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Three Types of Culture Wars and the Populist Strategies in Central Europe



Since the ‘migration crisis’ in 2015 at the latest, the politics of a broadly conceived Central Europe has been marked by conflicts over symbols, values and norms. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, and the Czech Republic have witnessed divisive debates and campaigns over refugee quotas, women’s and gay rights, abortion laws and public monuments. As the term ‘culture wars’ was becoming ubiquitous, it remained ambivalent in its meaning and usage. The aim of this article is to identify a political logic of recent Central European cultural conflicts without leaning solely on the ideological explanation, e.g. the anti-liberal backlash thesis of Rupnik, and Krastev and Holms. By borrowing R. Brubaker’s conceptualizations of identity and populism, the article contends that it is possible to analyze culture wars as a repertoire of a populist political style. To do so, the article develops a critical perspective on culture wars, defined as polarizing conflicts in the arenas of the politics of memory, politics of identity and politics of morality. Culture wars are analyzed as a strategy of re-politicization of memory (especially of World War II), (civilizational) identity and public morality and a code used in struggles for political and cultural hegemony.
Three Types of Culture Wars
andthe Populist Strategies
inCentral Europe*
Zor a Hesová**
Since the migration crisis in 2015 at the latest, the politics of abroadly conceived Central Europe
has been marked by conicts over symbols, values and norms. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia,
Austria, and the Czech Republic have witnessed divisive debates and campaigns over refugee quo-
tas, women’sand gay rights, abortion laws and public monuments. As the term culture wars was
becoming ubiquitous, it remained ambivalent in its meaning and usage. The aim of this article is to
identify apolitical logic of recent Central European cultural conicts without leaning solely on the
ideological explanation, e.g. the anti-liberal backlash thesis of Rupnik, and Krastev and Holms. By
borrowing R. Brubaker’sconceptualizations of identity and populism, the article contends that it is
possible to analyze culture wars as arepertoire of apopulist political style. To do so, the article de-
velops acritical perspective on culture wars, dened as polarizing conicts in the arenas of the pol-
itics of memory, politics of identity and politics of morality. Culture wars are analyzed as astrategy
of re-politicization of memory (especially of World War II), (civilizational) identity and public morality
and acode used in struggles for political and cultural hegemony.
Keywords: Populism; culture wars; Central Europe; culturalization; polarization
DOI: 10.5817/PC2021 -2 -130
1. Introduction
As Central Europe (CE)1 closes its third decade aer the end of Communism with un-
precedented growth and stability, its public sphere abounds with arevolutionary, milita-
rized language and references to crises. Viktor OrbánsFidesz has accomplished a‘revo-
lution at the polling booth’ and Jaroslaw KaczynskisPiS pursues ‘agreat transformation
of the Polish state (Lang, 2018, p.80). ey both promise a‘cultural counter-revolution
* is study is aresult of research funded by the Czech Science Foundation under the GAČR project
“Culture wars and national secularisation strategies in Central Europe” Nr. 18-18675S.
** Assistant Professor at the Institute for Political Studies, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, NaPří-
kopě29, Prague, e-mail: zora.hesova@ ORCID: 000-0001-7760-7941.
(Krekó & Enyedi, 2018, p.45). Other occasional populists like Robert Fico and Miloš
Zeman join in to ‘defend’ Europe from migration, Islam, liberalism, and ultimately from
itself (Mark, 2019).
Even in countries that are not governed by populist parties, symbolic issues periodical-
ly dominate public debates. Mass demonstrations, national referenda and public debates
over Islam and migration, abortion, sexual education, same-sex marriages, and the Istan-
bul Convention have polarized publics in CE. Conservatives have challenged the previ-
ously dominant liberal, pro-European consensus. At times, the division of public opinion
between national-conservatives and the liberals, or between the cosmopolitan elites and
the ‘normal people, has intensied to the point of resembling US-American ‘culture wars’.
Talk about ‘culture wars’ started already around 2013. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran
Milanović complained that aculture war was being waged against his socialist govern-
ment by an inuential Catholic coalition (Barilar, 2013); in 2014, the Polish centre-right
minister of education opposed widening the role of religion in schools claiming fear
of ‘culture wars’ (Grabowska, 2014, p.5). In Hungary, ‘culture war’ is critically thema-
tized by some academics (Ágh, 2015) but also apologetically claimed by others (Furedi,
2018). In Austria, areturn to political polarization has been discussed as aKulturkampf
(Wimmer, 2017).
‘Culture wars’ over social norms, national values and historical symbols have since
become ubiquitous: they were waged both during electoral campaigns by populist leaders
like J. Kaczynski, V. Orbán, R. Fico, M.C. Strache and M. Zeman and they went on aer
populist parties achieved electoral successes in Hungary and Poland. Even during the
recent pandemic, ruling populist parties continue to ‘exploit the culture war’ (Kováts &
Zacharenko, 2020).
Most explanations of the CE culture wars highlight their ideological content. Furedi
(2017), Mark (2019) and Krastev and Holmes (2019) variously develop the thesis of atra-
ditionalist backlash against liberal values, or of anativist reaction to the failures of neo-lib-
eralism. Yet they can be also explained instrumentally, as ashi in political strategy per-
formed by neo-nationalist populist parties and other political entrepreneurs who adopted
aconfrontational style of politics. In short, cultural wars may be asign of adeeper social
and political change, or atool of (mostly but not always) populist politics.
e perspective of this article is sceptical and cautiously instrumentalist. It aims to
show that ‘culture war’ is aslippery concept that cannot be analyzed on its own terms, that
is, as an ideological confrontation. Instead of dwelling on the content of recent Central
European culture wars, the aim is to look into their political logic. By establishing various
types of culture wars in CE and exploring the link between culture wars and populism,
culture wars will be analyzed as apolitical tool in apopulist repertoire, or atactic used to
culturalize political conict in astruggle for symbolic and political hegemony.
e article will proceed as follows: e rst part will dene culture war and populism,
and establish alink between populist successes and culture wars; the second will propose
ageneral typology of the CE cultural wars. e third part will attempt to dene the power
logic behind the CE culture wars, and the nal part will explore the performative eects
of culture war.
2. Culture wars and populism in CE
In the politics of the countries of Central Europe, ‘culture’ has not mattered so much in
generations. e Austrian journalist Walter Hämmerle described the ‘new struggle for
Austria’ as arepetition of the historical ‘civic wars’ (Bürgerkriege) in anew form. Whereas
in the interwar period, Marxist socialists opposed conservatives on class and religion,
the current dividing line is about ‘culture’. It is aconfrontation between those who look
towards Europe and want to face global challenges, and those who prefer to look back
and cherish their national courtyard, its past and local specicities. According to Häm-
merle (2018), Austria’scurrent polarization has come about with the reappearance of
the national-conservative camp that was marginalized aer 1945. No longer promoting
ethno-nationalist politics, the populist Freedom Party now leads aculturalist reaction to
the Europeanization and globalization of Austria.
Asimilar characterization could be oered for other CE populist projects. Successful
populist parties were able to renew national-conservative projects by articulating new
political conicts as cultural. Culturalized politics, however, is not an exclusive feature
of right-wing populist parties. Liberals have also played the culture card, especially when
incapable of proposing any substantial political programme. R. Matyja has portrayed Po-
land as aduopoly of a‘liberal camp’ (Civic Platform) and conservatives (PiS) who are
locked in ‘mutual antagonism over political and social symbols’ (Matyja, 2020, p.39) and
in fact need each other. Also, cultural conicts could not be sustained without thriving
in abroader civil society. e question is: is the success of populist parties areection of
aculturalized politics or are they amotor of culturalized politics?
2.1. Culture in populist politics
In populist politics, culture matters agreat deal. Successful populists understand their
politics as a cultural project. Poland’s J. Kaczynski pursues a ‘conservative revolution
(Dabrowska, 2019). Viktor Orbán explained in 2018 that he and Fidesz ‘have been man-
dated to build anew era. An era is always more than apolitical system. An era is aspecial
and characteristic cultural reality. We must embed the political system in acultural era’
(Gosling, 2019).
