Special Reports

‘I hate politics!’ The decline of trust and citizens’ cynicism

"Kultura Liberalna" Editors · 28 November 2014
Radosław Markowski, Katarzyna Szymielewicz and Jan Zielonka discuss the quality of Polish politicians and citizens, the negative impact of Facebook on democracy, and why it is still worth engaging in politics.

Łukasz Pawłowski: John Adams, the second president of the United States, said that democracy never lasts for a long time, and that there has never been a democracy that would not eventually commit suicide. Thomas Jefferson, his successor in the office, wrote that every generation needs a revolution, and that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Central Europe experienced its last revolution twenty-five years ago, Western Europe- almost half a century ago, in 1968. Does democracy in the Western world stand today at the threshold of revolution, or suicide?

Jan Zielonka: I disagree with your diagnosis. In the last thirty years we have experienced at least three different revolutions in Eastern and Western Europe: a geopolitical revolution, when the Soviet Union fell; an economic revolution, when economic borders vanished – not only because of globalization, but also thanks to the creation of the common market; and an Internet revolution. All these transformations have fundamentally changed the relationship between the government and the people, resulting in a clear distinction between the winners and the losers. Meanwhile, most journalists seem to think that, if people don’t go out on the streets and don’t murder each other, nothing really happens. This is not true.


These changes are happening without any active participation of citizens though. Have citizens of democratic countries become disinterested in a direct creation of political reality?

Radosław Markowski: Political scientists have been using a false image of the average citizen, supposedly very interested in public affairs, for decades. A significant part of public opinion follows them in that view. In this vision, every man wakes up in the morning and excitedly thinks: ‘what else should we tell politicians to help them make our lives better?’. But we know very well that, if we knocked on the door of an average Pole, and asked who he is, he would not say that he is a liberal, or a conservative, or a social democrat, but he would rather say that he is a physician, an engineer, or a dog lover. Most people are not interested in politics at all, or they are interested in it in a very marginal way. We have had too high expectations of the citizen. And that model of a citizen failed.

Why did this happen?

For an average man – depending on his interests and life situation – only two or three socio-political issues have some importance, for instance, education, healthcare, environmental protection, sometimes defense. But at the same time, politics must include a wider spectrum of issues, sometimes completely unimportant from an individual’s point of view – agricultural subsidies, cultural policy, public administration and so on. A citizen might have the feeling that the government deals with completely unimportant issues, and does not care about the really important ones. A conviction arises, that the government is wasting money, time and energy on minor stupidities.

You are an author of the recently published ‘Democratic Audit of Poland.’ Statistical data presented there, shows that the majority of Poles do not have trust in democratic institutions. In 2004, 21 per cent declared their trust in the cabinet and in the parliament, 8 per cent less trusted political parties. Today it is slightly better, however, we are still at the very bottom of European countries – only Bulgaria and Portugal had worse results.

Radosław Markowski: But who do Poles trust? Do they trust the Church, NGOs, family? A citizen that is secularized, and liberated from the influence of an authority, is much more distrustful in general.

We have had too high expectations of the citizen. And that model of a citizen failed.

Radosław Markowski

New technologies, and the Internet in particular, were supposed to be one of the ways to increase people’s engagement in politics and their trust in politicians. The main argument was that the Internet provides wide access to information and helps people organize. The ‘Panoptykon’ Foundation, run by Katarzyna Szymielewicz, tries to show that the worldwide web is becoming a tool of control, rather than a means of liberation. Instead of being hunters, citizens are being hunted, as the state and politicians gather more and more information about them. Has the Internet become a tool for developing civic liberties and democracy, or are these hopes still unfulfilled?

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: There is no straightforward answer to this question. For the last few years, it seems to me that more skeptical voices have become dominant, in the spirit of Evgeny Morozov’s views. Internet means not only an easier and faster access to politically important information. It is also a dangerous toy, a powerful temptation for entertainment, the risk of drowning in a new form of consumption. It is also a very pragmatic reason for resigning from fighting political battles. From the point of view of a citizen-consumer, the net is a more effective way of solving problems with accessing required goods and services, and much more effective than a general election. Society, which under different circumstances would have rebelled because of inequalities or high prices, can relieve some of these tensions thanks to the Internet. One can buy these goods at a much lower price somewhere else and have it delivered, or people can organize themselves in a buyers’ community and negotiate better prices on their market.

People are not rioting, because they can complain through social media or download movies for free?

