‘Democracy? It’s like letting the blind pass judgment on colours.’
Democracy may be regarded as a given nowadays, but it only seriously took root in the Netherlands after the Second World War. And that while we have had universal suffrage since 1919, for both men and women. Henk te Velde, Professor of Dutch National History, explains in Low Countries Historical Review.
Democracy has long been the struggle between two points of view, argues Te Velde:
1. rule by the majority rather than by the elite or the aristocracy, with aspects of direct democracy, and
2. the absence of dictatorship, with an emphasis on the constitutional state, the protection of minorities, and freedom.
The second point of view provides, as it were, an extra guarantee for universal suffrage. This point of view has dominated since the Second World War. Until 1870 it was unheard of to be unequivocally in favour of democracy, whereas after 1945 it was unheard of to be fully against it. Between 1870 and 1945 both points of view were acceptable, and both enjoyed support.
Until the constitutional amendment of 1887, the Netherlands enforced the so-called census franchise: only men who paid a certain amount in taxes were allowed to vote and stand for office. After that the criteria were increasingly flexible, to the extent that the introduction of universal suffrage for men in 1917 and women in 1919 was a relatively small step. A revolutionary one, because until the 18th century international opinion on democracy in the sense of universal suffrage was seldom positive. The Athenian form of direct democracy was, according to many, a senseless tyranny of the poor: thankless, emotional, the domain of demagogues. Only if democracy was restrained by the aristocracy and the monarchy could it be of service. Even the radical liberal Frederik Feringa (1840-1905) described universal suffrage as letting the blind pass judgment on colours.
Te Velde also touches on the concept of populism, a current topic of debate. But there is nothing new to report. The Dutch Reformed politician Abraham Kuyper was pre-eminently a populist, active in politics around 1900. He used the term democracy in a populist manner, namely in order to chastise the liberal bourgeois elite. At the heart of his populism was his faith in the wisdom and power of ordinary people, as opposed to the corrupt elite with its formal institutions. Kuyper did not, however, envision the people as a whole, favouring his own supporters instead. Nothing new there either.
Now that populism is prominently in attendance again, the notion that it is part of democracy is winning ground. According to political philosophers and political scientists such as Margaret Canovan and Cas Mudde, populism holds up a mirror to democracy, underlining the tensions that are inevitable consequences of democracy.
In the year 2000, American historican Margaret Lavinia Anderson called democracy ‘a work in progress’. Te Velde shows that movement is inded a constant in this form of government.
The Domestication of Democracy in the Netherlands: The Concept of Democracy as a Political Weapon from the Nineteenth Century until 1945.
Henk te Velde, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, Volume 127-2 (2012), pp. 3-27.
The full article is available on the website of the Royal Dutch Historical Society (Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap).
(9 July 2012)
Law, Democracy and Governance: Legitimacy in a Multilevel Setting is one of the six themes for research at Leiden University.