Culture also matters in understanding populist successes. As established by Inglehart
and Norris (2016), these cannot be explained by economic grievances alone. Populist par-
ties are strengthened by fears of migration, mistrust towards global governance structures
and by peoples authoritarian values. Inglehart and Norris talk of abacklash: populists
have harnessed the political potential of ademographic group that is most threatened by
ashi towards post-materialist values. K. Stöckl links today’sculture wars to a‘fatigue’
with the European Union which came to be perceived as ‘aliberalising and secularising
actor in the region, and by ‘areaction to the “cultural revolution” of the 1990s’ (Stöckl,
2019). According to J. Rupnik, the erosion of aliberal consensus aer the rst two dec-
ades of anti-communism made authoritarian populism attractive. ere is a‘decoupling
of liberalism and democracy’ (Rupnik, 2017, p.25); the democratic transformation failed
to ‘capture the “habits of the heart” for liberalism’ (Rupnik, 2007, p.19). Finally, the na-
tionalist-conservative backlash is a‘humiliation-driven repudiation of liberal ideas and
institutions’ (Krastev & Holmes, 2018a, p.119). But for Krastev and Holmes (2018a), il-
liberal populism is also asign that the post-communist countries outgrew Western tute-
lage, rejected the imitative transformation model, and started to dene their own destiny.
e British-Hungarian sociologist F. Furedi has defended Viktor Orbán by arguing that
‘populism’ is a Western label for those who challenge the EU’sneo-colonial inuence.
Orbánspolitics would be the armation of national sovereignty and historical identities
against the European version of a‘denationalised’ identity (Furedi, 2018, p.51).
e backlash theory is interesting insofar as it helps to place the national-conservative
moment within the context of CE’spolitical complexities. But it is less helpful as an ana-
lytical tool. Speaking of abacklash necessarily entails an evaluation: for some abacklash is
anegative but only temporary development (Ingelhart), for others it is both durable and
deplorable (Rupnik). Others yet see it as ajustied defence (Furedi) or even an emancipa-
tory act (Orbán). is valuation is itself amatter of controversy. Hence culture as asystem
of meanings has become abattleeld in its own right. It is not surprising that conservative
intellectuals like Frank Furedi and Marek Cichocki, and academics turned MEPs, such as
György Schöpin and Ryszard Legutko, have engaged in the intellectual side of apolitical
Analyzing culture wars is thus fraught with diculties. First, it is hardly possible not
to adopt one or the other perspective. e concept of ‘culture wars’ is simultaneously an
analytical and apractical category, as much as identity in Rogers Brubaker’sperspective
(Brubaker, 2000). e term culture war is oen used as aderogatory term and as amobi-
lizing slogan. Further, there arisk of essentialization. Echoing the actors’ representation
of cultural polarization only solidies the image of two large opposing camps. More fun-
damentally, explaining acultural confrontation by acultural backlash hardly helps to get
away from the conundrum. It is therefore necessary to work towards aworkable denition
of culture war.
2.2. Dening ‘cultural war’
‘Culture war’ is alean word from US American politics referring to political conict be-
tween Christian conservatives and liberals over segregation, reproductive and minority
rights, and migration. Coined nearly thirty years ago by the sociologist J. D. Hunter, the
term originally referred to ‘political and social hostility rooted in dierent systems of mor-
al understanding’ (Hunter, 1991, p.42). e context was the conservative backlash against
the social liberalization of the 1970s. Speaking of ‘culture war’ invites one to think of
apublic deeply divided between two camps opposed on value positions. But J.D. Hunter
himself has warned against this shortcut, ascribing culture war to polarized elites, their
cultural ‘warfare, and to public discourse technology (Hunter, 1991, p.135).
Polarizing struggles over social norms and national values appeared in the late 2000s
in Western Europe, too; aer 2012, such conicts entered the mainstream and intensied.
Criticism of apermissive multiculturalism, increasing cultural framing of migration, and
resistance to liberal reforms of sexual and reproductive rights, have led to massive pub-
lic mobilizations. In France it was the anti-gay marriage demonstrations of 2012–2013, in
Germany the PEGIDA movement, and everywhere the anti-Muslim rhetoric of 2012–2016.
Cultural confrontations appeared to matter in CE once EU integration was completed.
With the consensus around European integration crumbling, many issues became con-
troversial: the national past, migration, global security and cultural diversity. By the mid-
2010s, many of the contested issues were culturalized: ‘identity politics or value wars–
that is, enduring debates on national identity and other collective identities, controversy
about moral norms, and accompanying conicts between traditionalists and moderniz-
ers– have superimposed other conict dimensions such as the socioeconomic one aer
the initial phase of transformation’ (Minkenberg, 2017, p.21).
e rst conicts revolved around sexual education, the Convention on preventing
and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the so-called Istanbul
Convention), and gay marriage in Poland and in Croatia in 2012 and 2013. Catholic con-
servatives succeeded in bringing morality issues to the media, parliaments, and courts;
four referenda on preventing same-sex marriages were organized at this time in post-com-
munist EU member states. In parallel, World War II commemorations have caused divi-
sive debates, especially in Poland and Croatia. en, in 2015–2016, the ‘migration crisis’
led to ageneralized backlash against immigration, Islam, and European asylum policies.
2.3. Approaching culture wars and populism
What is specic for CE is that the new culture wars made inroads into the region roughly
around the same time as the rst real successes of populist parties. Aer 2010, popu-
lists started to win elections, enter governments, and impose themselves as leading po-
litical forces. Migration and Islam were central issues of populist electoral campaigns: in
Poland (2015), Slovakia (2016), and in the Czech Republic and Hungary (2018). In the
2018 campaign, Orbán made ample use of migration, European Christian identity, and
Brussels’ liberalism (Krekó & Enyedi, 2018, p.48). In 2015, populist leaders in CE rallied
within the Visegrád Group against European migration policies and Brussels’ ‘decadent’
multiculturalism. In populist discourse, sovereignist positions on migration, pluralism,
minority and women’srights were pinned on the cultural dierence between the V4 and
Western Europe. Yet despite many parallels in content and timing, cultural claims were
born out of dierent ideological constellations: Orbán’silliberal nationalism, conservative
Christianism in Poland, the identitarian radical-right of H.-C. Strache, and mere populist
opportunism in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
If cultural confrontations are not easily dened beyond such family resemblances,
neither is populism. Populism continues to be ‘acontested concept’ in debates about its
essence and its emancipatory or reactive character (Mudde, 2004). Rather ‘thin’ in ideolo-
gy, populism stands out through political style and strategy (Brubaker, 2017a). Populism
is most generally dened around the anti-elitist core element: populists claim to speak
and act in the name of ‘the people’ and against ‘the elite’ (Mudde, 2004; Brubaker 2017a,
2017b; Mueller, 2018). As Brubaker adds, they claim to speak for the people (the demos)
against acorrupt elite, and for the people (the ethnos) against an external threat. ese
two perspectives intersect when the elite (or athreatening bottom) can be linked to an
outside power (e.g. the EU, international capital etc.). Brubaker denes populism as adis-
cursive and stylistic repertoire’ for apolitical practice (Brubaker, 2017a). It does not mean
that adiscursive repertoire fully exhausts the phenomenon, but rather that the anti-elitist
claim is an element that various actors adopt and use in connexion to other, ‘thicker’ ide-
ological positions (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017, p.6).
Asimilar analytical perspective may be adopted towards culture wars. If the ideational
content of ‘culture wars’ is put aside, it becomes possible to analyze conicts over social
norms and symbols as moves in the struggle for political dominance. Culture wars have
indeed oen been waged by populists to mobilize their support base, to deepen and use
social cleavages and historical traumas, and to capture an electorate. In order to analyze
them as political tools, it is necessary to rst identify various kinds of cultural wars and
secondly to explore their use in political struggle.
3. Three theatres of Central European culture wars
If we put aside the focus on ideology and consider ‘culture’ as aeld of political compe-
tition, it is possible to specify cultural elds in which culture wars have been waged. In
CE, there have been three principal battleelds in the past decade: the politics of memory,
the politics of identity, and the politics of morality. Jacques Rupnik has identied two:
conicts over history and about collective identity (Rupnik, 2017). Considering the con-
tinuing mobilization around abortion and gender, morality politics has emerged as athird
important arena of cultural confrontation. e specicity of CE’sculture wars consists in
the conation of historical revisionism, civilizationism and religious conservativism in
the populist repertoire.
