The issue: Politicians no longer like politics

Text: Wieneke Gunneweg / Photography: Ronald van den Heerik

The fact that there is a rift between politicians and citizens is nothing new. What is new, however, is that in an attempt to bridge that rift, a second rift was created: the rift between politics and politicians. With the elections for the House of Representatives looming, Dick Houtman is asking himself the following question: is there anyone left who likes politics?

The classical rift between citizen and politics. What does this in fact look like? “This manifests itself in low confidence in politics. People don’t care at all about the distinction between government and parliament. For them it is one huge political tangle. People feel themselves far less connected with it than they did in the fifties.”

A worker at that time felt a connection with then Prime Minister Drees? “He felt a connection with the social democratic block and felt represented. And that applied to other groups as well. The Catholics were visited by their pastor: ‘elections will soon be held and you’ll quietly vote for the Catholic People’s Party (KVP), no nonsense please’. With the loss of the ideological organisation of Dutch society, its citizens on the one hand are freed from the suffocating structures that these blocks brought with them, but on the other hand there is a growing discomfort and uneasiness, and citizens no longer feel connected with what is happening in the political arena."

When did a rift emerge for the first time? “It has been there for some time, but took on greater significance with the arrival of Dutch populist politician Fortuyn at the turn of the century. The relationship between citizen and politics has increasingly become a theme in itself. This is what populism is all about. Many people think that it is only about how we deal with cultural differences, immigration and Islam. But it is also about 'the people' and the notion that politics should be a reflection of the will of the people, while at the same time, politics has increasingly become disassociated from the people.”

What or who are ‘the people’ in fact? “It is a mythical category. The people, these are the good old boys and girls who work hard, are aware of their responsibilities and who for the most part bother no one. There is a notion that the people are an indivisible entity with a certain will and identity that must find its expression in politics. ‘Society’ has become a similar concept as well, just like the ‘common man’ and ‘the people in the old districts’. This creates a category that doesn’t exist and that can only exist by excluding other groups.”

Who is excluded? “Foreign external elements; immigrants. The anti-social individuals who fail to respect the law, are too lazy to work, abuse facilities and the politicians and bureaucratic elite who have become disassociated from society. The elite who are not concerned about the interests of the people, but only about their own career.”

Is that really an accurate observation, about the elite?
“I don’t know. The fact is that politicians have responsibilities other than acting as some kind of conduit for what percolates from somewhere within society. This was true during the times when there were political blocks and it is still true. You can't have it so that whatever people clamour about is also carried out. It is unavoidable that as a politician you do things that are not understood by society.”

That creates a rift? “Yes, definitely when articulate citizens are of the opinion that things should be done a certain way. ‘Because we are a democracy after all!’.”

In other words, the rift is inherent to our system? “It is reinforced when politics becomes more complex, larger, more bureaucratic and legalistic, as a result of which people no longer understand it. It is an interesting paradox: government wants to be fair which results in expanding legislation that makes increasingly finer distinctions between citizens. But there comes a point at which people no longer understand why the woman next door receives a benefit payment while they don’t. The aim is the same treatment for the same groups. But how do you define groups that are the same? Minor forms of injustice nevertheless arise when you make a distinction between this group and that group. This results in cynicism and a lack of trust. Politicians are very much aware of this rift. They begin to use strange terms: ‘we have to communicate this to the people in society’. What they are really saying here is: there is the political establishment and society. This means that the political establishment is not part of society and consequently they are confirming what citizens are thinking.”

So, politicians are going to try to bridge the rift caused by cynicism by presenting themselves as ordinary people? “Politicians are beginning to speak in far more positive terms about society. They are increasingly emphasising that ‘ultimately what it’s all about is real problems of real people’. Society has been put on a pedestal. This looks suspiciously like ‘the people’ referred to by the populists. And politicians are speaking in increasingly negative terms about politics itself: ‘those are simply the antics carried on in The Hague, that's not what it's all about’. Terms such as the ‘glass bell’ – in reference to the seat of government in The Hague -– are increasingly used in the same way as dissatisfied citizens use them. Politicians this way increasingly attempt – at least symbolically – to distance themselves from the ‘glass bell’ in The Hague. By emphatically placing themselves beside, or even better, behind the citizen. ‘We are definitely not meeting addicts immersed knee-deep in files. We are simply ordinary, very nice, authentic people with hobbies, families and enjoyable favourite recipes...’”

