The Buck Stops Here: Political Theater and Lessons of Accountability amidst Holland’s toeslagenaffaire
On 15 January, 2021 the entire third-term cabinet of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-wing VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie) party resigned after a multi-year investigation found that between 2013 and 2019 government tax officials (Belastingdienst) wrongly accused tens of thousands of working families of making fraudulent childcare benefit claims and ordered them to repay the allowances back in full. Most of these families were racially profiled according to their foreign-sounding last names. The fraud of accusing these immigrant or foreign-background Dutch families of cheating on their benefits, caused major harms.
While a history of benefits fraud may have intentionally or unintentionally occurred from some Eastern European migrants, closing loopholes and tightening up benefits should not result in false accusations backed up by force. Acquaintances of mine have had to live separately despite being a family with children because one of the partners inherited a €30,000 ransom request she could not afford, over an administrative error that was in fact not in any way her doing. Meanwhile, the Netherlands remains a choice tax haven for billionaires and transnational corporations.
Perhaps, with all of the fractures in democracies worldwide and in Holland over government responses and negligence in the midst of the corona pandemic, it might seem strange that the Dutch government resigned over this mafious scheme to defraud poor, working class people, single mothers and other vulnerable adults.
The schadenfreude many feel over the Dutch Government’s resignation, spills over far beyond the issue at hand. The Dutch government falling off the pedestal, like most other democratic governments that have institutionalized very un-democratic policies, invites a mantle of smugness when justice is done. It makes up for the fact that the government bailed out KLM despite the airline’s engagement in excessive stock buybacks, artificially pumping up their stock price, which led them to the brink of bankruptcy only infusions of billions of Euros of public money could remedy. The resignation exacts a pound of flesh over the last-minute corona regulations changing weekly and extended indefinitely. The symbolic act allows citizens to feel that we are in control – that we are still living in a healthy democracy where the government is accountable to the laws of the land.
Many Dutch judge the government response to the corona pandemic a colossal failure. For instance, this sentiment is fueled by the hypocrisy of Dutch Justice and Security Minister Ferd Grapperhaus who devised and executed the pandemic laws requiring people to be deprived of gathering, touch, or other human activity, while proceeding to celebrate a very not physically distanced wedding extravaganza last August – necessitating the chancellor to orchestrate a cooling down of public clamoring for his dismissal so that Grapperhaus kept his job. Here, the government demurred, made excuses, and passed the buck. So, when the Dutch government resigns en masse over a benefits scandal, it’s a little like Al Capone finally getting booked for tax evasion.
Echoing US President Harry Truman’s declaration but sounding more like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” Prime Minister Rutte’s admission of accountability in announcing “the buck stops here,” seems like a rather arbitrary political moment to take responsibility. After all, it took some time for the courageous Rutte to get there. GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver (of Dutch Moroccan origins) publicly asked after the findings of the 17 December 2020 report titled “Unprecedented Injustice” (Ongekend onrecht) revealed the depths of distasteful, knowledgeable government coverup, that if the Dutch government didn’t resign over this issue, will no other reason suffice? He was asking fundamentally, where do we draw the line? But this was not the point where the buck stopped. A crucial trigger for the buck to ultimately stop occurred directly prior to the Rutte administration’s resignation: Social democrat (PvdA) party leader and coalition government minister for social affairs Lodewijk Asscher, after lacking sufficient support to continue as party leader due to his role in the benefits tax scandal, resigned and pledged not to run for reelection on 14 January, 2021, the day before the Rutte’s VVD government finally could not resist the public’s glare, and took responsibility.
Attacked from the Animal Party and GroenLinks as lacking remorse or reflection in light of the affair, and accused of having his “fingerprints” all over the kinderopvangtoeslagaffaire dossier by parliamentarian Rob Jetten, Rutte nonetheless intends to stand as the head of his VVD party, which is expected to win in the March 2021 election. Despite this fiasco, unless the public quickly changes their preferences, it is not unlikely he will be elected again for a fourth term. So the party is in effect resigning for two months, while still remaining in government to operate as a demissionary (caretaker) cabinet – despite resigning (for the sake of continuing to mismanage the corona pandemic) only to in all likelihood be completely reinstated a couple months later.