3.1. Politics of memory
Conicts over memory practices are not new in CE but they have intensied in the past
ten years. Indeed, there has been an ‘explosion of the politics of memory’ in CE since the
twentieth anniversary of the end of communism (Bernard & Kubik, 2014, p.2). Revi-
sionist groups, nationalist movements, various public personalities, and populist parties
have re-politicized commemoration events and sites throughout CE. Poland and Croatia
are countries in which ‘remembrance wars’ (Raos, 2016) are among the primary cultural
confrontations, followed by Slovakia and Hungary.
In the immediate aermath of 1989, history was important, but not central to po-
litical conicts. CE had liberated itself from acommunist-imposed historiography and
adopted anew politics of history: streets were renamed, statues were toppled and erected,
and heroes were rehabilitated. CE historians have opened problematic periods of national
history to critical scrutiny. If during the 1990s and early 2000s the future counted more
than the past, in the last decade history again became politically debated.
e recent surge in the politics of memory signalled aturn in the post-communist
trajectory of CE states. Namely, the European integration process went hand-in-hand
with adopting aEuropean memory frame, which places the Holocaust at the centre of
the European peace construction and of modern liberalism itself (Subotić, 2018, p.297).
National conservatives have, in contrast, insisted on valorizing the national past from the
vantage point of national sovereignty and historical continuity. By challenging the geno-
cide-centred narrative, they created apublic demand to ‘emancipate’ national narratives
from the European memory frame.
PiS, Fidesz, and other CE national conservative groups have worked towards ‘atra-
ditionalising historical narrative’ (Ágh, 2016, p.36), aiming to promote ‘an “armative
approach to national history and patriotism, in opposition to what they called a“critical
approach” championed by the liberal camp’ (Szeligowska, 2014, p.148), and ‘to legitimise
their positions through aconictual historical politics’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.150). e
nation-centric narrative– constructing aglorious, betrayed past– is a priority for the
Polish and Hungarian populist projects (Stobiecki, 2008; Laczó, 2020) and of ahost of
revisionist groups in Slovakia and Croatia. For Bernard and Kubik, the politics of memory
is ‘about the reformulation of collective identities and the introduction of the principles of
legitimising power’ (Bernard & Kubik, 2014, p.2). e politics of memory is pursued by
so-called mnemotic actors, ‘political forces that are interested in aspecic interpretation
of the past. ey oen treat history instrumentally to construct avision of the past that
they assume will generate the most eective legitimation for their eorts to gain and hold
power’ (2014, p.4).
e implications are political: dening the ocial memory is key to conceptualizing
‘the cohesion of political community and political legitimacy’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.141)
and to imposing this vision against the will of populismsrivals. Recent activist usage of
history has been accompanied by aseries of novel, sometimes revisionist remembrance
practices aimed most oen at re-appropriation of the memories of World War II.
Some confrontations were caused by intentional provocations against the existing
memory regime: in Poland, crosses installed at Auschwitz caused apublic controversy
(Stanley, 2016). In Slovakia, the populist party’smayor of Žilina installed astatue of Slo-
vak wartime leader Tiso, who was responsible for the deportation of Jews; the neo-fascist
Marián Kotleba sported Nazi-like symbolism during his tenure as regional governor. In
Croatia, recurring provocative usage of Ustaša symbols by revisionist groups polarized the
public and put governments under pressure (Pavlaković & Pauković, 2019). In the Czech
Republic, provocative acts by populist politicians (such as attending Russian World War II
commemorations in Moscow during the Ukraine war) and Catholic priests and activists
have stirred controversy over hitherto dormant issues.
Other confrontations over the past were initiated by populist parties in power in pur-
suit of asymbolic domination over memory. Fidesz’spolitics of memory, for example, had
aclearly domineering tendency: erecting monuments in a‘frenzied metamorphosis’ of
Budapest dislocated previous memory regimes (Benazzo, 2017). e PiS has attempted to
ban use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ by outlawing unfavourable historical portrayals
of Poland during World War II in alaw on the Holocaust, causing widespread controversy
(Davies, 2018).
3.2. Politics of identity
In 2015–2016 the ‘migration crisis’ reached CE, aecting Hungary, Croatia, and Slove-
nia, and more durably Austria; other countries were only indirectly touched. Yet in all
of CE, anti-Islam and anti-migration rhetoric entered the mainstream discourse and at-
titudes to Islam, migration and EU asylum policies became major dividing issues in all
CE countries. Populist parties made extensive use of them. In adeparture from older na-
tionalisms, which were based on ethnic dierences, contemporary populist leaders have
adopted acivilizationist perspective, based on larger cultural and religious dierence. e
issue of Western identity became the basis for acultural oensive in 2015 and 2016 (Kal-
mar, 2020). Discourses targeting Islam as incompatible with ‘Christian Europe’ entered
parliaments, the media, and populist political programmes. Together with right-wing,
anti-Islamic groups and conservative civil society, large coalitions formed at times under
the leadership of populist gures. e PiS, Fidesz and Miloš Zeman successfully used
the migration card in elections in 2015 and 2018, while the migration scare did not help
Robert Fico in 2016.
During 2015–2016, migration and asylum issues were thoroughly culturalized. e
governments of A. Babiš and R. Fico expressed more inclination to grant asylum to Iraqi
Christians than to accept Muslim refugees. Kaczynski and Orbán highlighted the Chris-
tian, European, Western identity of their nations. ey reactivated the bulwark of Chris-
tianity myth and styled themselves as eternal defenders of aChristian civilization at her
boundaries (Kalmar, 2018, p.6). In doing so, they invested their nations with amission:
rescuing the real, Christian Europe from aEurope decadent with liberalism and the mix-
ing of cultures (Mark, 2019, p.290). is, in turn, became aplatform on which the coun-
tries have resisted common European migration and asylum policies and built up their
sovereigntist Visegrád positions.
e civilizationist perspective has fuelled massive public expressions of Islamophobia
and xenophobia in the Visegrád Group and deep mistrust of Europe and ‘liberal’ elites,
‘welcomers’ and ‘do-gooders’. During the 2015–2016 crisis CE countries experienced an
unprecedented polarization between those who joined populists in rejecting migration
and Islam and embracing the ‘Christianist’ position (Brubaker, 2017b) and those who
advocated amore constructive or humanitarian approach.
3.3. Politics of morality
e latest type of culture war presents itself as aconservative challenge to liberal legal
norms. If memory wars are episodic and the identity wars have subsided, divisive issues
of public morality have been on the rise since 2013. e politics of morality, or morality
politics, has been an established concept since the 1990s (Mooney, 1999). It referred to
political subjects pursuing ‘atypical’ morality issues in post-industrial societies (Engeli
& Green-Perdersen, 2012, p.1). Actors carrying out politics of morality usually seek to
change regulative norms to set conservative breaks on socially progressive reforms. In
confrontations around values and norms, conservative civil society groups, Christian ac-
tivists, and some politicians have allied to defend ‘traditions’ that they see as being under
threat from the advancement of individual reproductive and sexual rights.
Morality wars rst broke out with public opposition to the Istanbul Convention in
Poland in 2013, where conservative politicians (including the later Prime Minister Beata
Szydlo), formed aparliament committee called ‘Stop gender-ideology’. Gender went on to
become the word of the year in Poland in 2013 and the ratication of the Istanbul Conven-
tion was subsequently challenged in most countries on account of it mentioning ‘gender’.
In parallel, Croatia’ssuccessful replication of the French anti-gay marriage Lamanif pour
tous mobilization led to the gathering of 750,000 signatures for areferendum on aconsti-
tutional denition of marriage. Eventually, across Central and Eastern Europe, four ref-
erenda took place with the aim of changing laws or constitutions to preclude homosexual
marriage. ey succeeded in Croatia (2013) and Slovenia (2015) and failed in Slovakia
(2015) and in Romania (2018). Still, the petitions managed to mobilize 10 to 20 percent
of the electorate, polarized the public, and made opposition to so-called ‘gender theory’
Pro-life, anti-abortion mobilizations keep growing in all of CE: in the Czech Republic,
they gained the support of the Catholic hierarchy and populist politicians. In Slovakia,
pro-life marches gathered more than 80,000 and 50,000 people in 2013 and 2019, respec-
tively. In 2019 and 2020, several laws aiming to restrict abortion were proposed to Par-
liament. In Poland, polarization was very palpable during amassive liberal ‘Black protest’
that succeeded in stalling adra law, led by PiS, aiming to impose atotal ban, going
beyond the already extremely restrictive regulation of abortion.
ese new morality wars may come as asurprise, considering that abortion and wom-
ensrights were taken for granted in post-communist Central Europe, aside from Poland.
