CIVICA Research Blog

Beyond current indicators of democracy: Outcomes from the CIVICA Research Hackathon

11-11-22 / Article by Kamil Jonski

The current wave of “democracy with adjectives” poses a particularly severe challenge to quantitative tools of measurement. Among the issues discussed during the CIVICA Research HackathonHow Should We Measure Democracy in the 21st Century?”were attempts to define and quantify specific aspects of their performance, that fly below the radar of currently available indicators. Written by Kamil Jonski, a participant of the hackathon and a graduate of the SGH Warsaw School of Economics, this article presents the outcome of one of the discussions that were held. 

Measuring the intensity of adversarial democratic practice – Evidence from Poland

Long gone are the days when the enemies of democratic governance openly proclaimed that it is not the act of voting, but the leader (Fuhrerprinzip) or the dominant class (“dictatorship of the proletariat”) that speaks for The People.

Now, they excel in reminding the ancient Greek origins of the word, translating demos and kratos as the people power – as contrasted with the power of rotten elite (which amounts to the modern definition of populism[1]). This idea is neatly encapsulated in a simplified theory of democracy, presented in Ronald Reagan’s farewell address: “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car, and we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast”[2].

Alternative: The idea of democracy as the power of ordinary people could be encapsulated using the following line from Reagan’s farewell address:

However, In real-life elections , we don’t observe unanimous “We the People” but just voters, whose majority is choosing (frequently by narrow margin) – not necessarily the destination, route and speed – but just one among several (or just two) vehicles. As long as elections are held, these choices are hardly settled once and for all. That in turn makes current-majority vs. current-minority relations central for the democratic practice.

Adversary Democracy

Jane Mansbridge famously distinguished unitary and adversary democracy, with the former based on the ancient Greek idea of friendship (“Friendship[philia]appears to hold city-states together”, she quotes Aristotle to describe the bond between the citizens in a unitary polity)[3]. In terms of underlying assumptions, the former was based upon the common interest of citizens and their equal respect, while the latter, upon the conflicting interests and equal protection of them. The decision rule in the unitary democracy is consensus exercised via face-to-face interaction, while in the adversary democracy, via the majority rule in the secret ballot.

From Agonistic Democracy towards “Sado-Majoritarianism

However, it can be reasonably argued that political systems organized into what Mansbridge defined as adversary democracy model can vary in how much adversarial their daily political practice actually is.

On the theoretical side, it can broadly range from cold bargaining of game-theoretic public choice theories to Carl Schmitt’s “politically inherent friend-enemy antithesis”. Some theorists even grapple with blueprints of what is called Agonistic Democracy (one “promoting unity by turning away from a consensus of shared values” (…) by converting “antagonism into agonism”)[4].

To see how varieties of adversary democracy work in practice, one can refer to the dialogue between the acolytes of the G.W. Bush, reported by B. Woodward: “When John Kennedy was elected by the narrowest of margins, Adelman said, he told everyone in his administration that the big-agenda items like civil rights would have to wait for a second term. Certainly, it was the opposite for [G.W.] Bush. (…) “This guy was just totally different,” Cheney said. “He just decided here's what I want to do and I'm going to do it[5].

However, the current electoral winners can go further than just imposing their big agenda upon the losers. In 2019, J. Kaczynski, the chairman of ruling Law&Justice party in Poland explained: “the new Polish power elite, and - I hope - growing share of the cultural elite and other kind of elite is not working for our enemies anymore. And those who are working for them, are stigmatized. And, ladies and gentlemen, they will be further stigmatized[6].

Such deliberate attempts of electoral winners to humiliate their opponents[7] - administered by politicians’ healing resentments of their own and(or) their voters[8] - deserves a separate label, of which “sado-majoritarianism” seems the most appropriate.

In such an environment it is important to remind ourselves of the dictum of Lord Acton that the “most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities[9].

Winners, Losers, and those Disregarded

The so called “winner–loser gap” in democratic legitimacy[10] is a well-documented phenomenon. Electoral outcomes were found to affect perceptions of the electoral process fairness (with the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol among extreme examples), political system performance or views on government’s responsiveness.

However, one could reasonably expect that with deterioration of democratic performance, and under governance of resentment-fueled populists (or even “sado-majoritarians”), the “winner–loser gap” will inflate not only in quantitative (more of the same) but also in quantitative (qualitative?) terms (distinct emotional responses among those not supporting the current winners).

Below, I examine this characteristic using the example of Poland, considered by the V-Dem Democracy Report 2021[11] as the “top autocratising country” over the 2010-2020 period.

Figure 1: Liberal Democracy Indicator

To this end, I will crunch data on subjective well-being over previous years, collected annually by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS)[12] since 1991. Respondents were asked, among others, about the frequency of experiencing pride of their achievements, sense that everything is going well, curiosity and excitement – as well as rage, sadness, depression or suicidal thoughts.