The cost to the politicians for stepping down, then, is less than the solemn proceeding showcased. Cynically, the government resigns, only to allow them to have more time to campaign to get re-elected. Only a single member of Rutte’s cabinet actually resigned from politics altogether. Conveniently, the government stepped down before they could even be questioned about what they did. They also took responsibility “collectively,” meaning that no one will actually be punished individually. For all the fanfare, resignation becomes just another episode in this government's political theater to sustain their power. Only by giving up power publicly can they then earn back the public’s credibility to reinstate them.
Like the series of Capitol Hill resignations after the domestic terrorist attacks in the US on January 6, 2021, the grave dialog of TV commentators that Trump staffers “paid the ultimate price” of giving up their job, as if this was the worst thing that could happen in a capitalist society, requires further probing. Is resignation becoming the new mea culpa to exculpate politicians and stooges from actual legal action for criminal behavior? Should resignation indemnify the responsible against other consequences for their actions? And if resignation happens only at the end – when there is no place else to run – does it really constitute contrition? Or is it a last resort attempt to salvage one’s dignity (and future employability)?
I think we’re seeing a similar rearguard measure employed by the Rutte government as recently attempted by bailing Trump cronies. But this political theater of resignation and responsibility betrays the public management of this operation. Like most cover-ups, identified and actively buried for the case of expediency, the involved politicians have found their next career step. They’ve leveraged public anger and redirected it into remorse. Thus, they prove their fitness for office by responding appropriately to the public’s exhibited emotions.
This helps to soften the blow of the Rutte-doctrine, recently discovered in the uncovered emails of the Netherlands chancellor and cabinet, which outlines a policy for explicitly hiding important discussions from journalists and the parliament (Tweede Kamer) – for efficiency’s sake. It is precisely such backroom dealing – by no means unusual in Dutch society or most others – that led to the stonewalling of inquiries into the benefits scandal. But policies of deliberate secrecy, once exposed, leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who elected you.
Nonetheless, even if this is just accountability theater – a well-choreographed performance of bicycle riding to admit guilt, demonstrating appropriate shame – it still signals to the public the appropriate display of emotion. That the reigning Dutch government resigned over something as “simple” to the American or international eye as a benefits scandal, rather than, say, keeping thousands of immigrants and their children separated in concentration camps, or a government-sponsored failed violent coup d'état, or systematic racism permitting police and white supremacists to kill with impunity the very ethnic group that built your country – is telling. It tells of a healthy mixture of fear and responsibility: Fear that even indignities that don’t directly result in deaths will precipitate public retaliation; and responsibility once found out. This says something about the honor still in Dutch society. And something as well about how far down the slope of decency other governments have gone.
The appropriate show of shame – whether feigned or real – is a cornerstone of democracies. It’s how we guide voluntary moral action without having to force people through punishment. It’s a policy that ought not just to be reserved for elite politicians, but also for delinquents of every social register. Reconciliation and forgiveness should be open to those in every strata of society as an opportunity to move on, rehabilitate, and make up for past wrongs. This, ideally, is the meaning of “corrections facilities” – not just to incarcerate, but to prepare for a new life amending for past wrongs. Resignation, as important symbolically as it is, then, should nonetheless mean something concrete. Shame should be wielded judiciously as the nonviolent weapon it is. But it should also then be applied consistently, and public displays of contrition must be followed through with withdrawal of the rights and privileges previously enjoyed. Political theater, virtue signaling the proper display of emotions, must be backed up with self-enforced consequences. Otherwise, the public must see these voluntary measures for what they are, preemptive strategies to buffer against public action. While the toeslagenaffaire is tragic, it is up to the Dutch people to make sure that these political resignations amount to more than a pro forma release valve for public ire. Without turning into retributive justice, it remains to be seen if the public can vigilantly ensure that political theater gels into political change.