What if they were perfect liberals in 1996?

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January 12, 2017 by AK

Seán Hanley of University College London and James Dawson of King’s College and Queen Mary University, London, published a long piece on Poland in Hungary in Foreign Policy (reprinted in the Chicago Tribune) earlier this month – an interesting article, definitely worth reading despite the unwarranted claims in its title and subtitle. The Tribune‘s title announces:

Poland isn’t a democracy and it never was.

Simply wrong, but probably the Tribune‘s fault. Even if the old aristocratic republic and the period between the end of WWI and Pilsudski’s May 1926 coup don’t count, Poland was undoubtedly a democracy from the end of one-party Communist rule in 1989 until, let’s say, the (alleged) soft coup by the Law and Justice (PiS) block in 2016.

Foreign Policy‘s original title was less obviously wrong:

Poland Was Never as Democratic as It Looked.

The authors probably meant to say Poland’s democracy was never as liberal, tolerant and pluralistic as western EU members hoped it would become and/or imagined it had already become. That’s why, if I understand the polical scientists’ thesis correctly, PiS has been able to make the country’s democratic institutions serve the party’s illiberal agenda.

In the end, EU leverage succeeded brilliantly in shaping the formal legal and institutional landscapes of Eastern Europe and the superficial rhetoric of its politicians…

However, in “ethnographic research on post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe,”

…the lack of real support for liberal norms in “everyday democracy” has been a recurring theme… as is now painfully evident from Hungary, Poland, and beyond, institutions do not hold up well if they promote norms that too few people believe in.

Or has there been a change in popular attitudes in the past decade – a hardening of the fairweather liberals’ mindset, as it were? Note that PiS and Fidesz were not quite outsiders when they came to power:

…their story is more one of establishment insiders “breaking bad” than a surge to power by outsiders or anti-politicians.

Why did they go rogue – did they sense a “breaking bad” moment in the psyche of their potential voters? Specifically, why did PiS win when the economy was growing steadily and there was no realistic prospect of mass immigration, only a vague risk?


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