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What Poland's Election Tells Us about Us

 

It’s hard to identify the most important story of the last few weeks. Between the Mideast crisis, the flipping of Trump’s inner circle, and the inanity of Jim Jordan and his GOP clown show, it’s hard for anything less than a major bombshell to get our attention.

So what was arguably the most consequential event of the bunch slipped largely under the radar. That would be the parliamentary election in Poland, where a democracy on life support just might have been saved, and in the nick of time.

The eccentric movements of history always take a while to understand, but I, for one, hope to look back on this particular moment as a clear marker in the pushback against fascism, a pushback that has been percolating for some time.

I consider this event monumental in the same way that the repudiation of Trump in 2020 was monumental, its foul aftertaste notwithstanding. This is right up there with the Kansas abortion referendum of 2022, the spectacular midterm wins of that same year, the tossing out of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court election earlier this year. People all over, it seems, are disgusted at the way fascist thugs have captured their governments. It isn’t just us.

Taking back those governments, however, is no easy feat. In some — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea — it approaches impossible. In others — Hungary, Turkey, India — democracy may have already slipped past the point of no return. In still others — most notably the U.S. and Brazil — democratic institutions remain under fierce assault, but are, at least for the moment, hanging in there.

But in Poland, apparently the whole nation stared into the abyss, then pulled back from the edge. The so-called free world breathed a sigh of relief.

Most of today’s authoritarian governments were actually elected — more-or-less democratically. Such was the case in Poland, a fledgling democracy that was still in recovery after decades of oppression as a satellite of the Soviet Union.

In 2015, the country voted into power the conservative Law and Justice Party — known as PiS — who then proceeded to dismantle the mechanisms of democracy, one institution at a time. They took over the Supreme Court, turned state media into a propaganda mill, and gerrymandered the entire country so they could rig elections forever. They played fast and loose with the rule of law, they ignored basic civil liberties, and, oh yes, they banned abortion — which, in retrospect, might have been their fatal mistake.

The next eight years saw a systematic remaking of the nation, and not in a good way. As Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic, two weeks ago, before the election:

Whole areas of public life have been politicized, from the judiciary and the prosecutors to the national and local public administration, right down to the level of small towns and villages. Thousands of civil servants were fired for their perceived political affiliations, as were military leaders and diplomats.

Sound familiar? Trump’s fondest wish was to fire all competent civil servants and replace them with reliably corrupt toadies. Project 2025 — the vile scheme promoted by the Heritage Foundation — is actively recruiting those toadies today. Think of PiS as Trump with all the guardrails removed, an object lesson in everything a ruling party shouldn’t be.

Ms. Applebaum, as it happens, is an especially good teacher of this object lesson. Besides being an excellent journalist and a superb source on Eastern Europe, she is also married to a Polish legislator who has played a prominent — and extremely risky — role in opposing PiS over its eight-year reign. She wrote articles just before and just after the election, the first remarkable for its restrained anger, the second for its restrained joy.

The bleak pessimism of her “before” article was certainly warranted. After apologizing for her suspension of journalistic objectivity, she laid out, in vivid detail, how the election was as rigged as an election can get:

This campaign is neither free nor fair, and also offers a lesson to other democracies, including the U.S., about the high price they will pay if they elect autocratic leaders who openly seek to capture the state. Victory for the opposition in this election is the only chance Poland has to prevent this system from becoming permanent. That’s why PiS will sacrifice anything—Poland’s economy, Poland’s alliances, Poland’s physical safety—in order to win.

Amazingly, they lost. A whopping 73 percent of the population turned out to vote, which is almost unheard-of — the U.S. has never cracked 66. And while PiS did win a plurality, the three resistance parties, taken together, won a stunning majority. Those parties — widely described as center/left and center/right — are expected to form a coalition government committed to reversing the damage done by PiS.

So let’s now think about the lessons, about what we can take from this story, because much of it can be applied to our own current situation.

The first take is the importance of abortion as a galvanizing issue, and of women as a galvanizing force in moving modern electorates. Most Poles were apolitical until their women were threatened — much as we were. A large majority were appalled when abortion was ripped away from them — much as we were. A huge resistance movement emerged to fight for the rights of women, which then evolved into a fight for all the other rights that were being so wantonly trampled — much as ours have been.

Another take is the importance of turnout. It’s long been said of this country that when Democrats bother to vote, they win. This was clearly the case in Poland, where alarmed “democrats” went to the polls in numbers that were ultimately overwhelming. And this was in spite of the gerrymandering, in spite of widespread voter intimidation, and in spite of rampant corruption of the electoral process.

A third take is the importance of the youth vote, which made up more than a quarter of that overwhelming turnout. It’s a near-universal truism that the 18-29 age group is hard to reach politically. But this election made clear that young people can indeed be moved, especially when they perceive their rights being squeezed and their futures being tampered with. When we see that Taylor Swift can register 30,000 young voters with one Instagram post, we can take that as a sign that our own young people might be similarly motivated.

A fourth take is about the limits of propaganda. Without getting into the PiS’s total domination of state-run media — which Ms. Applebaum recounts in nauseating detail — we can best think of the Polish media environment as all-Fox-all-the-time, but worse. PiS enjoyed a near-monopoly on information, and their smearing of opposition candidates was vicious, relentless, and omnipresent. Yet for all that, a huge number of voters somehow acquired an immunity to propaganda. They knew bullshit when they smelled it, and they voted to clean it up.

I’m sure there are more lessons here, but you get the idea. The situation was far worse in Poland than it is here, so I’m going to suggest — cautiously — that what happened there could indeed happen here. We have enough women, enough young people, and enough seething rage to do what the Poles did.

All we need is the turnout, and there is no shortage of motivators for that.

 

For more on this, the Applebaum articles cited above are more than worth your time. I also recommend a recent podcast from Rachel Maddow’s Deja News series, which paints a vivid picture of what Polish women have had to put up with in recent years.

 

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