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Polish liberals hate more. Why?

Published: 04.07.2024

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· Ideological and political polarisation has been growing in Poland for several decades.

· Surveys show that less aggression towards their opponents is being expressed by right-wing voters.

· Liberals feel that they are more disliked by the other side than conservatives do.

· Right-wingers are less likely to dehumanise their opposition.

· This is perhaps the result of the influence of the media or of political leaders who have been brutally disparaging their opponents.

· Could it be that – contrary to popular belief – liberal leaders are the more aggressive ones?


By Dominik Zdort


Every new election shows how polarised Polish voters are. This is becoming ever more the case. We can observe more and more clearly the divide between supporters of Law and Justice (PiS) on the one hand and the Civic Coalition led by Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) on the other, given that the allies of the latter suffered a resounding defeat this time in the elections to the European Parliament, conceiding the PO even more weight than before within the governing coalition it has been leading since last December. This time around, Law and Justice had strong competition on the right in the form of the Confederation (a coalition of nationalists and libertarians), but Poland’s politics are still very much dominated by the fierce opposition between PiS and the PO.


This is confirmed by experts on social issues whose opinions are regularly surveyed by the Digital Society Project. The experts are asked how big the “differences of opinion on basic political issues in society” are and are requested to quantify them on a scale from 0 to 4. These surveys show that Poles are extremely divided: in the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, the figure in Poland increased from 2.71 to 3.83. For comparison, in France it is 3.17, in Germany 2.43, in the United Kingdom 2.83, and in Sweden 2.13. Even in the United States this polarisation index is lower than in Poland, amounting to 3.5. Only Hungarians and Bosnians have a higher polarisation (4 in both countries).


It is no wonder that sociologists and observers in Poland have been drawing attention to the increasingly strong mutual resentment between the electorates of the main parties, sometimes even speaking of hatred. Already some time ago, public opinion researchers began to wonder – and to investigate – whether it is the conservatives or the liberals who hate their opponents more.


Reading newspaper articles and editorials, one could come to the conclusion that the right is the more aggressive side. This is because “it's obvious”: according to the media, right-wingers are uneducated, primitive, and inflexible, while liberals and left-wingers are gentle, open-minded people who are usually eager to discuss things.

This is all the more reason to give credit to the sociologists who have given the lie to these quite popular views and who have demonstrated that it is in fact liberals who display more hatred towards their opponents than conservatives. The merit of their achievement is all the greater given that these researchers tend to hold personal views which are quite similar to those prevailing in the research institutes where they work: i.e., most cannot be considered to be right-wing; quite the contrary.


Probably the most famous example of this is an analysis entitled “Political Polarisation in Poland” (Polaryzacja polityczna w Polsce), which was published in 2019 by the Centre for Research on Prejudice at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw. To say that this institute has a left-wing environment is an understatement. It suffices to read the topics covered in the reports compiled by it, which mainly deal with the alleged repression of LGBT communities in Poland, anti-Semitism, and the spread of superstition and conspiracy theories, usually in an attempt to prove that things are exactly as they seem to the intellectual elite. I do not want to claim here that they falsify their research results, but strangely enough, “that’s how they come out”. The explanation for this may be – as often happens in sociological research – biased questions, their choice of respondents, or the personal attitudes of the researchers.


This makes the aforementioned 2019 report all the more shocking, as it alleges that supporters of Donald Tusk’s party express more aggression towards their adversaries than the electorate of Jarosław Kaczyński’s group directs towards them. The researchers dealt, among other things, with the issue of dehumanisation – that is, to what extent the electorate of one party rhetorically strips the electorate of the other party of its human traits. Here, the analysis clearly shows that PiS’ followers are more likely to attribute human traits to those on the other side of the barricade than the liberals.


An interesting component of this report – as it best demonstrates social prejudice – is the response to the question regarding what people from the opposite political group think of you and of those who think like you. It turned out that liberals think they are more disliked by the other side than conservatives do.


Then there is also the data on voters’ contact with their opponents: PiS supporters are much more willing to admit that they know their opponents than are supporters of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that this is actually the case, but is rather indicative of who is less disgusted with the other side.


It is worth noting that the greater dislike among liberals for conservatives than vice versa is not a new phenomenon. This same institution conducted a survey in 2013 comparing the attitudes of those Poles who believed that the 2010 Smolensk plane crash with President Kaczyński (from Law and Justice) and many other Polish dignitaries on board was an accident toward supporters of the assassination plot thesis – and vice versa. At the time, it turned out that among those who believed that there had “merely” been an accident in 2010, as many as 19 per cent did not want to work alongside those who were convinced that President Lech Kaczyński had died in an assassination along with the other passengers on the plane. In the group of those who supported the assassination theory, however, only 5 per cent did not want to work with those who were convinced that it was just an “ordinary” crash. It is easy to see how this translated into party divisions: supporters of Law and Justice turned out to be more tolerant, while supporters of the Civic Platform were much less so.


