Populism: a lethargic dance in three acts10 min read
The ruling party in Poland aims to consolidate its core constituency and convince the unconvinced. Thus, the Law and Justice (PiS) Party is portraying itself as a party in the countryside. A similar populist strategy has already been depicted in one of the classics of Polish literature The Wedding by Stanisław Wyspiański.
Poland has been celebrating a national reading day since 2012. Each year people can vote for a book from a list proposed by the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Science. Citizens read the book at the public events alongside people from culture and politics, and each year the presidential couple starts the reading.
This year the popular vote has chosen Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki. An interesting choice to read because Słowacki’s drama tells about the dreadful thirst for power and the fact that crime never goes unpunished. Balladyna is a nineteenth century political drama, based on Slavonic myths and legends, like the mythical founding father of Poland, Lech.
The event itself is a noble action that aims to promote Polish literature classics and reading in general as 60.9% of Poles haven’t read any book in 2019. Unfortunately, this event fell victim to PiS’ propaganda.
The propaganda was most vivid in the first lady’s opening speech, when the president’s wife referred to the Polish folklore and traditions used in the drama. In her view, historical and mythical settings were dominant features due to their value for future generations of poets and writers. What she misses is that it was not the ends but the ways in which Słowacki tells the story of Balladyna. It was in the canon of the nineteenth century’s Romanticism to refer to myths and legends, to mix the real and mythical worlds. It seems that what the first lady meant was that the drama’s value comes from what it is based on, the preservation of Polish traditions. While she left aside the moral of the book that crime never goes unpunished.
Balladyna can be seen as an example of cherry-picking by the PiS party, choosing parts of the drama to fit the narrative of a party that cares about Polish traditions. By doing so, the elite seeks to show that PiS is a party of common people who care about Polish traditions and cultural heritage. To exemplify this narrative I will use one of my favorite Polish plays, The Wedding by Stanisław Wyspiański, which was chosen for a national reading day in 2017.
The Wedding is a true story of a marriage between a peasant girl and a poet from Cracow. In this drama, the poet marries the peasant girl because of his admiration for folklore and his idealization of the peasant life, for which he is criticized and judged. The bride accuses him of being fake despite her love, and many other characters share her perspective. The groom characterized a movement of poets, writers, and thinkers who were disenchanted with the nobles, the city, and sought authenticity and support in regaining independence in rural Poland after the partition of Poland in 1795 between Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But as Wyspiański describes, their motives were not authentic, and their admiration was superficial.
Act I: The President
Although Wyspiański’s drama is over a hundred years old, it still resonates in the current Polish political landscape dominated by the PiS party. In Wyspiański’s drama, each character symbolized a different aspect of the 19th century elite. “The Groom”, who was marrying a peasant girl, was associated with the superficial admiration of the countryside, and even his newly-wedded wife was questioning his acts. The Groom tried to be like one of the peasants. He wore regional clothes without any underwear, saying that this is the peasants’ way, despite the countryside folks’ consternation and disapproval. In the drama, the groom is portrayed as a grotesque character who tries to assimilate but everyone sees through his act and laughs at him.
Now, over a hundred years later, some of the characteristics from Wyspiańki’s drama still echo in some political figures. President Andrzej Duda tried to present himself as one of the countryside people during the 2020 presidential campaign: “The Polish countryside is especially important to me. I identify greatly with the countryside. Even though I was born in the city, my grandparents lived in a small city, but my grandfather’s brother had a farm…”. Duda’s speech is deceptive, claiming that due to his grandfather’s brother he identifies himself with farmers, even though he grew up in an upper-class family where both of his parents were professors and academics. Furthermore, during his campaign, Duda visited the countryside with pleasure, for example, speaking to the Farmer’s Wives Associations about the importance of the Polish countryside.
Duda’s and PiS’ electorate is mostly concentrated in poorer south-eastern Poland and the countryside, which is why the president had folklore singing groups at his rallies and chose rural cities to hold his election-night rallies.
Act II: The Party Leader
Duda is not alienated in this narrative. Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’ leader and a founding father of this narrative, also undermines the role of the cities and seeks popular support in the countryside. At one of the rallies during the 2019 parliamentary campaign, Kaczyński said: “Our national and social life needs to sustain our traditions, which comes from the Polish countryside. From here this phenomenon originates, which we call Polishness”. He continued: “Our government supports that, and there will be more support (…) Now there were other promises and we kept them. But remember, credibility is not only about the big social transfers like 500plus [PiS’ Social policy program that provides 500 złoty to each child every month], it is also about trust, because democracy loses its credibility when we don’t keep our promises. And then the act of voting doesn’t make sense, it is manipulation, and we want true democracy”.