Yet pro-life and traditionalist campaigns are in fact linked to the wider European and US
culture wars. ‘National pro-life marches’ and petitions against same-sex marriage have
been organized by newly professionalized and coordinated conservative civil society
groups, oen with help from US sponsored advocacy groups (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017;
Datta, 2019). Learning from US groups appears to have enhanced their professional com-
munication: the new politics of morality is based on supra-confessional strategies, framed
in asecular language of rights (of families, of the majority) rather than in religious insist-
ence on sin, and the activists present themselves as aminority persecuted by legal and
political institutions (Castle, 2018). Populist parties, especially PiS, but also Fidesz, SMER
and smaller national-populist parties, have all adopted elements of morality politics. eir
rejection of socially liberal attitudes and laws (symbolized by same sex-marriage, adop-
tion of children by gay couples, and transgender rights), the demonization of ‘gender’, and
the criticism of the permissive legacy of 1968 have been explicitly motivated by natalist
policies and legitimized by aresistance to liberal ‘impositions’ from Brussels.
To sum up, the typology of CE culture wars allows us to formulate several remarks.
First, culture wars in CE are specic to the region. If CE shares an issue with the USA,
it is broader, and rmly inscribed in the dynamics of post-communism and Europe-
anization. Upcoming populist elites pursue projects of political dierentiation from the
transformation consensus. History, identity and community norms are at stake in this
struggle. Yet CE culture wars do not actually revolve around aclear ideological divide:
the perspectives of liberalism and national-conservativism do not extend to all the con-
troversial issues, and individual conicts have their own, local dynamics. Further, cul-
ture war is not primarily apopulist or a political tool: many of the above-mentioned
confrontations were instigated by various civil society organizations, advocacy networks,
media, and public personalities, both conservative and liberal. Despite the complexity
of the issues and actors, apolarization into militant liberal and national-conservative
publics has repeatedly emerged as recently as during Slovak elections (2019 and 2020)
and Polish elections (2020). Political leaders used or resisted, fuelled or moderated such
wars, and some of them resorted openly to culture warfare to polarize the population and
win votes.
4. Struggle for cultural hegemony
Framing divisions in ideological terms is useful for descriptive reasons but has little ex-
planatory force. Namely, labels used in aculture war– ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, ‘tradi-
tional’, ‘populist’ are themselves used as tools in apolitical struggle. In order to analyze
culturalized confrontations, it is necessary to develop amore precise analytical concep-
tualization. Aquick overview of the puzzle shall help to narrow the questioning down to
auseful perspective on ‘culture wars’ and their political logic. e perspective proposed
here relies on adistinction between occasional political instrumentalization on one hand,
and systematic political strategy in the attempt at challenging apolitical hegemony by
using cultural codes on the other.
4.1. Escaping the conceptual ambiguity of ‘culture wars’
Cultural confrontations lend themselves particularly well to political struggle. Because
they are fought over values and identity, they allow for little compromise or negotiation.
When migration became astake in aculture war, instead of debating modalities how to
manage migration, the public split into for migration and against migration positions, cod-
ed in defence of either liberal or of nativist values. Because values are subjective– more
than the intricacies of European asylum and migration policies or global migration fac-
tors– culturalized framing tends to politicize parts of the public who feel le behind by
technocratic governance. And because identity and social norms are framed as threatened
or threatening, cultural issues have ahigh mobilization potential. But populists hardly
have amonopoly on instrumentalizing culture war.
National-conservative populist governments have made ample use of culture wars,
but so have opportunistic centrists with populist tendencies. e Czech and Croatian
centre-right governments, led by the populist PM Babiš and the independent PM Oreš-
ković, took advantage of support from cultural warriors (e.g. the populist SPD Party in
the Czech Republic, and pro-life groups in Croatia) but have backed o from allying with
them in aformal coalition for fear of losing their ‘civic’ identity. Others have made ample
use of identity and migration issues but not always to their advantage: the nominally so-
cialist Slovak leader Fico resorted to conservative policies (restricting abortion and mar-
riage), the Islam-scare, and an alliance with nationalists, but could not retain his majority.
In the Czech presidential elections in 2013 and 2018, playing the history and migration
cards worked for the populist Zeman, but in the Slovak presidential elections of 2019 it
did not: SMERs candidate could not push Zuzana Čaputová into an apologetic liberal
corner the way Miloš Zeman succeeded in pushing his opponent.
Furthermore, it is dicult to independently analyze two related aspects of culture
wars: the instrumentalization of existing culture wars and the instigation of them. Wag-
ing culture war appears to be atactical tool, oen used when labelling one’sopponent as
‘liberal’ or unpatriotic brings political advantage. Also, starting asymbolic conict oen
helps deect public attention from policy shortcomings to some secondary but symboli-
cally charged issue. But do populists merely use aculturalized context, or do they produce
it? If populists such as Orbán, Kaczynski and Zeman have been masters of cultural poli-
tics, ‘liberals’ have also thematized cultural issues and added to the polarization.
Finally, the very term ‘culture war’ is anegative label. Nobody wants to be openly wag-
ing aculture war. Liberals accuse the conservative populists of fomenting acultural war
(Laczó, 2020) and conservative apologists argue that the very term ‘populism’ is aweapon
in the liberals’ cultural war against them (Furedi, 2017). Both parties to the conict see
the other as acultural warrior who uses symbolic violence against them. Like ‘populism,
culture war’ has been used as a‘Kampegri’ to discredit the opponent (Mudde & Kalt-
wasser, 2017, p.1), and has therefore shared the fate of other formerly critical terms such
as Islamophobia and political correctness.
Rogers Brubaker has reected on the conation of the analytical and political uses
of the term ‘identity’ (Brubaker, 2000). He has attempted to avoid conceptual confu-
sion by concretizing and conceptualizing the various meanings of ‘identity’. Borrowing
from Brubaker, we may attempt to extricate ‘culture wars’ from its denitional ambigui-
ty. Brubaker denes populism as a‘discursive and stylistic repertoire’ articulated around
amain strategy, the distinction between the ‘people’ and elites, along with their inner and
external allies, including an additional set of tools or tactics. Brubaker has listed ve of
these tactics: antagonistic re-politicization of forms of decision-making, sovereignty etc.,
majoritarianism, anti-institutionalism, protectionism, and acommunication style using
simplicity and directness (Brubaker, 2017a).
Form all the above, antagonistic re-politicization stands out. In the culturalized poli-
tics of the 2010s, political challengers– especially the FIDESZ and PiS parties upon their
return to power– re-politicized issues ranging from national history to public morality
to demarcate themselves from adversary elites. Once in power, they sought to consoli-
date their electoral victory by imposing acertain cultural vision, vocabulary, and aset of
symbolic policies which mobilize their supporters against their adversaries and ‘deepen
cultural and political polarization’ (Krastev, 2018b).
For J. D. Hunter, culture war is apower for cultural hegemony. Populists do frame their
ght for political domination as asymbolic struggle for cultural hegemony. For Balasz
Trencsényi, culture wars are ‘projections of certain intellectual subcultures that seek to
realize their wish for cultural-institutional hegemony by opting for asymbolic-political
discourse of fundamental renewal in which anew hierarchy will put an end to the period
of liminality characterizing the transition’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.151). e key to the logic
of aKulturkampf is that ‘achieving cultural hegemony … is apreeminent means of domi-
nation’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.140).
If culture wars are struggles for cultural hegemony, do they exhibit features of ‘cultural
warfare’? J. D. Hunter has analyzed various ‘technologies of public discourse’ (Hunter,
1991, p.135). e warfare in CE may also be analyzed as aseries of tactics and as apower
strategy. Politicizing cultural issues can be both short-term populist tactics– such as la-
belling the opponent, deecting attention to symbolic issues, building coalitions during
elections– or asystematic power strategy– such as ameans to challenge, gain, and main-
tain inuence through displacing one narrative and imposing another and thus forming
the attitudes of people (Ágh, 2016, p.39). It is the second, more substantial culture warfare
that will be analyzed here. In this perspective, culture wars are conicts over discursive
and cultural hegemony waged by challenging elites against the established elites by (re-)
politicizing accepted national history regimes, the framing of national identity and col-
lective morality.
