Pragmatism over Populism?

Dutch Identity after the Election
Geert Wilders / CNS
Geert Wilders’s right-wing Freedom Party got a lot of attention in the Dutch election, but not enough votes / CNS photo

The Dutch have voted, and much of Europe has exhaled a sigh of relief. If you’d given me the same set of results in any prior election I’ve watched in my sixteen years in the Netherlands, I’d have yawned. But after Brexit and Trump, the resilient Social Democratic pragmatism the Dutch showed on March 15 was as refreshing as it was welcome.

To be sure, for many of us it proved to be just another round of looking to the powers-that-be to form yet another coalition of familiar faces and factions. Those familiar faces will include the center-right pro-business VVD; the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA); the Liberal-Democratic D66; the Greens (GroenLinks); Labor (PvDA); the Socialists (SP); and the Christian Union (Christen Unie), among others. Excluded from the governing coalition will be Geert Wilders’s right-wing Freedom Party, the PVV. Wilders got most of the attention and his party gained five seats in the lower house of Parliament (the Tweede Kamer), giving it twenty, just ahead of CDA and D66 at nineteen each.

But the PVV failed to oust the current prime minister, the VVD’s Mark Rutte. And though the VVD lost ten seats, it still retains thirty-one, leaving it with a healthy advantage. Rutte’s task now will be to put together a governing coalition, probably of four other parties. This will not be easy, nor will the actual governing. Joining with other parties requires compromise. Party leaders who bend too much risk backlash from true believers in the ranks.

This is likely why the traditionally strong Labor Party (PvDA) got crushed, dropping from thirty-eight seats to nine. Its partnership with the VVD undermined its credibility. Profiting from PvDA’s loss was the Green party, led by charismatic young newcomer Jesse Klaver. Alongside Rutte, Klaver was the big winner on March 15. The Greens tripled their number of seats, from four to fourteen.

Being for or against Wilders is a big issue for the Dutch. His proposals to ban the Koran, mosques, and Muslim immigrants have made him a polarizing figure—a pariah to many but a hero to a significantly smaller (though growing?) group of followers. Wilders touches a sensitive nerve for the Dutch: the very idea of Dutch identity itself.

For centuries, the Dutch knew just who they were: mostly blond- or red-haired, blue-eyed, white, straight-talking, Calvinist capitalists who believed in God, family, hard work, and doing the right thing. Looking around, a Dutchman saw himself in his neighbors, and that was reassuring. Collaborating with them, he built dikes, pushed back the sea, and established the shipping industry that made this low-lying country safe and prosperous.

Dutch anxiety over national identity has been exacerbated by the migration crisis

By opening its borders to Jews and Protestants in search of freedom of religion (think of the Pilgrims who came to Holland before going to America), the Dutch gained a somewhat deserved reputation for tolerance. I say “somewhat” because this same openness did not extend to Catholics, whose religion was that of the hated Spanish king the Dutch had once been subject to. As a result, Catholicism was banned in the Netherlands in the 1580s, and the Catholic hierarchy was not allowed back in for two-and-a-half centuries. Still, even this conflict got smoothed out in time. Catholics eventually claimed their place in the twentieth century as one of the four “columns”—alongside the Protestants, socialists, and laissez-faire liberals—that upheld Dutch society. This created a unique social arrangement in which like associated with like, each in its own sector. Thus did each group have its own schools, trade unions, newspapers, and sports clubs.

This form of societal organization lasted until the late 1960s, when it quickly unraveled in the face of secularization and rising individualism. By this time, increasing numbers of mostly Muslim immigrants had begun arriving. The first group came from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, in the 1940s. In subsequent decades, larger numbers of Muslims came from Turkey and Morocco as “guest workers.” Finding much to appreciate in Holland, many stayed on to raise families here, establishing in the process a largely Muslim economic underclass.

If this made the Dutch uneasy, that feeling has been exacerbated by the current migration crisis. The Dutch take pride in their reputation for inclusion and tolerance. (During the First World War, Holland took in a million Belgian refugees.) As a small country that was itself occupied by Germany in World War II, Holland knows the importance of helping people in wartime. But the rapid influx of refugees in 2015, when over a million came to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, caused concern. Just a short walk from my workplace, in Nijmegen, 3,000 refugees were given temporary housing. It was a generous humanitarian gesture that also sparked worries in the surrounding community; fortunately, the refugees were soon relocated to better, more permanent housing without any significant problems arising. 

Still, the Dutch continue to be concerned about what the future will bring. Will the amount of refugees be too big to absorb? How to distinguish between war refugees and economic opportunists? How to keep from admitting radicals and terrorists? Every country faced with an influx of newcomers has these worries, but the Dutch seem to feel especially justified, believing they’ve built themselves a little Paradise. (They rank sixth in the world in the current World Happiness Report.) There’s almost no crime. The architecture is innovative, the landscaping beautiful, the schools good. University studies are amazingly affordable, health care is available to everyone, there is almost no homelessness, the roads are smooth as can be, public transportation goes everywhere and runs mostly on time, unemployment is low, workweeks are short, and vacations are long. What more could you want? Recent studies by the WHO and UNICEF show that children in Holland are at or near the top in measures of happiness and well-being. (And as any parent knows, your children’s happiness goes a long way to ensuring your own.) Another recent survey shows three-quarters of Dutch employees to be content with their jobs.

Understandably, the Dutch don’t want to put this all at risk. They’ve invested huge amounts of money and work in their social and material infrastructure, and seeing others moving in, they fear losing what they have painstakingly built. That’s one key reason why people support Wilders. Another is that where there is crime or unemployment, Moroccan youths are disproportionately involved. (Moroccans charge that they are victims of discrimination in hiring, which is probably true.) Additionally, there’s anxiety about terrorism. An increasing number of Dutch think the borders should perhaps be closed, or that there should be stricter rules for making immigrants who are already here conform to Dutch norms and values.

The problem with those proposals is that the very notion of a “Dutch way” is up for grabs. As Dutch Queen Maxima (who happens to be Argentinian) has said, “The Dutch person doesn’t exist.” And in fact, over the past fifty years, certain cornerstones of Dutch collective identity have eroded. I’m thinking in particular of the practice of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), which the vast majority of Dutch once actively embraced and have now largely abandoned. In 1966, 47 percent of the Dutch professed belief in a personal God, and another 31 percent in an indeterminate higher power. Today only 14 and 28 percent of the population fall into those categories, respectively. This means that for many people, aspects of identity that once were taken for granted—for better or worse—are now individual construction “projects” carried out in an existential vacuum. In the absence of the old beliefs and social structures, individual autonomy has become the highest good, and the only “meaning” to be found is that which one can conjure for oneself. (See for example the current practice of euthanasia in Holland. Once justified as a humane answer to suffering, it is now regarded by many as a right to decide at any age when your life is “complete.”)

Most people don’t, from what I see, really think deeply about such issues. They just continue to behave in the old way and use the old words (love, justice, right, wrong) as if God were still in his heaven and the way we justify our beliefs and actions remains morally coherent. To me this is like overdrawing on a bank account—or chopping off the legs of a table and expecting it to still stand. Similarly, people fail to consider that their readiness to lash out at immigrants might signal some sadness, fear, and lack of knowing in themselves. I, for one, continue to think that God looks on all this with benignity and proper concern, and will help Holland through its difficulties in the years to come. But it’s not going to be easy.

Timothy P. Schilling lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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