In this week’s election, voters in the Netherlands held true to the popular Dutch expression, doe normaal ― “just be normal.”
Amid all the hype that Geert Wilders, the golden-haired anti-Islam nationalist known as the “Dutch Trump” could win, voters soundly rejected his aggressively anti-immigrant and anti-European Union populism.
Following Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, news organizations from around the world turned their attention to the election in the Netherlands, where Wilders had been rising in the polls. Feeding on the nervous hysteria post-Brexit and Trump, news report widely suggested that a Wilders victory would be a shock to the status quo, the next trauma to strike at the heart of western liberal democracy.
Trump’s alt-right supporters are smitten with Wilders, who wants to ban the Quran, shut down mosques, and kick Muslims out of the Netherlands, all while leaving the EU and closing the border to immigrants of all kinds. Republican Congressman Steve King, of Iowa, has repeatedly hosted Wilders in Washington, D.C. ― and recently faced widespread criticism from both Republican and Democratic leaders for his racist comments and open embrace of Wilders’ ethno-nationalism, as put in stark terms in a recent tweet:
Wilders’ threat to Dutch values was not an idle one, evidenced by the 82% turnout, a high turnout not seen in the country in decades. It is thought that the attention lavished on Wilders generated higher turnout than normal, as Dutch people came out in droves to vote, many strategically against his party. But to watch news reports of Wilders’ rise, especially in the U.S. or international media, it felt like Wilders was riding a huge wave of popular support, enough to flood into The Hague and take power.
The problem is that very little of what was reported around the world reflected the far less dramatic reality of the election and its potential implications.
Nobody “wins” — especially not Geert Wilders.
The Netherlands is a parliamentary system and has literally dozens of political parties, with a stunning 28 parties on the ballot this election leading many Dutch voters to joke on social media that folding up the ballot was harder even than voting. What this means is that, typically, no party wins nearly enough seats in the Tweede Kamer (Dutch House of Representatives), and Dutch parties must form multi-party coalition governments to reach a governing majority. Dutch politics is as fragmented as ever, with more than five parties slicing up the majority of the vote, while no party enjoys more than about 20% support.
Nobody―or more accurately, no party―was ever expected to come close to winning the Dutch election outright. More importantly, save for some incredible sweep of the country, Wilders would have been locked out of power even with a plurality of the votes, as all other major parties had sworn against forming a coalition with his party.
Yet, much of the international news stories running up to the election framed the race in classic victory or bust terms: Would Wilders win a Trump-style surprise victory?!
Nope. At his highest point Wilders’ party, the PVV (English: Party for Freedom), never polled higher than about 40 seats out of 150 (polling in the Netherlands generally reports estimated number of seats, rather than a percentage of vote). With most of the results in, Wilders’ PVV party is expected to win about 20 seats, coming in a distant second place well behind acting prime minister Mark Rutte’s VVD party, which won 31. Even this is misleading, given that two other parties, the conservative-leaning CDU and the centrist D66 each won 19 seats, nearly matching Wilders’ 20.
What if Wilders had won a plurality of votes, say the results were reversed and Wilders’ PVV party won 31 and Rutte’s VVD won 20? This “victory” would have sent shockwaves throughout Europe, and understandably so, as the symbolic victory would matter. But part of why it would matter is because a Wilders “victory” would have been used as lazy shorthand for another victory for the hard-right in Europe, when in reality Wilders would still have won only a small slice of the electorate and still have been locked out of a coalition government. So what happens now? The most Dutch thing possible; the slow, patient process of moderation as the larger parties―sans Wilders―gather to cobble together a centrist coalition government. Don’t hold your breath, it’s going to be a while.
Lessons for America
The hype and misleading headlines go both ways. Many people in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world looked at the results of the 2016 election with shock and fear. It looked to many like Trump had won a resounding victory. Trump, unsurprisingly, has done everything he can to promote this narrative. He falsely claimed that he “won in a landslide.” Infamously, Trump has claimed he had record breaking inauguration crowd (not even close), and that he would have won the popular vote except for “3-5 million illegals” who voted, a claim for which Trump has still provided absolutely zero evidence, and has been widely disputed by experts and leaders of both parties.
By feeding into the media hype, we legitimize the populism of Trump and Wilders, which is exactly what they want: the perception that they speak “for the people.”
Just how big was Trump’s victory? Voter turnout in the 2016 U.S. election stands at about 55% of Voting Age Persons (VAP). Trump won 46.1% of all votes cast in the election (Hillary Clinton won 48.1%), so taking the VAP turnout, Trump won with the support of roughly 25% of voting-age people in America. We can take this analysis further: since the US is not like the Netherlands, with our Electoral College-based winner-take-all-system, Americans only have two viable options in the general election, so many independent and non-aligned Americans voted for Trump or Hillary without being actual supporters, unlike Wilders’ vote share. Many Republicans were weary of Trump’s extreme rhetoric and comments, and through a crowded primary, Trump was able to win many states with just 30-35% of the vote. Although it’s impossible to say, we could guess that perhaps one-half to two-thirds of the people who voted for Donald Trump in the general election were genuine Trump supporters, the people who make up his movement. In this case, we could say that Trump’s rough percentage of support is likely somewhere around 15% of the adult population of the US, not much bigger than Wilders’ base of support in the Netherlands.
By feeding into the media hype, we legitimize the populism of Trump and Wilders, which is exactly what they want: the perception that they speak “for the people”, when in reality they represent no more than a vocal, angry minority. This is, of course, true for many political leaders, but populists like Trump and Wilders specifically try to claim that they speak for the majority.
This is not to minimize the very real threats that the ideologies of Trump, the alt-right, or his ethno-nationalist compatriots in Europe represent. Trump is president and already causing near weekly constitutional crises. But the extreme media attention over Trump’s reality-TV style politics is what helped fuel his surprise victory in the primary and general election, without the months of non-stop media frenzy, it’s hard to imagine Trump winning.
Media hype shapes reality
There are many reasons for Trump’s victory, but the most basic level, the candidate who got the most media attention in the U.S. ended up winning the election―should we really be so surprised? Trump received more coverage than all other candidates combined, as the profit-driven television news media lavished his campaign with near continuous coverage. In the spirit of Occam’s razor (the idea that the simplest explanation is often the most likely), it’s worth taking seriously how much of a role the volume of media hype and attention played in the 2016 election. Trump was on the news every day constructing a dark vision of America overrun with crime, violence, and rampant unemployment (despite the factual evidence to the contrary).
Eventually, enough people started to believe him. And then he started winning.
Despite Wilders’ best efforts to conjure up a Trump-like vision of darkness and danger in the Netherlands, the Dutch people overwhelmingly voted for the boring status quo, voting for parties that will end up forming a centrist government with similar policies to the one that came before it.
Dutch people, and to their credit, much of the Dutch media, refused to elevate Wilders and give him the kind of unfiltered platform that Trump received in the US. It helps that news media in the Netherlands are regulated and political parties receive free and proportional airtime, instead of news coverage following the highest potential ratings.
“Just be normal ― that’s crazy enough” is the full Dutch expression. Perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind as we try to filter out media hype and social media-driven faux scandals from the important issues in today’s volatile political environment.