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: People give up on politics voluntarily, but not because they want to achieve some higher goals, but rather to fulfill their own needs, that once would have been dealt with by state. Protests following the ACTA agreement – which are often used as an example of youth’s engagement in politics – in my view, are only a proof of an ability to mobilize citizens in a very short-term perspective and in order to deal with a very specific issue. The point is not to change the system or revise the rules of the game, with distance politics from the real needs of citizens. People protesting against ACTA wanted the government to get its hands off the Internet, they wanted it not to intervene with its actions. The idea that the state might introduce some rigid regulations or troublesome sanctions, motivates us to act, but not in the name of some abstract liberty, but in the name of particular interests. I see this process much more clearly after five years of working at the ‘Panoptykon’ Foundation. From the very beginning, our goal was not only to fight for rights and liberties in the context of new surveillance techniques, but also to engage people – to increase social control over the way governments work today. I can see now that this is a project doomed to be in a niche, an offer only for those very few, who look to challenge their situation and for some bigger sense, extending over their everyday, convenient life. Most of the people – and this is not a critique, but rather a sober analysis of reality – want simply some entertainment, they want to buy a fancy coffee, go on holidays, watch a movie. If we take that away for them, we will have a revolution. But this will not be a struggle for a better democratic system.


I don’t get that. Why this new technology should rather pacify people and keep them in houses, while history teaches us that new means of communication were rather a force of social change? Take for instance French newspapers spreading revolutionary ideas two hundred years ago.

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: Those events were the result of some very concrete social problems, so serious, that they could not been solved in any other way than a revolution. Life in today’s Europe is not a struggle for survival in a purely material sense – we don’t suffer from hunger, governments don’t shoot people in the streets. Basic needs of most of the people are fulfilled. And all the other needs are sophisticated to such a degree, that they can be realized on an individual basis – for instance through online communities of consumer groups. This is a much easier and safer way of getting what we want than a long-term political campaign to change the existing law and ruling classes.

A question to professor Markowski – has the development of the Internet really discouraged people from engaging in political life?

 Radosław Markowski: It was not really the Internet as such, but rather social media like Facebook. People there interact with people views similar to their own, they exchange opinions and often radicalize them. And then they go out to the streets and they’re really surprised that other people might have different views. Social media give us a false impression of pluralism, but this is an illusion. Online communities tend to select their members on the basis of unwritten rules of opportunism and conformism.

Does this mean that politicians can ignore such voices?

Radosław Markowski: We get used to criticizing politicians easily, however, I think that we should be critical also towards citizens and make demands of them. Politicians have no incentives to follow their programs and behave responsibly, if they are not controlled by responsible citizens. If a citizen makes political choices, following not some rational criteria, but rather what his illusions and his guts tell him, then politicians do not feel required to fulfill their promises. If I were in the government, I would save no costs to educate citizens, so that they would be able to assess policies rationally. Without that we cannot have democratic politics at all.

Jan Zielonka: This is a very paternalizing approach. We should teach citizens? And who exactly should do that, and what should he or she teach? How should the citizens vote?! We should talk to them, explain that some specific decisions will have concrete results – for instance that a bigger defense budget means less money for education. But the eventual decision what to choose, belongs to each and every one of them separately. Meanwhile, we have a very elitist understanding of democracy in Poland. No, democracy starts from below, not from the top. We have to take the society as it is, and we have to let it function as it wants to. If people don’t want to engage, it’s their choice.

We have a very elitist understanding of democracy in Poland. No, democracy starts from the below, not from the top.

Jan Zielonka

But if a political party stands for elections with a program of, let’s say, lowering taxes, but it rises them once it’s in power, and people are still voting for them in the next elections, then their candidates will not care about the program at all. If politicians are not accounted for their promises, how should we control them?

Jan Zielonka: Every country gets such a government it deserves. If people vote for frauds, they have to face the consequences of their choices. Italians knew that Silvio Berlusconi had not only made his wealth in a not entirely transparent way, but that he was also mainly interested in his private business during his term in office. And yet, they kept electing him. That’s what democracy means – making choices and facing their consequences.

Radosław Markowski: But the basis for these choices ought to be objective facts. A situation where everyone can define the truth in his own terms is a dead-end. I don’t want to tell people how to vote, but I believe that such choices should be founded on a thorough knowledge, and not on some media-created myths. An example? We keep hearing that social inequalities in Poland are rising, but no scientific research proves that!

