The Dutch general election of March saw two new parties entering parliament, one of which is the right-wing Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy), spearheaded by academic and columnist Thierry Baudet. Since its transformation in late 2016 from civil society group to political party, the Forum has expanded swiftly. Their popularity, according to opinion polls, has increased over fourfold from two seats (1.8%) to between a projected nine and eleven seats (~7%). Last month the newcomers held their party congress. Though politically limited at the moment, the Forum seems to have great potential. Moreover, despite its innocuous name the party poses a real challenge to progressive movement. What position does it take in the Dutch political landscape? What explains their apparent popularity? And what are the Greens to do about it?
Horizon 1867: the rejection of modernity
The Forum for Democracy is the brainchild of Baudet who founded it in the summer of 2015 as a think tank with the purpose of criticising Dutch EU membership and the functioning of political elites. He emphasised from the outset that the Forum was a strategic vehicle to influence the nation’s political scene, but was not intended as a political party. Parties were too easily incentivised to become pro-European. However, by September last year Baudet announced the Forum’s transformation into a political party due to a “loss of faith in the political cartel”.
Baudet’s announcement ironically echoed the impulse which led to the founding of the social liberal party D66 50 years earlier: a sense of an immobile political class, citizens’ exclusion from the political process, and the need to shake up the establishment through democratising measures such as binding referendums and elected mayors. This similarity should not distract from the vast gap between the liberal spirit of D66 and the conservative instincts of Baudet, who came to political maturity at the time of the September 11 attacks and the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, who had profoundly shook up Dutch politics with his relentless critique of Third Way politics.
Baudet’s speech at the party’s congress last month was a whirlwind introduction into his world view, and perhaps the closest the party has come to a declaration of principles. In the speech, he sets out a narrative of national conservatism with a reactionary conviction at its core. His central thesis is that the ‘true’ Netherlands is unable to express its self-identity because of the domestic elite and external forces. These external forces are notably all connected to the EU without a direct mention of migrants or Islam.
To explain the elite motivation for supposedly engineering of the nation’s alienation, Baudet starts from the conviction that “ideas rule the world”. The ruling ideology – identified with concepts such as ‘cultural Marxism’ – is to blame. He expands on this through a historical account. He claims that Europe was at its civilisational peak 150 years ago. “Imagine”, he says, “what the world would look like if our European civilisational history wasn’t broken by thunders of steel.” He follows up with a second “disaster”: “If we hadn’t started believing that tonality has been exhausted or that Beauty has burned her face. Yes, if undermining ideologies like that of the Frankfurt School (…) hadn’t gotten grip of our institutions”. It is a deeply objectionable statement not only for reproducing the far-right trope that the Western political establishment is captured by the desire to weaken, shame, and humiliate itself through the whip of ‘political correctness’. He moreover seems blind to the fact that the horrors of the 20th century prompted the very modernism he rejects. At the base of this is the reactionary wish to pretend the 20th century had never happened.
This is not, in Baudet’s view, merely to our economical and administrative detriment. He consistently returns to the critique of modern art, post-war architecture, pop, and atonal music. In line with his doctoral advisor, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, Baudet gives great importance to the state of aesthetics in modern society. Writer and journalist Sarah Sluimer even characterised his thought as “a dark and elaborate desire for aesthetic purity: whether it concerns art, people, or nations.”
Baudet claims that 15 to 20 years remain if the Netherlands is not to be “lost”. The Forum’s programme consists of a mix of transparency, direct democracy – elected mayors and prime ministers; introducing binding referendums and citizens’ initiatives – combined with nationalist cultural policies and a retreat from the EU, the Euro, Schengen, and the international legal order. Moreover, it aims to politicise the civil service by introducing mandatory post-election job applications for senior officials and public broadcasting through publicising party memberships of board members and talk show hosts.
Though one should not confuse Baudet’s opinions with the party’s – many other prominent members already have distinctive careers and opinions – it still is its corner stone. In spite of a strong libertarian element, Baudet remains the most visible voice of the party whose conservative analysis seems to be broadly shared.
The Right man at the Right time
Baudet’s Forum has set up shop in a busy area. Since the start of the new millennium, around 15 newly established right-wing political parties have participated in national elections. In 2017 the Forum competed with five others, including Geert Wilders’ established Freedom Party (PVV). His four equally new right-wing co-competitors – three of which were spearheaded by known figures on the Right – failed to enter parliament. Indeed, only twice before in the last two decades were right-wing newcomers elected. Why did the Forum succeed where others failed? To explain this it is necessary to look at three factors.
First, there is Baudet’s own role as figurehead. He is, in a sense, the most un-Dutch of politicians: constantly intellectualising, explicitly ideological, and possessing a sense of irony and nonchalance typical for educated Dutch youth (born in 1983, he is a millennial). In the years running up to his political career Baudet was regular in Dutch media, a lecturer, and a published author. His conservative and nationalist credentials were well established by the time he decided to run. Though often ridiculed for his perceived vanity, his active participation in the media served to raise his profile. Moreover, he has cultivated an image of the ‘reluctant politician’. If asked whether he wants to become Prime Minister his response is: “no, but I think I will have to”. His irony, in addition, permits him to make radical statements, cloaked in intellectualised formula, which he later retracts as misunderstandings. Other right-wing aspirant parliamentarians, by contrast, employed a confrontational style similar to Wilders and, while familiar, their positions were less known.
