A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. Was populism really defeated at the Dutch elections, or did it pervade the entire election, including the campaign of Groenlinks? Is that necessarily negative, or can Greens around Europe learn from populism?
Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the Front National… Everywhere populists seem to be inciting the ‘common people’ to revolt against the political elites. The international media regard the outcome of the Dutch elections to be a turning point; the rise of populism brought to a halt. Ultimately, however, populism did not lose but win at the Dutch elections and it will not suddenly disappear. Populism is characterised as an untouchable, scary phenomenon. Instead of waging war against ghosts, Green parties should try to learn from it. The Dutch Greens of GroenLinks successfully appropriated some elements of populism.
The domino theory
After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, politicians and journalists all over the world feared that the Netherlands would be the next country to fall into populism. If the Dutch had given in to the temptation of Geert Wilders, the charismatic leader of the populist Freedom Party, it would have created momentum for the populist parties in the coming elections in France and Germany. A sense of relief was felt when the Freedom Party did not win the majority of the votes. Populism was brought to a halt. At least for now.
Populism for dummies
So, what is this populism everyone is talking about? Politicians and journalists are quite generous in their use of the term. The rise of populism was the main frame with which the international media covered the Dutch elections, but they mostly avoided explaining the precise meaning of the term.
Political scientists are still in disagreement about the exact definition of the term. Dutch political scientist Koen Vossen distinguishes three necessary properties which are ascribed to populism in academic literature: the use of the image of the people as a homogenous unity, the conviction that the will of the people is always right, and the perception of an untrustworthy elite class. Besides this, populism is also often characterised as having a charismatic leader and using a certain style or tone: (mis-)using demagogical techniques and rhetoric to increase popularity. Political scientists differ in which of these properties they place an emphasis on in their use of the term.
War of the words
The meaning of the word populism is itself a matter of politics. Illustrating this is the fact that populists never call themselves populist. As with most concepts in political science, the term was first used for a political cause and only later clarified. Language is an important battlefield in the war of politics.
The main issue which seems to divide parties between the so-called populists and the ‘non-populists’, is the question of nationalism versus internationalism. Traditional parties think of Europe in terms of economic growth, political stability, cooperation to fight climate change, and the exchange of ideas across cultures. These abstract subjects do not appeal much anymore to a large part of the ‘common people’. They perceive internationalism as the main reason their neighbourhood is changing due to immigration, their folklores and traditions are disappearing, refugees are supposedly getting priority in acquiring housing, and immigrant workers are taking over low-paid jobs.
The alternative of these new parties who are often called populist, such as the Freedom Party, Font National, and UKIP: to take back the power from the internationally-minded highly educated elite. The problem they point to is Europe, the solution reclaiming the nation, in order to make [insert country name here] great again. They claim to speak for ‘the’ people because the interest of the ‘common people’, according to them, lies in the nation.
These parties therefore fill the perceived political vacuum between the highly educated, cosmopolitan, and traditional politicians and the ‘common people’. They are able to guide voters away from the old ideas of open borders, further European integration, and politics based on economic growth. They plead that there is an alternative to the tasteless diluted solutions of liberalism and socialism. They convey their new message with unprecedented emotion and vigour, because their goal is not to achieve a slight change of course on a well-worn path paved by convention and pragmatism, but because they think there is something fundamentally wrong with the status quo. They do not speak of their fears and frustrations in terms of juridical formalities and economic theories, which their supporters recognise as the language of the elite. They speak in a language for which you do not need four years in university to understand. To quote Bas van Eickhout, GroenLinks member of the European Parliament: “If centre parties just show one way, the populist win.”
The easiest way to reunite a group of people whom you lose your grip on is to create a common enemy. This is exactly what seems to be at work in the way the term ‘populism’ is used. The fear of populism has numerous similarities with the fear of communism during the Cold War. Populism is described as a dangerous irrational ideology that takes hold of the “uncontrollable common people” and makes them rebel suddenly against the wise and traditional order of the establishment. Traditional political parties use the term to distinguish themselves from a wide variety of new political parties who poach their electorate. Populism is therefore dismissed by them – sometimes maybe rightly so – as the irrational, emotional, rude, short-sighted, asocial, base opposition to the traditional, rational, calm, polite, cautious, social, moral established political parties.
