Extreme rightwing ideas have been gaining ground in the Netherlands for decades. Jesse Klavers success suggests only radical alternatives can fight them
The populist revolution has been crushed in the Netherlands. At least, that seems to be the foreign medias enthusiastic takeaway. Woke to a Dutch victory for moderates over extremists, bridges over walls, open over closed up, CNNs Christiane Amanpour tweeted with tangible glee.
The Dutch love it when the worlds 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 GreenLeft, 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, lets be honest, rightwing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is this elections real winner. We seem to be forgetting that his party gained five additional seats in the Dutch parliament. And more importantly: over the past 10 years, Wilders has wrenched most of the other parties toward his position on the fringes particularly the fiscally conservative Peoples Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the culturally conservative Christian Democratic party (CDA), both mainstream parties with widespread support.
Suppose a denizen of the 1980s had stepped into a time machine and travelled to watch the runup to these 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 30 years ago.
In 1997, a Dutch judge sentenced the far-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, whos 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 hated the idea of a multicultural society. Rutte hasnt prevailed over the populist right, he has joined its ranks.
Remember: real politics isnt about figureheads and seats in parliament. Real politics is about ideas. And there can be no doubt regarding the extreme ideas that have been gaining ground in the Netherlands for decades.
This elections outcome also offers little thats 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? Theres always hope. The Netherlands proportional democracy offers a wide menu of political flavours, and it functions significantly better than the US and British systems. And the party with the gravest dearth of ideas the social-democratic Labour 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 GreenLeft and the radical Party for the Animals (PvdD). Their victory isnt enough to compensate for the 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? As always, change will have to start with new ideas. Radical ones, because ideas tempered by as long as and except for wont change the world. We now know where the strategy of the middle, of the Hillary Clintons, Tony Blairs and Lodewijk Asschers (the leader of the Dutch Labour party), leads: nowhere.
New ideas rarely come from the moderate parties in The Hague or Washington, in Brussels or Westminster. The worlds political centres 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 such as GreenLefts Jesse Klaver and Marianne Thieme of the Party for the Animals can pull things in the opposite direction. To do so, they can draw on new ideas from a participatory democracy to a universal basic income, from a progressive system of taxation to a healthcare system based on cooperation and trust.
This is not the end, but the beginning of our movement, Klaver wrote yesterday. But for that to be true, its essential to avoid the freefall that has plagued the countrys Labour party since it joined the ranks of those in power: the plunge into moderation, into monotony, into wine watered down to the point of tastelessness.
Today, in the afterglow of the peoples endorsement, the heady aroma of power is understandably intoxicating. But consider this: the most influential Dutch politician of the past 15 years Geert Wilders has never been a part of the countrys ruling coalition.
Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There
Translated from Dutch by Grayson Morris and Erica Moore