Highly educated versus lowly educated. Muslims against non-Muslims. ’People’ versus ‘Elite’. Young against old. Mainstream against populist. All is pointing in the same direction: countries like the Netherlands enter the future in increasingly separate worlds. The divisive tensions seem to triumph over the binding, bridging forces.
Take the Dutch referendum about the EU-Association Agreement with Ukraine on April 6. That referendum was initiated, under a new law, through a massive signature campaign by eurosceptic, even anti-EU, organisations in the Netherlands, under the umbrella of ‘GeenPeil’: an anti-Establishment collective.
However, the breaking news of the referendum had little or nothing to do with Ukraine itself, or with the Ukrainian population. Let alone with the sacrifice of the Heavenly Hundred at the Maidan revolution. No, the alarming news about the referendum outcome was that it was a complete reconfirmation of the populist cleavage or conflict line running through (nearly) all contemporary western societies. The referendum demonstrated the clash between the Establishment and the non-Establishment; the tormented Ukrainian people played – bitter to say – little more than the role of a walk-on.
The outcome was as follows: 61% voted against the association agreement; 38% voted in favour (based on a low turnout of 32.2% or just above the 30% threshold). This result was a repetition of the outcome of the Dutch referendum on the European Constitution of 2005, when the Dutch also in clear majority voted ‘’nee’’, after the French voted ‘’non’’.
Now again, the whole established order of the Netherlands lost big time. All the main parties, the traditional media, trade unions, employers organisations, churches, etc. constituted the Yes camp, supporting the EU-relationship with Ukraine. Despite all this, the No camp, led by an alliance of the Geert Wilders Party (right-wing populist), the Socialist Party (left-wing populist), and a strong social media campaign organisation, demonstratively won the referendum battle.
Another painful disgrace for the Dutch Establishment, unable to prevent an international loss of face for the Netherlands. The referendum outcome is also a great shame, maybe not so much for the corrupt political oligarch system of Ukraine, but more so for the western-oriented young Maidan activist generation. The result also adds to the already perfect storm within the EU (euro crisis, refugee crisis, tensions between North and South, East and West) as well as fuelling tensions between the EU and Putin’s revanchist Russia. And there could be more to come with the UK‘s own EU referendum on June 23; as Mark Rutte, Dutch premier, whispered: “Brussels does not want to speak openly about the Dutch #Ukrainereferendum outcome before #Brexit referendum takes place.”
But again: the referendum debate was first and foremost an anti-Establishment revolt. This revolt includes enlargement fatigue and EU discontent, but the story is much bigger. The result of 60% versus 40% (both in 2005 and 2016) should be taken seriously. This distribution in numbers is returning over and over again. Especially in reports of the Institute for Social Research of the Dutch government (SCP). This institute regularly analyses the temper and mood of the Dutch population, and this has been intensified by way of qualitative focus group research after the so-called Revolt of Citizens of Pim Fortuyn in 2001/2002. This ‘’unpredicted’’ revolution demonstrated that both academia and media had completely lost touch with the undercurrents of discontent – especially in lower and middle strata in society.
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The great divide
The fact that this 60/40-distributive code or formula time and again resurfaces in research and referenda suggest that we are confronted with the following fundamental phenomenon: a distinct majority of the population may well resist the course, the future direction, of our contemporary society. 60% distrusts the EU, resists the overall erosion of the post-war welfare state, criticises increasing inequality, has big worries about labour migration and refugee migration in general, and Islam in particular. They fear that their country because of immigration and open borders is losing too many of its characteristic traits.
This large group of citizens at the same time has the feeling that ‘people like us’ can do little or nothing about these changes and developments. Politics and politicians just go their own way. That’s why this (significant) majority of 60% is in favour of referenda, to wake up, correct or punish the political class. They have the feeling that it no longer represents them or listens to them.
What is even more unpleasant is that this 60% more or less equals the amount of lowly and averagely (non-HE) educated people in the Netherlands. These segments feel much less comfortable in the globalising knowledge-based economy, where the world has become a ‘global village’, but at the same the traditional village has become the world. They profit less from this new global order.
This deep cleavage in our post-welfare state societies is not socially sustainable. No country can welcome and embrace the future with such a bizarre rift between future-optimistic academic professionals and future-pessimistic non-academic professionals. Between insiders and outsiders in the new ‘meritocratic democracy’. Let alone the growing tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims as a result of jihadist radicalisation and terrorism.
All signals point to polarisation and sharpening of dividing lines. Worrisome is that this diverging of opinions – also in the Dutch referendum campaign – is coupled with more and more poisonous smears and slurs on social media and with mutual contempt between Establishment and anti-Establishment.
What such a divided country as the Netherlands now needs most is a break-up of stereotypes and group identities. Concepts such as ‘people’, ‘elite’, Establishment, populism and Islam must be refuted and invalidated as false entities. Pluralism and pluriformity must shake up solidified contradistinctions. Devastating is the image of politics as an old boys’ network for academic professionals only. The ‘elite’ should leave its post-political bubble, and again fight against each other for a left-wing and right-wing alternative political future. Muslims who wholeheartedly and deliberately opt for the Western way of life should distance themselves sharply from radical Islam, as right-wing populists should demarcate themselves sharply from the far and extreme right.
This will result in more varieties of the elite, more flavours of Islam, more sorts of populists, and thereby a visible break-up and deconstruction of stereotypes and identity-political group stigmas. How else should we fight to avert segregated, divisive, unequal societies in future?
René Cuperus is Director for International Relations and Senior Research Fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, think tank of the Dutch Labour Party/PvdA. He is also columnist at Dutch daily de Volkskrant.