Test of tolerance in a liberal land

May 10, 2002

The assassination of Pim Fortuyn has shaken the Dutch but, asks Erik Jones, how did Fortuyn win so much popular support for his rightwing views?

The assassination of Dutch politician, columnist, sociologist and populist W. S. P. (Pim) Fortuyn heralds a new era in the politics of the Netherlands. Virtually no one studying the country can recall an incident of such violence in political life.

Dutch politicians are more apt to ride bicycles to work than to travel with bodyguards. Dutch political debate, while sometimes heated, is marked by consensus and not discord, reason and not passion. Indeed, if there is a characteristic of political life in the Netherlands that does arouse passions, it is the country's reputation for tolerance. In this respect, "Dutch iconoclast" is a contradiction in terms. At least, it was until the emergence of Fortuyn.

The story of Fortuyn's meteoric rise on the Dutch political scene is a tale of two improbabilities. The more obvious of the two is the charismatic attraction of the man himself. A bald, middle-aged, flamboyant, Catholic and homosexual former-sociology professor who writes controversial books on immigration, society and politics is an unlikely object of popular fascination, particularly for the young.

Nevertheless, Fortuyn's political platform attracted the sympathies of almost half of the demographic group between 18 and 32 and his political list (a quasi-party) looked set to win between 15 and 20 per cent of the popular vote in the May 15 parliamentary elections.

Given that Fortuyn's entry into politics came only in autumn of last year through a grassroots movement (Leefbaar Nederland (Livable Netherlands)) that had never fielded candidates for national elections, that looked set to poll only about 2 per cent of the vote, and that expelled Fortuyn for exceeding the bounds of acceptability last February, the popularity of the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) demands explanation.

The less obvious improbability is that the Netherlands has such a lasting tradition for consensual politics. Despite appearances to the contrary, the united provinces of the low countries have a long history of internal division between Catholics and Protestants and between church-goers and those who lead a more secular life. Throughout much of that history, these internal divisions assumed almost monolithic significance, prompting analysts to describe them as subnational political cultures that remained separate despite sharing a tightly restricted geographic space. The riddle of such division is why it did not lead to violent conflict. The answer is one of the most famous books in political science - Arendt Lijphart's 1968 The Politics of Accommodation .

Lijphart's explanation for the lack of violence in Dutch politics is that early in the 20th century societal elites realised that domestic political violence could lead only to disaster. So these elites accepted the necessity of cooperation. They also recognised the importance of maintaining discipline among their followers. But for this political formula to work, the subnational political cultures needed to become stronger and not weaker, more clearly delineated and not intermingled. In this way, Dutch society became "pillarised" (from the Dutch verzuiling , which is similar to apartheid but without the connotations of geographic separation or political subjugation) in the service of consensus.

The "pillarisation" of Dutch society lasted only as long as religious devotion (or its absence) could provide comprehensive political identities and as long as the Dutch electorate remained obedient - which is to say, until the 1960s. By that time, tolerance and consensus came to be widely valued in their own right. Moreover, the experience of the 1970s revealed that they were also useful for a small country attempting to survive in the turbulence of world markets. The political character of the Netherlands today represents a combination of that normative and pragmatic appreciation of consensus and tolerance. The international attention paid of late to the so-called "polder model" of consensual economic adjustment and welfare-state reform is perhaps the world's way of suggesting that Dutch pragmatism and Dutch values may not be too far off the mark.

But beneath the surface there are problems. The politics of accommodation relies on elite cooperation and mass obedience, and Dutch politics tends to invoke notions of communal, rather than individual, responsibility. Meanwhile, consensus has become the object of Dutch politics, rather than its instrument. No one in the Netherlands seriously imagines a threat of domestic political violence and so no one would consider the necessity of using consensus to maintain the peace. At least part of Fortuyn's attraction was that he attacked all three of these attributes of Dutch political life. He argued that voters should be challenging and not obedient. He advocated individual responsibility. And he questioned the value of consensus for its own sake.

None of these positions was novel, and many had been tried by other anti-pillarisation movements such as the postmaterialist liberal party Democrats '66. However, with D'66 having spent the past eight years in government as part of a broad consensual coalition, Fortuyn (and the Greens) could effectively dominate the political agenda in those areas where voters had clearly become exasperated with the politics of accommodation. Of course, Fortuyn also challenged elites to consider the subject of immigration. In doing so, he turned the logic of Dutch tolerance on its head. Only by refusing to accept groups that preach discrimination, Fortuyn claimed, could the Netherlands preserve its reputation for being an open and liberal country. That such arguments are offensive to many and that they would appeal to unpleasant elements in Dutch democratic society goes without saying - certainly Fortuyn's insistence on the preservation of the Netherlands as a monoculture runs against the grain of more liberal perspectives on multiculturalism. Moreover, the Netherlands has never traditionally been a monoculture.

Beneath his inflammatory rhetoric, Fortuyn posed his greatest challenge to the structure and practice of Dutch political life by suggesting that the last vestiges of a "pillarised" society had already been replaced by a single Dutch culture. In this he was wrong as much as he was right.

There is one Dutch society, but it is multicultural, not monocultural. Moreover, it is basically a tolerant and consensual society, more tolerant and more open than Fortuyn might have liked. Where Fortuyn was right was in suggesting that the structural need for tolerance, consensus and passivity no longer exists. Violence between communities is no longer a threat in the Netherlands but, tragically for Fortuyn, individuals are not subject to the strict controls that they used to be. Having moved beyond the politics of accommodation, the Netherlands has also lost some of its exceptionalism in this regard. And Dutch politics will never be the same as a result.

Erik Jones is a senior lecturer in the school of politics at the University of Nottingham.

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