travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a federal judge in Seattle blocked the policy from going into effect, and Trump backed down. But when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal struck down a policy, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydło simply declared the decision invalid. So it has gone for eight years, without any significant public reaction.

Church and State

IGG: What role does the Catholic Church play in all this?

SS: Its role has been paradoxical. Recall the 2019 election. In the months prior, the Sekielski brothers released a new documentary about how the Catholic Church in Poland covers up pedophilia. Within days, 20 million Poles had watched it. It was a huge scandal, the Church was discredited, and it seemed that the opposition’s long string of electoral defeats might finally come to an end. But then election day arrived and PiS got almost 45% of the vote, its strongest showing ever. In the media, the conventional wisdom was that a partisan attack on the Church had galvanized the PiS base. But it was more complicated. Precisely because people believed the film and abhorred the abuses that it uncovered, they knew that PiS would lose power unless they rallied to its side. They saw PiS and the Church as separate entities. As has happened so many times, the cynical voter saved PiS. These supporters are cynical in the sense described in Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason: they know they are doing wrong, but will continue to do it as long as it benefits them. The Church provides the symbols, PiS provides the money.

IGG: So PiS ultimately is strengthened by this alliance.

SS: Yes, but there is another paradox here. For the past eight years, the government has taken a hard-right position on issues such as abortion and women’s rights, minority rights, and so forth. Yet Poland is the fastest-secularizing country in Europe, and this has been the case for years. While the long-term trend is obvious, some 20-30% of Poles reject everything it represents and are deeply motivated to vote against it. Often, these are young men in small towns where the women are leaving. Poland is a country with 182 female university graduates for every 100 male graduates. Men are losing status and voting for the far right in the hope of restoring the past. Although PiS knows how to take advantage of such impulses, these voters also have been gravitating toward the Confederation, an extreme right-wing party. The Confederation used to have a small, ironclad constituency of ultranationalists and libertarians, giving it 10%, at most, in elections. But it has seized on new issues and begun to attract more of the cynical electorate. For example, it is anti-Ukrainian and pro-tax cuts. As a result, it commands the support of over 40% of young men. But it is also attracting more young professional women, perhaps owing to its anti-Ukrainian positions. Because Ukrainian women tend to be brought up with more traditional values, they are not dreaming of a career, and this has become a source of resentment among ambitious younger Polish professionals. As we noted in our report Poland for Ukraine, Poles against Ukrainians, the sudden arrival of Ukrainian refugees has raised concerns about the labor, housing, matrimonial markets. The media did not want to report on these issues, but we warned that it had better do so, or voters would turn to those who would. That is what has happened.

IGG: From what you say, it seems the anti-liberal trend is growing in Eastern Europe – as it is in the West.

SS: Yes, the populist trend is growing regardless of the elections. That is why we don’t focus much on elections in the book. When it comes to rescuing liberal democracy, winning elections is only one stage out of three. The second is institutional change – restoring the rule of law, rebuilding the public media – followed by bridging the social divide and pursuing the kind of “civilizational reform” needed to stop Poland’s slide to the “East.” If those aligned with traditional elites win the next election but fail to take an interest in the provinces (as seems likely, given the contempt shown for those voters), there will be new and possibly stronger waves of populism.

IGG: So, if the opposition does gain power, what should it do?

SS: We have a whole chapter on this in the book, where we stress two types of action. The first is education reform, because the classroom is where class differences and social attitudes are reproduced. Of course, cultural institutions and the media also have important contributions to make here, as they did when women’s and LGBTQ rights became a hot-button issue. The second type of action focuses on the “here and now” – on what everyone can do individually, right away. To give just one small example, the University of Warsaw library has no cafeteria, even though shared dining areas are important domains for cross-class integration. All it would take is a well-matched group of students to fight for it.

Risky Business

IGG: If PiS continues to win elections, will Poland withdraw from the European Union?

SS: The “Polexit” issue is similar to the controversies surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal: No one believed that the Tribunal could be taken over, until it happened. It is clear that Kaczyński – who calls all the shots in PiS – has had enough of the EU. As long as Poland is a net recipient of European funds, membership is beneficial; but when it starts to be a net donor, that will pose a profound problem for populists. In this sense, the risk of Polexit is real. Whether we want to remain in the EU will be a big implicit question in this election. Of course, a Polexit would be a disaster for the EU, NATO, and the West more broadly. Poland might not be as big or important as the United Kingdom – which apparently can afford Brexit, possesses a nuclear arsenal, has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and so forth – but it is a key country in a tense region, and its economy is certainly large enough to be missed. The EU barely survived the Greek crisis. In the meantime, populists will keep learning from each other. Advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have looked to Poland to learn about its approach to the courts, and PiS members previously looked to Hungary for the same purpose. The “Populist International” is ready to help wreck liberal institutions whenever it is called upon. Poland is pro-Ukrainian and Hungary is pro-Russian, but they still get along fine when they need to. Slovakia may soon join them if the pro-Russian populist Robert Fico wins the election there this month.

IGG: It seems the Polish government has benefited greatly from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at least for now.

SS: I have heard that PiS officials describe the war as a boon from heaven. It pulled them out of isolation. President Andrzej Duda has emerged as an international figure, and Poland has become an indispensable country for the West, and especially for America. Issues relating to democracy have been pushed to the back burner. The situation poses a clear danger to Polish civil society.

IGG: You have been deeply involved in supporting Ukraine’s defense. But the war has taken a half-million lives, and it is not going to end anytime soon, is it?

SS: I am no wiser on this issue than the Ukrainians. If they say they need weapons, I will do everything I can to ensure that weapons come to them. We raised more than €10 million ($10.7 million) for a Bayraktar drone, even though it was the vacation season and inflation remained high. Some 220,000 Poles, of many political leanings, contributed small sums. The only way to end the war is to defeat Russia. The US and Germany should stop delaying the delivery of necessary weapons out of a fear of escalation. They are not preventing escalation; they are costing Ukrainian lives. The war will end when Russia returns to its side of the border.


Sławomir Sierakowski

Sławomir Sierakowski

Writing for PS since 2015
104 Commentaries


Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. 

Irena Grudzińska Gross

Irena Grudzińska Gross

Writing for PS since 2019
9 Commentaries

Irena Grudzińska Gross is a professor at the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a 2018 Fellow at the Guggenheim Foundation. Her books include Miłosz and the Long Shadow of War (Pogranicze, 2020), and Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets (Yale University Press, 2009).