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The rise of disruptive politics

18 February 2016

Opinion, as published in 'de Volkskrant' on 18 February 2016.

The consensus politics of the polder model has made way for the politics of disruption.

Jouke de Vries is Professor of Governance and Public Policy

The political style in The Netherlands is visibly changing

There is great uncertainty in Dutch politics. Complex problems, of which the refugee crisis is the most current example, are affecting politics. Voters see politicians clearly struggle with the matter. Politicians are in the dark about what to do and, similar to the period before World War I, seem more like sleepwalkers than leaders.

Finding solutions is challenging for everyone. Because of this, doubts about parliamentary democracy are growing. An increasing number of the population now thinks parliament is a place where one only talks, without getting any results. In this case the polarisation between political parties and social groups offers an easy way out. Politics moves to the street and maps of incidents at asylum centres and municipal hearings appear in newspapers. Council members and mayors are threatened.

The political style in The Netherlands is visibly changing. Whereas in the past, the emphasis was on cooperation and finding consensus, we are now faced with what I would like to call disruptive politics.

This term was inspired by innovation literature, by which I mean the fast rise of new political parties leading to the disruption of established politics.

Creative destruction

As a result of digitalisation, large corporations are now confronted with small companies that have the potential to grow exponentially. Small innovations, often originating in garages, sprout wings and become a threat to existing organisations. Large corporations either fail or take over the start-ups. All this is visible in the Dutch shopping streets. This is a period of creative destruction, driven by digitalisation.

It is an interesting question whether these processes also occur in politics. The major Dutch political parties—VVD, CDA, PvdA—have also been confronted with small parties during the past decades, some of which were splinter groups of these major parties, which suddenly or gradually showed considerable growth. The Netherlands stopped being a “three current land” (of liberalism, Christian democrats and socialism) a considerable while ago.

The new parties, pursuing a radically different agenda, lead to disruptive politics. This is because these new political parties sail close to the wind, verbally, and existing political parties have difficulty coping. Furthermore, political mobilisation is changing considerably. GeenStijl and Jan Roos manage to suddenly organise a referendum on the Association Agreement with the Ukraine. The consequence is the disordering of existing politics and administrative processes.

Dutch politics has been confronted with disruptive politics before. The first example is the rise of Pim Fortuyn. Out of nowhere he threw Dutch politics into disarray. The second example is Geert Wilders, who is a master of disordering politics.

Beppe Grillo and Donald Trump

We all infect each other: it makes us all more radical. The reasonable middle disappears and we grow less accepting of one another.

The international examples are legion, too: Beppe Grillo in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States. They enjoy a meteoric rise, fiercely turn against the existing political agenda, use social media like no other, and make things extremely difficult for existing political parties. Those political parties generally respond in a panicked manner to these developments. Because of their extensively implemented rationality they do not know how to manage these more emotional developments in politics. The existing parties often characterise the new parties as amateurs, and sometimes demonise their leaders.

One of the consequences of disruptive politics is that it becomes increasingly difficult to form stable government coalitions, because the political culture of cooperation is under threat. Politics has become a spectacle, where threats and insults are the order of the day. This polarisation leads to paralysis.

Oddly enough everyone seems to be drawn into this political culture. We infect each other. It makes us all more radical. The reasonable middle disappears and we grow less accepting of one another. By now we live in what has become, in terms of political culture and mobilisation, a different country. This is what likely happened at times of great crises in the past as well. Only after these crises did any space appear for the questions why we did not see this more clearly at the time, and whether we could have prevented it.

Jouke de Vries is Professor of Governance and Public Policy at the University of Groningen.

Last modified:19 December 2018 07.01 a.m.
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