“Poland and some other Eastern European countries have been particularly unwilling to abandon their national identities. In Poland’s case, this national identity was tied to public religiosity – a religion unwilling to be confined to the private sphere an
So far this is politics as usual. Examples of it abound. In the United States in the 20th century, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing a Supreme Court of entrenched conservatives, tried to expand the court’s size and pack it with his own supporters. He lost. In Britain in the decades after World War II, the state-owned BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting and had been staffed by Labour governments. Conservative governments accused it of being hostile to them, and attempts to change accusations of censorship.
These sorts of arguments are endemic to democracies with government bureaucracies. The public mood changes but the bureaucracies’ ideology remains intact. A battle ensues. Competing factions all point to dire consequences if their views don’t prevail, but a viable if not altogether acceptable solution is normally found.
What makes the Polish situation different is the threatened intervention by the European Union bureaucracy and the vocal hostility of Germany to the new government’s policies. This includes threats to suspend Poland from participation in some EU functions and various hostile claims about the Polish government.
This not only raises the stakes but also goes to the heart of liberal democracy. At the core of liberal democracy is the right of national self-determination. Self-determination, according to theorists of liberal democracy like Locke and Montesquieu, involves some sort of democratic process, a concept with a wide variety of institutional structures, all of which have at their core some sort of electoral process. There is no question that Poland’s current government was elected in a legitimate vote, and in that sense, it represents the determination of the people. The implicit claim made by its opponents is that in i mplementing this mandate the government violated the Polish Constitution.
I am reminded of Andrew Jackson’s response to a Supreme Court ruling with which he disagreed, when he suggested that the court should have to enforce its own ruling because his government wouldn’t. Jackson
with undoubtedly violated the essence of the U.S. Constitution, but the republic survived.
Given that Poland’s government emerged as an act of selfdetermination, and given that the actions it has undertaken are not unprecedented in the annals of liberal democracy, it is strange that the EU and Germany should be so aggressive in raising an alarm over Poland.
There are a number of reasons. First, the EU has a core ideology. One part of it is a commitment to free trade. The other is a commitment to a social order that is primarily secular, that seeks to overcome national distinctions and that is intolerant of intolerance. By this I mean that it embraces the doctrine that the state must not only permit variances in private life but be prepared to enshrine them in a legal system of compulsory tolerance. The combination of a commitment to free trade and a commitment to private choices being enshrined as part of public policy inevitably finds certain varieties of liberal democracy unacceptable. Nationalist exclusivity, erosion of secularism by religiosity and a reluctance to turn private freedom into something explicitly celebrated by the state are rejected.
The Polish government’s misfeasance is not really about courts or broadcasting. Rather, it is about Poland deviating from the EU’s ideology. The Polish government has opposed unlimited immigration into Poland by Muslims, arguing that it would change the country’s national character. In other