Poland’s ruling party tried a judicial power grab — and then saw it backfire

When Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) passed three bills in July to try to wrest control of the country’s judicial system, Poles pushed back quickly. Thousands rallied in the streets of Warsaw, Wrocław, Poznań, Kraków and smaller towns — including strongholds of the right-wing PiS in the east of the country.

The protesting crowds were large and loud, but there was another factor: The PiS used derogatory language, and showed contempt for the rule of law. The radicalization of political language, our research shows, may have backfired for Poland’s ruling party by causing a rift in the conservative camp.

Here’s what just happened in Poland, and the implications for the Anthony Scaramuccis of right-wing administrations elsewhere in the world.

PiS fired off accusations — and the language was far from civil

The largest protest in Warsaw on July 20 attracted about 50,000 people. For days, tens of thousands of Poles of different ages chanted “Constitution!,” “Free courts!” and “We want veto!,” urging President Andrzej Duda to veto the bills. The president of the European Commission and the U.S. State Department urged Duda to protect the judiciary, as did open letters from intellectuals, academics and artists in Poland.

On July 24 Duda did veto two of the three laws — taking a stance against his own party and government. The massive wave of protests and lobbying from near and far played a role in his decision, but it’s also likely that PiS angered many of its own supporters by launching the debate into new levels of angry and contemptuous language.

During heated debate in the Polish parliament in July, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński thundered at the opposition: “Don’t wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my late brother. You destroyed him, you murdered him. You are scoundrels!”

This was a clear reference to a conspiracy theory that holds the Polish liberal opposition responsible for the 2010 Smoleńsk air crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s brother) and many other high-ranking government officials. Although the Smoleńsk conspiracy theory had been in circulation for some time, this was the first open endorsement in parliament by the PiS.

Another PiS senator, Waldemar Bonkowski, referred to protesters as “Bolshevik ghosts and communist police zombies,” and called opposition senator Marek Borowski “Berman,” implying that the protests were organized by Jews hiding under Polish-sounding names.

The news ticker on Polish state television, controlled by PiS, described the protesters as “defenders of pedophiles and criminals.” State-controlled media also spread conspiracy theories about secret plots hatched by Hungarian American business magnate George Soros, German industry or Ukrainians to foment the protests (a strategy dubbed “astroturfing” by Polish right-wing media).

Here’s how this type of language backfired

This radicalization of political language — including offensive remarks about judges, open endorsement of conspiracy theories and generally inflammatory rhetoric — actually ran counter to the views and psychological inclinations of many Polish conservatives. Indeed, during the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections that brought PiS to power, the party refrained from any references to conspiracy theories. This was a sensible move, as a recent survey shows that only 18 percent of Poles believe the Smoleńsk air crash conspiracy, a foundational myth among members of the PiS leadership.

In addition, our own pre-election study of young voters in 2015 found that the three key motivators of support for PiS were feelings of economic deprivation, authoritarianism and fear of Muslim immigrants — conspiracy theories didn’t factor into the vote. For many PiS supporters, anti-Semitism is also a clear no-go area. They would not vote for an openly anti-Semitic candidate.

Voters are turned off by offensive speeches

Finally, many conservatives — not just in Poland but elsewhere — are turned off by inflammatory speech and verbal attacks against established institutions. Political psychology research suggests that central features of conservative thinking, such as a need for certainty and security and adherence to social norms and conventions, are in clear conflict with the rhetorical and legislative radicalism embraced by the PiS leadership.

One of central features of conservatism, even in its more authoritarian forms, is a preference for order and obedience. Highly offensive language — even when expressed by right-wing political leaders — may be perceived by conservatives as counternormative and violent. Consistent with this finding, our recent studies (drawing on representative samples of Poles) find that the most vocal opposition against offensive prejudicial speech comes from authoritarian conservatives, not liberals.

Indeed, the language used by PiS during the July crisis led to outrage among several Polish right-wing journalists and leaders. When Duda announced his veto on July 24, he explicitly cited Zofia Romaszewska. Romaszewska is a former dissident and conservative intellectual who had supported PiS in the past, but dismissed the attack on the legal system and hateful language used by PiS in recent days as unacceptable.

In turn, Duda’s decision to oppose PiS’s legal revolution was warmly welcomed by many influential right-wing journalists, politicians (including former right-wing Prime Minister Jan Olszewski), historians and others. “Conservatives need to win in a smart way. Not through revolution, but counterrevolution. This makes us different from them,” opined one right-wing journalist. Without this widespread support from the right, it would be hard to imagine Duda following through with his veto.

What’s the broader lesson for conservatives elsewhere?

Thus, the effectiveness of the July 2017 Polish protests may reflect an inherent contradiction between the modern-day right-wing populism expressed by such leaders as Jarosław Kaczyński, Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the central thematic and psychological features of conservatism: a preference for order, obedience and the preservation of established norms, along with needs for certainty and security.

When leaders take the low road and use derogatory terms, their efforts may quickly derail. And if protesters successfully appeal to conservative values, they may be able to drive a wedge between populist antidemocratic governments and a number of their conservative supporters.

Michał Bilewicz is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw. He is a former Governing Council member of the International Society of Political Psychology. His research concerns attitudes, hate speech, prejudice and conspiracy theories.

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