Maps and legends

The post I should have written this morning.

By way of a prelude…

There’s always a temptation to go off on one a little when tweeting, and start stringing things together into unreadably long threads. 1/x turns into 10/x, and before you know it, you’re 28/28. This is what I did this morning. Quite reasonably, I was called out on it.

Things were made all the more confusing by the fact that I was tweeting on two separate things. Two related, but separate things. So I’ll try to tease those apart in the course of what follows, as I think they’re both worth the discussion.

But what started all this?

Like most things that start me off on a Twitter rant, it was an article. This article( For obvious reasons, I have a standing alert for articles containing the words “Poland” and “populism”, and this one had an intriguingly clickbaity headline. The first sentence was highly promising, and also gives me the opportunity to use Medium’s quote facility in a way which breaks these paragraphs up nicely.

Poland’s populists have been draining their swamp for a little more than a year.

Then I hit the second sentence.

Swept to power on a similar wave of anger against urban and political elites as President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S., Poland’s Law & Justice party has been purging the state of what, in their view, is the self-serving elite that misruled Poland for most of the last 27 years.

This is where the problems started. I’ll get to why in a minute. I should stress that the next few paragraphs of the article contained a pretty informative — if necessarily truncated — description of what Law and Justice have been doing over the last year, and why. No criticism from me on that score. But then I came across this.

*Pause for slow-motion “Nnnnnnnnooooooooooo!” and lunge toward monitor.*

The map. The map. The orange and blue map. The map that I spent the best part of November 2015 railing against. My scars have healed. My sword has been re-forged and sharpened. I thought that battle had been won. I was wrong.

So, first the map, and then the legend.

Poland in blue and orange, or The Map That Would Not Die

This is where I would start. Well, I should have used ‘voivodships’ rather than ‘provinces’, but the point stands. As I wrote in my chapter on this topic in ‘More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box’ (, available at all good bookstores etc. etc…..), Polish electoral geography has sparked interest among scholars, and for good reason. The shifts of borders, peoples, and the writ of the state have led to some intriguing correlations between legacies of the past, their economic and social consequences, and current-day voting behaviour. I don’t dispute that. But there’s a problem. Not so much in the fact that journalists are interested in this sort of stuff, but in what they do with the data and the conclusions they draw from it.

These maps are popular for a reason. They present a pitched battle between two forces: in this case Civic Platform (blue) and Law and Justice (orange). Blue clashes with orange on a map, and this looks cool. When blue clashes with orange on a map along the line where Poland was partitioned during its years of occupation, this looks particularly cool.

The problem is that these differences are not nearly as stark as the colour-coding would suggest. As discussed in my MSLB chapter, academics have used spatial regression discontinuity analysis (they wouldn’t let me use that phrase in the book, the rotten sods) to show how changes in votes for Polish parties are influenced by the effect of boundaries. In the case of the partition borders, they find (roughly) that votes for Law and Justice ‘jump’ as you cross the border from the former Russian partition (the eastern section on the map above) to the former Austrian partition (the southern section), but that there is a smooth transition over the border — and beyond — when it comes to the Russian and Prussian partitions.

If you want to get a sense for what this all means, you’ll have to buy the book. What’s important for the purposes of this post is to note that the differences which existed in 2011 (and before) were not nearly as stark as this map suggests, particularly on or near the border, where it was often a matter of a couple of percentage points one way or the other. But light blue still clashes with light orange. These maps should be in shades of grey. They’d be a lot less exciting, but a lot more accurate. The problem becomes even more acute when results are aggregated to the voivodship level, instead of constituency or electoral ward. So much definition is lost at that point that they become even less useful as a means to convey what’s going on.

There’s another problem: “Law and Justice vs. Civic Platform” might have been the main event in 2015, but there was a pretty strong contender on the undercard. When you consider the result achieved by Nowoczesna, the image of an algal bloom of populism overwhelming the fresh waters of liberalism becomes even more misleading.

Which brings me to my second point.

Against the legend of populist victory, or why bread and butter beat warm water in the tap

There are two kinds of people right now. People who are populists, or people who are interested in populism. I won’t detain myself with the many problems this throws up, as I’d be here all day. But one needs addressing: the idea that Law and Justice was swept into power on a wave of populism simply doesn’t comport with what actually happened. (You might call it a post-fact, to use this year’s other prominent buzzword.)

This isn’t to say Law and Justice aren’t populist, although I’d take issue with the idea that they always have been. Much (although not all) of what they have been doing over the last year is quintessentially populist in idea, explanation, execution and effect. However, the controversy that has raged around their actions over the past year, allied to growing convictions that populism is becoming the new mode in European politics (and beyond) has led many observers to project backwards from where we are now, seeing Kaczyński as part of a continuum of populist triumph that somehow preceded and yet can be explained by Trump’s victory.

In fact, the 2015 electoral campaign was remarkable for two things: one, how moderate it was, and two, how boring it was. (There may be a connection here.) Jarosław Kaczyński didn’t go through a long, hard decade of learning that radical campaigns centred around his person tend to lose the party support only to use that sort of strategy in the all-or-nothing circumstances of 2015. He kept back from the fray, withdrew other politicians who might frighten the moderates (take a bow, Antoni Macierewicz) and offered as prime ministerial candidate the emollient Beata Szydło. The calculation was obvious: be just visible enough to reassure the party’s core support that nothing fundamental had changed, but stand far back enough to avoid scaring the floating voter. “Vote Kaczyński, get Szydło”, instead of the opposite.

Programmatically, the campaign concentrated on eye-catching, expensive, but assuredly democratic promises such as the 500 złoty child benefit and the lowering of the retirement age (the latter was a promise made by President Duda, but it was clear that Law and Justice would help usher it into being). The project for a new constitution was de-linked from the party’s website, and talk of targeting the network of ‘mendacious elites’ was conspicuous for its absence.

And it worked. There were plenty of moderate centre-right votes up for grabs in this election. Many of those who had voted for Civic Platform were disenchanted with the “politics of warm water in the tap” pursued by Donald Tusk and his successor, Ewa Kopacz, and this, allied to anger at policies such as the raising of the retirement age and instances of actual or perceived corruption, made change more likely. Law and Justice won this election by preaching not to the populist choir, but to those sitting in the back pews who’d only come into the church to keep out of the cold until the pubs opened.

(And now I’ve taken an unreadably long Twitter thread and turned it into an unreadably long Medium article. I’m an academic. It’s what we do.)

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