Shame and Pride in the Populist Rhetoric in the US and Poland
Economic decline in world markets during the late 2000s and early 2010s has been suggested by some analysts as the cause of the resurgence of right-wing political populism in the US and across Europe. Others have emphasized the role of immigration, perceived cultural liberalization, and weakening of national sovereignty. But what is the mechanism that transforms these macro-level processes into electoral support for the right-wing populist parties or leaders? Emotional dynamics of shame and pride could help explain the rise of right-wing political populism in Europe and the US.On the occasion of the 99th Anniversary of Independence of Poland in 2017, the leader of the ruling right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński publicly declared that
“today we have the time of the good change, of the great opportunity to rebuild the values, which for many years have been regarded as dispensable, and sometimes were downright swept aside. We reject the politics of pedagogy of shame. We are going in the direction of Poland, which will be able to tell that it is an independent and proud country.”
In his speech, covered exhaustively by Poland’s largest right-wing online news platform wPolityce.pl, Kaczyński promised to shield the Polish citizens from the negative feelings of shame. In fact, the term “pedagogy of shame” has become a regular trope in the rhetoric of PiS and right-wing counter-media in the last few years. “Pedagogy of shame” refers to the criticism directed at Polish history by liberals in the mainstream media, films, and historiographical works. For example, Law and Justice does not want to admit that Poles were perpetrators in the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, where approximately 340 Jews were murdered, and instead emphasizes the role of Germans in the massacre. In exchange of shame, Kaczyński instilled a hope for a renewed – stronger and united – Poland, of which Polish citizens could be proud and which would promote engagement with aspects of identity, perceived to be stable and rooted in Polish history: nationality, Christianity, patriotism, and fight for freedom.
In the US, the rise of Donald Trump to power has similarly brought forward a pride-infused rhetoric promising to “make America great again.” In parallel with Kaczyński’s future-oriented promise of the “good change,” of the great opportunity to finally overcome the losses of the past and emerge triumphantly, Trump invoked the coming of a new glorious future in his inauguration speech in 2017: “Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions.” Both leaders, in Poland and the US, appealed to a similar emotional story by pledging to make their countries strong and proud, again, and summoning an active, eager, proud and enthusiastic stance of the citizens.
The rhetoric of populist leaders in Poland and the US reveals an important role of emotions in efforts to mobilize the popular support of disenchanted electorates. According to Salmela and von Scheve (2017), emotional responses act as mediators between the macro-level socio-economic changes (such as economic consequences of globalization, lack of job security and welfare) and the micro-level support for the right-wing populist parties or leaders. The Federal Reserve Board’s 2018 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households finds that even though economic well-being has generally improved over the past five years in the US, 40 percent of survey respondents still say that they cannot cover a $400 emergency expense, or would do so by borrowing or selling something. As the journalist Neal Gabler points out in his May 2016 cover story in The Atlantic, financial insecurity is an important source of shame and daily humiliation for staggering numbers of Americans.
In society that measures its value in monetary terms and predominantly attributes responsibility individually, the divide between “winners” and “losers” (whose best embodiment and spokesman Trump positions himself as) leads to soaring levels of shame among those, who find themselves in precarious financial circumstances. The role of the winner/loser mentality is even more relevant in American politics, considering that the social immobility has never been higher in America. Trump’s success can, therefore, be explained to a great extent by his capacity to cater to the needs of his shame-engulfed supporters.
In Poland, on the other hand, shame and pride have been exploited by Law and Justice party to counter the perceived critique of Polish nationalism and traditional Christian values by a variety of liberal, leftist, and European elites. As the researcher of the Polish Academy of Sciences Anna Gromada insightfully suggests, liberals and progressives in Poland made a mistake to shame the supporters of Law and Justice with warnings about Poland’s diminishing role in the West. The response of Law and Justice party to such admonitions was to name it a “pedagogy of shame,” the fight against which became part of the party’s brand. Countering the felt shame about “what the West may think about us,” Law and Justice came to power in 2015 on a wave of pride-infused slogans, which underlined honor, dignity, and strength.
Shame is, therefore, a fuel for escalation of pride in the rhetoric of the populist leaders and the counter-media in the US, Poland, and beyond. Shame is the hidden underbelly of pride: the identity politics of the right-wing populist parties help to transform the felt shame into fear of and anger towards “the others,” creating a community and a movement of like-minded individuals, who can feel strong and proud in their solidarity. The right-wing media, such as Breitbart News in the US and wPolityce.pl in Poland, play a crucial role in facilitating the populist performance and expression of emotions, turning into channels that help build and sustain an emotional repertoire of supporters of populist politicians. And yet, as emotions can be used as much to divide as to bring people together, perhaps it is time for liberals and progressives to reconsider, how emotions can be used to create broader identifications than the ones offered by populist politicians.