It's been a year since the Law and Justice Party won the Polish election, on familiar-sounding promises to drain the swamp and restore Poland to its former greatness: now school textbooks are being redesigned to downplay evolution and climate change and to recount a fanciful version of Poland's history; the government is mooting giving hoteliers the right to turn away customers based on sexual orientation or skin-color; a minister rejected an international accord against wife-beating because it subverted traditional gender roles; Parliament is about to get the right to choose which journalists may report from its debates; the guy in charge of national sex-ed curriculum believes that condoms give women cancer; a proposed law will virtually end opposition protests; and disloyal journalists at the "independent" state broadcaster have been purged.
But the Law and Justice Party have cemented their popularity with their base by voting in a bunch of unfunded subsidies for them: cash for people with large families (in Poland, this is a proxy for Catholic conservatism); drastically lowering the retirement age; and a return to coal-based industry that comes with a repudiation of climate change and the Paris accords.
The Law and Justice platform also rolls back the tentative support for LGBTQ rights, and perpetrators of hate crimes against LGBTQ people operate with impunity.
It's a sickly fascinating look at how right-wing populism can score big, short-term victories by spending like crazy and pandering to its base's worst biases (the Law and Justice party also promotes political conspiracy theories that had been considered outlandish Pizzagate-grade fancies until now).
In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power [Anthony Faiola/Washington Post]
Maria, a therapist for autistic children, quit work when child-care costs exceeded what she earned. Pawel, a craftsman, makes intricate moldings for ceilings and walls. Their parents helped them buy their six-bedroom dream home in the country, so they’re mortgage-free. But he hasn’t had work in two months.
During dry spells before, the couple would mothball their 20-year-old VW van to save on gas, and the kids would walk to school. But in the era of Law and Justice, there’s no need. The new government program for families is the Wiechowskis’ life raft; it offers them a monthly cash payout worth nearly $1,000.
“Right now, that’s 100 percent of our income,” Pawel said. “Some people criticize the child benefit and say it’s a government handout. It’s not. It is support for traditional families.”
Pawel voted for Law and Justice last year as “the lesser of two evils.” But now he’s a true believer.
“In the United States, you had the same choice, picking the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I wasn’t sure a year ago either, but now I see how right we were.”
Embracing the new government, to some measure, also means buying into the disturbing worldview it sells: You can only trust a Pole — even then, only some.