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State of the Left - Netherlands

Escaping the democracy Bermuda Triangle

René Cuperus - 13 November 2015

A new Dutch survey signals the need for moderate forces to reinvent themselves in order to halt growing dissatisfaction with the political and democratic process

The societal tensions that have come to the surface in many European countries as a result of the refugee crisis are a symptom of a wider systemic crisis. Our postwar politico-democratic order is faltering and cracking. Liberal representative democracy has not been in the best condition of late. The old mechanisms for mass integration – political parties, churches, trade unions, the media – have totally failed in their representative functions, which previously served as the glue of society. New integration mechanisms have not yet been found to replace them. In the meantime, democracy is sojourning in a ‘no-man’s’ land. It is in a Bermuda Triangle, lost somewhere in between nation states, the European Union and depopulated political parties.

Our society is therefore being tested at a very fragile moment in time. Fierce socioeconomic developments such as the globalisation process, the refugee crisis or the ‘robotisation’ of the labour market attack an existing order that has lost its anchor. The social contract between citizen, politics and government is unwinding.

Politics and policies are lacking a self-evident mandate of trust, as exemplified by: the permanent sobering retrenchment of the welfare state, the abolition of the fixed job in a knowledge-based economy, an economy for higher educated only, the European upscaling of politics, and the unremitting multiculturalisation of our big cities. In combination, this all leads to a societal course or direction whereby, perhaps, the majority of the population may come to feel excluded or non-represented. This in turn stokes the risk of growing political dissatisfaction and ‘democratic fatigue’, and might well be one of the triggers in rapidly growing European populism and extremism.

This actual mood within mature western democracy can be illustrated by a report recently published in the Netherlands, by the Dutch Institute for Social Research (SCP). The report, titled More Democracy, Less Politics?, was commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations to investigate the Dutch public’s true perceptions of democracy and politics. How ‘future-proof’ is Dutch democracy? And what scope is there for improving it, in the light of the views and wishes of the population?

The outcomes are interesting. The report states that there are: “no indications of a fundamental decline in support for the idea of democracy. … The degree of satisfaction with democracy, and above all trust in politics, is however highly volatile and dependent on political and economic developments. … Compared with other European countries, the Netherlands is not in a bad situation. The level of support for democracy as a form of government is comparable with elsewhere, while satisfaction with democratic practice and political trust are higher. Only the populations of the Nordic countries hold – slightly – more positive attitudes”.

About 95 per cent of the Netherlands thinks that it is great to live in a democratically governed nation. People are less satisfied with the way in which democracy is put into practice – with politics and politicians. “The main reasons put forward for dissatisfaction were that politicians do not listen and simply do what they want, that citizens have too little say and that politicians talk too much and act too little”.

People who feel that things are moving in the wrong direction in social policy (eg health care provision, integration of minorities) hold politicians responsible for this. They have the idea that politicians pay too little attention to what citizens want and sometimes go against public opinion by pushing through their own personal agenda. Political dissatisfaction is focused mainly on a lack of political responsiveness. There is wide support for citizens having a greater say, and for more direct democracy (such as referenda on key issues or elected mayors). However, a big proportion of the Dutch public see direct democracy mainly as a way of adding to or improving representative democracy, rather than as an alternative to it.

The overall conclusion we might take from this SCP report could well be as follows: “The norm of representation may still be deeply rooted in the Netherlands, but traditional forms of institutional representation appear to be becoming more fragile and disputed at the start of the 21st century”.

How comforting is this conclusion, in light of the seemingly universal rising tide of populism and extremism? One could say that much of this criticism is clichéd democratic critique: a self-interested political class pursuing more talk over action?

However for those familiar with the book Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, by Princeton scholar Jan-Werner Müller, this ambivalent, schizophrenic attitude towards democracy – embracing the democratic idea, but loathing politics – is both unsettling and alarming. Müller describes how liberals, communists, fascists and social-democrats in the interbellum fought aggressively over the definition and demarcation of the concept of democracy.

Under the influence of the horrors of communist and Nazi totalitarianism, after the second world war a liberal-democratic order was been established, which saw ‘the voice of the masses’ mitigated and constricted by a representational filter and the liberal principles of the rule of law. This elitist-constitutional postwar order was first been attacked in the 1960s and 1970s by progressive social movements. Today, it is under siege from increasingly successful national-populist movements – with dangerous potential.

Democracy as we know it has two achilles heels. First, it is extremely vulnerable to criticism on representation and responsivity – ie that the governing elite no longer represents the governed, but only its own interests. In a meritocratic class society, in which our societies more and more tend to develop, this is playing with fire. The second criticism has more to do with democracy’s output legitimacy. Both permanent divisions and feeble compromises can unleash calls for a strong, authoritarian leader.

There is a need for caution here today. The moderate, measured forces of the political centre have to reinvent themselves in order to be able to stop further political disengagement and democratic frustration in our societies. Our democracy cries out for reinvented connections between the separated worlds of the academic professionals and the lower-educated population and between migrants and non-migrants. Wanted: more politics for more democracy. That is: greater political will for a new democracy!

René Cuperus is senior research fellow and director for international relations at the Wiardi Beckman Stichting, the thinktank of the Dutch Labour party

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics


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22 November 2015 22:53

I Mean It Okay The Dragon Triangle Is More Deadly Tho With All The Sea Monsters Okay. Wouldn't Go There If I Was You!

22 November 2015 22:49

Really Creepy Dude!

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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