“Mark Rutte looks at you as if you've just crawled out from under a stone”

Why less-educated citizens are often less satisfied with politics.
Skyline of Rotterdam.
Zuiderpark, Rotterdam
Iris van den Broek

“Mark Rutte looks at you as if you’ve just crawled out from under a stone,” commented one of the participants in the study conducted by sociologist and PhD student Kjell Noordzij (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences). During the course of his study, he spoke to a number of individuals, including less-educated citizens, to gain a better understanding of why political dissatisfaction is often more likely among this group.

"Fred Teeven is the epitome of the average Dutch citizen," the academic was told by one person he spoke to, when it was mentioned that Teeven would become a bus driver after leaving his career in politics. Noordzij was conducting research on the effect of the education gap on political dissatisfaction. Political dissatisfaction is often more likely among less-educated citizens, and Noordzij wanted to gain a better understanding of the reasons for this. To this end, he spoke to a large number of less-educated citizens – in their homes and at the pub, etc.

To get the conversation started with participants, Noordzij showed interviewees an album containing the photographs of various politicians. Interviewees could also bring along their own photos of politicians they wanted to have their say about and illustrate their opinions with. While attitudes towards some politicians were sympathetic – because of the better fit they seem to have with the life-world of participants – they were far less positive about most politicians. For example, one participant said that “Mark Rutte looks at you as if you’ve just crawled out from under a stone," while Rob Jetten "has a very robotic speaking style " and, like many other politicians, "never just gives an honest answer".

Diploma democracy

The explanation for political dissatisfaction is often sought in a lack of knowledge or the poorer economic position of less-educated citizens. Although these factors do certainly play a role, Noordzij believes that it does not entirely explain the education gap. To find out more, he decided to research the distance that many less-educated citizens perceive between themselves and politicians and the role this plays in their level of dissatisfaction with politics. "Dutch politics is characterised by its strong underrepresentation of less-educated citizens," the researcher explains. More than 90% of politicians in the Dutch House of Representatives have a university or higher professional education background, whereas approximately 30% of the Dutch population have attained this level of education. This phenomenon is referred to as diploma democracy.

dr Kjell Noordzij, sociologist at ESSB
Michelle Muus

Noordzij’s research looked at the views that less-educated citizens have of politics, where they see very few people like themselves. His interviews with these citizens revealed a perceived distance between themselves and many politicians. This distance is perceived for a number of reasons. Participants said they felt that politicians live in a very different world to their own and have no idea of what life is like for them. For example, one person said he felt that politicians "try to avoid being coaxed into middle-class behaviour,” while another said that politicians live in "a completely different world to normal people, for whom life is a daily struggle."

The communication style of politicians contributes to the distance perceived as well. It is different to how the less educated say they speak. For example, Noordzij was told that politicians are purposefully vague and like to dance around the issue. "Less-educated citizens also feel that they are being looked down on," Noordzij says. "For example, because their views are dismissed as racist or conservative, but also because it seems to them that they are seen as riff-raff who don’t need to be represented in politics."

Roderick van der Veer versus Rob de Bruin

After further demonstrating the relevance of his new explanation of the role played by the education gap in political dissatisfaction with a questionnaire, Noordzij developed a survey experiment in which participants watched a short film about a fictional politician. Participants were shown one of two politicians with very different characteristics: Roderick van der Veer, who is a theatre lover and comes across as elitist, or the more down-to-earth Rob de Bruin, who likes to head off to the pub for a beer.

“Less-educated citizens who saw the elitist politician expressed more support for aggressive action against the government than those who saw the more working-class politician.”

Kjell Noordzij


In one of the studies that Noordzij did as part of his experiment, he set out to see whether the less-educated citizens who saw Roderick van der Veer reacted differently to him than those who were confronted with Rob de Bruin. He also included an existing measurement of support for aggressive action against the government. "What was striking was that less-educated citizens who saw the elitist politician expressed more support for action of this nature than those who saw the more working-class politician". Noordzij believes this illustrates the importance of considering the consequences that a perceived cultural distance has on how less-educated citizens, who have seen themselves underrepresented for a long time, relate to democracy.

Noordzij is of the opinion that perceived cultural distance is an important explanation for the effect of the education gap on political dissatisfaction. Although he realises it will not be easy to close this gap, he does make a number of recommendations in his dissertation. For example, political parties could increase the number of less-educated people in politics, so they feel they are being represented more. "More sensitivity is also necessary to the experiences of less-educated citizens: not just at the municipal desk or by government but in society too."

PhD student
More information

Kjell Noordzij will defend his dissertation, entitled: ’Revolt of the Deplored: Perceived cultural distance and less-educated citizens’ political discontent‘, on Thursday 15 June 2023.

Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant recently interviewed Kjell Noordzij about his dissertation. The article can be read here (in Dutch).

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