Immigration

Some Political Systems Handle Populism Better Than Others

Like the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, Donald Trump is learning the limits of disruption.

Attention doesn't equal governing.

Photographer: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

A few weeks after I arrived in the Netherlands as an exchange student in 1982, the Dutch held an election. I followed it as best I could, but I didn’t speak the language yet. One night, during the television time allotted to political parties, I watched the amusingly low-rent presentation of the Centrumpartij (Center Party). As I remember, it was just a dorky-looking dude sitting at a desk and speaking into the camera, flanked by the Center Party logo of a traffic sign proscribing turns in either direction and the slogan “niet rechts, niet links” (not right, not left).

The next day, in gym class, somebody asked me which party I would support if I could vote. “Centrumpartij,” I said, laughing. “Niet rechts, niet links.” An older student pulled me aside. “You probably shouldn’t say that,” he told me in English. “Those guys are fascists.” 1  With that, I stopped telling people I liked the Center Party.

The Center Party, it turns out, was a precursor of the populist-nationalist political movements that have in recent years gotten everybody’s attention in Europe and elsewhere. “Fascist” seems an unfair description, but the party’s leader, Hans Janmaat -- the dorky-looking dude from TV -- was (he died in 2002) an outspoken critic of the Netherlands’ welcoming immigration policies, and sometimes of immigrants themselves.

The party won a single seat in the 150-member lower house of parliament in that election, and with the exception of a break from 1986 to 1989, Janmaat stayed in parliament until 1998 -- the last four years with two other members of what by then was called the Center Democrats alongside him. He was ostracized by every other party, though, and repeatedly fined by Dutch courts for inciting racial hatred and other sins.

In the 1998 election, the Center Democrats failed to win a seat. That was partly because the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, 2  had stolen some of Janmaat’s thunder, with party leader Frits Bolkestein openly, if diplomatically, raising concerns about the integration of Islamic immigrants.

Four years later -- with Bolkestein having moved on to Brussels to become a European commissioner -- came the breakthrough of the Pim Fortuyn List, which won 26 seats nine days after its namesake, an openly gay former college professor who was fiercely critical of Islam’s role in the Netherlands, was assassinated by an environmental activist. The party crumbled not long after that, but then Bolkestein protégé Geert Wilders left the VVD, founded the Party for Freedom, and took over the mantle of leading populist critic of Islam and the Dutch establishment. The Party for Freedom won 24 seats in 2010, sank to 15 in 2012, and was until recently favored to become the biggest party in parliament in next week’s election. It has been sinking in the polls lately and almost certainly won’t be part of the next Dutch government. But it has become a force in Dutch politics.

So Janmaat and the Center Party were on to something, if a little early. A significant percentage of Dutch voters are worried that immigration, especially immigration from Islamic countries (the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands are from Turkey and Morocco; the former Dutch colony of Surinam comes in a close third), has changed their country for the worse, and they want something to be done about it. Whether you agree with this view or not, it seems like an effective political system should allow it to be expressed and to influence policy -- while also maintaining the rule of law, respect for minority rights, and other good things. And since similar sentiments have been gaining strength in lots of other Western democracies, it seems worth looking at how different countries have handled it.

One leading taxonomy of political systems is that of Dutch-born political scientist Arend Lijphart, an emeritus professor at the University of California at San Diego. In his classic book “Patterns of Democracy,” Lijphart divides the world’s democracies between consensus systems and majoritarian systems. Consensus democracies tend to have proportional voting, lots of parties and coalition governments. Majoritarian democracies feature two big parties that alternate stints in power.

The most consensus-oriented democracy, by Lijphart’s reckoning, is Switzerland. The most majoritarian is the U.K. 3  How has each handled the populist uprising? In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party co-opted it way back in the 1990s by adopting a euroskeptic, anti-mass-immigration platform. 4 Thanks in part to this course change, it is now the country’s biggest party, with 54 seats in the 200-seat national parliament and a leading role in the government. But it's not a dominant role; the People's Party still needs cooperation from other parties to get things done, and it has to make compromises all the time. In the U.K., populist voices had only limited influence -- except in the country’s European Parliament delegation, where proportional voting is used and the populist U.K. Independence Party is well represented -- until last year’s shocking and potentially disruptive Brexit vote. So if you like continuity and stability, the Swiss system has worked better. Lijphart finds that, in general, consensus systems deliver better economic results and more voter trust than majoritarian ones.

The Dutch system scores high for consensus, and thanks to the Center Party it definitely got an early start on nationalist populism. But the country has yet to produce a national party -- unless you count the Bolkestein era at the VVD -- that both gives voice to public unease about immigration and is capable of playing a constructive role in governing. Fortuyn’s party tried, joining the government after the 2002 election, but in the absence of its founder understandably couldn’t hold things together. Wilders’s Freedom Party pledged to support the minority government formed after the 2010 election but failed to come through, and since then it has increasingly positioned itself as a protest party, not a potential governing partner.

Mark Bovens, a professor of public administration at the University of Utrecht and the person responsible for getting me started on this whole consensus-majoritarian line of thinking, told me last week that he hoped an existing party or a new one would soon grow into that role. As an example, he pointed to Livable Rotterdam, the local party where Fortuyn got his start, which has matured from anti-immigrant protest movement to, since 2014, senior partner in the city’s coalition government.

What about the U.S.? It’s a unique case. On Lijphart’s measures of what he calls the “executive-parties dimension,” the U.S. is among the more majoritarian democracies. But on his “federal-unitary dimension,” it is, after Germany, the least majoritarian (the U.S. judiciary in particular stands out as unusually powerful and unusually independent). So while there were individual politicians -- Pat Buchanan in the 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential primaries, Pete Wilson as governor of California in the 1990s -- who espoused nationalist, immigration-skeptic views, the Republican Party didn’t embrace them until the shocking and potentially disruptive election of Donald Trump. But now that Trump is in office, he is finding that he has to deal with a political system that greatly restricts his authority, except on foreign-policy matters. We’ll see how that goes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. My memory is that this conversation took place in a baseball dugout. Haarlem, where I went to high school, was a big baseball town, and we were playing softball for PE that week.

  2. Stands for Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie.

  3. Lijphart’s time frame, 1945-2010, misses the U.K.’s first coalition government in more than a century, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat collaboration that lasted from 2010 to 2015.

  4. Before then the SVP (for Schweizerische Volkspartei; it has different acronyms in the other languages of Switzerland) was a conservative party with agrarian roots that could count on about 10 percent of the Swiss vote.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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