Why Populists Understand Eastern Europe

Why Populists Understand Eastern Europe

Liberals have changed the region for the better—but don’t perceive its sense of loss.

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Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting at the Palace on the Isle in Warsaw's Lazienki Park on May 14, 2018.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting at the Palace on the Isle in Warsaw’s Lazienki Park on May 14, 2018. JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


Amid the turmoil and fear caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Central and Eastern European populists are wasting no time sowing division and attempting to cement their positions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seized on the crisis to claim extraordinary powers. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been making arbitrary decisions on things essential for a democratic system: first insisting on keeping the date of the May presidential election despite the pandemic to choke off the opposition’s ability to challenge the ruling party and then abruptly canceling the vote just four days before it was to take place.

In these and similar efforts, populists are returning to a familiar playbook: While stirring resentments, they create a dominant narrative wherein they are the only answer for protecting the people and righting past grievances. In 2015, PiS won the parliamentary and presidential elections with the slogan “Poland in ruins.” Similar rhetoric brought a string of victories to populists in other Central and Eastern European countries.

You could be forgiven for not understanding why these populists ever came to the fore. In material terms, Central and Eastern Europeans are living in a better world than ever before. In the history of the region, there has been no precedent for the past 30 years of virtually uninterrupted economic growth, infrastructure development, soaring living standards, and increasing social mobility. Yet this rapid change also created a deep collective feeling of loss.

Much has been said about the economic upheaval of the early 1990s, which led to job loss on a massive scale as well as to innumerable bankruptcies of firms and entire industries. But the most staggering loss came on a different front: the collective loss of familiar habits, the breakup of established relationships, and the destabilization of traditional sources of identity. In German, there is a word that captures this disruption: schleudern, which means to spin round as if in a washing machine. In a social sense, the world of Eastern Europe spun—repeatedly—as it strived for a better future after the fall of communism. Surely, life always involves constant change: We mature and age, we experience successes and failures, we bid goodbye to old surroundings and gain new ones. But if the intensity of these changes exceeds the level we can absorb, it causes shock and confusion.

The feeling of loss today in Eastern Europe is what the love for equality was in Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century: the force that changed everything social and political and ultimately produced social rebellion. It is this sense of displacement that the region’s populists have gripped with both hands. The fundamental premise of the populist narrative in post-communist countries is that the 30 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain were decades of failure—what one might call les trente honteuses (French for “the shameful 30”). According to them, the fall of communism and ensuing political transformation were nothing but a fraud perpetrated by elites: Liberal democracy was a cover for oligarchic dominance, European integration a new form of occupation in which Brussels took the place of Moscow.

Liberals were too long blind to this sense of loss. Even worse, liberals erred by ridiculing this emotion, which is felt across the social spectrum. In many Central and Eastern European countries, liberals are paying bitterly at the ballot box for this mistake. Meanwhile, illiberal populists thrive on the defeatist view that follows from a total critique of the last 30 years. Wherever such politicians gain power by playing on this attitude, they proceed to use it as a smokescreen for dismantling or co-opting independent institutions, the judicial system, and public media outlets.

Populism appeals to those experiencing loss because it is reactive: Populists position themselves as the defenders of social mores or forms of community under threat from the pressures of a changing world. In Poland, the government constantly reminds voters that it protects the “traditional family”; in the United States, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with the slogan “Make America Great Again”; and in the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet of the right-populist Forum for Democracy warns against the erosion of traditional Dutch values. Though these politicians are clearly invoking artificial, idealized versions of the past, they appeal to real emotions and longings. Populist politics translates the vague emotion of loss into more concrete feelings, among them an aversion to strangers, the desire to protect one’s home and family, and so forth.

Simply highlighting the shortsightedness and economic pitfalls of populism will do little to change the minds of people who find a respite in its promises. Liberals must instead have ready a rich alternative narrative about the future. There are many possible elements on which liberals might draw to put together such a vision.

One is the promise of a secure and affluent nation. Unfortunately, for many liberals the mere word nation provokes suspicion. If contemporary Poles, Hungarians, or Bulgarians feel a need for greater emphasis on the national aspect of politics, liberals should not reject this impulse. Instead, they should look within the history of these nations for examples of robust liberalism and tolerance and use them to build a liberal model that is both attentive to national history and tradition and open to membership in a common European community. Poland’s history, for instance, includes a rich tradition of multiculturalism and democracy in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as attempts in the 18th century at Enlightenment reforms—which, though they failed because of the influence of foreign powers like Russia or Prussia, can still serve as a source of inspiration.

Understanding the feeling of loss that underlies populism’s effectiveness will enable liberals to better chart their own course. They should engage with that emotion and translate it into feelings that will offer an uplifting and positive message for communities and constituents. Liberals can begin by appealing to people’s empathy. The collective emotion of loss caused by rapid and deep societal change in post-communist countries is very similar to profound personal grief. Thus, just as empathy is a critical aid for working through personal loss, so too can it help change the rules of the game in a polarized political community. This is especially so when empathy is directed toward those who are particularly difficult for liberals to understand, such as voters who support populist parties.