4.2. ‘Anti-hegemonic’ strategy
e ideological bases of cultural wars– Christianism, national-conservativism, patriot-
ism– all share one commonality. ey are presented as anti-hegemonic– i.e. as mobi-
lizations against an overwhelming power. Kaczynski and Orbán frame their policies as
restorative revolutions in which they reject the liberal hegemony that has marked the
post-communist transformation ‘on the basis cultural, political, and socioeconomical ar-
guments’ as they seek to replace it with an alternative ‘ideological framework’ (Trencsényi,
2014, p.142). Populist leaders mobilize against a narrative they present as dominant,
and they do so from adeclared position of weakness: ‘e ideology of the Kulturkampf,
as formulated by the right-wing challengers, targets the alleged hegemony of the Le’
(Trencsényi, 2014, p.149). In their view, liberalism betrayed the cause of national sover-
eignty because it was imposed as the only game in town by liberal elites under the tutelage
of Western democratic reformism; their national conservativism is adefensive project.
Against the accepted notion of a(fragmenting) liberal consensus (Krastev, 2007), ‘liberal
hegemony’ is erected into aforceful dominance by conspicuously reframing the usual
ideological narratives and by systematic use of rhetorical means.
Conservative civil society organizations actively participate in presenting liberalism as
both hegemonic and repressive. Liberalism’sbetrayal is aprominent subject of conserv-
ative public gures such as Roman Joch and Ryszard Legutko: in their view, the initial
liberal defence of freedom morphed into an ideology of progressivism that suppresses
dissent in the courts and imposes political correctness (Joch, 2019; Legutko, 2020). For
Catholic cultural warriors such as Gabriele Kuby, liberalism is the product of ‘a global
sexual revolution, an imminent threat to the traditional family, and adictatorship of the
politically correct (Kuby, 2014). To reverse major cultural narratives, ‘progressive’ issues
are portrayed as results of ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘cultural Marxism’; the concept of gender is
portrayed as a‘worse threat than Nazism and Communism’ (Sierakowski, 2014).
In aperformative construction of hegemony, targeted provocations push opponents to
enforce’ liberal norms. e Czech populist President Zeman perfected the art of provoca-
tion by breaking liberal taboos and committing gross acts of political incorrectness– such
as mock-shooting critical journalists or inviting an open Islamophobe to the stage during
aVelvet Revolution commemoration. By breaking the norms of decency, Zeman regularly
forced his liberal opponents to express misgivings and criticism, which was in turn con-
strued as intolerant and domineering on their part. Populist leaders have generally been
able to walk the tightrope between politically barely acceptable and morally abhorrent.
President Zeman’sattacks on the media, Andrej Babiš’sopen abuse of the EU subventions,
and Viktor Orbán’swar on the Central European University– none of those ‘misdeeds’
weakened their popularity because every time they managed to portray the injured party
as apowerful opponent.
Further, self-victimization is arecurring gure in culture war narratives. In Poland,
the PiS government keeps the Smolensk trauma painfully alive, insisting on Polish vic-
timhood and foreign conspiracies. In Hungary, Orbán systematically claims to be ghting
the conspiracy of apowerful international network, represented by Soros, that ‘organises
migration’ to Europe (Orbán, 2019). His battle against ‘the liberal zeitgeist and liberal
internationalism’ is portrayed as ‘adicult struggle’ and ‘an uphill battle’ (Orbán, 2019).
Self-victimization is instrumental: by presenting Hungary as weak, asmall ‘country of ten
million’ ghting against an overwhelming enemy, Orbán engages in a‘peacock dance’;
he has admitted resorting to double speech when facing his enemies (Magyar, 2019). He
adopts pro-EU language for the international public but says the opposite to his domestic
audience (Ágh, 2016, p.39).
On adiscursive level, the rhetoric of reversed power relations produces striking phras-
es such as ‘the oppressed majority’, ‘the dictatorship of minority rights’, the ‘criminaliza-
tion of those who dare discriminate, the ‘endangered species’ of the white heterosexual
male etc. Concepts are intentionally blurred by paradoxical associations and transformed
into negative labels: liberalism was linked with ‘cultural Marxism’, and political rivals were
labelled foreign agents. Populist leaders and conservative activists use ridicule, spectacle,
and confusing phrases to undermine and discredit liberal positions. In the late 2010s,
ironic or derogatory discursive ‘codes’ for anti-liberal positions became widely used. e
do-gooders’, ‘welcomers’, the Czech ‘sunshines’ or the German Gutmenschen, were viral
ironic replies to liberal labels such as ‘hate speech, ‘racist, and ‘Islamophobe’. Ironic labels
function as codes through which leaders nod to their supporters and mobilize them: Or-
bán operated with the slogan ‘We shall not let Soros have the last laugh’ (Keszthelyi, 2017),
while Miloš Zeman ceremoniously burnt giant red underpants, aliberal anti-Zeman logo
that was intended to ridicule him (BBC, 2019).
4.3. Discursive and institutional takeover
Using codes is more than arhetorical device: it is also an instrument of power in amore
direct sense. Besides the discursive aspect of the struggle for hegemony, there is the insti-
tutional dimension. If reference to certain codes (historical, social, discursive) helps delin-
eate between groups, it also serves to dierentiate the new from the old elite, the ‘us’ and
‘them. Codes help dene one’sbelonging: from the ‘sense of being involved’ and represent-
ed in politics (Gdula, 2020, p.90) to increasing chances of being involved quite literally. Ac-
cording to the liberal historian Anne Applebaum, one such code is the so-called ‘Smolensk
conspiracy’. Professing this belief denes ‘atrue patriot– and, incidentally, might well qual-
ify for agovernment job’ (Applebaum, 2018). Hence, using certain codes helps designate
groups that are opposed on symbolic grounds, to polarize people into those groups and
eventually also to replace one group in leading institutional positions by another.
e latest type of culture war– conservative morality politics– shows well how cul-
ture wars spread and the institutionalized use of conservative codes. In the anti-same-sex
marriage campaigns, the stakes were symbolic demands rather than substantial policy
projects. Churches and conservative NGOs engaged in campaigns for aconstitutional
denition of heterosexual marriage in countries where marriage was already dened as
between aman and awoman. In Slovakia, the parliament had adopted aconstitutional
change to this eect even before the referendum (with an extended set of questions) took
place. e same applies to anti-abortion mobilizations: so far, they have no real chance in
succeeding in any post-communist country (apart from Poland, where on-demand abor-
tion was criminalized in 1993). If the mobilizations failed on alegislative level, they never-
theless provoked discursive shis in public debates and led to serious practical limitations
on abortion access in Slovakia, Hungary, and Croatia and changed public articulation of
women’srights, family models and cultural dierences.
Astriking example of an accomplished discursive change came in the wake of the
so-called anti-gender campaigns. In CE, the concept of ‘gender’ has almost entirely fallen
victim to atakeover by conservative mobilizations. From the reserved domain of aca-
demic and expert social policy discourse, ‘gender’ was singled out by Catholic conserv-
ative publicists and made into an object of moral panic (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). In
2013, the Bavarian Catholic publicist Gabriele Kuby and an array of conservative NGOs
campaigned to introduce the notion of ‘gender theory’ or ‘gender ideology’ (Kuby, 2013)
throughout CE. is hostile interpretation of the concept of ‘gender’ is motivated by the
Vatican’srejection of acritical perspective on gender relations. In the ‘gender-ideology’
compound, the notion of ‘gender’ is reinvested with an entirely dierent meaning to in-
clude the absurd idea of arbitrariness of sexes (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). Besides Catho-
lic activists and Church ocials, the public oensive has involved media, conservative
politicians and populist parties. By 2013, anti-gender campaigns succeeded in spreading
the hostile rendering of ‘gender’ in public (Bracke & Paternotte, 2016).
