Adam Bodnar, Poland’s new justice minister, recently explained to me the immense challenge of rebuilding liberal democracy in his country after an eight-year slide toward authoritarianism. Imagine, he said, that Donald Trump had won the last election and been in power for two terms instead of one. “What would be the damage?” he asked.
After only four years of Trump, President Biden inherited a furiously divided nation, its courts seeded with right-wing apparatchiks and the nature of reality itself in deep dispute. But as even MAGA die-hards will acknowledge, Trump often failed to bend the state to his will, which is why his allies have a plan to do things differently next time, purging civil servants and replacing them with loyalists. Poland is a country that has just gone through something like what Trumpists hope to impose on us in a second term. Its institutions have been hollowed out. Many experienced technocrats and neutral judges have been replaced by lackeys and ideologues.
And now it’s trying to repair itself, which is why I flew there last month. In a world where liberal values seem to be in retreat almost everywhere, Poland is a rare bright spot, a place where voters — especially women and young people — rebelled against a punishing religious nationalism to demand the restoration of their rights. The parallels to the backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, were impossible to miss. But while being in Warsaw was inspiring, it was also sobering, because it quickly became clear to me just how complicated it is to fix a modern democracy that’s been systematically undermined, a lesson we might someday have to learn in America. Poland, said the Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt, a co-author of the 2018 best seller “How Democracies Die,” is “a good news story about how electoral authoritarianism can be dislodged and then the limits of what happens next.” [Continue reading…]