How populism grew its roots in the Netherlands

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As politics and elite behaviour move away from consensus and inclusion, Geert Wilders has been able to capitalise on the social compartmentalisation that characterises the modern Netherlands.
Yvonne Zonderop
29 November 2012

The new demarcation line between higher and lower educated people in Dutch society has become quite obvious in recent years. In the old days upper and lower classes would meet in church, but these have mainly been abandoned. School populations have become a reflection of the city borough's inhabitants, divided by socio-economic status. This is not a specifically Dutch development. The American political philosopher Michael Sandel stated in an interview that ‘Nowadays only in the shopping mall do people of various backgrounds meet.' This was a clear-cut criticism of two simultaneous developments: shopping and consuming have become more important and malls have become the main meeting places, while other forms of social interaction have lost importance.

A persistent demarcation

In the meantime, the demarcation between higher and lower educated Dutch has grown to be quite persistent. Research demonstrates that children of the highly educated  perform better at school, allowing them to advance to university where they meet the same people all over again. In the once-so-egalitarian Netherlands, a social structure is developing which essentially resembles a class system – never mind the official denials. True meritocracy no longer rules. 

Last summer, NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch quality daily, published  an illuminating series from the fifth largest city in the Netherlands, Eindhoven. The reporters described daily life in two adjacent neighbourhoods: one decent and middle class; the other a neighbourhood with lower educated inhabitants. How would the middle class neighbourhood address problems caused by a noisy neighbour? Reporters described how the complainant would deliver a note to the mailbox of the person who caused the disturbance, who would then respond with a bouquet of flowers and abundant apologies, after which everybody would know that the problem was solved. But in the poorer neighbourhood the complainant did not even know how to attract the attention of his upstairs neighbour because the door had no bell, the curtains remained closed and it was not certain whether the stranger scurrying by was indeed the neighbour.

The series painfully demonstrates how difficult it has become to find a political answer to these kinds of problems. The lower educated population in big cities live in a fractured environment in which neighbours hardly know each other and where inhabitants could have radically different lifestyles and backgrounds. For the middle and top layers, the world has not really changed so much. In fact, they have explicitly been confirmed in their identity.

Shame as a driving force

The lower classes in the Netherlands have felt increasingly abandoned during the past several years. This feeds the indignation that is an undeniable part of populism. There is an elite which is taking excellent care of itself and which does not have a clue about the kinds of problems lower educated people confront. Giselinde Kuipers suggested in the aforementioned interview that these highly educated people actually feel ashamed, as this situation is obviously not in line with the egalitarian, meritocratic ideology. ‘Shame is both the motive and the problem’, wrote Kuipers. ‘It leads to evasion and denial. People find it difficult to cope with the idea of a power difference. Evasion of contact with the lower classes becomes a solution.’

The idea that serious power differences exist between social groups is still a taboo in the Netherlands. Kuipers cites as an example research among higher educated women and their domestic workers. The bosses find it very hard to give clear directions about what exactly must be cleaned. They act in an extremely friendly way, as if the worker really is a friend happening to drop by. Otherwise they may put the guilt-ridden wages in a corner as if they were not honestly earned. The workers, on the other hand, prefer clear assignments. They are well aware of  the difference in power and they are especially annoyed by its denial. This evasion and denial contains an important indication of the discontent between the upper and lower classes.

Middle class morality reigns

Yet the facts speak for themselves. After thorough research, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) last year mentioned ‘stubborn’ differences, not only in terms of socio-economic position but also in terms of contentment. ‘Lower educated people, in general, are more pessimistic about society, more negative about politics and more concerned about crime and material affairs. Those with a higher education are distinguished by higher levels of optimism, trust and tolerance.’ The difference in levels of trust is especially meaningful. When asked whether they trust other people, eighty per cent of highly-educated people answered ‘yes, I do’, whereas only forty per cent of lower educated people gave the same answer. According to the SCP, this directly relates to the manner in which people feel they have a grip on their own lives.

Differences in health are also remarkable. The Royal Institute for National Health and Environment (RIVM) raised the alarm bells on this in 2011. The lower one’s education, the higher one’s chance of a chronic illness. The higher one’s education, the longer one’s life expectancy and the longer the years spent in good health. The Institute found direct correlations with differences in lifestyle. Smoking and bad eating habits – practised more often by lower educated people – increase the risk of heart and vascular diseases, lung cancer and diabetes. 

Of course, in the old days of the pillar system there were differences too. But then it was still common for the pastor or priest to tell people how to live. The schoolmaster still had the authority to teach children in a certain way. This structure has disappeared. We have been liberated from the old constraining structures, but now the elites hesitate to take people by the hand and educate them. It is considered not the done thing. People are free to choose how to fulfil their own lives and, as long as they do not damage their surroundings, others are not supposed to interfere.

