The latest challenge to the European Union political oligarchy comes from the Netherlands, where Thierry Baudet and his Forum voor Democratie emerged as the main winner in last week’s provincial elections. What is remarkable about the FvD’s success is that this is the first time it ran in these elections. It was launched in 2016 and won two seats in the parliamentary elections in 2017. It has made remarkable progress since then. The elections last week determined the composition of the senate, and the FvD won 13 seats.
The FvD is often described by its enemies as a far-right, xenophobic populist party. But in a different era its politics would have been characterised as socially conservative with a dash of classical liberalism. It is critical of the EU and opposed to inflicting the costs of environmentalist measures on the people of the Netherlands. It argues for the adoption of the Australian system of immigration control. Its leaders argue for cultural policies that support and defend what they perceive to be the foundational values of Western civilisation.
The reaction to the leadership of the Forum – Henk Otten, Theo Hiddema and especially Thierry Baudet – is almost as interesting as the meteoric rise of the party itself. Opponents of the FvD resent the fact that its leaders are intelligent and highly educated people. They cannot be dismissed as populist simpletons or trashy deplorables.
Commentaries on Baudet often say that he is obsessed with drawing attention to his intellectual accomplishments. Commentators frequently make fun of his so-called highbrow cultural pursuits. The reaction of The Times to last week’s vote is typical in this respect: ‘Baudet, who has a law doctorate, typically showed off his learning in his victory speech on Wednesday, declaring that the “owl of Minerva has descended”, referring to the Roman god of wisdom.’
It is a symptom of the philistinism of the official media that it considers references to classical culture by public figures as weird and likely to be a symptom of an inferiority complex. These journalists are obviously ignorant of the rhetoric used by serious politicians in the 19th and most of the 20th century. Unlike the technocratic and intellectually empty rhetoric used by mainstream politicians today, their forebears made constant allusions to Greek and Roman culture.
In the Netherlands, the mainstream media has attempted to construct a cordon sanitaire around the FvD and its leaders. The attitude of the Dutch media to the FvD makes the orientation of the British media towards Brexiteers seem positively neutral and fair in comparison. As one commentator acknowledged, programmes such as De Wereld Draait Door continually transmitted a sense of contempt towards Baudet during the weeks leading up to the election. One commentator acknowledged that the broadcast on 19 March ‘was almost an orgy of Forum aversion’. Baudet was described as a ‘rat catcher’ and his colleague, Hiddema, was castigated as a ‘louche lawyer’.
Judging by the FvD’s electoral success, the media hysteria against the party clearly didn’t work. Typically, many commentators claimed that the success of the FvD was due to the proximity of the elections to the recent shootings in Utrecht, which led to the deaths of three people. This explanation overlooks the fact that, for many weeks, pollsters had predicted that prime minister Mark Rutte’s governing centre-right coalition would lose its senate majority.
What is particularly interesting about the success of the FvD is that it took votes from three of the four parties of the ruling coalition, as well as from the left-wing Socialist Party and Geert Wilders’ right-wing Party for Freedom. The FvD’s capacity to attract voters across the political divide indicates that it has the potential to become a serious electoral force.
Unlike most of the new so-called populist parties in Europe, the FvD has made a serious attempt to develop and find a new political language through which to critique and offer an alternative to what it calls the existing political cartel. It is still early days, and it has some way to go before it succeeds in developing the intellectual and cultural resources necessary to force the Dutch political establishment on the defensive. However, its success demonstrates that the contemporary political terrain is hospitable to movements that can appeal to people’s aspiration for solidarity and for a culture that is positive about national sovereignty.