browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Case Study: The Dutch system

The visualization of the political spectrum that I find most relevant to this course has three dimensions: political, economic, and social.

left right
favoring rapid change, embracing the future x-axis
favoring incremental change, preserving the status quo as much as possible

favoring the group (collective)

What’s best for society as a whole?


favoring the individual (liberal)

What’s best for the individual?

favoring the secular and relativistic z-axis
favoring the religious and absolute

Note that liberal, in the rest of the world, means favoring the individual. Only in the U.S. is it the opposite of conservative. For example, Ronald Reagan was very liberal in the economic sense. Dozens of countries have a party that is labeled liberal-conservative, with no feeling of contradiction.

A 3D political spectrum - nuanced and full of choices

A 3D political spectrum – nuanced and full of choices

The table above titles them left and right, but that distinction loses its meaning in the second (up/down) and third (close/far) dimensions. As you can see from the contoured blue and red meshes on the right, there are a lot of nuanced positions to take on issues in three dimensions.

U.S. system

In the U.S. two-party system, one of the parties controls the legislature and often the other party controls the executive branch. Because there are only two, it is easy to put them on one line, next to each other. We put the Democrats on the “left” and the Republicans on the “right”.

In the last century, there was quite a bit of overlap. The left-most Republicans were further left than the right-most Democrats.

The U.S. Political Spectrum

The two U.S. political parties play on only the right half of the field, right and righter

The two U.S. political parties play on only the right half of the field, right and righter

Increasingly today, all the Republicans are to the right of all the Democrats. There is no incentive for the parties to agree. The out-party’s goal is to win the next election, not to govern, and the in-party’s goal is exactly the same. They know the next election is coming on a fixed schedule, and the parties give enormous amounts of money to a few big media companies, some of which are owned by foreign corporations, to help them persuade the electorate to vote for them.

The U.S. also has a presidential system, whereby a separate branch of government runs the bureaucracy, including the military. The legislature makes the laws and appropriates the budget, and the separate and often opposing executive (president) makes the policies and spends the money.

Dutch system

In the Dutch system, similar to the other industrialized nations, ten parties have representatives in Parliament, and several others have recently held seats or soon may again. With that many parties, it is impossible to put them all on one line, and those who try often have them in a slightly different order.

The Dutch political spectrum -a dozen political parties

The Dutch political spectrum –
a dozen political parties

Thus, instead of two parties next to each other and in opposition to each other, the Dutch have a dozen parties that are best conceived in a 3-D box. As you can see from this 2-D pie chart (right) of the 2006-2010 representation in Parliament, none of the parties has more than 30% support. This pie chart does not try to do more than put the progressive parties on the left and the others on the right. The largest single party was the CDA, the Christian Democratic Appeal. The dark-blue slice to the right of CDA is the liberal party, the VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie). Its policies are closest to the US Democratic party and most members of the US Republican party. To the right of that are the anti-immigration party (PVV) and the ultra-religious right (yes, the Netherlands has a Bible Belt).

Dutch Prime Minister since 2010

Mark Rutte – Dutch Prime Minister since 2010, leader of the VVD party

In the diagram to the right, the brighter dark-blue slice on the right is the liberal party, the VVD, whose policies are the closest the Dutch get to the U.S. Democratic party. That means that Jan Peter Balkenende, the previous leader of the large center party in the Netherlands, the CDA, was to the left of President Obama on every single policy issue.

After the CDA, the next two largest Dutch parties until 2010 were the PvdA, the Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid), which is part of the international socialist movement, and the SP, Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij). Together, those two parties, way to the left of President Obama, got almost forty percent of the vote during the 2006 Dutch national election.

In the 2010 national elections, the VVD got the most votes and its leader, Mark Rutte, became prime minister after forming a coalition with enough other parties to create a majority in Parliament.

The chart on the right shows the fluctuations in each party’s popularity in the last 16 months. Every party has a core of people that couldn’t imagine voting otherwise. However, a good portion of the Dutch population is willing to switch allegiance to send a message, either of approval (by switching to) or of disapproval (by switching from). The parties tend to take unique positions on very issue in order to attract voters. From the voters’ point of view, there are lots of choices. In a vigorous democracy, that’s a good thing and tends to encourage voting.

Popularity of Dutch politicalparties in last 16 months

Popularity of Dutch politicalparties in last 16 months

From the Dutch point of view: if politics in the Netherlands is operating on a full football field, politics in the U.S. is taking place only on the far right half of that field and is heading in the direction of falling off the right edge (from the left) or scoring a touchdown (from the right).

Here’s the same thing from the US point of view: the vast majority of the Dutch populace embraces and defends political, social, and economic policies that are far, far to the left of President Obama. To go in that direction, in the US, is to go off to the far-left lunatic fringe. Yet the Netherlands is a prosperous country. Of the 34 “first world” countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is farthest to the right on the political and economic axes as well as most of the social issues. You can also compare the U.S. and the Netherlands to the countries in the developing world that we are studying for this course.