During the Dutch pre-election debates the spectre of populism often crept in. Almost all parties presented themselves as the rational, safe alternative to the dangerous populism of Geert Wilders. All major parties stated they would never form a coalition with him. “The populist ghost is isolated, we are safe.”, they argued.
Of course not. While explicitly distancing themselves from the scary Freedom Party, Dutch right-wing parties began to make use of the untapped potential of populism. National identity and the supposed risk of it disappearing because of immigration and distrust of the political elite became the main topics of the debates and parties feverishly made use of rhetoric which five years ago would have been called populist talk. Though the Freedom Party did not win the Dutch elections, populism did.
The Liberal Party (VDD) got the most votes in the Dutch elections. Their leader, current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, successfully presented himself as the rational right-wing alternative to the Freedom Party. Yet in January Rutte wrote a letter in a leading Dutch newspaper in which he stated that everyone in the Netherlands should “act normal” (according to Dutch customs) or get out of the country. This was widely regarded as a campaign stunt to attract voters from the Freedom Party and to elevate Rutte as a moral leader.
The Freedom Party did not win the elections but did become the second largest party. Geert Wilders managed to increase the amount of seats in parliament from 15 to 20 (out of 150). Not bad for a party completely “isolated” by the other parties and whose leader was absent from almost all of the media debates.
The leader of the third biggest party, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, of the Christian Democrats (CDA), used populist rhetoric in a way that was unthinkable ten years ago. One of his propositions was that children should sing the Dutch national anthem in school. Buma presented himself as the defender of the traditional (Christian) norms and values of Dutch society and criticised the soft stance of left parties with regard to immigration and Islam.
After the election, the newly created party Forum for Democracy managed to gain – from nothing – two seats in parliament. According to some analysts its leader, Thierry Baudet, represents the future of Dutch populism since the freshness of Wilders has worn of. The flamboyant Baudet is a mediagenic Eurosceptic nationalist, who is famous for his eloquent xenophobic statements. He became famous in the Netherlands as one of the leading voices in the campaign for the no-vote in the Ukraine referendum. Michiel van Hulten, former member of the European parliament for the Dutch social democrats (PvdA), thinks we must not underestimate Baudet. “He is probably more dangerous that Wilders, instead of Wilders he lies constantly and he claims to be an intellectual.’
Green populism in the Netherlands?
The Dutch elections had another winner, which some critics also called populist. Under the leadership of the young Jesse Klaver the Dutch green party, GroenLinks, more than tripled its seats in the parliament from 4 to 14. Critics argued that everything in the campaign was about the persona of Jesse Klaver and complained that image overshadowed content. Klaver, however, distanced himself from populism. In an interview with CNN directly after the election Jesse claimed that “We have stopped populism”.
I would not consider GroenLinks to be a populist party, but during the campaign it did successfully make use of certain elements of it. Looking again at the properties which political scientists use to define populism and how these relate to the Groenlinks campaign can shed some light on what Green parties can learn from populism.
The people as a homogenous unity
Klaver never claimed to speak for ‘the Dutch people’, certainly not in the sense of a homogenous trans-historic community as right-wing populist do. However, to claim that only populists do this, would be mispresentive. Most politicians point at certain historical constants in Dutch history they want to cherish. The construction of both the history and the future of a nation is always largely a subjective endeavour.
When in the national debate Jesse Klaver was asked what epitomises Dutch identity, he answered “tolerance and empathy”. Certainly, enough things exist which unify all people, and through which Green parties can identify an inclusive community of a people. As Klaver emphasised: “There is more that connects us, than that divides us.”.
To speak for the will of the people who are always right
An aspect of populism at odds with green politics is the claim to speak for the entirety of the people. Anne de Boer, programme director of the Dutch green think tank Bureau De Helling: “Populists claim to speak for the people and thereby nullify the differences in a country. Green parties are instead focused on humanity, nature, and the whole.”