Because ‘gender ideology’ was linked to the purported liberal project of revolution-
ary social change, conservative and populist groups could mobilize against it in order ‘to
create an us/them divide’ (Kováts, 2017, p.178). Liberals were dened as those who agree
with ‘gender mainstreaming’ and with same-sex couples adopting children, while con-
servatives were seen as those defending the ‘traditional family’ against ‘LGBT ideology’
and promoting ‘family mainstreaming’. In the antagonized public atmosphere, it became
dicult to sustain nuance or to debate matter-of-factly the core issues of rights equality
and gendered violence.
On the other hand, it became very easy to publicize one’sposition. Using codes such as
gender-ideology’, ‘migration, ‘Western civilization, and ‘traditional values’ made it possi-
ble to politicize expert and administrative advisory board positions, media boards of trus-
tees, municipalities etc. Ahundred Polish municipalities adopted the status of ‘LGBT-free
zones’ (Ciobanu, 2020), and Czech Republicsnew ombudsman refused to cover minority
rights. Aer the populist victory in Slovakia in 2020, the ombudswoman was shunned by
parliament for her defence of sexual minorities, and ahigh ocial of the Labour Ministry
quit because the new Labour Minister ‘force[d] us to accept the comments of the Confer-
ence of Bishops of Slovakia, who are trying to erase gender equality from the vocabulary
altogether’ (Spectator, 2020).
Besides the co-optation and capture of institutions, populists in power tended to secure
their domination by seizing control of sources of cultural inuence: public media, univer-
sities, regulative bodies, museums, citizen’sorganizations etc. e Polish and Hungarian
governments have reassigned public funding to conservative civil society and attempted to
inuence historical studies, either by legally limiting their scope, as in Polandslaw on the
Holocaust controversy, or by closing, defunding, and restructuring academic institutions,
as in Hungary. Positions on national history, LGBT, ‘gender-ideology’ and ‘family main-
streaming’ became very unambiguous codes for attempts to inuence public institutions:
those who subscribe to the new cultural code are promoted, others hindered. One glaring
example is Orbán’sindirect but obvious targeting of gender studies departments and the
liberal Central European University. In Slovakia, the parliament’snew populist-conserva-
tive majority used socially conservative vocabulary to disrupt the work of the ombudsman
and to eect personnel changes (Gehrerová, 2020).
5. Performing culture wars
If we analyze culture war as an instrument of political mobilization and elite replacement,
parallels between Central Europe and the current US culture wars rise to the surface,
both in their outward forms and in their fundamental ambivalence. If US ‘conservatives’
have fought ‘liberals’ on cultural issues since the 1980s, adeep polarization is not nec-
essarily asociological reality. People rarely oppose each other on ahomogenous set of
issues (omson, 2010). J. D. Hunter argued in 1991 that the polarizing motor was ‘public
discourse’ (Hunter, 1991, p.43). e two US political parties have indeed sorted them-
selves around cultural positions and this division has increasingly reected racial, spatial
and demographic splits between small town white America and urban conglomerations.
Ideological polarization has then increased to the point of obliterating bipartisanship in
federal politics (Klein, 2020).
Asimilar phenomenon of self-perpetuating polarization appeared in CE: divisive con-
icts have rearranged political landscapes and eventually polarization cemented through
institutionalization, clientelism or authoritarianism; this is how Palonen renders the per-
formative generation of apolarized nation (Palonen, 2018). In CE, as in the US, judg-
es, public broadcasting board members, ombudsmen etc. increasingly compete less on
their expertise and more according to their ideological position. In aparty system that no
longer operates on the right/le divide, culture war codes have replaced partisanship and
have become atool of political mobilization and of militant governance.
Viktor Orbán is aprime example of such an oensive model of governance (Trencsényi,
2014, p.144). In the last of his annual programmatic speeches at the Tusnádfürdő sum-
mer camp, he described his long political trajectory as aseries of achievements reached
through war: ‘We’ve lived through the last nine or ten years with abricklayer’strowel in
one hand and asword in the other. We needed to build while at the same time continuous-
ly ghting. […] We’ve had to repel attacks which have sought to question the international
acceptance of the national system we’ve developed’ (Orbán, 2019). Orbán gave such war
acultural meaning: his Fidesz Party had stood up to liberal internationalism, ‘blocked
George Soros’scandidates, prevented ‘ideological guerrillas’, engaged in ‘struggle within
the institutions, and returned ‘attacks launched’ by the European Commission and courts.
His stated aim was to ‘reject migration, to protect families, to defend Christian culture,
to announce aprogramme of national unication and nation-building, and to create an
order of Christian freedom. Fidesz built ‘this new national system step by step, achieving
success while at the same time maintaining and regenerating mass support’ (Orbán, 2019).
Polarization is acrucial element for such a‘maintaining and regenerating [of] mass
support’. With Benjamin Mot, we could suggest that populists discursively produce po-
larization. By acting as if there was areal divide and an entrenched culture war between
liberals and national-conservatives, they ‘perform’ aculture war by ‘identifying’ war par-
ties, ‘framing’ the people and the enemy, ‘elevating’ their struggle into an defensive, an-
ti-hegemonic war of civilizational importance, and ‘propagating’ their leadership role in
it (Mot, 2015). At moments of a conuence of several issues – such as divides over
WWII history, Islam, and public morality– opposing groups have overlapped and formed
two large opposing camps. In Croatia in 2016, there was ‘the liberal, urban, metropolitan
camp, which is historically critical, more secular, and more socially liberal, and the con-
servative camp, which is historically nationalist, more religious, more socially conserva-
tive’ (Raos, 2016). Similar examples are Austria and Poland in the elections of 2016 and
2020. When such super-polarizations occur, public voices get sorted from all cultural or
ideological questions into two opposing publics.
Yet these super-polarizations appear to be more or less durable constellations in which
the cultural divisions and political interests of major parties align for acertain period
of time. In Croatia and Slovakia, massive petition campaigns have aected subsequent
elections but did not sustain themselves for much longer. e very successful organizer of
the Croatian 2013 referendum petition, Željka Markić, attempted to initiate another ref-
erendum on nationalist grounds and to run for oce. Her moves were stalled by the very
beneciaries of the rst mobilization, the right-wing Croatian Democratic Community
(HDZ). Aer HDZ returned to power in 2015, amoderate leadership dissociated itself
from the most radical entrepreneurs in morality and memory politics. Without centrist
backing, conservative civil society alone was not capable of producing super-polariza-
tion. In Slovakia’s2019 presidential elections, the candidate of the centrist SMER failed
to re-create the conservative momentum in playing the anti-LGBT card and using the
vocabulary of the 2015 referendum; it turned out that the context had changed aer the
murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. Super-polarizations are episodes or
swerves, as Bustikova and Guasti call them (2017), that last as long as they are sustained
by an eective mobilization. e mobilizing force of acultural war tends to wear o unless
it is sustained by asense of perpetual crisis or by escalation.
Populists in power have been observed fuelling polarizing confrontations. According
to Ben Stanley, the PiS is ‘very keen to promote asense of constant threat’ (Gosling, 2019).
In Poland and Hungary, the momentum seems to have lasted due to continuing cultural
war that is waged from the position of power, and especially through media control. For
Kaczynski, and even more explicitly for Orbán, politics is a‘freedom ght’ (Buzogány,
2017, p.7) that starts at electoral boxes but that is sustained on broader battleelds. Orbán
himself has used all three scenes of the culture wars: in building historical monuments
in Budapest and the ‘wall’ against migrants, and by campaigning against internationalist
liberalism (Soros) and gender. So did PiS, in politicizing ‘gender’, WWII, Islamophobia,
abortion and the LGBT-scare most recently.
e ‘target group’ of aculture war is not necessarily very broad. For Attila Ágh, in Hun-
gary’s‘velvet dictatorship’ the populist strategy of cultural domination is not to convince
the majority. Rather, its aim is mobilizing asmall but ‘stubborn minority’ and ‘silenc-
ing/pacifying the majority’ by forming aconsensus around the dominant narrative (Ágh,
2016, p.39). Anational-conservative ‘parallel polis’ thus emerges in competition with the
previous cultural elite, with ‘parallel channels of communication, rituals, and particular
patterns of sociability and solidarity’ that ‘keeps their membership in apermanent state of
mobilization’ (Trencsényi, 2014, p.151).
