Don’t Blame the Voters for Populism


Central Europe is going backwards, with populism and nationalism on the rise. That is the consensus among many opinion leaders in Western Europe and North America.

They look at the Hungarian leadership of Victor Orbán, who in July 2014 explicitly espoused what he called “illiberal democracy.” They hear echoes in Poland and smell something similar afoot in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia. They are alarmed, disappointed, and cross.

This view was eloquently outlined by the Prague-born French scholar Jacques Rupnik, who this month gave the annual Leszek Kołakowski lecture at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, as part of a broader project supported by the Polish Cultural Institute in London and the University of Warsaw. Rupnik published a landmark book in 1988 called The Other Europe, which foresaw the collapse of communism and warned dozing Western Europeans to wake up from their solipsistic, patronizing ignorance about the continent’s other half.

His 90-minute lecture, entitled “Poland Between Europeanism and Nationalism: National Exception or Regional Norm?” is hard to summarize, but a highlight was his recollection of a personal conversation with the Polish writer and dissident Adam Michnik, in the gloriously optimistic summer of 1991. Michnik—then widely admired, now a figure of hatred among many Polish conservatives—said that Poland faced three kinds of fundamentalism. The first was ethno-nationalism, in which any discussion of discrimination or persecution is dismissed as a threat to the national interest. The second was clericalism. The third was the basing of politics on moral absolutes, in which opponents are treated not as mistaken, but evil.

Such warnings seemed fanciful then. But to many, they look prescient now. The squeeze starts with norms and institutions, moves on to media freedom, and ends up—so far only in Hungary—with a crackdown on the cultural sphere, where theatres and museums become political battlefields. Michnik did not mention the added problem of oligarchic influence in politics.

Yet whatever tide is flowing through central Europe is not confined to the region, nor can it be attributed to the decades spent under communism. Impatient, anti-elitist political forces have brought about Donald Trump’s victory, Brexit, political upheaval in Austria, and a startling shift in Italy. Second, these forces are not invincible. They win, and get re-elected, because the established parties (call them centrist, mainstream, or small-l liberal) put up weak candidates and run bad campaigns.

Third, the grievances that fuel these anti-establishment sentiments are real. Changing social mores, globalization, and technology have hugely benefited the younger, richer, urban, educated, and mobile slices of the population. They leave other segments of the electorate feeling alienated or cheated. The people who run Western democracies failed to notice.

As Rupnik noted in questions following his lecture, the collapse of communism in 1989 made Western democracies complacent about problems that were apparent even then. For their part, the ex-captive nations abandoned their legacies of dissent and instead opted to imitate a deeply flawed Western model. In many countries, both east and west, the following years brought the capture of state institutions and political power by political and economic cartels.

Voters are now expressing discontent with these self-satisfied, bossy, and often corrupt elites. True, they often do so by voting in parties and politicians that claim to be anti-establishment, but in reality are no improvement. This may seem perverse. But one can hardly blame voters for the paucity of choices.

Photo: Jiří Sedláček

May 21, 2018