Democracy: An aristocracy of virtue or an aristocracy of money? | PFI at Villa Poranek, 16.06.2023

Democracy: An aristocracy of virtue or an aristocracy of money? | PFI at Villa Poranek, 16.06.2023 1200 800 Philanthropy for Impact

On June 16 we hosted our first community gathering “PFI at Villa Poranek” during which more than 70  philanthropists, investors, foundations and civil society experts gathered in five parallel Salons to discuss some of the most pressing issues for Central Europe’s democracy. 

The Salon conducted under the title: Democracy: An aristocracy of virtue or an aristocracy of money? was introduced by Jakub Wygnański and moderated by Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz. The discussion took place against the backdrop of the rising populism and growing polarisation in Europe over the last decade, with liberal democracies slowly eroding into their illiberal counterparts. In particular, the group discussed democratic processes, in the context of the upcoming parliamentary election,  which could be the most important since 1989. 

The whole summary of the discussion is presented below.

In recent decades, we have seen the rise of populist parties and growing polarisation in Europe. Liberal democracies are turning into their illiberal counterparts and ruling parties are absorbing the state apparatus, institutions and media, using them for domestic competition. Society is flooded with information that political parties care about their wellbeing, and media propaganda tends to adopt the worst patterns from the age of totalitarianism.

In light of the above, the discussion started  from the context of the very idea of democratic rule being lost or distorted in Poland, while the significance of the upcoming elections has been underlined. The gravity of the situation was voiced by one of the participants, who summarized that: “Democratic country is a country where you can win or lose elections, and this could be the last it is possible in Poland”.

At the start of the meeting each participant was asked the following question: “If you could change one thing about democracy in Poland, what would it be?”. The image that emerged from their answers (greater localisation, increased business involvement, institutional sustainability and independence, greater respect, greater appreciation for virtues, more specialists and valuable individuals, greater foresight) presented a rich tapestry for the discussion to follow.

Participants then engaged in the discussion about the state of Polish democracy and its future. It has been shared that freedom and democracy are not a given, but rather ongoing processes that require constant attention; while others remarked that liberal democracy is but one of the versions of democracy, and populism can be viewed as the highest form of democracy. Ambiguity and uncertainty as parts of democratic process have been mentioned.

Although many tried to convey a sense of hope, others shared a sense of anger and sadness. It has been highlighted how disastrous the levels of private philanthropy are, with even the largest corporate foundations operating within very limited budgets and usually being very risk-averse. One of the participants remarked that in his view people who want to influence education, civil society or democratic institutions often have a very Warsaw-centric perspective and lack perspectives on life in rural Poland, where to this day the Catholic Church has the strongest value proposition. Growing social stratification and ghettoisation (not only in terms of place of residence, but also in services such as education and healthcare) mean that people from different social strata increasingly lack the space and opportunity to learn from each other.

It has been mentioned that Polish society is characterized by an impressive ability to come together – e.g. mobilizing to fundraise for The Great Orchestra for Christmas Charity – but that these attempts are at times ad hoc and short-lived, rather than contributing to building long-term engagement and the culture of strategic philanthropy.

Participants looked at the deficiencies of public institutions and its services, a related lack of trust, and the media’s challenging role to take responsibility for fostering the development of civil society that can be at odds with chasing clickbait and profits. 

Upcoming parliamentary elections in October provided a powerful backdrop for the following exchanges. There has been a wide consensus that democratically-minded voters need to mobilize to oppose further hollowing out of Polish democracy. It has been underlined that democratic opposition has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to technological innovation, marketing and  outreach. Several participants suggested that investment in voter education can result in higher turnout and long-term awareness of the importance of electoral processes. 

The discussion concluded on a hopeful note, with call to action and insights about potential follow-up activities, emerging nonprofit coalitions and ways to engage for individuals and organizations.