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Will the year 2021 see the end of the gold era of illiberal populists?

Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz · 12 April 2021
“Law and Justice’s approval ratings have fallen significantly in recent months, possibly in part due to the pandemic, responses to which require a politics based on solidarity, cohesion and trust. And yet, Jarosław Kaczyński continues to the same tools that brought him to power.”

1.

In his nostalgia-filled memoir The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig writes of the golden age of “certainty and security” of the Habsburg Empire and subsequently describes the most dramatic, generation-defining events – especially the birth of the Third Reich – and their influence on Europe, making it clear to the reader that it would be impossible to restore the old order of things. Throughout the book, though, he manages to avoid despair by adopting a melancholic style.

At the end of 2020, some of us seem to be contemporary versions of Zweig. Illiberal populism has entrenched itself globally and continues to have an immense impact on global politics. Some believe that Donald Trump’s defeat in the United States will, in the long-run, mean a return to the liberal order. Let us hope so. But some commentators are more level-headed in  pointing out that Joe Biden will not automatically reverse all the changes that occurred during Trumps’s first term in the US and in other parts of the world. “The sense of reality” indicates a number of possible scenarios, which is true especially for our part of the world.

Illiberal populists are still far from losing power in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Victor Orbán in Hungary and the success of Andrej Babiš’s ANO part in Czechia, all remind us that the return of liberalism to power in CEE is but one of a few potential futures paths. It is Donald Tusk that has reminded us, in a series of recent interviews, that Poland should not count on “miraculous influence from abroad”. If populists’ opponents want to succeed, they not only need to have something to say to their voters, but also know how to say it in such a way that is appealing. It is a good topic to explore on the eve of the New Year. Christmassy videos with politicians singing Christmas carols do not suffice.

2.

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most serious global crises that the humanity has faced in recent decades. It will take months before vaccines bring the situation under control everywhere in the country, and the political, economic and social repercussions of Covid-19 will likely reverberate for years.

Analyses show that mass media looked more or less the same before the virus spread from Wuhan to the rest of the world and during the pandemic. Social media are a unique mixture of politics and entertainment that illiberal populists have been using for years much more effectively than their liberal opponents and been able to mobilise them more effectively to win elections and remain in power.

Let us be clear: entertainment produced by illiberal populists is not simply about making the audience laugh. Entertainment does not necessarily mean a hearty smile. There is a special kind of entertainment which consists of attracting and maintaining a person’s attention in a certain way, which is what illiberals have mastered to perfection in recent years. It is a perverse entertainment of outrageous and extreme statements. The perfect recipe for managing voters’ attention? A pinch of radicalism, a dash of sneer and a generous helping of fake news or one-sided interpretations. It is something that experts call a shifting of the Overton window, i.e. the range of policies and statements that are deemed politically by the mainstream population to be acceptable and admissible.

Be it disdainful statements about refugees who supposedly carry bacteria in their bodies, utterances excluding the Polish LGBT community or fake news about the European Union allegedly breaching our sovereignty, anything goes, as long as it keeps your voters’ attention. And while some viewers and readers go down this path and follow the individual topics, what is at stake more widely is the foundations of liberal democracy – the rule of law, separation of powers and free media – which are currently under attack. Sometimes even the attack itself takes on the form of a “spectacle” – for example when the government-controlled media in Poland were discussing a judge who supposedly stole from a shop and they tried to convince the audience that this behaviour was typical of the “judges’ caste”. The media’s spotlight fell on this one case, which outraged some people and amused others. But it was nothing more than a sideshow to what was actually happening at the time: crucial political and legal changes. No journalist who placed this “piece of news” in mass media did so in earnest and with a conviction of its importance. Nonetheless, just as the famous news tickers of TVP Info or the “playful” performances of Dominik Tarczyński do, such items play an important role in the media landscape of 21st century Poland.

3.

Entertainment is obviously nothing new in politics. Ever since antiquity people have hoped for “bread and circuses”, and political leaders, even the worst tyrants, made sure to meet the demands of the populace. In the 20th century, totalitarian Germany and Russia attempted to divert people’s attention by constant military mobilisation, and Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism would not have been possible without the mass media. But post-war democracies, too have used entertainment in politics.

If it were not the case, Guy Debord would not have written in the 1960s about the “society of the spectacle” and Neil Postman would not have warned that if it continued in such a way we would “amuse ourselves to death”. Media analysts tried to capture the phenomena by coining new terms, such as “infotainment” at the beginning of the 1990s. Soon afterwards, “politainment” appeared, which stressed the fact that entertainment produced by politicians was of a different quality. One could quote such examples in one breath, such as Bill Clinton playing saxophone and Aleksander Kwaśniewski dancing to disco polo. Seen today, these examples seem clips from Zweig’s golden era of “certainty and security” in the Habsburg Empire.

What we are dealing with today plays the same old role as politics, but is of a new hue, thanks to technological changes. At some point, we named it populistainment, to draw attention to the link to a new kind of politician, illiberal populists. Contemporary politicians compete for viewers’ attention, not just against politicians from other sides of the political spectrum. Voters with smartphones in their pockets are bombed with stimuli on an unprecedented scale. Without the entertainment component, wider groups of recipients cannot be reached. Seriousness seems to be reserved for the “old elites”. The pandemic slowed the process down momentarily, but populistainment is already returning to our screens at full speed. It is inescapable, with voters used to, or even addicted to dopamine hit of the latest “performance”.

This new quality of political communication sometimes looks like it’s turned everything to its head. When Clinton or Kwaśniewski were amusing their voters with their musical performances, they used entertainment in addition to the traditionally understood politics, as a way to improve their images. Illiberal populists have reversed the proportions completely, making politics – understood as drawing up an agenda or building party structures – subordinate to entertainment.

