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38 CES Open Forum Series

Civil Society as a Threat to Democracy: Organizational Bases of the Populist Counterrevolution in Poland

Mar 5, 2020 – Grzegorz Ekiert


Civil society as threat to democracy - Ekiert


A distinctive trajectory of civil society transformation in Poland has provided organizational foundations for cultural and political polarization and facilitated the country’s recent turn towards authoritarianism. Developments in Poland suggest that the prevailing notion of the inherent virtuousness of civil society – its unquestionably beneficial role in strengthening democracy and the assumed liberal preferences of civil society actors – need to be reassessed. Consequently, I argue that the particular organizational configuration of civil society, its sectoral composition, normative orientation of its actors and prevailing cleavages can either strengthen or undermine democracy. Since the country’s transition to democracy in 1989, Polish civil society has evolved into an organizational form that can be described as a “pillarized – that is, vertically divided – civil society.” While, historically, pillarization of civil society was considered to be a peculiar phenomenon in the Low Countries in the 19th century, this form of civil society partition has become increasingly common in contemporary democratic societies with boundaries shaped by identity-based cleavages (religious, ethnic, political). The vertical segmentation of civil society has enabled extreme cultural and political polarization and has facilitated the mobilization of far-right, nationalist and conservative religious movements. In Poland, the pillarization of civil society affects the electoral fortune of liberal parties and provides support for the anti-liberal and anti-European policies of Poland’s current government dominated by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), as well as defines political conflicts and protest politics.