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47 CES Open Forum Series

The “Storm Troops” of Populism: Illiberal Civil Society in Law and Justice’s Poland

Nov 9, 2021 – Frances Cayton


In accounting for populism, the literature is split between demand-side explanations, which focus on cultural backlash against rising globalization and inequality, and those from the supply-side, which demonstrate the failure of traditional political parties to address these changing cleavages. Connecting the research agenda of populism with that on civil society, I argue that a subset of right-wing, illiberal civil society links these canonical explanations of populist success. Using an original dataset and qualitative evidence, I evaluate the rise and institutionalization of Polish illiberal civil society in the period 2000–2020 alongside that of the populist right-wing Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). Using a case study of one such civil society organization, the Gazeta Polska clubs, this paper shows how illiberal civil society can mediate public preferences and provide mobilizational footing for populist elites. This paper also identifies the perceived benefits of illiberal civil society to populist elites in areas of campaigning, reaching swing voters, and advancing the party’s platform.