Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

What’s odd about Poland, in this regard, is that it has not allowed Muslims to enter its territory willy-hilly, as did its neighbor Germany. Plus, this populist surge has unleashed the historical anti-Semitism that has long-stained Poland.

Applebaum, who’s own politics may be described as center-right, notes how long-time Polish friends who once shared her political views, have lurched rightward along with their government, and have since displayed anti-Semitic tendencies.

She wrote, in part:

To be clear about my interests and biases here, I should explain that some of this conspiratorial thinking is focused on me. My husband was the Polish defense minister for a year and a half, in a coalition government led by Law and Justice during its first, brief experience of power; later, he broke with that party and was for seven years the foreign minister in another coalition government, this one led by the center-right party Civic Platform; in 2015 he didn’t run for office. As a journalist and his American-born wife, I have always attracted some press interest. But after Law and Justice won that year, I was featured on the covers of two pro-regime magazines, wSieci and Do Rzeczy — former friends of ours work at both — as the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland. Similar stories have appeared on Telewizja Polska’s evening news.

Further down in her piece, Applebaum added:

This is not 1937. Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the 1930s. Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What’s more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind.

More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be [but] they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass. On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad. ….

What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.

Here, again, is the link to Applebaum’s piece. It’s longish (which is to say it's a magazine-length feature; sorry Twitter fans) but I urge you to read it in its entirety., and perhaps other essays in the “Is Democracy Dying?” package.

Keep in mind that Poland has few Muslims and only a smattering of Jews (thanks to the Holocaust) within it's borders. So we're talking, mostly, about imagined rather than concrete conditions. And still old and new prejudices persist.

Question: To what degree do we all harbor prejudices against this or that religious, ethnic or racial minority?

Local American journalists: Do many Muslims or Jews live in your coverage area, and is it also one in which the local majority leans toward rightwing populism? If that’s your demographic, and you haven’t as yet asked them, this may be a good time to question your readers about their attitudes toward religious and ethnic majorities who they may read about more than they actually encounter.

It’s not an essay assignment, but if Applebaum’s correct when she says that any society can fall prey to authoritarianism, it’s certainly an important one, given what’s occurring in today's America.