In this quote, Kaczynski reduced democracy to following campaign promises and the voting process. This captured the essence of the ideology or rather its absence. Because democracy shouldn’t only be about technocratic governing and making social spending promises true, and people’s participation in democracy shouldn’t be reduced to casting ballots on election day. Kaczyński diminishes the role of the people living in the countryside in the voting process by implying that democracy is only about voting, and farmers – to whom he spoke – should reduce their democratic engagement to this form of political participation. Kaczyński already showed his attitude to public protesters. In 2016 when Poles were demonstrating against judicial reform, Kaczyński implied that they are not Poles: “They want to be Europeans. Every one of us is a European, because we are Poles, but they see it differently, they want to reject Polishness”. Then he continued that behind protesters there are powers who want to see Poland weak and colonized. Further, since PiS holds the Parliament, some journalists claim that the legislative process under PiS prevents the public from participating in the legislative process.
In Wyspiański’s Wedding, “the Journalist”, the editor-in-chief of a Cracovian conservative newspaper speaks with a village elder who goes by the name Czepiec. He also has a rather negative attitude to peasants’ involvement in politics.
Czepiec: So, what’s new in politics, sir? Haven’t the Chinese answered yet?
The Journalist: You, too, farmer? Have a heart! Chinese, Chinese, all day long!
Czepiec: You’re a politician!
The Journalist: Right! I’ve had my quota – up to there! (Appropriate gesture.)
Czepiec: It’s interesting all the same.
The Journalist: Then read the papers, if you must! I doubt you know where China is.
Czepiec: I daresay it’s a long way off; but what you gents don’t realize is, peasant common sense can hit the target from far away or near. We read papers, even here! We know a thing or two.
The Journalist: What for?
Czepiec: To bring us closer to the world.
The Journalist: I should have thought, for country folk, your parish would be world enough!
In this dialogue, the Journalist undermines and mocks a peasant that he thinks is stupid and doesn’t know where China is. He diminishes his intellect by saying that their parish is their whole world.
In another speech Kaczyński began retrospectively by pointing out how the previous government did not support the Polish countryside by closing police stations, train and bus connections, and finished on a hard note by calling on people to vote for the PiS coalition because the future of Poland will be decided on the election day, before ending his speech by announcing that “Polishness grew up at the countryside!”.
The Journalist and Kaczyński share an attitude that politics shouldn’t interest people, and that governing is simplified to social security matters. The Journalist wants peasants to remain closed-minded and leave politics to politicians, as does Kaczyński, though because of different reasons. While the Journalist mocked or maybe even despises peasants and thought of them as closed-minded people who wouldn’t understand the world, Kaczyński seems to act cynically to stay in power.
Act III: The Party
In The Wedding the point of assimilation was twofold. Firstly, the elite sought support in regaining independence, and secondly, some of them felt disenchanted with the city and sought genuine Polishness in the countryside. The characters’ motives in The Wedding vary. Some are honest, some are cynical and many others think that the city folks shouldn’t mix with the country folks. And that is the difference between the drama and Kaczyński’s populism; his countryside admiration is purely cynical and directed at political gains.
Wyspiański, in The Wedding, wanted to show that the misunderstandings and divisions amongst Poles, between countryside folks and city folks, undermine the common fight in regaining independence. And while in the drama Wyspiański portrays an already existing division and faces the community with an actual problem of self-determination, PiS creates division, fuels it, and feeds on it. PiS portrays itself as a party that defends traditional Christian values against the EU and Poles who are against them. Kaczyński’s above-quoted speeches are deeply cynical and populistic. Wyspiański’s characters who sought true Polishness (if such a thing exists) had pure motives; PiS motives in defending Polishness are not genuine, because they aim to create divisions to gain political support on election day.
Wyspiański’s drama was a call to find common ground to fight for independence, and a description of a divided society unable to cooperate fueled by stereotypes and unwillingness to find the common ground. PiS uses a similar situation for its cynical political gains. Thus, The Wedding is a timeless literature piece; despite the time difference, we can still find similar behavior patterns, like Duda and the Groom, Kaczyński and the Journalist, or the overall notion of the drama and the PiS political agenda.
Wyspiański’s Wedding ends with a lethargic dance carried out by chochoł (cane straw-wrap) that represents the inability of the city and the countryside to cooperate; peasants are not interested, and the city folks either idealize the countryside or feel superior. It seems like Poland is in the lethargic dance right now, with thriving populism dressed in folklore clothes dancing with a crippling democracy.