Hence, rather than reecting adeep polarization or asubstantive cultural change, cul-
ture wars are aproduct of astrategy of political mobilization and elite replacement. So
far, they have been dependent upon aconstant performance of polarization. It may nev-
ertheless become durable in some countries like in the US, if cemented into institutions,
discursive and cultural hegemony and graed upon demographic cleavages.
6. Conclusion
Culture wars reached Central Europe in full in the mid-2010s. Large public mobiliza-
tions, divisive debates, and adeep polarization over symbols and norms were symptoms
of asuddenly culturalized politics. If Islamophobia and xenophobia were the most sa-
lient features of the CE culture wars, they were not the only battleelds. An analysis of
various polarizing mobilizations over symbolic, non-policy issues identies three main
theatres of CE culture wars: the politics of memory, the politics of identity, and the politics
of morality. While CE countries earlier experienced conicts over historical issues and
national identity, only in the past decade have these issues led to mass mobilizations and
deeply polarizing events and debates. Nativist, national-conservative politics has gained
an unprecedented salience in the past decade, especially in countries in which populist
parties gained power: Hungary, Poland, and Austria. It has been argued that the populist
phenomenon corresponds to an erosion of the liberal-democratic consensus and to ana-
tionalist and traditionalist backlash against imported liberalism.
is article has attempted to explore adierent perspective. In abroader diagnosis, CE
is witnessing aculturalization of political divides where terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘illiber-
al’, ‘populist parties’ and ‘traditional parties’ have become tools of political conict. Avoid-
ing explaining culturalization by cultural or ideological shis, this article has argued that
culturalization may be analyzed as aconsequence of apolitical strategy. Culture wars are
conicts over cultural and political hegemony, i.e. struggles over who will dene the basic
parameters of adiscourse, of apolitical community, of the nation’spast. ese sensitive is-
sues have been re-politicized by anew elite organized around new, divisive cultural codes.
e tactics of culture war include a‘construction’ of athreatening hegemony, provocative
challenges and discursive undermining and reversals, blurring of accepted notions and
takeover of the sources of cultural production and institutional inuence.
Cultural wars have been fought by various actors. If recent cultural warriors are mostly
conservative, ‘liberal’ and progressive camps are not above entering cultural conict. In
fact, engaging in aculture war produces conict– when leading politicians act as if people
were culturally polarized, polarization sets in. Populist challengers have nevertheless used
culture wars most systematically. As apolitical strategy, culture war has provided codes
helping to divide and mobilize the public and to replace political and cultural elites.
Until now cultural wars have indeed been episodes of varying duration. ey have
proved most lasting in countries in which populists have occupied the political centre,
gained power, invested in the media and used culture wars for sustained polarization and
base mobilization– that is, in Hungary, Poland and partly in Slovakia. Elsewhere, such as
in the Czech Republic, Austria and Croatia, culture wars have hitherto been rather inter-
mittent swerves. e question is whether cultural polarizations can be institutionalized
and become apermanent tool of governance.
1. For the purpose of this article, Central Europe includes the Visegrad countries and Austria, Slovenia
and Croatia– all are countries with ashared Catholic tradition, and arecent history of culture war
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... Given its prominent position within collective memory, it is the Second World War that has become a frequent subject of disputes within the culture wars (cf. Hesová 2021b). ...
... As we already know, these struggles not only in Central Europe are mainly associated with three areas (Hesová 2021b)identity politics (mainly in relation to migration; e.g., Kalmar 2018), moral politics (primarily the topics of gender or sexual minorities; e.g., Żuk and Żuk 2020 1 ), and memory politics (mainly, though not exclusively, in relation to the Second World War and the former communist regime; e.g., Naxera and Krčál 2021). The large-scale controversies about memory politics that are of primary interest to us in this article can be seen in all Central European countries they have resonated most strongly and for the longest time in Poland (e.g., Stryjek and Konieczna-Sałamatin 2021;Belavusau 2018) and Hungary (e.g., Benazzo 2017), and somewhat less strongly in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (e.g., Tomczuk 2016). ...
... Disputes about the communist regime have been a part of Czech society throughout its evolution since the fall of the regime (Mayerová 2009). In recent years, disputes over the interpretation of the past have deepened and focused on the pre-communist periods, including the Second World War (Hesová 2021b). Typically, however, discussions about the pre-communist past tend to be linked to discussions about the communist regime (Tomczuk 2016). ...
This article contributes to discussions on culture wars, memory politics, and the politics of dead bodies. It uses the example of the annual celebration of the liberation of the city of Pilsen by the American army in 1945 to demonstrate the use of the concept of “political necromancy.” The Pilsen celebrations are one of the events during which participating politicians use fallen (or suffering) soldiers as an argument to support current political goals. Metaphorically, the politician as a necromancer brings the fallen back to life and sends them as an army of the dead to fight in culture wars and memory wars. The article focuses on introducing the different strategies used in this process (depersonalizing the fallen or creating a ghost hero) and shows how dead bodies and the appropriate use of memory politics are used to bolster foreign policy ties to the US and to lash out against Russia and communism.
... In the strange mixture of the new Orwellian ideological factoryas e.g. combining the pagan and Christian traditions in the Fidesz ideological campaigns -this complete social capture in Hungary after the 2018 elections has been managed by a tough state control in its largest meaning through the aggressive 'privatisation' of the cultural sector (see the comparative ECE analysis in Hesová, 2021). ...
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All ECE countries have covered the same historical trajectory of ‘the third-generation autocracy’, but Hungary has been reaching its ‘perfection’, since the two-thirds, constitutional supermajority in the Hungarian case has allowed for the Orbán regime to complete this ‘reverse wave’ in all fields of society and turning it into a zombie democracy. The conceptual frame of this paper is that the decline of democracy and the turn to autocratisation can be presented in ECE in the three big stages of the Easy Dream, Chaotic Democracy and Neoliberal Autocracy in the three corresponding decades. The paper concentrates on the third stage in its three shorter periods taking 3–4 years as the De­Democratisation, Autocratisation and De­Europeanisation. The Hungarian case has been presented in this paper in a comparative ECE view as its worst-case scenario that also sheds light on the parallel developments in the fellow ECE countries.
The goal of this introduction to the special issue is threefold. First, we map a nascent research field on connections between populism and the past and, in so doing, point to gaps in existing work. Second, we develop the contours of an integrated analytical framework that, addressing these gaps, reconstructs the relationship between populism and the past comparatively and on multiple levels. Our approach pays special attention to the interlinked dynamics of populist political agency, the way they employ particular, idealized, and historically embedded narratives about a nation’s past, as well as contextual and structural factors that help facilitate the success of populist nostalgia. Third, we pose novel research questions induced by our process-oriented, multi-level framework and discuss how the articles in this special issue advance this line of research.
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From the early 2010s the East Central European countries have developed the "third-generation autocracies". They have introduced these autocracies through the "democracy capture" with a large deviation from the EU mainstream. Compared to the previous traditional types of autocracies the third-generation autocracy has produced radical innovations with the parallel developments of the formally democratic and informally autocratic forms in the institution-building. They have created a democratic facade of the formal-constitutional institutions and have also made big efforts for the drastic control of the informal institutions, in the media, culture and communication. This paper deals with the three stages of autocratization in the last thirty years in ECE, and it focuses on the recent stage from the early 2010s in its three shorter periods.
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Ukraine celebrated 30 years of independence in August 2021. The anniversary came at a difficult time when the country faced a long conflict with the Russian Federation, difficult economic conditions, and the COVID-19 crisis. The problem of Ukrainian sovereignty is often perceived though the narrow lens of occupied Crimea, fighting against the separatist forces in its eastern regions, and the manoeuvres of the Russian army at the Ukrainian border. This chapter focuses on selected long-term parameters that have a major impact on Ukrainian independence, i.e., the effects of a deindustrialised economy, national identity, and its links to religious (church) life. Citation: MLEJNEK, Josef. (2021). Ukraine Thirty Years after Independence: The Struggle Continues. In: TUNGUL, Lucie. Emerging Paradigms in the Shifting Foreign and Domestic Environments: The Czech Centre-Right’s Solutions to the Political Challenges of 2022. 1 vyd. Praha: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and TOPAZ, s. 36-42. ISBN 978-80-88350-22-4.
