The populist revolution has been crushed in the Netherlands. At least, that seems to be the foreign media’s enthusiastic takeaway. “Woke to a Dutch victory for moderates over extremists, bridges over walls, open over closed up,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour tweeted with tangible glee.
The Dutch love it when the world’s attention briefly turns to their tiny country, and politicians were quick to jump on the good news. “The international press came out in unbelievable numbers,” said Alexander Pechtold of the progressive Democrats 66 party in his post-election speech. “After Brexit, after Trump, everyone was looking to Europe. Here in the Netherlands, the populist advance has been halted.” Jesse Klaver of Green Left, whose party more than tripled its number of seats, asked his euphoric audience if populism had carried the day. “No!” they shouted, wildly enthusiastic.
I wish it were true.
Because let’s be honest. Right-wing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is this election’s real winner. We seem to be forgetting that his party gained five additional seats in the Dutch parliament. And more importantly: over the last ten years Wilders has wrenched most of the other parties – and particularly the fiscally conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the culturally conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDA), both mainstream parties with widespread support – toward his position on the fringes.
Suppose a denizen of the 1980s had stepped into a time machine and come forward to watch the runup to the Dutch elections. Imagine how surprised – or, more accurately, dismayed – they would be. So-called progressive and moderate politicians are currently making pronouncements that would have put them behind bars for inciting hate thirty years ago.
Rutte hasn’t prevailed over the populist right; he’s joined its ranks
In 1996, a Dutch judge sentenced the extreme-right politician Hans Janmaat for saying “As soon as we have the power and the opportunity, we will eliminate multiculturalism.” Pretty tame compared to Wilders, who’s constantly denouncing “palaces of hatred” (mosques) and “street terrorists” (Moroccan youth). At the start of his campaign, current prime minister Mark Rutte of the VVD said he hates the term “multiculturalism.” Rutte hasn’t prevailed over the populist right; he’s joined its ranks.
In short, real politics isn’t about figureheads and seats in parliament. Real politics is about ideas. And there can be no doubt regarding the ideas that have been gaining ground in the Netherlands for decades: extreme over moderate, walls over bridges, closed up over open.
This election’s outcome also offers little that’s new on the economic front. A neoliberal, technocratic cabinet is departing, and a new one will take its place. As always, the business-friendly VVD will cater to the banking and tobacco lobbies, big business, and high finance. The more progressive D66 is still toeing the economic line of the 1990s. And this election barely touched on the real challenges of the 21st-century: climate change, growing inequality, and the rot at the heart of our banking industry.
So is there no hope?
There’s always hope. The Netherlands’ proportional democracy offers a wide menu of political flavors, and it functions significantly better than the American and British systems. And the party with the gravest dearth of ideas – the social-democratic Labor Party (PvdA) – has been mercilessly punished for it. Never before in Dutch history has a party lost so many seats.
Meanwhile, the big winners on the left are Green Left and the radical Party for the Animals (PvdD). Their victory isn’t enough to compensate for the hard swerve to the right, but it has increased the chance that the Netherlands will take serious new steps toward a sustainable economy.
The big question now is how we can turn the tide. How can history once again move in the other direction – the direction of bridges over walls, open over closed up? As always, change will have to start with new ideas. Radical ones, because ideas tempered by “as long as” and “except for” won’t change the world. We now know where the strategy of the middle, of the Hillary Clintons, Tony Blairs, and Lodewijk Asschers, leads: nowhere.
Embracing the power of ideas, not the idea of power
And don’t forget – new ideas rarely come from the moderate parties in The Hague or Washington, in Brussels or Westminster. The world’s political centers are not the breeding ground for true change, but rather where it comes home to roost.
Just as Wilders has been yanking the Netherlands rightward for years, Dutch politicians like Green Left’s Jesse Klaver and Marianne Thieme of the Party for the Animals can pull things in the other direction. To do so, they can draw on new ideas – from radical sustainability to a universal basic income, from a Piketty-proof system of taxation to a healthcare system based on trust.
“This is not the end, but the beginning of our movement,” Jesse Klaver wrote yesterday. But for that to be true, it’s essential to avoid the freefall that has plagued the country’s Labor Party since it joined the ranks of the reigning: the plunge into moderation, into monotony, into wine watered down to tasteless.
Today, in the afterglow of the people’s endorsement, the heady aroma of power is understandably intoxicating. But consider this: the most influential Dutch politician of the past fifteen years – Geert Wilders – has never been a part of the country’s ruling coalition.
—Translated from Dutch by Grayson Morris and Erica Moore
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