The political and ideological project being implemented by Poland’s populist governing party, Law and Justice (PiS), has a long way to run. The re-election of the party’s candidate Andrzej Duda to the presidency last month has merely ushered in a new chapter and it will be even more demanding for liberals than what went before.
International attention may be focused on Belarus, but in Poland, ministers have just announced an autumn agenda which involves a simultaneous attack on the judiciary and the independent media. It coincides with intensifying pressure on the LGBT+ community in the form of verbal assaults from PiS figures. Demonstrations in cities across the country against the pre-trial jailing of an LGBT+ activist have led not to dialogue, but to the heavy-handed arrests of dozens more.
Yet Duda, who stood on an anti-LGBT+ platform, ended his campaign with a puzzlingly emollient statement. “If anyone felt offended by my action or words during these [last] five years, not only in the campaign,” he said, “please accept my apologies.”
His side ran a brutal campaign. Not a single impartial report about an opposition candidate was carried by the main state television news programme in the run-up to the vote. Duda’s main opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, was routinely dehumanised and lied about.
So why was Duda apologising? Some observers assumed that he wanted to signal a genuine change, a wish to heal the polarisation in Polish society. In our view, Duda’s words carried less the spirit of Gandhi than Oscar Wilde, whose advice was to always forgive one’s enemies, because “nothing annoys them so much”.
Duda’s speech was another scene in a long-running piece of theatre that has played out since 2015, orchestrated by Jarosław Kaczyński who leads PiS. Since this spectacle began, the Polish media have poured out endless streams of vitriol about the judiciary or minorities including refugees and the LGBT community. In requesting forgiveness, Duda was signalling that not everything said before the vote should be treated seriously.
But his statement itself should be taken seriously. It is a sign of our political times. Moreover, this is where Poland usefully illustrates a broader global phenomenon that we could call “populistainment”.
The phenomenon applies as much to Donald Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Thierry Baudet, the leader of the populist Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands. Essentially, it means that the media becomes a theatre for an ongoing performance aimed at capturing and keeping the audience’s attention.
Of course, entertainment is nothing new in politics. The citizens of Rome were distracted by bread and circuses. In the 1990s, prominent politicians started to literally perform (Bill Clinton playing the saxophone), disco dance (Aleksander Kwaśniewski), or simply import showbusiness into politics via television (Silvio Berlusconi). Some academics used the term “politainment” to characterise that era.
Populistainment is a new stage in this process. If democratic politicians in the past used entertainment to warm up their image and appear more human to better to sell their ideas, populistainment turns that on its head. In the populist playbook, entertainment eclipses ideology and such traditional political activity as building party structures. Social media turbocharges the trend and takes it on to another level.
It should be stressed that this new form of political entertainment does not necessarily mean amusing the audience. The comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Ukraine showed that entertainers do sometimes win elections. But populistainment can also involve arousing fear, outrage and contempt.
The PiS strategy in Poland is a classic example. Whether raising alarm by claiming that the opposition will remove child support or by scapegoating LGBT people, Germans or Jews, the PiS has since 2015 ensured it commands public attention at all times. The party strategy is twofold: first leap forward by attacking someone, then leap back and a call for responsibility and community. Duda recently did exactly this: after attacking LGBT people, he called for tolerance just days later.
The most fundamental consequence of populistainment is the marginalisation of truth in the public discourse.
Research by a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on true and false news disseminated via Twitter proves that false rumours affect not only elections, but economic and investment decisions. On an unprecedented scale, politicians are competing for public attention. Populistainment is changing not only our politics, but our world in general.
This is not just a question of political style. Populists like Kaczyński, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Trump also have a political agenda. They want to subordinate state institutions and the media to their parties or a small circle of power. In Poland, populistainment is used as a veil for the overhaul of the judiciary, just as the PiS version of democracy is used as a veil for authoritarian behaviour. Populists know from neuroscience that serving up dopamine is one of the best ways to keep our easily bored brains hooked. They deliberately turn public debate into a chaos of inflamed emotions, defensive reactions and rumours.
And the populists’ strategic use of entertainment to win poses a fundamental challenge to defenders of liberal democracy. Calling populists “fascists” and “authoritarians” stopped making an impression on voters long ago. However justified, it became repetitive, uninteresting and therefore, unfortunately, ineffective. If liberal democrats don’t learn about the power of spectacle in the era of dopamine politics, they will fade into irrelevance. And if populism is about creating a spectacle that depicts liberal democracy falling apart, liberalism must provide an alternative spectacle.
Issues-based campaigns, focused on positive ideas for the future are an option. Trzaskowski tried this in the Polish presidential race, with his “New Solidarity” slogan, an idea meant to be unifying and hopeful. After his defeat, Trzaskowski announced plans to build a social movement. Whether or not he succeeds depends on whether he will be able to provide a robust and inspiring alternative to the reactionary PiS vision for Poland.
Another solution is to have the courage to speak about the things that cause public discontent, fear and frustration. Populists are not afraid to speak about people’s emotions and often win because of it. Liberals should not try to manipulate emotions, but rather work with them. Fear can be translated into courage, loss into hope, and anxiety into creativity.
Unless the PiS’s opponents can provide their own winning vision along with a healthy dose of entertainment, they risk losing the chance to shape Poland’s future for at least the next decade. Globally, liberals risk the same fate.
• Jarosław Kuisz is a historian, editor-in-chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin
• Karolina Wigura is a historian, political editor of the Polish weekly Kultural Liberalna and a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin