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Reclaiming Democracy: Herman Tjeenk Willink's Plea for a Balanced Civil Society

Reclaiming Democracy: Herman Tjeenk Willink's Plea for a Balanced Civil Society


February 5, 2024


When I read the book that my colleague Wouter Jong brought me from the Netherlands during his visit, I was struck by the fact that the topics I write about are addressed in it. It revolves around dissent and a new social contract that defines more than just the relationship between the citizen and the state but also among citizens themselves. It emphasizes active citizenship as a form of dissent against the government, embodying the essence of democracy.

In his thought-provoking collection of essays, "Het tij tegen," Herman Tjeenk Willink addresses a crucial concern: the excessive focus of our politics on governance. Rooted in the concept of civil society, Tjeenk Willink challenges the prevailing dynamics, urging a reevaluation of the relationship between the state and citizens (Tjeenk Willink, 2023).

Tjeenk Willink argues that civil society, which he associates with liberal ideals, counterbalances the state’s dynamics. He emphasizes the need for a robust "social" organization alongside the political, going beyond mere verbal affirmation of individualism. According to Tjeenk Willink, Dissent should extend beyond superficial expressions and embody a force that counters the overwhelming influence of the government.

Reflecting on the era of pillars or "verzuiling," Tjeenk Willink notes a significant shift in the state's and society's relationship. In the past, citizens identified more with their organized pillars (Christian or social-democratic) than with a broader state identity. The decline of these affiliations brought liberation but failed to foster a cohesive state (citizen) consciousness. In the post-pillar era, the government transformed into a conglomerate marked by administrative thinking, diminishing the sense of service to the common good.

Tjeenk Willink criticizes the failure of major political parties, including liberals, to develop meaningful visions regarding the state-civil society relationship. Even as liberals were once an involuntary pillar, their focus on the market and individualism obscured the need for a well-defined balance between the two entities.

There are harmful effects of losing sight of the public good and moral justice within the evolving government structure. It is urgent that various professionals, including judges, doctors, police officers, and those working in public services, engage with lawmakers and, when necessary, refuse to comply if democratic principles are compromised.

Citizens are pivotal actors in civil society, advocating for active citizenship to complement representative democracy.

We must develop a vision for democracy in collaboration with relevant stakeholders. For a thriving democracy, in this the concerns and responsibilities of political institutions cannot be overlooked. As we navigate the complex governance, dissent, and civil society landscape, this call for balance resonates as a crucial guide for reclaiming democracy.



Tjeenk Willink, H. (2023). Het tij tegen. Prometheus.



Miguel Goede

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