There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat. They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call ‘socialism’. (Other people call it the welfare state.)
So while they fight the ‘culture war’ against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programmes that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters. It doesn’t sit well with the ideologies of the people who lead these parties, who are neither poor nor poorly educated.
A case in point is Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which has made the journey from traditional conservative values to rabid nationalism and populism over the past decade. But at the same time it has pursued ‘universal credit’, a punitive reform of the country’s generous welfare programmes that has left most of its working-class voters worse off, and forced some to turn to food banks.
The Conservatives have been getting away with it, in the short term, because Brexit is an all-consuming emotional issue in which the same old, poor and poorly educated part of the electorate mostly voted ‘Leave’ in blatant contradiction to their economic interests.
However, it does not make electoral sense in the long term. Populists always manufacture some sort of crisis for their supporters to focus on at election time, but few others will work as effectively as Brexit. Sooner or later their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.
In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6% of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turn-out since the fall of Communism in 1989. That is a full 6% higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015, and will give them an absolute majority in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament).
The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organisation. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom (the ‘Christ of the Nations’), and always finds some imaginary threat to ‘Polish values’ that only it can protect the nation from. In 2015 it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were actually heading for Poland); this time it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.
In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists. Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.
Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses” including ““a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”
So far, so bad, but fairly typical of the new generation of populist parties in the West. What is very different, and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns but also their economic needs.
Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand-worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west. Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which actually does respect and care for the poor.
At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left-wing even though it is culturally right-wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age. It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)
Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus programme, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the Church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth-rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.
And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4%, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.
So if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 14. (“A case…interests”; and “And all…election”)