Over the past months, as establishment politicians suffered one stunning upset after another, it started to look as though the whole liberal order might easily be shoved aside. But the liberal order will not leave the stage of history quite so easily. There are still many people—clear majorities, in most countries—who are deeply attached to it. And for good reason: While the stagnation of living standards and the rise of inequality have been all too real, most citizens of developed democracies still enjoy remarkable affluence. And while the reality of mass migration really has created social and economic tensions, the citizens of liberal democracies still get to live their lives freely, surrounding themselves (if they so choose) with people who are just like them. Unlike the proletarians whom Karl Marx exhorted to shed their chains, most people have rather a lot to lose.
But just because liberalism is resilient doesn’t mean that it is here to stay, as a frighteningly large group of complacent observers seems determined to believe. This group is intent on ignoring the warning signs of political instability. It does not want to admit that the world is changing in front of our eyes—in good part, I suspect, because acknowledging that scary reality would require them to do a lot of thinking, and thinking is hard. These are the people who believe that Hillary Clinton only lost because of racism, or sexism, or Russia. And these are also the people who celebrate every election—from Austria to Iceland—in which a populist doesn’t win an outright majority as a great comeback of liberal democracy.
It is this faction that has been out in force since the results of the Dutch elections began to roll in Wednesday night. “Has the populist wave finally crested?” a CNN reporter asked. “I repeat: Trump’s victory was the beginning of the end of the authoritarian wave in Western democracies,” an Austrian journalist answered. “The Dutch elections in a nutshell: high turnout, lots of winners, lots of losers, disappointed foreign media. Conclusion: healthy democracy,” a Dutch writer summarized the new consensus.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to examine the cause for this celebration: Geert Wilders is about as nasty a right-wing populist as they come. Persistently inciting hatred against immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, he promised in the run-up to the Dutch elections that he would close down all mosques and ban the Quran. In the last national elections, back in 2012, his party gained about 10 percent of the vote. In most recent polls, Wilders looked set to clock in at about 15 percent, which would slightly amplify his voice yet leave him far short of the ability to form a government. Instead, he came in at about 13 percent—which amplifies his voice yet leaves him far short of the ability to form a government.
See the grand cause for celebration? Me neither. In a system of proportional representation, in which seats in parliament are assigned in direct proportion to the number of votes a party gets, it was never realistic to expect that Wilders might jump from 10 percent to an outright majority. And although it is certainly heartening that Wilders has not gained as much support as had been expected, this result is no reason to think that the overall trend is now reversing.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is with the metaphor. A wave suggests a phenomenon that appears suddenly, going up and up, and can crash just as quickly, going down and down. But as scholars such as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have shown, the rise of populists has actually been a slow-moving phenomenon that began long before 2016 (or 2008) and has had downs as well as ups. A look at the vote share of populist parties across Europe, for example, shows that their rise began as early as the 1960s and has been advancing in fits and starts ever since.
More broadly, the exclusive focus on Wilders is blinding us to a number of fascinating transformations in the political dynamics of the Netherlands—and in liberal democracies around the world.
The most important lesson is that party systems are now in the middle of a seismic shift. Back in the 1960s, Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan argued that European party systems had “frozen.” On the whole, their thesis held true for the following decades: In most European countries, the parties represented in parliament in the year 2000 looked remarkably similar to the parties represented in parliament in the year 1960. And in virtually every country, the two most dominant parties had not shifted at all: On the one side, there were center-left Socialists or Social Democrats; on the other side, there were center-right Conservatives or Christian Democrats. Together, these two parties made up the lion’s share of the vote.
No longer. In the past decades, many new parties appeared, and the vote share of the two parties that had once been dominant plummeted. In many countries, Social Democratic parties suffered most of these losses. The Dutch results are the new Exhibit A: The vote share for the Social Democrats has plummeted from 25 percent at the last elections to less than 6 percent at these elections.
