The Dutch elections on March 15 have received a lot of attention in the international media.
The reason for the attention is clear: A Trump lookalike populist, Geert Wilders, was rumored to win big as part of a western populist movement that some call the “Patriotic Spring.”
His rise has the liberal West confused and concerned, because if the land of gay marriage and coffee shops falls, then where is their hope for western liberalism?
But, as results are coming in, two things are becoming clear: Election turnout was high and Wilders’ support relatively low. Projections show Wilder’s party winning 19 seats compared to 31 seats for the Dutch-right liberal conservatives of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. What does all this tell us about the populist movement? Is our bedrock of tolerance safe again?
To understand what happened in these Dutch elections, we need to look beyond Wilders and his place in western populism to the myth of Dutch tolerance.
Students in my race and ethnicity courses at the University of Michigan have been engaged in this very task as they examine current and historic diversity in the Netherlands. When they read University of Amsterdam sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak or Free University of Amsterdam Holocaust historian Dienke Hondius, a more complicated picture of Dutch tolerance emerges.
Wilders doesn’t represent a sudden movement of the Netherlands away from tolerance. Dutch tolerance does not really exist in the way the stereotype dictates. Seventy years ago, the country saw a larger percentage of its Jewish population deported and killed than any other Western European nation. This fact does not lend itself to simple explanations but has at least in part been attributed to the lack of protection of Jews by non-Jews and to Dutch collaboration with the Nazi occupation.
Looking at modern times, CUNY political scientist John Mollenkopf reports poorer immigrant integration outcomes, such as employment rates and job retention, in Amsterdam than in New York City and Duyvendak finds explanations for these outcomes in white majority-culture dominance.
A pretty story
A few weeks after the 2016 U.S. elections, elderly Dutch statesman Jan Terlouw made a plea to the Dutch nation. Speaking as the Jimmy Carter-like voice of reason of the political establishment, he asked the nation to go back to a time where Dutch people trusted each other, a time where people could enter the homes of other Dutchmen freely and without suspicion. It was a “Make the Netherlands Great Again” message of sorts, but coming from the Dutch center-left.
I grew up in the Netherlands of Jan Terlouw. The country gave me an idyllic childhood, with soccer and hopscotch in the streets, but I never stepped freely into the homes of Indonesians who lived, grouped together, on the next street. My white Dutch friends still know little to nothing about the relationship between race and our colonial history, or about the people of color who came to live in the Netherlands through that history. Some Americans may be surprised to learn that the Netherlands has a more than 20% non-majority ethnic-Dutch population, 10% of which are Indonesians, Surinamese and Dutch Caribbeans from former or current colonies, as well as Turks and Moroccans who (or whose family) originally came as part of guest worker programs.
Terlouw’s story is a beautiful story then, but it isn’t true, and neither is the story that the Dutch have suddenly become intolerant as part of global western populism. In reality, the Dutch good old days were good old days because racial minorities were sidelined and did not complain, for example, about the slaves depicted on the golden coach that carries the Dutch king to the annual “Throne Address,” or the state of union.
Wilders isn’t unique
Now Dutch intolerance in the person of Wilders is on display around the world, and it is not limited to his party.
Of the 28 parties on the Dutch ballot this year, five have anti-Islam or anti-immigrant platforms, some more openly so than others. The Party for Entrepreneurs, for example, calls for a “mosque watch.” Another one of these five parties – the Forum for Democracy party, which has a restrictive immigration and EU-cautious platform – appears to have won two seats.
Dutch nationalism does not just live on the right. All the big parties that are contenders to enter a coalition government after this election – from all the way left to all the way right – reference “Dutchness” in one way or another in their party platforms, as a presumed understanding of what it means to be Dutch, or in the form of shared national values and a “be like us” message to immigrants. Dutch nationalism is ubiquitous.
But one important aspect of today’s elections is overshadowed by the Wilders discussion. The Dutch citizens who voted Wednesday had the choice of voting for a party called “DENK”, with mixed Dutch-Turkish, or Dutch-minority, values that some critics call the Dutch Erdogan satellite party.
Voters could also support “Artikel 1,” a party founded by minority rights activist Sylvana Simons nine weeks ago – and just four months after the country saw its racist holiday character of Zwarte Piet (the blackfaced helper of Saint Nicholas) phased out on national television amid white nationalist screams and quieter criticisms about the end of Dutch culture and tradition.
Artikel 1, named for the equality clause in the Dutch constitution, has the slogan “All Different But Yet The Same” and calls for equal rights for all Dutch people, men, women, gay, straight, and importantly, black, white, native and immigrant. This election was the first time we saw such minority parties such as DENK and Artikel 1 with programs advocating for education about Dutch migration history, the teaching of languages beyond the traditional European ones, a registry for racist hate crimes, and a national holiday to celebrate the emancipation of Dutch slaves. Remember: The Kingdom of the Netherlands is still a colonial power over the nation states of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten, and the country of the Netherlands over the three Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba.
As a new Dutch government is formed in the weeks to come, we could brush the minority parties off as a reaction to Wilders’ populism, and see his defeat as a return of Dutch tolerance, but we would be wiser to see these elections as the beginning of a sea change in a country that is slowly changing to meet its tolerant mythology.