Entertainment was already colonializing politics during previous times when no one doubted the strength of liberal democracy. A classic example is Silvio Berlusconi, who used his companies’ structures and the media (which he also had interests in) on an unprecedented scale to promote his party, Forza Italia.

“[He] applied solutions used in TV to politics. He made a spectacle out of politics. In fact, politics became a TV programme”. These are not the words describing Donald Trump, as might be imagined, rather what Carlo Freccero, former director of Silvio Berlusconi’s TV station said about his boss at the beginning of the 1990s, a time when the US was celebrating the election of Bill Clinton and Europe was examining the impact of the Maastricht Treaty.

Illiberal populists are not heirs to Bill Clinton, but to Berlusconi, and in the era of Technology 2.0, they are trying to attract voters’ attention with a special form of entertainment, all the while attempting to dismantle liberal democracies. The era of newspapers and TV is a Jurassic park in comparison to the influence strategies today. But, as the purchase of “Polska Press” indicates, those in power have a degree of strategic foresight and aware not to consign legacy media to history. Not everyone is from the iGEN generation (a generation brought up online, as described by Jean M. Twenge). The public are told rubbish and the language of liberal democracy is used to achieve illiberal objectives. Who would remember that in his book “Polska naszych marzeń” [Poland of our dreams], Jarosław Kaczyński promised real democracy in public media, one TV channel for those in power and one for the opposition? If you do not believe it, just read the book yourself. This game of seriousness and silliness is crucial to understanding the success of populists in the modern era.

4.

The year 2020 was an important one for illiberal populists if maybe not quite a full breach yet, then perhaps at least a crack is now visible in the illiberal walls owed to populistainment. One of the proofs of this of course, is the victory of Joe Biden. Biden and Kamala Harris’ campaign, based on courage, empathay and a clear, strong programme, is an example of how you can lead to a liberal electoral victory during a period of pandemic and perverse illiberal entertainment. Many commentators claim that had it not been for Covid-19, Trump would not have lost. Even if we assume that it is true, someone must be ready to seize the power when populists are weak and break through the legendary wall of tweets.

But our own illiberals, here in Poland have been failed by their own instincts as well. Law and Justice’s approval ratings have fallen significantly recently, which might be due to the pandemic, any response to which requires a politics based on solidarity, cohesion and trust. And yet, Jarosław Kaczyński continues to the same tools that brought him to power.. The Constitutional Tribunal’s decision on abortion, as well as the gambit of a proposed veto on the EU Covid budget can be viewed as an attempt to divert voters’ attention from the chaos and incapability with which the government of United Right has been dealing with the pandemic.

This time, however, it seems that the strategies previously developed by illiberal populists are not working as planned. The Constitutional Tribunal’s decision on abortion sparked protests on an unprecedented scale, and was a lightning rod not only for outrage at the breach of women’s rights, but also a general fatigue with the United Right. Eventually, the EU budget was not vetoed, and Mateusz Morawiecki had to agree to the conditions set out by Angela Merkel and the rest of the bloc’s members. The internet is awash with videos and photos showing the crowds gathered Poland, ignoring the sanitary regulations of the Law and Justice-led government. Is seriousness lacking here?

5.

However, the mere fact of a weaking of illiberal populists’ influence in the wake of Covid-19 might not suffice to make them significantly weaker in the polls and endanger their recent electoral successes. Our controversial postulate is that the opponents of illiberal populists must learn to talk to their voters in a manner that appeals to them.

Let us not overlook the advances in the neurobiology of our brains. A brain bored by constant stimuli requires ever stronger stimulation to maintain attention. Have our brains become bored because of 24-hour TV and social media?

Research published in France at the beginning of 2020 by Kantar & La Croix indicated that in a highly educated society people cease following political news: 6 out of 10 adult French declared any interest at all in political news!

Therefore, it is only rational that illiberals would attempt to provide perverse entertainment and feed their media audience with dopamine. Of course, there are many good reasons to reject populistainment as a political strategy. We are not trying to convince liberal democrats to make radical statements. We would like them to remember that their positive statements must be appealing in form, targetted at solving real life problems, and well-thought in terms of strategy and tactics with regard to the balance between seriousness and non-seriousness. What is happening for real and what is just a media smokescreen? A lot remains to be done in terms of communication between the opposition and citizens. When JFK gave advice about winning elections, decades ago, he encouraged the use of appealing pictures, proposing 2-3 reforms that appealed to the imagination (as they translated directly into changes in the everyday lives of voters), and finally, the campaign should be joyful and family-oriented.

We know that it is possible to win in Central Europe in such as way, as shown by the successful campaign of Zuzana Čaputova in Slovakia, based on positive messages and empathy. In Poland, it was hopeful to see the opposition’s successes in recent local government and Senate elections, as well Rafał Trzaskowski’s presidential campaign. Regional initiatives such as “The Pact of Free Cities”, signed by Rafał Trzaskowski along with the mayors of Budapest, Prague and Bratislava should be more visible (which would require a separate analysis).

In the era of populistainment, liberals do not need to relinquish their political identity in order to be more attractive for their voters. The strategy, however, requires not only imagination and creativity, but also professionalism and courage. Only then will it be possible to restore the values that are the bedrock of liberal democracy, which were introduced to Polish society thirty years ago and flourished for a generation: pluralism, tolerance, mutual trust and the rule of law (slogans can take up an appealing form, which is proven by the recent Biden’s campaign, but first and foremost by the ideas of participants of recent protests in Poland).

These are the most important challenges for liberalism in 2021.

 

Picture: Cottonbro from Pexels;