The Dutch people have spoken but what the heck have they said? Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands took place on Wednesday. The anti-EU anti-immigrant anti-Muslim candidate Geert Wilders’s party came in second with 13% of the vote (compared with the 21% showing of the center-right party that garnered the largest number of seats). That party will now need to cobble together a ruling coalition from political parties that have little in common other than an aversion for Geert Wilders. The editors of the Wall Street Journal observe:
Center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s victory over euroskeptic, anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders had looked likely in the final polling before the vote. In the event, Mr. Rutte’s Party for Freedom and Democracy won 33 out of 150 seats in Parliament with a little above 21% support. That’s a fall from his 27% vote share and 41 seats five years ago, but a respectable showing compared to Mr. Wilders’s 13% and 20 seats, despite the latter’s improved results compared to 2012.
Holland’s complex proportional-voting system, which saw 13 parties elected to Parliament, will now descend into the usual coalition building. Mr. Rutte is widely expected to emerge as the Prime Minister, although he’ll need to work hard to assemble a majority. The only thing uniting most parties is their refusal to form a coalition with Mr. Wilders even though his party came second.
Most observers won’t think any of that matters. This vote was billed by the media as 2017’s first test of euroskepticism after 2016’s Brexit and Italian referendum, and this time the vote seemed to suggest the anti-European tide might be waxing at last.
Yet this result means less than advertized, for both the Netherlands and Europe. Domestically, Mr. Rutte won in part by co-opting the sensible elements of Mr. Wilders’s platform, especially the need to better assimilate immigrants.
Some, like the editors of the New York Times, rather desperately tried to take solace from the results to which Anne Applebaum, writing at the Washington Post, replied:
Because we were looking at the Netherlands with populist-colored glasses, we missed the bigger story: the implosion of the unified center-left — the Dutch Labor Party — which is a story that really does have pan-European significance, affecting electorates in almost every country. Though temporarily halted in some places by centrists such as Tony Blair, this slow-motion collapse has been going on for two decades, ever since the end of communism removed the dream of the state-run economy and economic change undermined the trade unions, as well as the working-class solidarity they created.
Across the continent, disillusioned ex-left-wingers have often drifted into the arms of xenophobes, particularly since many of them — most notably France’s Marine Le Pen, but also the Austrian Freedom Party and the Polish Law and Justice Party — now advocate what one might call Marxism Lite or, less politely, national socialism: Elements include the re-nationalization of industry, curbs on trade and bigger social-welfare states. But others who have left the Left have taken a different route. Some support liberals such as Emmanuel Macron in France, or Greens such as Alexander Van der Bellen, the president of Austria. In the Dutch elections, support for social and economic liberals, as well as for the Green party, went up dramatically.
In other words the results in the Dutch election were a sign of increased polarization which may sound familiar to you. Moderates have lost ground to the more radical.
The affluent do not live with poor immigrants, and if they know them at all, it is as servants. The well-off can afford a generous immigration system because they do not pay the price. The poor, who live in neighborhoods where immigrants live, experience economic, linguistic and political dislocation associated with immigration, because it is the national values they were brought up with that are being battled over. It is not simply jobs at stakes. It is also their own identities as Dutchmen, Americans or Poles that are at stake. They are who they are, and they battle to resist loss or weakening of this identity. For the well-to-do, those who resist the immigrants are dismissed in two ways. First, they are the poorer citizens, and therefore lack the sophistication of the wealthy. Second, because they are poor, they are racists, and nationalism is simply a cover for racism.
Thus, nationalism turns into a class struggle. The wealthy are indifferent to it because their identity derives from their wealth, their mobility and a network of friends that go beyond borders. The poor live where they were born, and their network of friends and beliefs are those that they were born into. In many cases, they have lost their jobs. If they also lose their identity, they have lost everything.
A number of questions arise from all of this. First, what does Mr. Rutte mean when he says that immigrants “should act normal”? I think it’s almost certain that he means that they should speak Dutch with reasonable facility, that they should dress like ordinary Dutchmen, and that they should accept convention Dutch mores. A rejection of multiculturalism, that may prove to be as anti-immigrant as Mr. Wilders’s pledge to shutter mosques.
Second, what does it mean for the Netherlands? I think it means that the Dutch people have rejected Mr. Wilders’s strident nativism but are also trying to stand up for their own language, culture, and ways. This continues a process which, as Ms. Applebaum pointed out, has been going on for years.
Finally, what does it mean for Europe? While I think that the Netherlands may be a bellwether for other small countries with languages spoken nowhere else and distinctive cultures and histories, e.g. Hungary, Greece, Holland’s economy with a growth rate of around 2%, unemployment rate of 6%, and family income about what it is here but with income inequality much lower, suggests that the reaction in the Netherlands to the strains that mass immigration have produced may be less extreme than we will see elsewhere in Europe.