Applebaum thinks the new Poland is becoming a one-party state like many others in recent history:
Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as prerevolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.But really, why should those who win out in a pseudo-meritocratic system have any right to riches and power? Surely even the most convinced meritocrat will admit that certain horrible personality traits contribute to that sort of success: ruthless ambition, vaunting pride, a willingness to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead, and so on. What about the rest of us? What about good people who play by the rules; shouldn't we get our chance to rule?
Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives. Typical is Janina Goss, an old friend of Kaczyński’s from whom the former prime minister once borrowed a large sum of money, apparently to pay for a medical treatment for his mother. Goss, an avid maker of jams and preserves, is now on the board of directors of Polska Grupa Energetyczna, the largest power company in Poland, an employer of 40,000 people.Damon Linker calls this "the revolt of the losers." The response of many people to their own failure to reach the top in our neo-liberal system is not to work harder, but to believe that the system is rigged against them by nefarious forces. They become so attached to this belief because the only alternative is to think of themselves as losers, and all human experience shows that people will do almost anything rather than accept that.
You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?
If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are, echoing the words of Kaczyński himself, a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
But it's not like our allegedly meritocratic system doesn't offer plenty to be outraged about. Consider a single case, that of Les Moonves, who was just fired from CBS for sexual harassment but may still walk away with a severance package worth $120 million. Who isn't outraged?
The trap of meritocratic capitalism was recognized a long time ago, but – weirdly to me – its defenders still refuse to see the problem. Most people do not think it is ok that some people get rich while others go hungry. Many people do not think it is ok that slimy bastards get rich while good, hard-working people struggle. The Republican obsession with leveling the playing field so that anyone ambitious enough can get ahead – the “right to rise” – misses the point. The point is the rising, not the secondary question of who gets to do it.
Over the course of the 20th century two different populist solutions have been tried, right and left. The left-wing solution is to declare a revolution, seize the property of the rich and distribute it among the revolutionaries, and if the economy is destroyed in the process, if the result is Camus’ “slave camps in the name of freedom,” then so be it. At least the greedy bastards got what was coming to them. The right-wing solution is to make a fetish of loyalty – to nation, to party, to leader – declare those insufficiently loyal to be enemies of the state, seize their wealth, etc. Neither has worked very well, except as catharsis.
But if you don't want that to happen, then you have to work hard, all the time, to make a free society work for all its members. You have to limit the wealth and power of the successful – ideally they would do this voluntarily, as in the 1950s, but if they refuse, then tax the hell out of them. You have to prove, if necessary by show trials of celebrities for minor infractions (Martha Stewart), that nobody is above the law. You have to give poor people things they value (Medicare expansion, drug treatment for everyone who wants it). Above all, you have to treat the mass of the citizens as worthy human beings.
The current crisis has been created, I believe, by the selfishness of the western elite: by greed, by cultural snobbery, by a refusal to defend our civilization by working to make the world better for everyone, not just themselves.