It doesn’t have to be this way
Updated: Jan 13
As I’m writing this, the presidential election is in full swing. It looks like Biden is going to win but it’s still a nail-biter. Yet all I’m thinking about is: why is the country so divided? Why is there so much anxiety and mistrust?
Because it doesn’t have to be this way.
As a diplomat, I don’t have skin in this game. I work for whoever is in power and that suits me just fine. Political parties never suit me because, I suppose, I’m more of a free thinker. And I wouldn’t want to live in an echo chamber either—I love diverse opinions and I live for a good debate.
That doesn’t mean I’m clueless about what’s going on though. I know why voters on both sides are scared, frustrated, or angry. I’ve spent my entire adult life among Americans who are well-versed in politics. It’s all part of today’s “outrage culture” where being extremely upset is the response to any offense big or small, which in turn is amplified by our digital culture.
But having grown up in the Netherlands taught me that it’s not necessary to be mad about the state of politics all the time. Dutch people complain about politics, sure, but they’re nowhere near as outraged. You just have to ask them how they feel about American politics and they’ll tell you they wouldn’t be able to cope with that much drama.
It wasn’t always that way. In the nineties and the early two thousands the Dutch were still in thrall with just about anything American, including its political theatrics. Dutch politicians on both sides of the isle were positively Americanophile, frequently traveling there to learn about the great Democratic and Republican power strategies, salivating at the thought that their own party could win a national majority, maybe even turning the Dutch parliamentary system into a U.S.-style two-party system.
But the extreme polarization that’s been happening since then is not something the Dutch can identify with. Because the Dutch are used to many different political parties, they’re also used to the fact that most people feel differently about things. It’s not something to be overly upset about. After all, cooperation between opposing political parties is the essence of modern democracy.
I’m not saying a parliamentary system is superior, or that it could even work in the U.S.. But what this background teaches me is that extreme political polarization isn’t necessary. We can have different parties and competitive politics without feeling like half the country (whatever the opposing party is for you) has somehow gone insane.
There are at least four things that make Dutch politics different from U.S. politics that, in my personal opinion, account for the difference in our attitudes towards the political system.
Extremists remain fringe
The Dutch have their own cast of populist characters, both on the right and the left. They basically have their own version of Trump (blond hair included) and an Obama wannabe (a half-Moroccan guy who likes to roll up his sleeves and give speeches in big auditoriums).
These guys get plenty of media attention and some win massive amounts of seats in the Dutch Parliament. But because their platforms are single-issue and somewhat extreme they don’t control politics. They’re not members of the traditional parties (at least, not for long) and thus never win a majority in the House. The only way for them to assume power is by forming a coalition with other parties, and that’s only possible when they enter into a genuine agreement of give-and-take. Parties that refuse to give in on any issue (ignoring the coalition agreement) don’t survive for more than a year or two in a position of power.
Another major difference is that problematic politicians frequently get fired or demoted. The Dutch don’t worship their politicians and simply withdraw their support if a politician is caught lying. Even mere inconsistencies are good enough reasons to get rid of a political figure. Politicians are supposed to represent the very specific agenda they were elected for and not cause drama. Some politicians can do this for decades, but most have a limited lifespan and move on after a decade or so. There are no term limits—it’s a natural process.
As a result, there aren’t many politicians who can be considered “establishment” or “out-of-touch.” It also gives lobbyists less influence on individual politicians. And if they really dislike or distrust a politician, the Dutch don’t have to worry for long because they know this person will disappear in the background (by quitting or moving on to another role in government) after a certain number of years.
Socialism married capitalism
The Dutch have no problem combining a capitalist economy with certain socialist principles. Healthcare for all has always been the norm in the Netherlands, but over time the healthcare system became fully privatized. This has caused some debate, but hardly any controversy.
There is no such thing as a Dutch government healthcare plan, not even for retired people. The government provides subsidies to lower income households, and the government puts price caps on certain health services, but the entire system is run by the private healthcare industry because it’s more efficient that way. As a result, healthcare is not a political issue.
There’s a lot of choice
In the Netherlands you always feel represented—at least to some extent. There are so many parties that it’s impossible not to find one that fits. And if you don’t like what’s available it’s simple to create a new party—popular figures do it all the time. Seriously. There are three parties for people who identify as Christians alone! Plus you can change which party you support quite easily. No social stigma involved.
Small parties can really have a voice, too. Because they’re often the glue that holds a coalition with two larger parties together they typically manage to get at least one of their key objectives on the political agenda (as part of the coalition agreement). If their leaders are charismatic, they may even play a relatively big role on the national stage as government leaders.
Conclusion: there’s some hope that ultimately we’ll find a way to live peacefully with our political differences—even if they’re on full display. It doesn’t have to go from bad to worse. We don’t have to be so unhappy about politics as we seem to be right now. As our political institutions mature, minority voices are getting heard, factions are recognized for what they are, and most voters remain moderates...we have every chance of becoming a more perfect union.