Today's Poland as a Bastion of Conservative Populism: Targeting Families in a Populist Power Grab

By Jaroslaw S. Myjak
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

With right-wing populists gaining power and electoral campaigns everywhere becoming more virulent, many are calling for a return to individualism and rationality. But, at least in countries like today’s Poland, such pleas fail to take into account the power of appeals to notions like that of “families” as a target of political discourse.

In the afternoon sun this July 10, the incumbent Polish President Andrzej Duda started his campaign speech to the chanting crowds gathered in the main square of the city of Dębica. This is the site of Goodyear Dunlop’s largest plant in Europe as well as the geographical center of the Polish Bible belt. "Our faith, tradition and values are inscribed in the Polish family and only in the family. Its protection is paramount. A Polish family is a boy and a girl, Ladies and Gentleman!” shouted the president.

On the same day, in the Silesian city of Rybnik, some two and a half hours’ drive to the west, the democratic candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, appealed to the civil liberties of individuals, and limits to state power: transparency and honesty in public life, checks and balances, and the accountability of authorities—as well as the values of the European Union. The populist incumbent, Andrzej Duda, spoke about people’s prosperity and job and financial security, all framed in terms of the needs not of individuals, but of families. With this platform and discourse, the populist leader was re-elected—albeit narrowly. Understanding the values, concerns, and needs that underlie these invocations may help to illuminate an important problem that is made conspicuous today by Poland as a test case of the conservative populism that has often taken liberals and democrats by surprise.

Indeed, it dawned on me on that evening that understanding the success of populist candidates and parties requires more insight into the social constructions at the basis of their rhetoric. It is well-known that populists appeal to “the people” versus “the elites,”with the former understood as a collective subject that provides people with an identity. What democratic politicians and their advisors often miss is that this subjectivity is composed not of individuals but of families. It is they who are the basic units of the polity in the eyes of populists.

Democrats tend to overlook the importance of this entity and the appeals made to it, because they operate on the assumption that collective identities can be understood as made up of individuals. Thus, they appeal largely to interests that make sense to citizens who think of themselves as individuals, leaving to populists who may be authoritarian and conservative the field of those who consider their family membership to be their primary marker of identity. Might democrats be overlooking something here to their detriment, which if better understood could provide a key to strategies for countering the right-ward turn, against globalism and many democratic and civil liberties, that in recent years has been seen in various countries, in Europe and elsewhere? Perhaps in the appeal to families lie not merely certain rhetorical themes with ideological uses, but some real concerns that should be acknowledged and addressed.

Dignifying ‘Familism’

The concept of “familism” dates from the 1950s, when it was introduced by the sociologist Edward Banfield, in “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society,” a study of communities in a southern Italian province, which found there certain strong convictions about the importance of honesty and moral conduct in expectations that focused on family members sustained by a strong conceptual distinction between “us” and “them.” Such an approach to morality presupposes the application of different rules of conduct to one's own and others: Banfield formulated a principle of morals and politics in such communities as a duty to “maximize the immediate material benefits of the family, assuming that everyone does the same.” Far from disappearing with the onslaught of modernity, in today’s Poland this attitude is growing and becoming more common in the face of systemic transformation, economic crises, and populist rule. To think that morality applies only to one’s own national ‘family’ and not to others seems to be guiding demagogic ‘populists’ such as Donald Trump, among many others.

In this schema, individualism is considered to be selfish and detrimental to family cohesion, while a strong sense of moral obligation attaches theoretically to those people to whom one is closest. That is, it is family that is the source of moral obligations, and political concern; family members are those people who most or really matter. It should be noted that in Poland as in other countries with a tradition, often shallowly appropriated, of popular Catholic piety, the veneration of the institution of the family adds fuel to such familism. The idealized Catholic family understood in essentially selfish terms became somewhat mythical in the face of high rates of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, and work migration, but as myth it could be all the more compelling.

Populism has made much use of familism in opposition to more individualist democratic mechanisms of decision-making. Democratic and liberal notions of “civil society” have largely been abandoned. Populists seem to have a vision of the nation and its homeland as both consisting essentially of families, and being family-like. The leader can be regarded as a patriarchal guardian and protector of families, while the nation is thought of as a collective entity with its own personality. The same populists speak of upholding “the dignity of the ordinary families of towns and villages.” These families become the presumed subjects of political protection and remuneration for “the wrongs of the past.” Some politicians cultivate this familism by stimulating hostility against their adversaries in Poland or abroad who are the alleged perpetrators of misfortunes and handicaps of many families. The appeal to family unity is also sometimes used to pressure those individuals who might be inclined to divergent views to refrain from expressing them. That can influence electoral choices as family members may vote with an intra-family leader at the price of being stigmatized within their own family otherwises. This can lead to a snowball effect in patterns of thinking and voting sustained over generations. This can even lead many women, conscious of their subjection to the power of their husbands, to vote for misogynistic candidates for the sake of preserving cohesion in the family unit.

