Civil Society, Populism and Liberalism

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This paper considers the threats that various kinds of populism might be said to pose to the ideal of a civil society that mediates between ‘private’ and family life and the state. Although it is difficult to generalise about populisms, just about all – whether on left or right – share a hostility to ‘intermediate’ powers. Of course civil society is exactly what could be called a forum for intermediate powers. In contrast, populists often tend to emphasize a vision of immediate power in the sense of the possibility of the direct expression of the people’s will in political institutions. Populists, of whatever pitch, often tend to invoke a partisan state that will be on the side of the people (however defined) rather than a putatively neutral ‘liberal’ state that stands over and against civil society. These factors make most populisms more or less generically hostile to liberalism, understood not in ideological terms but more as a doctrine which emphasises the necessity of mediating power through institutions. Very often, populism is a threat to the idea of civil society understood as a concept integral to liberal political theory, as a means of balancing the state and its wider interlocutors. In this paper, various means, largely inspired by the writings of Tocqueville on the one hand and Paul Hirst on the other, are suggested for addressing aspects of this predicament.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-190
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society
Issue number2
Early online date3 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


  • civil society
  • democracy
  • liberalism
  • populism


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