Crucially, the battery of emotions covered included „feeling – as a citizen – clearly disregarded by the authorities[13] – a feeling neatly encapsulating what one could expect in case of intensively adversarial democratic practice (or even “sado-majoritarianism”, deliberately humiliating its opponents). Answers had been provided on a five-point Likert scale ranging from: very often, often, rarely, almost never or never[14]. Answers can be broken-down along left-right self-placement (thus focusing on the general views, not particular political vehicle favoured to represent these views) and attitude towards the sitting government (i.e. declaring oneself as its supporter, opponent or neutral).

Perhaps the more natural breakdown would simply involve declared voting intentions. However, this measure has substantial drawbacks. First, a substantial share of respondents in the representative sample declares no intent to vote (or remain undecided whether to vote at all, and if so, on which party). Moreover, as available data covers thirty years of Polish democratic practice, making long-run comparison seems the primary contribution of this research. And making long-run comparison requires cutting-through the remarkably unstable and fragmented partisan stage of the ninety-nineties. Focusing on political self-identification (left-right) and attitudes towards those in power (government) seems to offer reasonable shortcut.

Poland: “old” and “new” polarization patterns

Contemporary Poland is commonly perceived as a polarized polity[15] - indeed, it was included in the study of “severe polarization” by Thomas Carothers and Andrew O'Donohue (the authors call the Polish example an “asymmetrical polarization, in which the populist camp is cohesive and mobilized, but its opponents are fragmented and reactive”)[16].

However, examining the current right-wing Law&Justice (PL: PiS) of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the center-right Civic Coalition (PL: KO) of Donald Tusk, one should keep in mind that before their advent to the great politics (2005) the Polish political landscape was organised by another – but also vicious – divide, between ex-dissidents and post-communists[17].

It was within that “old” polarisation framework when battles on historic memory, abortion or Church-State separation had been waged for the first time, back in the 1990's. It was a campaign led by the “Solidarity” trade union (and its political arms) and the Catholic Church that almost derailed the liberal Constitution of 1997[18], hollowed out two decades later (the Constitution was endorsed by 53 percent of those who participated in the referendum, however, only 43 percent of those eligible decided to vote).

Considering and comparing both: the period of post-communist vs. ex-dissidents – as well as Kaczynski vs. Tusk polarization patterns offers additional value added of presented research.

Figure 2: Feeling Disregard among Leftists and Rightists

Perhaps surprisingly, given high levels of political polarization, it seems that before 2016 the frequency of feeling disregarded by the authorities had been quite evenly distributed across the political spectrum. Thereby, the differences in frequency of experiencing that feeling – our measure of the intensity of adversarial democratic practice – remained low.

The period of Leszek Miller left-wing cabinet (Oct 2001 – May 2004) offers a perfect example. As it took power from ex-solidarity cabinet of Jerzy Buzek (fractured and widely perceived as incompetent in its eagerness to reform the country), the share of leftists „never” feeling disregarded peaked. However, the same was true (to the lesser extent) for rightists and those at the centre. However, two years into Miller cabinet, with corruption scandals looming, the pattern reversed. While it had been rightists who felt disregarded most often, it was also the case with centrists and even leftists.

In other words, both initial satisfaction and later disappointment with the Miller cabinet were quite universal across the political spectrum.

That is no longer the case since Law and Justice cabinet launched its 2015 „war against the constitution[19]. Moreover, the gap widened not only between the right- and left-wingers. The pattern among those self-identifying with the centre became similar to that among the left-wingers.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic (with frustration on imposed restrictions – but also apparent failure in protecting citizens from life-threatening illness) lowered the share of right-wingers that “never” experienced disregard from the authorities (and increased share of those experiencing it often), the gap shrunk to a much smaller extent, as the share of leftists who “never” experienced disregard dropped to the single digits, and those experiencing it often exceeded 70 percent. Both results – as well as the gap size – are clearly unprecedented in the 30-years-long history of the measurement.

Feeling Disregarded among the Government Supporters and Opponents

Predictably, the divide looks even sharper, when instead of the political self-identification one analyses directly the attitude towards the executives (i.e., the sitting cabinet). Returning to Miller’s example, it is likely that left-wingers scepticism towards his handling of the corruption scandal simply switched their attitudes towards the cabinet (as the change of the prime minister remained a valid option[20]).

Nevertheless, the change associated with the second Law&Justice cabinet is still clearly visible. On the one hand, its supporters are relatively unlikely to experience “feeling disregarded” – as compared with supporters of the earlier cabinets. On the other hand, their opponents are relatively more likely to experience this feeling.


Governance by illiberal populist parties fundamentally alters the way how the political system operates, and does so on many levels. It seems that the “democracy with adjectives” makes a difference of both degree and kind, introducing specific practices that require appropriate measurement tools.

On the one level, as populist leaders encounter institutional constraints, they attempt to overcome them either by bullying, hollowing them out or even taking over and exploiting them in further advancement of their goals[21].