This middle class morality now dominates the public domain. Even social workers who specialise in guiding childrearing in the old multicultural Rotterdam neighbourhoods find it hard to express clearly to parents what the recommended behaviour towards their children is, as shown in research conducted by Marguerite van den Berg. During a course, these parents often learn more from each other about their children’s bedtime than from the course leaders. They prefer to ask the parents: ‘what do you yourself think about these issues?’, convinced that self-reflection is the way to civilisation. Here again we see the analogy with old-fashioned Dutch childrearing

Deliberate noise-making 

According to Mark Bovens, professor in Public Administration in Utrecht, the differences between higher and lower educated people have stabilised in recent years. This may be one of the reasons that populism as a political movement seems to have come to a halt. It has taken about ten years, but now people in The Netherlands indeed recognise problems that could not be mentioned in earlier years. Moreover, many different methods are being used to try to tackle the problems. 

That is exactly what Geert Wilders' supporters hoped for. At least, that is the impression of Erasmus University professor of political communication Chris Aalberts. He conducted interviews with PVV voters about what they expected from Geert Wilders. The PVV leader, during the past years, frequently advocated extreme proposals, often deliberately formulated in offensive language . For example, he proposed a ‘head-rag tax’, a tax specifically designed for women who wear a head scarf. Also, he advocated the Dutch exit from the Euro, using the motto ‘let the Greeks pay for their own problems’. According to Aalberts, many PVV voters knew that these kinds of policies were unexecutable, but that was not the point. ‘By voting for a politician who wields extreme, sometimes unexecutable policies, PVV voters ensure that the policy is ultimately pushed a little into their direction..’ This is what the majority of the PVV following aims for, Aalberts wrote on the op-ed pages of the daily De Volkskrant. Its headline was: 'Geert simply needs to make noise’. 

This considered, the Dutch political system is doing its job as usual: to allow, to adapt, to encapsulate and thereby file off the sharp edges. Perhaps this is even more visible regarding the Socialist Party (SP). Whether this party should be considered part of the populist movement is debated, but the fact is that the base of its followers – just like the PVV – mostly consists of the lower socio-economic classes. Once a radical splinter group, the SP developed into a classical leftist alternative for those voters who thought the social democratic PvdA had bowed too much in the direction of the meritocratic trend. The SP unequivocally represented those workers who suffered from the disadvantages of privatisation and forms of competition in the public domain, like home assistants, nurses and cleaners. While management grew and earned higher wages, workers had to deal with zero-hour contracts, temporary engagements and increased insecurity. The SP made this an issue and demanded counter measures. In this respect, it was Pim Fortuyn's heir. In 2006, this critical position delivered the SP a huge victory at the ballot box and the party grew from nine to twenty-five seats in parliament, out of 150 seats. But its victory did not lead to government participation, and the SP dwindled back down to fifteen seats. Again, this year it made a lot of headway with its strong criticism, a new leader and a rise in the polls. Some even thought that the SP would become the largest political party at the September 2012 election, but this expectation was not realised. The party got entangled between the choice of being a protest movement and opting for governing responsibility. Eventually all virtual winnings evaporated and on election day the SP won exactly the same number of seats as two years earlier – no loss, but no gains, either.

This result has been widely explained as the end of the rise of populism. The SP did not realise its predicted growth, and Wilders’ PVV visibly faded also. His seats in Parliament shrunk from twenty-four to fifteen. This decline was larger than the polls had indicated. Geert Wilders paid the price for being the cause of the fall of the government that he supported since 2010. He was also – in his own way – caught between the burden of shared responsibility and vocally protesting on the sidelines. The PVV chose the latter, as the SP had chosen the former during the election campaign. But both paid a price. Now they are, respectively, the third and fourth most powerful parties in the country, each with the support of about ten per cent of the electorate.


Yvonne Zonderop’s pamphlet ‘How populism grew its roots in the Netherlands’, paints a picture of an egalitarian Netherlands where consensus and guidance, rather than imposition and authority are at the core of all institutions. She explains how Dutch myths, narratives and cultural norms have remained practically unchanged; politics and elite behaviour, on the other hand, has moved away from consensus and inclusion, triggering a widespread feeling among voters of nostalgia for the old days when everyone was included and represented.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint launched in a guest week in November 2012. The partnership will continue over the coming months with articles timed to coincide with events to disseminate the ten pamphlets commissioned through Counterpoint's project 'Recapturing Europe's Reluctant Radicals" , funded by the Open Society Foundations.


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