Longing for Consensus: The Dutch Mentality

Coalition-building has been ingrained in the Dutch national character since before independence.

In business as well as politics, Dutch culture is characterized by a longing for consensus. The origins of this polder mentality can be found in the country’s geographical challenges. Partially situated below or just above sea level, the Dutch had to construct a complex system of canals, dams and sea levies through the centuries to provide for ample farmland and irrigation while fending off floods — necessitating democratic compromises between farmers and townsmen and cooperation between various government agencies and interest groups.

Coalition-building was ingrained in the Dutch national character even before the states that would become the Netherlands seceded from the Spanish Empire. Power had historically been shared at the provincial and city levels between burghers and noblemen. No group or region was powerful enough to dominate the others. Although in the coastal states that made their fortunes in international trade, the absence of a nobility led to what historian James D. Tracy described in The Founding of the Dutch Republic: War, Finance and Politics in Holland, 1572-1588 (2008) as merchants and industrialists governing the major towns in something of a patriciate. They were “so powerful,” argued Michael Pearson in “Merchants and States,” published in Trace’s The Political Economy of Merchant Empires (1991), “as to almost control the state.”

This oligarchy endured into the nineteenth century. Even after liberal constitutional reforms were enacted in 1848, which shifted power from the king to parliament, only around 2.5 percent of citizens had the right to vote. Proportional representation and universal suffrage weren’t introduced until the twentieth century.

While Calvinists were few in number, they were disproportionately represented in the upper tiers of Dutch society around the time of independence, allowing them to impose their values of hard work, thrift and obedience to rules on the entire country.

At the same time, the Netherlands were religiously diverse, housing many other Protestant sects, a sizable Catholic minority in the south and Sephardi Jews — many of whom settled in Amsterdam after they were expelled from Spain. There was no religious persecution in what was then the Dutch Republic but it was hardly a pluralistic society. Non-Protestants practiced their faith in private and were expected to adhere to Protestant norms in public.

Into the 1950s, Catholic and Protestant life was largely segregated in accordance with the Neo-Calvinist doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” — which allowed for the coexistence of diverse social and religious groups in a single society. (Which goes some way toward explaining the modern Dutch’s “live and let live” attitude.) Both had their own newspapers, political parties, school and trade unions, as did a third, socialist “pillar”.

Rapid secularization in the second half of the twentieth century led to a “depillarization” and the formation of a single Christian Democrat party, uniting Catholics and Protestants, that governed without interruption into the 1990s, alternating between coalitions with the socialists on the left and the liberals on the right and preventing drifts to either side of the political spectrum.

The murders of politician Pim Fortuyn, a populist rightwinger who challenged the 1990s Third Way consensus, in 2002 and filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic in 2004 put the Dutch’s famed tolerance to the test. Attitudes toward immigrants — who seemed to be setting up a “pillar” of their own, living in separate neighborhoods and sending their children to separate schools — hardened while the native Dutch suddenly began to take an interest in their own history and identity.

The Netherlands remains a relatively internationalist nation, owing to its small size and dependence on stronger neighbors for its economic wellbeing and security. Ties are especially strong with Germany, even as resentment over the Nazi occupation lingers. Dutch opinions of the United States are generally favorable. American culture pervades in the country where English is a widely spoken second language.

But European integration has become unpopular. While the Netherlands was a founding member of what would become the European Union and — traditionally respectful of rules and keen to promote itself as a model to other countries — often quick to implement common European policies, the bailouts for weaker states in the periphery of the eurozone has given rise to the perception that hard-working Dutch taxpayers are footing the bill for profligate, spendthrift Greeks and Portuguese. Almost 40 percent would like the guilder back while more than a third believes the Netherlands would be better off outside the European Union altogether.

As in neighboring Germany, the European sovereign debt crisis tends to be seen in the Netherlands as more of a moral than an economic predicament. The notion that different cultures could converge in a political and trade union has been called into question. Even as their own economy remains mired in low growth, the Dutch, confronted with immigrants and immigrants’ descendants who don’t share their values and a European integration project that increasingly goes over their heads, cling to their national traits. They have become more assertive and, perhaps curiously, rather conservative in their liberalism.