Forgive me for what is going to sound like an odd analogy, but the street demonstrations across the United States have given me an uncanny sense of deja vu.
I live part of the time in Warsaw, and I was there last year during an ugly election. Hateful screeds about Muslim immigrants (though there are hardly any Muslim immigrants in Poland) and angry “anti-elitist” rhetoric overwhelmed a stiff and unpopular female leader; the center-right and center-left politicians split into quarreling factions, allowing a radical populist party to win with a minority of voters. Upon taking power, it set out to destroy the country’s democratic and state institutions: the constitutional court, the independent prosecutor, the independent civil service, the public media.
Poles took to the streets. There were huge demonstrations, the largest since the collapse of communism in 1989. Nobody had expected them, and — like the demonstrations in U.S. cities last week — nobody had planned these marches in advance. A year later, here are some reflections on their value:
• Protest makes people feel better.
Because the government’s language was vicious and angry, the demonstrators tried hard to be nice and polite. During protest marches, they didn’t walk on the grass. They chanted for “freedom, equality, democracy,” which has a nice lilt to it in Polish. The middle-aged ex-radicals who had demonstrated against communism in the 1980s felt energized and young again. The boost to morale was real. I am sure that’s true for many marching in New York or San Francisco this week, too.
• Protest, if not carefully targeted, achieves little.
The Polish protests were meant to “defend the constitution,” a very theoretical goal. Because they were about a principle, not a policy, the government found them easy to ignore, and the slogans never inspired younger or rural voters. Sound familiar?
The calculus did shift, it is true, when hundreds of thousands of Polish women dressed in black joined a national protest against a very harsh proposed abortion law. The protest was aimed at a specific measure. It took place not just in Warsaw and Krakow, but also in every city in the country, as well as many smaller towns. Perhaps the sight of so many of angry women spooked the party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is an elderly bachelor; perhaps the thousands of photographs that appeared all over the world frightened the prime minister, who is female. In any case, this targeted, well-organized, broadly based single-issue protest had far more impact than the general marches, and the government withdrew the law.
• Protests inspire conspiracy theorists.
Authoritarian personalities don’t believe in spontaneity. They think that everything is part of a plot to deceive them. Trump’s first tweet, as president-elect, referred to protesters as “paid.” Similarly, Kaczynski has implied variously that protesters are former members of the communist party or secret police, that they are agents of foreign powers or that they are, in the words of another radical politician, in the pay of an unnamed “Jewish banker.” This line of thinking allows the rulers to discount the protesters. If they are “paid” or “foreign” or “manipulated,” after all, then they can be ignored. Also, the hard-core voting base — in Poland, about 20 percent of the country — can be inspired to focus its hatred and anger on the “traitors” instead of listening to what they are trying to say.
• Politics matter more than protests.
A year after the street movement began, its leaders, the “Committee to Defend Democracy,” have become an important part of national political culture. Their marches and meetings inspire people. Their television appearances are carefully watched. But because they kept their distance from political parties, they haven’t much altered opinion polls. The government is still supported by a committed minority. The center-right and the center-left remain splintered into smaller groups. If anything, the protest movement seems to have solidified a general disdain for politics and a dislike of politicians in general.
• In a democracy, real change comes through politics, political parties and elections.
Poland, although damaged, is still a democracy. If the people who are willing to put time into demonstrations also prove willing to work on behalf of candidates in local elections — or to become candidates themselves — they will achieve far more. A mayor is in a far better position to resist attacks on the civil service than a man carrying a sign. A different parliamentary majority could block the would-be authoritarian government altogether.
The same thing is true in the United States. Five Democratic senators could do more to block extremist judges or damaging policies than 5 million — or even 50 million — people chanting slogans. Protesting might make you feel better, it might win a few battles and it might attract attention. I’m sorry if you are angry at “the establishment,” but you need to work for it and within it if you want it to change.