Second, Baudet and the Forum succeeded in exploiting Wilders’ limitations. Institutionally, the PVV has no legal members other than Wilders and no structure other than his personal management of its representatives. After a year the membership of Forum for Democracy is 17,000. The party recently set up a youth wing, and for next year’s municipal elections, the Forum is engaging in alliances with established local parties. The PVV is structurally limited by micromanagement, whereas the Forum profits from Baudet’s personality while also developing a grassroots base.
Wilders was always a populist without a people. He gathered prominence by making statements or announcements which national media, eager to maintain their share of news consumers, reported and duly discussed ad nauseam. However, he largely avoids major organised meetings with his own base. So far this approach has worked, but after 11 years as the enfant terrible of Dutch politics there is a sense of him having become ‘old news’. His positions will satisfy the purist, but are unattainable. One even suspects that they are meant to be. It has become unclear whether Wilders’ purpose – by now the third most senior parliamentarian – is pursuing a programme or preserving his seat.
Substantially, the PVV is in essence only concerned with unequivocal opposition to Islam. While consistent in its rejection of immigration and the EU, they are, like all other positions, in the end subordinate to main goal. Baudet by contrast has largely been silent on Islam. Instead he focuses on the so-called political ‘cartel’, but also other issues connected to his view on contemporary society.
It is this ideological positioning which appeals to right-wing voters which usually vote People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) or Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Though conventionally described as ‘conservative liberal’, it is more apt to describe the VVD as ‘pragmatic liberal’. Devoid of any principled social conservatism, it might only be called conservative in the Burkean sense of picking policy positions based on their perceived practicality. The VVD has had D66 as a competitor on its left for several decades, but the lack of a secular conservative alternative made it the default choice for non-confessional conservative voters. Since 2006, the PVV has been the only non-confessional parliamentary party on the VVD’s right, but its voters mainly come from former Labour and Socialist constituencies.
The CDA, which originated from a merger of the three largest Christian-democratic parties in 1980 has reinvented itself as a party of conservative principles broadly analogous to the British one-nation tradition. It lacks Baudet’s millenarian and reactionary edge. He is in a sense a more true of a heir to the legacy one of the CDA’s founding parties, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which stood in opposition to the ideals of 1789. Baudet, by comparison, stands against all that came since 1914.
The Forum seems to be able to connect to a group of voters by falling back on this more principled and radical conservatism. It exploits both Wilders’ organisational weakness and the ideological gap left by him and the centre-right VVD and CDA. Combined with Baudet’s charisma as a figurehead, these factors seem to drive its political ascendancy.
Against the forum, for democracy
With the arrival of the Forum for Democracy on the political scene progressives are confronted with a strengthening of the nationalist pull. Whereas the Left has shrunk, the Right has bloomed. The question remains how to engage with the Forum and Baudet. Considering that the party is still consolidating itself, it is not likely that a durable answer will be formulated any time soon. Indeed, it is fully possible that the Forum will implode at some point or will simply never realise its potential.
Still, one should not put hope in this kind of wishful thinking. Instead, a number of concrete hints to an opposition of what to refrain from and what to engage in can be given. For one, it is crucial to refrain from the politics of fact checking and ridicule. Nor is an a priori of rejection of collaboration with the party or its exclusion from the Netherlands’ lively civic political debate culture likely to work. More difficult, and relevant, is the reality that the politics of indignation is likely to be counterproductive. Identifying statements by Forum politicians as racist, sexist, populist or the like is unlikely to reduce their appeal. When the author noted Baudet’s reactionary tendencies it was not meant to shock the reader, but merely as an observation.
What is instead needed is a consistent, substantive dismantling of the party’s notion of the “political cartel” (part of which GroenLinks is also counted) and Baudet’s narrative of European history and its contemporary ills. This ought to be accompanied by a full defence of the modernity he rejects. Unlike Wilders, the Forum and its partisans are open to debate. Indeed, in a sense, the Forum has the positive effect of reigniting the ideological debate and putting a crack in the post-political façade of Dutch democracy.
The Dutch political class has traditionally been indifferent to intellectualism. The current prime minister, Mark Rutte, has taken this so far as to reject the very notion of “political vision”. Though less extreme, the Greens have not seriously deviated from this. If they want to become the party to dismantle the Forum, they will need to supplement their current efforts with an equally strong and durable counter-narrative than that of Baudet.
Under Jesse Klaver the Greens have reached new heights aided by the attrition of social democracy. Klaver has already shown that a critique of economic rationality can be popularised, but he is a leader and not an ideologue. GroenLinks’ own declaration of principles was adopted in 2008 – a month after the financial crisis burst out into the open. The Forum for Democracy’s ideological grandstanding is a sign that the neoliberal consensus has broken down in the Netherlands as well. It provides an opportunity for Greens to flesh out their narrative of an emancipatory politics in the age of global capital. This means tying long and short-term historical accounts of modernity and neoliberalism to its guiding principles and an integrated transformative politico-ecological vision for society. If Greens seize the current opportunity, they may set the terms of future policy debate. If they miss it, others will get to draw the map.