Whilst Klaver distanced himself from speaking for the Dutch people, speaking as a representative of the people is not necessarily a bad thing. Right-wing populists define the will of the people in terms of the nation. Greens could use a more inclusive concept of the will of the people. A sustainable planet and the improvement of living conditions for all forms of life is something which literally concerns us all. To advocating this is to speak for the interests of all people. It would be interesting to look at how this could be translated into ‘the will’ of the people.
Aversion to an untrustworthy elite class
Another aspect of populism, the aversion to an untrustworthy elite, is problematic for Green parties. The traditional following of GroenLinks consists largely of intellectuals often considered to be part of the elite. Though the party has now reached a broader audience, this niche will probably remain its core. Green parties moreover focus on inclusion of people and cooperation instead of protesting against a group. Nevertheless in his speeches during political meetups Klaver often distinguished the movement of GroenLinks explicitly from the ruling establishment: “If the politicians say we cannot change the Netherlands, then we will change politics.”
The Greens could focus on the opposition between humanity and an elite of conservative industrials, and the fact that an elite of 1% has just as much wealth as the other 99% combined. Moreover, most people would agree that there nowadays exists an elite which could be called untrustworthy; world leaders such as Trump and Putin. Politics is always about conflicts of interest and worldviews. To distinguish oneself from an untrustworthy group which clearly has different and harmful priorities is an effective, legitimate, and even necessary way to do politics.
With charismatic speeches about hope and change Klaver was able to mount a large political movement, even selling out one of the largest venues in the Netherlands for a political meetup. The optimistic Jesse Klaver got the image of a progressive political popstar, similar to Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau. For any North American this might not seem very striking, but this approach was remarkable in contrast to the sober and straightforward character of Dutch politics normally.
The popularity of Klaver’s speeches, which often went viral on Facebook, show that with the right personality and story-telling, even abstract subjects such as climate change can be made relatable to a lot of people.
Rhetoric and demagogical techniques
Populists use the language of the ‘common people’. They effectively make use of personal stories, emotions, and common language to convey their message. This style is often associated with dangerous demagogues. Rhetoric should never replace content in the political debate, but we should not forget that a huge deal of politics is rooted in emotion and in convincing other people that your worldview is correct. Jesse Klaver successfully used personal stories to make people sensible to the consequences of discrimination and closed borders.
An important factor for the victory of GroenLinks is their direct, accessible, clear, and personal communication with people during their campaign on their social media. People interested in GroenLinks were directly mobilised as ‘apptivists’ through direct communication with WhatsApp. Questions about the political programme were answered in a personal way on the social media channels, whilst during the debates a team of experts fact-checked live on Facebook and short clips were made which expressed simply the concerns of the party. Populists know how to relate to ‘common people’, speak their language, and make politics accessible for them. These aspects are blessings for democracy.
Green for the people
Populism has become a fact in Europe and it will not suddenly disappear. We should look at the underlying problems out of which so-called populist parties emerge and ask ourselves why they are successful, instead of complacently opposing ourselves to it. The rise of populism was not halted at the Dutch elections. While a lot of Dutch parties presented themselves as the rational alternative of the populists of the Freedom Party, they simultaneously took over populist rhetoric and populist themes became dominant during the elections. Groenlinks’ campaign of successfully made use of some elements of populism.
If Green parties want to tackle international problems such as the housing of refugees, the unequal distribution of wealth, and environmental problems, they have to foster a worldwide identity of a people. Community is a precondition for solidarity. Advocating a liveable planet is in this sense also speaking for the people, and opposing oneself to an elite with different priorities is an effective, legitimate, and even necessary way to do green politics. Green politicians could learn from the way populist know how to relate to the ‘common people’, with direct, accessible, clear, and personal communication. Green politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
 Koen Vossen, ‘Van marginaal naar mainstream? Populisme in de Nederlandse geschiedenis’, Low Countries Historical Review, Volume 127-2, (2012), pp. 28-54.