Returning to the 2019 survey, another element which was indicative of the differences in emotion among the electorate in Poland was the examination of the degree to which those surveyed dehumanised their political opponents. This was explored by showing respondents the famous illustration of the theory of human evolution, “The Ascent of Humans”: five black silhouettes ranging from a monkey walking on all four limbs to a man standing upright. Those surveyed were then asked the following question: “Sometimes people seem more or less human to others. In the eyes of other people, some appear to be highly evolved, while others seem to resemble earlier stages of evolution. Using the picture below, please indicate at which stage of evolution you would place the supporters of the opposition parties / supporters of the ruling party.” One could give an answer from 1 (full dehumanisation) to 9 (no dehumanisation). The results (without going into the details of the study’s complicated methodology and conversion rates) showed that conservatives treated liberals more “humanely” than liberals treated conservatives.


The author of this research paper, Dr Paulina Górska, a social psychologist at the Centre for Research on Prejudice at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw, was herself surprised by the results of her research and tried to determine the reason why supporters of the liberal-left parties tend to hate more. She concluded that liberals are convinced that the other party wants to destroy them, and therefore they dislike conservatives more. She suspected that this was the result of media influence, or of political leaders who brutally disparage their opponents.


This explanation should not be ruled out, as it was already pointed out in a 2008 study by Łódź-based researcher Bożena Walerjan that the mutual aversion between opposing electorates is largely the result not of a rational assessment of the situation, but of the level of emotions raised by the respective party leaders. She wrote that when the skills of party activists and the specifics of their programmes recede into the background, the field of competitive action opens up, especially when one has nothing else to offer the electorate. What the programme offers in such situations is thus easily replaced by “discrediting games”.


What conclusion can one draw from this? The results are not very laudable for the liberal leaders. If this is indeed the case, it would mean that the leaders from this particular side of the political spectrum are more aggressive, stir up more negative emotions among their voters, and insult their opponents more often, even though most media outlets have been trying to convince us for many years that the reverse is true.


Of course, the electoral effect of this overinflating of social expectations sometimes turns out to be effective: the liberal electorate, which is often motivated precisely by their dislike of their opponents, went to the polls en masse last October and gave the victory and power to the coalition of center-to-left parties led by the Civic Platform’s leader Donald Tusk, who is now prime minister for the third time (and is a former president of the EU’s European Council). In short: it paid off. Sociologists, however, should be on the lookout for the deferred effect at the level of social psychology that this past campaign will have on Poland's intra-national divisions in the years to come. This is all the more so because one has the impression that since the 2023 election, political tension have not decreased at all.


It is worth emphasising that the results of the 2019 survey were not a coincidence, a one-off fluke, or the result of a methodological error or an ill-chosen social sample, as they have also been confirmed by the most recent surveys – such as the one from October 2023 which was prepared by Dominika Bulska and the Centre for Research on Social Relations at Poland’s SWPS University (who, incidentally, cites Paulina Górska’s work in her report).


In this study, a factor labelled ‘dehumanisation’ proved to be extremely important for the analysis of social attitudes – or rather, the feeling of being dehumanised by the other side of a political dispute. Again, liberals felt that they were more dehumanised by their opponents than conservatives did. However, as Dominika Bulska writes in her report, “Law and Justice supporters, when compared to voters of the then opposition, were more likely to attribute humanity to their political opponents”.


“Opposition voters believed that Law and Justice supporters denied their humanity to a greater extent than was actually the case (...). For PiS voters, we did not observe a similar relationship – respondents supporting this political party accurately estimated the extent to which their political opponents denied their humanity.”


Bulska notes: “Both PiS supporters and those supporting the opposition simultaneously declared that their political opponents tended to deny their humanity – with opposition voters claiming this to a significantly greater extent, while simultaneously exaggerating the actual scale of dehumanisation. (...) voters of the broad opposition at the time incorrectly claimed that PiS voters were more likely to deny their humanity.”


By doing so, they themselves – in retaliation, as it were – were more likely to dehumanise their opponents and deem it appropriate to use violence against them.


In writing about the differences in the level of emotion between the electorates, one more incredibly important point can be made. The voters of Poland’s center-left, liberal Civic Platform (and of earlier liberal party incarnations) have always been reassured by the media and the authorities that they are more valuable, better educated, better paid, and occupy higher positions, and also that they are the elite. Certainly to some extent, and in some sense, this is indeed the case, yet the social effect of constantly repeating this claim must have given that part of the electorate a disproportionate sense of self-confidence, complacency, and a belief in their own uniqueness. From such a position, it is easier to look down on and despise one's opponents.



Dominik Zdort is a well-known journalist and columnist in Poland. He has worked with, among other publications, Życie Warszawy, Rzeczpospolita, and Newsweek, and has been a contributor to programmes at RDC and the radio station Dwójka. He used to be the head of Rzeczpospolita’s weekend magazine Plus Minus and, more recently, he was the editor-in-chief of the Polish public television’s online weekly Tygodnik TVP.

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