Could you give us some examples?
“The excesses are the funniest, because when placed under a magnifying glass they demonstrate what it’s all about. Things that come to mind are the hundred-day field trip at the outset of the current cabinet during which they went out to talk with people in society. Or, for example, Job Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam, as the guest chief editor of the women’s magazine Magriet and all those Hyves pages published by politicians.
Politicians have become actors and there is only one role from which you should distance yourself: that of a politician sitting under the glass bell in The Hague. Maybe that Bas van der Vlies, with a record 29 years the longest Serving Member of the Dutch House of Representatives and a longstanding Party Leader of the Reformed Political Party (SGP), will stick to his trade, his marching orders are clear. For the rest this pretty well cuts across all parties. Other things that come to mind include the Gerda glossy put out by Gerda Verburg, Minister of Agriculture. Or for example a website such as that lists all members of parliament and their preferences and hobbies. That’s a feast. ‘I want to vote for someone who also plays Korfball! Hey, Lutz Jacobi of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) also likes Korfball!’ I have since accumulated a sizeable collection of photos of politicians who act as if they are not politicians. And who consequently, in the eyes of many, make a complete fool of themselves.”

It is a good thing to know what is happening on a farm when you are the Minister of Agriculture, and it’s fun knowing that Prime Minister Balkenende likes racing cars, isn’t it?
“It is not just about the fact that citizens are complaining, but also that politicians consider it opportune to specifically identify themselves with the ordinary Dutch citizen as a means of distancing themselves from the goings on in The Hague. This way – in their attempts to bridge the rift between citizen and politician – a new rift emerged, namely the rift between politician and politics.

Do people feel more connected to a politician who is more recognisable, such as the politician of the fifties? “Being catholic or a social democrat at that time was the core of someone’s identity. It defined the way a person was expected to behave in all areas of life. This was effective for these types of fundamental identities. Of course, already as far back as the seventies you had stories about Prime Minister Den Uyl of the Dutch Labour Party, who went camping and Prime Minister Van Agt of the Christian Democratic Appeal party and his racing bike. But at that time there was still a link with the philosophy of life. It is simply part of a social democrat's way of life to go camping and not to lay it on too thick. Now things are done on a much larger scale and you see attempts on the part of politicians to make themselves out as ordinary people, but this is done independently of the philosophy of life or their core identity. I don’t consider this good or bad, but I do consider it rather amusing.”

Does this narrow the rift?
“No idea. We are investigating that. There are groups who consider this type of communication strategy of politicians positive and others who think it is absurd. Certainly in a climate of mistrust, people will be quick to say something like ‘yes, there he is again with his racing car, why doesn’t he use it to get back to work faster’. It’s hard to predict ahead of time how something like that will develop. The question is how does which group of voters respond.”

However, politics does not become more credible by distancing itself from itself. “Indeed, it is a good question whether it is a positive trend that increasing numbers of politicians also create the impression that they consider other things more important than politics during a time in which increasing numbers of citizens dislike politics. In that case, is there anyone left who still likes politics?

Tuesday, May 25th 2010 (week 21).

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.

Prof Dick Houtman (Utrecht, 1963) studied sociology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam where he also obtained his doctorate in 1994 with his thesis ‘Unemployment and Social Justice’. Since then he primarily conducts research into post-Christian spirituality and the emergence of a new political culture, in which social-economic issues are increasingly surpassed by cultural issues. Currently, jointly with his colleagues Liesbet van Zoonen and Peter Achterberg, he is doing research into the personalisation and popularisation in Dutch politics, financed in the context of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Programme Contested Democracy .