Shortly before his untimely death, Tony Judt warned that social democracy may be headed for irrelevance or even extinction. The Dutch elections are another reason to think that his fear was depressingly prescient. The result is an increasingly fragmented political landscape: The Green Party has gone from about 2 percent to about 10 percent—with an exotic mix of other small parties also celebrating significant gains. For the first time in the history of the Netherlands, it will take four parties to form a government, raising the prospect of difficult negotiations and the risk of unstable governance.
Another important lesson is that strong leadership may not be able to counteract the larger drivers of the rise of populism and the fragmentation of the party system—but can cushion their effect in the short run. After all, a big reason why the center-right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte did much better than expected is that, a few days before the election, he manufactured a clever political confrontation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For the past months, Erdogan has been campaigning to change the Turkish constitution, which would lift term limits and give him quasi-dictatorial powers. Since the outcome of the referendum is likely to be close, Erdogan has been trying to mobilize the votes of Turkish citizens in Germany, the Netherlands, and beyond—in part by railing against the governments of the countries in which they live. These rallies have been highly controversial in Europe. So when Turkey’s foreign secretary, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, planned to address a rally in Rotterdam briefly before the election, Rutte denied his plane permission to land. And when Turkey’s family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, tried to enter the country by car to appear in his place, the Dutch border police turned her back, too.
The confrontation was a big assist to Erdogan, who can now campaign on the need to stand up to hostile European powers that disrespect the Turkish nation. But it was also a big reason for Rutte’s own success, casting him in the light of a patriotic and courageous leader—whose patriotism and courage just so happens to be directed against an ethnic group especially loathed by Wilders’ supporters. It was a brilliant, if somewhat cynical, ploy.
But that play also came at a domestic cost, which has barely been noted in the international press, and may come to look highly significant with the benefit of hindsight. Among the winners of Wednesday’s elections is a new party, by the appealing name of Think, which has entered the Dutch parliament for the very first time. Founded by Dutch Turkish defectors from the Social Democratic Party, its main appeal is along ethnic lines: It has close ties with the Turkish government; has supported Erdogan’s purges of tens of thousands of teachers, academics, and civil servants; and hopes to attract the allegiance of a large share of Turkish immigrants.
This suggests that one of the big sleeping dogs of European politics may be about to stir. While political observers have long dismissed the chances of immigrant parties out of hand, the acute tension between Turkey and countries such as Germany and Austria provides fertile ground for copycats. Think could soon be emulated in a number of European countries.
This has long been the stuff that animated the most garish nightmares of European right-wingers. In Submission, the most eloquent expression of such dystopian fears, for example, the novelist Michel Houellebecq imagined the dangerous social and political dynamics that would be unleashed if a party that explicitly staked its appeal to Muslim immigrants should rise to prominence in France. Politics would increasingly be polarized between a coalition of immigrants and cultural relativists on the one side, and a blatantly nativist right on the other side. At the end of Submission, the candidate of the Muslim party becomes president of France. The novel’s narrator, a world-weary misogynist, converts to Islam and finds a lot to like in the new world order—including his three new wives.
While the novel’s ending is more jarring in its misogyny than in its supposed Islamophobia, its biggest flaw lies elsewhere: The animating premise that immigrants would win out in a head-on confrontation between the culturally relativist left and the nativist right is highly unrealistic. And that is why Think may turn out to be bad news for Europe’s immigrants: While parties that emulate its success are unlikely to amass real power, their rise is sure to fan the flames of far-right populism.
All in all, the Dutch election shows neither that populism has been vanquished nor that it is set to triumph. Rather, its lesson should be unsurprising to anybody who has been following politics in Europe—or North America—over the past years: The political system is more fluid today than it has been at any time in recent memory.
We are now in an unprecedented situation. But what’s new about it is not that we know that the forces of darkness are about to triumph—or fail. It’s that, for the first time in 50 years, we genuinely don’t know what happens next.