‘A blow of the hammer.’ That is how Dutch writer and essayist Bas Heijne captured the sentiment prevailing among many Dutch after the recent elections.
Forum for Democracy (FvD) came out of the Provincial States elections as the country’s biggest party. FvD is a text-book, right-wing populist party. Many fear we are witnessing the end of democracy, or at least the beginning of the end. All across the globe populists are on the rise, most visibly on the right, attempting to undermine the pillars of democracy: freedom, solidarity, toleration, non-discrimination, respect. Now even the Netherlands – renowned for their love of liberty and their talent for tolerance – are haunted by the spectre of populism.
One must however be cautious not to draw too preliminary and one-sided conclusions about the state of Dutch democracy. The political landscape is quite fragmented, and it has definitely not been a landslide victory. The party of current prime minister Mark Rutte managed to minimize the loss, and will lose one seat in the First Chamber. The heaviest blows have been delivered to the Christian-Democrats, the left-wing liberals, and also to Geert Wilder’s PVV. Hence, the rise of FvD coincides with the decline of Wilder’s extreme-right, anti-Islam party. The Dutch are definitely not on the populist path to illiberal democracy. Holland will not soon become a Hungary by the North Sea, or a Poland in the polders. The opposition to FvD is much stronger than its support. Therefore, we must not panic, but we must be deeply concerned. Here are a few reasons why.
Savior of civilization
We are beginning to get familiar with the populist strategy. FvD has meticulously and diligently followed the text-book. There is the use of a false dichotomy between the elite and the people. ‘The elite’ is being blamed for betraying their own country, while the party leaders of FvD themselves of course happily belong to the elite they pretend to despise. There is the praise for Putin and authoritarian figures. There is climate-change denial, fact-free politics and a whole bunch of alternative truths and complete lies. There is the overly one-sided anti-immigration perspective, with immigrants and the EU getting blame for problems they hardly have anything to do with.
And then there is the one sin I find unforgivable: the exploitation of nostalgia. Where once nostalgia was a sweet sentiment of sadness, synonymous with the music of Chopin and the poems of Alan Tate, it is now a political instrument. Nostalgo-nationalist rhetoric is a key component of the populist strategy. Thierry Baudet, founder of FvD, sees himself as a savior, ‘standing on the ruins of what was once the best of civilizations.’
Sexism too is a recurrent leitmotiv in the right-wing populist’s strategy. And it is also present in FvD. Baudet is the author of a novel that is bad in so many ways, not least because of the misogyny that sprouts from every page. Evidently, a writer is not responsible for the horrible things his characters do or say. But in interviews Baudet does little to sharpen the line between fiction and reality. He has shown a remarkable willingness to claim on camera, without a slightest hint of hesitation, that women are, by their very own nature, less competent in most jobs, obedient and not really capable of thinking for themselves either. While the world is full of advocates of gender equality, we must not turn a blind eye to a group that is getting increasingly louder: those who openly challenge rights and capabilities of women. It isn’t hard to see that the effect on society in general and the labour market in particular of having political leaders voicing such views and mainstreaming them is likely to be quite damaging.
A lost civic virtue
In short: FvD’s rhetoric involves a great deal of talk that one would nowadays not even get away with being drunk in a bar, but which for some reason has become acceptable in the political arena. Respect was once a moral and civic virtue. Now it is disrespectfulness with which many votes are won. Baudet masters the art of blatantly insulting people like few others. He has, to give just one example, celebrated his election victory by describing prime minister Rutte as a worthless piece of stupidity. As is so often the case with populists: the problem is not only what is being said, but also how it is being said. Baudet does not seem interested in reasoned arguments. He addresses gut-feelings and seeks to exploit them.
While many reacted to FvD’s success with shock and astonishment, their success doesn’t come as a surprise. We have all been able to witness the growing popularity of the party that was founded in 2015, first as a think tank and alternative political movement. We have also been able to witness what the party stands for. Baudet is completely open about his views, as expressed in an endless chain of tweets and interviews. The success of FvD is founded on its use of social media. It is not a surge to power consolidated in the backrooms and corridors of politics. It all happens out in the open. ‘Democracy dies in darkness’, is the The Washington Post's famous catchphrase. Yet there is reason to believe that in our era, democracy dies in broad day light too. On Twitter. On Facebook. On the streets. Many people no longer feel the need to hide their anti-democratic feelings and convictions.
Prophets of doom
I have never felt comfortable in the company of prophets of doom. We have heard it all too often over the past few years. The West is collapsing. Democracy is a thing of the past. A new world war is imminent. I don’t think we are witnessing an Untergang des Abendlandes. My faith in most people is stronger than my fear of some people. Liberal democracy can perish, but it won’t go down without a fight. We must not bury democracy before she has died. But we must begin to cure her, before she is dead.
There is not a single remedy for our political system and society. But we must combat lies and alternative truths with reason. We must restore respect where there is now disdain. We must advocate a politics of compassion to counter the politics of resentment. We must listen to what people are saying, understand their worries and grievances, and offer a better and more humane solution than the one offered by those who want to recruit feelings without subjecting them to examination. Surely that is what democracy implies. Simply to dismiss popular feeling is to betray the democratic mission. But most of all: we must be clear about what is at stake. The most important struggle in politics today is not a struggle between left and right, rich and poor, so-called elites and the common people. It is a struggle between defenders of liberal democracy and its enemies.
Given the historical relevance of the forthcoming European elections in May, it is important to bear this in mind. The future of Europe is not doomed, but it is at stake.
By Alicja Gescinska