On another level, they profess the Schmittian “friend-enemy” divide, engaging in propaganda and increasing the intensity of adversarial democratic practice. In doing so, they render current electoral losers from the legitimate part of “We The People” towards a group with virtually no say on how the country is governed. The result is a (sometimes deliberately administered) feeling of being disregarded by the elected authorities – a quite unexpected outcome in a system pretending to offer a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

In the point of view of the author, this second dimension – due to its importance in shaping daily democratic practice – deserves quantitative measurement and inclusion in the wider metrics applied to gauge the progress and regress of the democracy. This post demonstrates, using the example of Poland, how such measurement could be carried out, building upon existing data.

It also documents how far Poland has gone in the process of “adversialising” its democratic practice, even as compared with the 1990's plagued with institutional immaturity, political polarisation (with deep, historical roots) and severe austerity (in objective terms justifying the widespread feeling of being disregarded by the reform-minded governments).


CIVICA Research brings together researchers from eight leading European universities in the social sciences to contribute knowledge and solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. The project aims to strengthen the research & innovation pillar of the European University alliance CIVICA. CIVICA Research is co-funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The next CIVICA Research Hackathon is held online from 22 – 24 November and it is centred around the theme of ‘Societies in Transition, Crises of Earth’.



[1] see Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017


[3] Jane J. Mansbridge (1980: 1983) Beyond Adversary Democracy, Chicago ; London : University of Chicago press, pp.9.

[4] Marie Paxton (2021) Agonistic Democracy: rethinking political institutions in pluralist times, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge

[5] Bob Woodward (2004) Plan of Attack, Nwe York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Simon&Schuster, pp. 410

[6],60/jaroslaw-kaczynski-chce-pietnowac-elity-o-kim-mowil,976329.html original quote in Polish goes as follows: “Nowa polska elita władzy i, mam nadzieję, coraz większa część elity kulturalnej i innych elit już nie pracuje dla naszych wrogów. A ci, którzy pracują, są napiętnowani. I będą, proszę państwa, piętnowani dalej

[7] One could also refer phrase "they are whining - wonderfully!" [PL: “słychać wycie – znakomicie!”] twitted by one of Law&Justice MPs in response to the outrage over candidacies of two right wing politicians, moving straight from the parliament bench (where they actively participated in the hollowing-out of the judicial institutions) to the Constitutional Tribunal. On these candidates see: PiS obsadza Trybunał, Rzeczpospolita daily, Nov 5th 2019. For the tweet see:

[8] See F. Fukuyama (2018) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[9] As quoted by G.H.W. Bush in his Remarks to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of the Ukraine in Kiev, Soviet Union, Aug. 1st, 1991.

[10] C. Anderson, A. Blais, S. Bowler (2007) Losers' consent: elections and democratic legitimacy, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2007



[13] The exact wording of the question in Polish goes as follows: „Czuł(a) się Pan(i) jako obywatel(ka) wyraźnie lekceważony(a) przez władzę”.

[14] Apparently, it looks like „reduced” five point scale ranging from very often to never – with fourth and fifth answer combined into single „allmost never or never”, perhaps due to the distribution of the answers. Indeed, in 1991 survey the answers had been coding on five point scale – practice abandoned

[15] Box 4.9: Political polarisation in Poland [in:] A. Devaux, S. Grand-Clement, S. Hoorens (2022) Truth Decay in Europe: Exploring the role of facts and analysis in European public life. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, DOI:

[16] T. Carothers, A. O'Donohue (2019) Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, Washington, D.C. Brooking Institution Press

[17] M. Grabowska (2021) The post-communist cleavage social bases of politics in Poland after 1989, Berlin Bern Wien Peter Lang.

[18] The Constitution was coined by post-communists, their rural allies as well as intellectuals from democratic-liberal ex-dissident formations - The Freedom Union (PL: Unia WOlnosci) of first non-communist Prime Minister T. Mazowiecki and The Labor Union (PL: Unia Pracy) – an failed attempt of R. Bugaj to create ex-Solidarity left as opposed to the post-communist left.

[19] To borrow the phrase form retired Constitutional Tribunal M. Wyrzykowski (2019) Experiencing the Unimaginable: the Collapse of the Rule of Law in Poland. Hague J Rule Law 11, 417–422 (2019).

[20] Indeed, in 2004 Miller resigned, and left-wing cabinet of M. Belka was formed.

[21] For detailed account of Polish experience see Sadurski W. (2019b) Poland's Constitutional Breakdown, Oxford University Press, DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198840503.001.0001; Sadurski W. (2019a) Polish Constitutional Tribunal Under PiS: From an Activist Court, to a Paralysed Tribunal, to a Governmental Enabler. Hague J Rule Law 11, 63–84 (2019).; Gliszczyńska-Grabias A., Sadurski W. (2021) The Judgment That Wasn’t (But Which Nearly Brought Poland to a Standstill): ‘Judgment’ of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal of 22 October 2020, K1/20. European Constitutional Law Review, 17(1), 130-153. doi:10.1017/S1574019621000067

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