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: I can perfectly understand Professor Markowski’s wish to raise the level of democratic debate, and to convince people that they should make their choices basing on facts. However, after a few years of running an institution that has such an idea on its banner, I have more and more doubts, whether it’s possible at all.

In the Panoptykon Foundation we have learned that we must present our arguments in an attractive, sometimes even entertaining way, if we want anyone to stop and think about them at all. I am not sure what the reason for that is – perhaps we have too many urgent political issues? In my opinion, the question of liberty and privacy, especially in the context of fast technological development, is absolutely crucial, but I can understand that other people might have different priorities. Myself, I don’t participate in important debates on various issues – geopolitics, economics, ecology – because I don’t have enough competence to understand consequences of this or that decision. In these issues, I rely on experts. But on what ground do we elect them? In most cases, not based on the value of their arguments, but rather on the way these arguments are delivered. Meritocracy in politics failed together with the gradual sophistication of the world. Even though many countries still have democratic procedures, we are in fact living in a world run by elites.


Even if that’s true, in the end it is the people that make choices, and it is extremely important, whether they make their decisions based on facts or on emotions. Our debate is being held on the day of the Scottish independence referendum. It seems to me – and this is the question to Professor Zielonka – that the majority of economic, political, security arguments suggest that the Scots should remain in the United Kingdom. Yet, almost half of them want independence. Is this a triumph of democracy, or rather a degeneration, professor Markowski talked about?

Jan Zielonka: And who decided that the arguments for remaining in the United Kingdom are more rational? Supporters of independence may be convinced that the government should be closer to the citizen, thus in Edinburgh, and not in London. They can be convinced that Scotland should have every right to use oilfields on its shores. They can also argue that Great Britain is in fact ruled by banks, which have disproportional political and economic influences. The answer to the question, what is rational will be known only after the referendum’s results. In democracies, general elections preceded by a public debate decide on what is in public interest – just like it was in Scotland.

So all decisions are equally good?

Jan Zielonka: It’s not the point. Look at other ‘truths’ that used to be held as self-evident – that slavery is a natural state, that women should not have a right to vote, that the poor are simply lazy, and that providing them with some social assistance may in fact be harmful to them. There are many views that used to be considered ‘normal’, yet are not seen as ‘normal’ any more. The social reality is changing constantly. Besides, not everything in the political world can be examined and measured with numbers, as professor Markowski believes. A lot depends on informal relations, sympathies, other emotions. This is one of the reasons why citizens don’t trust politicians. Another reason is the fact of the diminishing influence of the state and politicians on what is actually happening at the national level. The level of our future pensions depends even more on what is happening in Beijing or in New York, rather than in Warsaw.

Even though many countries still have democratic procedures, we are in fact living in a world run by elites.

Katarzyna Szymielewicz

Radosław Markowski: The Scottish referendum shows exactly what I have in mind. It is not my goal to tell Scots what to choose. But I want both sides of the argument, to know clearly what kind of Scotland they want, and what kind of country will appear in the aftermath of their decision.

But why would anyone waste his time analyzing the results of his decisions, if – as professor Zielonka has said – the fate of peoples and states is determined today to a great extent by non-political actors, like financial markets or multinational corporations. Under such circumstances, being interested in politics and making rational political decisions, which you call for, is irrational in itself, as our political decisions do not really have an influence?

Radosław Markowski: But this global determinism does not explain why some countries are doing very well, and why others collapse. It does not explain, why twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Poland have doubled their GDP, while some other post-communist countries are in the same place. Why Scandinavian countries look the way they do, and not differently? Because seventy-eighty years ago representatives of all major political forces sat down together and asked themselves a question: what is more important in democracy – liberty or equality? They decided that equality is more important. The present social structure of these countries is a result of human reason and political consensus, not of any natural forces or globalization. The world is not as unpredictable and uncontrollable as you suggest. For this reason, a citizen should be interested in having access to knowledge and facts.

Katarzyna Szymielewicz: I don’t think that the number of really conscious and engaged citizens in any democratic country is significant. Furthermore, I don’t really know what to do in order to convince more people to engage in politics. Certainly we cannot force anyone to do that. This is an organic process, and each society must reach this stage of development at its own pace. For the time being, we are left working with a small group of activists. But I have no doubts, that this small group is our great asset and we have to keep cultivating it.


The debate was held as a part of ‘The Crisis of Trust in Europe’ series organised in cooperation with Time To Talk, an international network of debating houses.