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The anti-liberal turn in Central Europe aroused a lively scholarly discussion to which this book wishes to contribute by providing a novel perspective. The recent illiberal upsurge is often ascribed to weakly rooted liberalism in the context of an unfinished transition, or, conversely, to the completion of the transition process in which populists turn against their erstwhile mentors from the West. Without separating Central Europe from global trends, the authors of this book look at a change in the political dynamics of post-accession Central Europe through the prism of the culture wars. Conflicts over values, symbols, and social norms have marked the 2010s in strikingly similar ways across Central Europe. To some extent they replace the older, socioeconomic right versus left cleavage, and, at the same time, they highlight topics like gender, identity, sovereignty and globalization. Every Central European country has undergone deeply polarizing episodes in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis, and some even before. In certain nations, these are linked to a strong national-conservative project, to religion or to traumas of the past, but there is no simple pattern. The book studies culturalized politics in a broadly conceived Central Europe – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Croatia – and shows the various forms that culture wars have taken in the 2010s as well as their underlying logic. ________________________________________________________________ Full text available at:
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Populism has become a phenomenon across European democracies, which thus face several challenges and problems. Many people are dissatisfied because they live in insecurity, or even in fear regarding their living standard in the years to come. The established parties are unable to respond effectively, and these citizens are forced to look for political alternatives elsewhere. Populist parties, on the other hand, can work effectively with fear, thanks to which populism has been on the rise both across Europe and in the USA. Although populism generally appears in the communication of parties at both ends of the one-dimensional right-left political spectrum, in most cases it is associated with extreme right-wing parties. A key element in the success of populist parties is their communication strategy. Social networks have become an ideal platform for populist political communication.
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Since electoral systems are seen as the most specific manipulative instrument of politics, they are at the forefront of politicians' interests. Although electoral systems make it possible to eliminate some of the imperfections and injustices of a given political system, by changing their settings, political protagonists often try to improve their position in the political system. Recently, parliamentary electoral legislation has been changed in Czechia. This chapter involves a brief reflection on this electoral system change, which was established by the Constitutional Court's ruling of February 2021. First, the shortcomings of the 2002 electoral system will be identified. A discussion of current changes in electoral legislation and a brief reflection on their political consequences follow.
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Hungary once represented a school-book case of transition to democracy. Now it offers insights into both contemporary Europe and theories of populism and nationalism. Resisting the traditional linear perspective to transition and a ‘demographic’ view of democracy, this article explores the relationships among democracy, populism and nationalism. This article operationalises performative and post-foundational theory of populism as a logic of articulation to explain Fidesz and the party leader Viktor Orbán’s illiberal measures, dichotomies between them and us, ultimately leading to nationalism and xenophobia. It shows how revolution, ‘illiberalism’ and migrants have served for populist meaning-making and are related to the political polarisation in Hungary. This article enhances the understanding of democracy by discussing the performative features of nation-building, populism and law-making in contemporary politics and finally the ‘Janus-face’ of populism. It sees 1989 as a populist moment of constitution of the foundations of a new era but also of the people central to democracy, and recognises attempts to generate similar moments in the 2010s.
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The reelection of Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary in April 2018 has entrenched a hybrid regime within the European Union. This article discusses some of the most crucial factors that have led to Hungary’s democratic backsliding and supplied the institutional and cultural bases of Fidesz’s rule. The authors particularly focus on phenomena that contributed to the party’s third landslide electoral victory, including the rhetoric of identity politics, conspiracy theories, and the fake news industry. While an idiosyncratic sequence of particular events led to the ascendance of illiberal rule in Hungary, the causal factors involved are virtually omnipresent and could therefore lead to similar outcomes elsewhere.
Islamophobia in Eastern Germany and in East Central Europe has very similar characteristics to Islamophobia in Western Europe and the USA. The difference, of degree rather than kind, is in the success of Islamophobia as a political instrument. This is somewhat more pronounced in the East of Germany and of the European Union as a whole. It is a mistake to attribute this difference mainly to the alleged authoritarian heritage of ‘Eastern Europe’. Much of the postsocialist public as a whole has characteristics similar to specific populations in the West who have been shown to be particularly prone to Islamophobic populism. These include precariously employed white working and lower-middle-class workers and rural residents. What East and West have in common is that they have both felt the negative impact of neoliberal policies, which have weakened social safety nets and made jobs more precarious. That impact was stronger in the postsocialist East, including eastern Germany, and that goes a long way towards explaining the greater degree of Islamophobia there.
Beginning in the 1960s, the United States experienced religious and partisan conflict over cultural issues such as abortion that was described as a “Culture War.” Recent, highly salient battles over religious liberty and transgender rights have led the media to characterize these issues as “new fronts in the culture war,” thereby giving reason to revisit the culture wars debate. In this article, I test whether the public is polarized on religious liberty and transgender rights, as well as whether these issues share the same underlying structure of public opinion as traditional culture wars issues. Using a dataset from the Pew Research Center, I find that a substantial subset of Americans hold polarized views on these issues, and that religion and party are important factors in explaining that polarization. The results suggest that the religious and partisan divides that fueled the original “culture wars” remain an important factor in American politics.
A common popular and scholarly opinion of Islamophobia in the socalled ‘Visegrád Four’ or ‘V4’ (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) sees it as caused by circumstances unique to Eastern Europe. Specifically to blame, it is alleged, is a distinctive local history of intolerance, especially antisemitism, and the fact that under socialism these countries were exempt from the post-war soulsearching that took place in Western Europe. Kalmar’s paper, instead, decentres Islamophobia in the V4 by considering it less as a limited regional phenomenon, and more in terms of how it is linked to Islamophobia in other European Union member states and the United States. As elsewhere, foremost among the conditions that encourage Islamophobia in the V4 is the alienation of certain publics on the periphery, which is an effect of global neoliberal policies. These have generated, along with Islamism and Islamophobia, a reinvented, essentializing discourse of difference between Eastern and Western Europe. In spite of that alleged difference, however, Islamophobic populism in the V4 is not just a regional threat to liberal democracy, but targets all of the European Union and the world.
Concern and hostility towards populism has become a distinctive feature of contemporary political culture. In Europe such concerns are frequently directed at Eurosceptics, whose opposition to the European Union is often portrayed as a cultural crime. Ancient anti-democratic claims about the gullibility, ignorance and irrationality of the masses are frequently recycled through the anti-populist condemnation of people who vote the wrong way. This book argues that the current outburst of anti-populist anxiety is symptomatic of a loss of faith in democracy and in the ability of the demos to assume the role of responsible citizens. Distrust of the people and of parliamentary sovereignty is reinforced by the concern that, on its own, liberal democracy lacks the normative foundation to inspire the loyalty and affection of ordinary citizens. Through focusing on the conflict between the European Union’s Commission and the Government of Hungary, this book explores contrasting attitudes towards national sovereignty, popular sovereignty and the question of tradition and the past as the main drivers of the culture war in Europe.
Post-communist states today are dealing with conflicting sources of ontological insecurity. They are anxious to be perceived as fully European by “core” European states, a status that remains fleeting. Being fully European, however, means sharing in the cosmopolitan European narratives of the twentieth century, perhaps the strongest being the narrative of the Holocaust. Influencing the European Union’s own memory politics and legislation in the process, post-communist states have attempted to resolve these insecurities by undergoing a radical revision of their respective Holocaust remembrance where the memory, symbols, and imagery of the Holocaust become appropriated to represent crimes of communism. By rejecting the cosmopolitan European narrative of the Holocaust, post-communist states have also removed anti-fascist resistance from the core memory of the Holocaust, allowing for a revival and ideological normalisation of contemporary fascist ideological movements. I illustrate the argument with an overview of contemporary Holocaust remembrance practices in the EU’s youngest member, Croatia.
For countries emerging from communism, the post-1989 imperative to “be like the West” has generated discontent and even a “return of the repressed,” as the region feels old nationalist stirrings and new demographic pressures. The origins of the region's current illiberalism are emotional and preideological, rooted in rebellion at the humiliations that accompany a project requiring acknowledgment of a foreign culture as superior to one’s own. Further contributing to illiberalism in the region is a largely unspoken preoccupation with demographic collapse-resulting from aging populations, low birth rates, and massive outmigration-which manifests as a fear that the arrival of unassimilable foreigners will dilute national identities and weaken national cohesion. © 2018. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.