Stimulating Gratitude

Those families who are relatively less successful may come to see their own well-being as dependent on others. This can in turn contribute to feelings of low self-confidence. Populists generally sense that emotionaldependency and vulnerability go together with financial dependency. This finding became a key to certain forms of political exploitation. Populist leaders may strategically consider that many families will appreciate having recourse at least theoretically to an external locus of protection. They might be reassured with words confirming their personal dignity. Then they may be promised financial benefits as families, so their lack of self-reliance ceases to be perceived as a problem. Cash benefits dressed up as discretionary grants come to them with a benefactor’s name tag, as if they were funded from the benefactor’s own pockets and based solely upon his own political will.

In this way, some families become inoculated against any arguments put forward by anti-populists, as they know to whom they owe a duty. Democratic politicians and analysts have largely failed to find ways to establish an adequate cultural understanding with traditional families, as they have continued to appeal to individual responsibility, and to criticize those whose decisions depend on “electoral bribery.”

Recent years have seen some of the more idealistic democrats become professional technocrats, who exhibit declining levels of empathy. They fail to recognize the extent to which many people distrust anonymous institutions, and in the case of social welfare matters, do not believe in the fairness of the support assessment process. They do not want to be in the position of the helpless Daniel Blake, the protagonist of a Ken Loach movie who was unable to navigate his way through his country’s impersonal, Kafkaesque benefits system. It can then seem more rational to appeal to the mercy of supposed economic or political “protectors.” Many families have developed strategies of manifesting their privation and feigning humility in their supplications for assistance.

Virgilia Peterson, an educated, liberal, Upper West Side socialite married to a Polish prince, Paweł Sapieha, recalled how, in antebellum Poland, where she belonged to the deeply religious landed aristocracy, whenever a peasant women saw the princess even at a distance, she would start limping to induce the other’s compassion. What Virgilia had witnessed was a technique of earning the approval and acceptance of others through the display of one’s deficiencies or misfortunes.This pattern of humility is still found today in many communities, where it seems bound up with strong uses of popular religious imagery among rural and small-town folk, where, referencing the Gospel, it is sometimes said, “Ask and it will be given to you … For everyone who asks receives.” A strategy on the part of governing elites of stimulating gratitude in this way can be further fortified by invoking thusly popular piety.

Indeed, in Poland, a certain sacralization of political authorities has contributed to what is arguably an infantilization of the targeted population. When populists have rallied and announced the arrival of, in effect, more manna from Heaven, the crowds have invariably chanted, thank you! Andrzej Duda’s name was sung in Zamość on the last night of the campaign, to the tune of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

This quasi-religious manipulation can even border on the sacralization of a political leader: on July 4, 2018, upon leaving the hospital after a prolonged and complicated knee-surgery, the leader of the ruling party in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, was welcomed back by the cover of the weekly Gazeta Polska (no. 27, 2018), with his photograph and the words uttered by the resurrected Christ to greet the apostles: “Peace be with you,” while a sub-caption below it read: “We are starting our common struggle against anti-Polonism”).

In the final step of the populist process, the obliged electorate has been weaponized against their adversaries in Poland or abroad who are the alleged perpetrators of misfortunes and handicaps of many families. People who are guided by values in life, and not by hatred or revenge, will not stoop to this level in argument. This well-thought-out offensive of brutality and hate can be used to neutralize and intimidate any adversary or institution. The planned effect is that the Leader can speak directly to the families without intermediaries like parliament or the other institutions of the democratic State.

Lessons to be Learned

If democrats and liberals want to win elections, they need to think beyond just economic reasoning. The populists have been winning elections by appealing to values that that thinking overlooks. Though, to be sure, much of it is irrational, underneath those uses are not only hidden resentments, but real needs and concerns. Indeed, the populists sometimes bring together concerns rooted in social inequalities with unsatisfied needs for empathy and recognition on the part of the less affluent. Instead of assuming that these problems can only pull in opposite directions, and reacting to the destructive follies of nationalist conservatives who are able to skillfully wield a popular rhetoric in what may be in fact a quite different set of interests, democratic parties should craft messages that are able to link them, and around notions that are not just symbolic but involve real programs with tangible benefits.

Inclusive visions and plans need to be proposed and clearly explained so that they are understood by a larger spectrum of society and their buy-in is secured. The introduction of long-term educational programs is indispensable in all societies in crises or transformation periods. Liberal political parties should modernize their savoir-faire as “life may be elsewhere”: with this in mind, democratic presidential candidates can still release a lot of civic energy and enthusiasm.

The winners of future elections will need to be able to intuitively and emotionally tap into the evolution of social needs, and their nature, which is so diverse across many countries. And this may take years.


About the Author

Jaroslaw Myjak, J.D., is an experienced senior director, NED, Chair, ex CEO and President with deep business and regulatory expertise and board experience in public banks, the financial services industry, and large international companies of the private sector. Presently he serves as an Independent Board Director, Credit Agricole Bank, Poland, Vice- Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Ghelamco Invest SA, Member of the Supervisory Board, ZPUE SA. He holds an M.A degree in American Studies, Master of Laws degree, Diplome de Droit Compare. He completed the General Management Programme at CEDEP, International Directors’ Certification Programme at INSEAD and studied at the University of Toronto (economics), Amsterdam (American Law), Sundridge Park Institute and Columbia Business School. He is a Member of the Warsaw Bar and Chamber of Legal Advisers and Member of the Board of Trustees of The Warsaw Museum.

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