Mark Rutte’s Legacy of Failure—and Winning

The Dutch—like Americans and other Europeans—want a government that works. What they have is a system that’s stuck.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the press before leaving the first day of the European Council in Brussels on June 29, 2018.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the press before leaving the first day of the European Council in Brussels on June 29, 2018. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 15, a cold winter day, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cycled to the Royal Palace in The Hague to offer the king the resignation of his government. On the way, he ate an apple. Five days later, U.S. President Donald Trump left the White House for the last time. He departed very early: He could only travel to Mar-a-Lago Club in presidential vehicles if he arrived at his destination by noon. He took a Marine One helicopter to the airport, an Air Force One to Palm Beach, and a presidential motorcade of more than 30 vehicles to the resort. He arrived 17 minutes before the deadline.

The two resignations were totally different in substance, circumstances, and style. But the most important difference will likely be confirmed on March 17, after the Netherlands’ national elections. Unlike Trump, Rutte, who has led the Netherlands since 2010 with three consecutive coalition governments, will almost certainly remain his country’s head of government.

Understanding the significance of that difference requires first understanding Rutte and Trump’s shared legacy—if we can call it that—of political failure. In both the Netherlands and the United States, governments have collapsed at a moment when many citizens realize it has become almost impossible to really reform the country or, as some say, change the system. This frustrates voters. What distinguishes Rutte is simply that he has learned to navigate the surface of that frustration.

Politics is emotion. Even some hardened political realists were moved to tears when poet Amanda Gorman said at U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration: “The dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it.” After the emotion comes the hard work. After quickly reversing some of Trump’s policy decisions, Biden must implement deep reforms and help the country get rid of inequality, injustice, and arbitrariness. Making public administration more relevant and efficient for U.S. citizens is Biden’s main task. It’s a Herculean task. Will he manage? We don’t know.

The same can be said of the next Dutch prime minister, who is saddled with a similar task: keeping the state relevant for its people. That relevance, for many, is slipping—even in the Netherlands, which has more “state” than the United States and where inequality is less pronounced. The Dutch rot may be less evident, but it’s no less persistent.

Rutte’s resignation is proof of this. His government, a coalition of four centrist parties led by his center-right liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), fell because of a social policy scandal that had gone on for years, horrifying many; tax officials wrongly accused thousands of parents of fraud, plunging many families into debt by forcing them to pay back child care allowances received over several years. Many families were poor and had immigrant backgrounds. Some received bills of more than $120,000. Unable to pay, they faced new fines and penalties.

One might say: The government resigned, meaning there are healthy checks and balances—so, the system works. Well, not really. Even when the mistake was finally discovered, it was never corrected. The then-minister of social affairs and employment, a social democrat, conceded the system had failed and “made the government an enemy of the people.”

Interestingly, he compared Dutch anger about the scandal with the assault on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. A parliamentary report recently concluded that “fundamental principles of the rule of law had been violated.” Victims are finally receiving compensation, but creditors are still haunting some of them.

The problem here is two-fold: On the one hand, we see a growing sclerosis of public office; on the other hand, we have a political inability to do something about it. The Dutch, who used to be proud of their welfare state, now experience some of these failures themselves or see them affecting others. After the 2008 financial crisis, the country was put on a strict fiscal diet. Deep cuts were made in the health, social, and other sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic painfully exposes the lack of capacity in exactly those vital areas.

Because of this, some citizens lose trust in public office and turn their back on politics. Others vote for politicians who blame it all on elites and foreigners. Trailing Rutte’s VVD, the second largest political party in the Netherlands is Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). Wilders borrowed his 2017 election slogan from Trump: “Make the Netherlands Great Again.” This time he is campaigning for a “ministry of remigration and de-Islamization.”

The child care allowances scandal is a so-called good issue to resign over. This goes to the core of democracy. Rutte, however, only stepped down when it became clear that his government would probably not survive an upcoming vote of confidence in Parliament. Apart from one minister who had been too close to the fire, the whole government stayed on in a caretaker capacity. There was no time to hold snap elections: Regular elections were scheduled for March 17 already.

Polls indicate Rutte will probably win those elections by a wide margin. During the pandemic his party steadily rose in the polls, from around 24 to 27 percent. This is almost certainly due to the “rally ‘round the flag” effect in a country half paralyzed by the virus. Rutte’s frequent health policy turnarounds provoked some protest and even three days of looting and rioting in the country in January. But like other center-right leaders in Europe, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Rutte still finds himself in a rather comfortable position. In times of crisis, the Dutch clearly lose patience with populist slogans, preferring to be in the hands of experts.

However, the Netherlands is a politically fragmented country. The PVV commands around 13 percent of voters while the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party comes third with around 12 percent. A record 37 political parties take part in the elections this time. Having ruled out a coalition with the PVV, Rutte needs three or four parties to form a new government—no easy task.

Since the scandal, public administration reform has become a major theme for the Dutch public. One of the most popular politicians is Pieter Omtzigt, a CDA member of Parliament. He had the courage to demand justice for the bereaved families while a member of his own party, Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra, was ultimately responsible for the tax authorities. Obstructed by the government, he eventually proved that special algorithms had singled out Dutch immigrants with child care allowances. What is most worrisome about this scandal is not the mistake itself but the difficulty to correct a measure that is known to be wrong.

In his book Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working, journalist Jonathan Rauch described U.S. public administration as a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

At center stage is a system that has been rerouted, reformed, and amended so many times over the decades, with so many bypasses, patches and stopgaps, that it becomes ungovernable. Computer scientists know this problem as kludgeocracy: If every problem is solved by putting a patch somewhere, a pileup of patches eventually overpowers the system’s organizing principles. It then becomes immune for change and subject to crashes. When citizens get lost in this labyrinth, they call on politicians to solve the problem. But politicians, as the Dutch case painfully makes clear, often fail.

In the United States, former President Barack Obama really tried to reform his country with, for instance, the Affordable Care Act. Despite his efforts, it’s difficult to call it a success. Instead of pushing through clean, political reform, Obama found himself negotiating with patient groups, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, insurance companies, and other stakeholders. In the end, all were somehow accommodated, but little was left of the original plan. Not only had the elephant given birth to a mouse, but the whole process also largely bypassed Congress. This is what reform in modern, complex welfare states often boils down to: finding compromises with stakeholders.

Trump had a different approach. He never tried to change the system but just worked around it. Trump is a by-product of kludgeocracy. His popularity rests on those who feel disadvantaged or victimized by it. They detest the state and, believing misinformation, have lost any desire for reform.

According to a new biography on Rutte, his main credo is meeveren: Go with the flow, and let time do its work. So far, Rutte has survived everything this way. He is a manager, not a visionary leader. Crises always burn his rivals and coalition partners, never him. In times of crisis when people feel anxious and insecure the Prime Minister is seen as offering stability and security. He’s lucky, too: his main rivals on the far right are constantly entangled in scandals involving racism and xenophobia, while the left-wing parties are divided and have trouble capitalizing on the situation. Somehow, with the left and the far-right clashing over cultural issues and many other themes under the sun, Rutte’s center-right liberalism appears the “stable” choice for many. Add some Brexit chaos in the mix, and his cautious but pro-European course suddenly looks like a beacon of stability. That’s why Rutte is riding high in the polls, even after a major scandal. He’s a floater, good at keeping the ship more or less on course in stormy weather. But scandal or not, he is unlikely to embrace deep structural reforms.

As long as the system still delivers stability and well-being to the majority, all will be fine in the Netherlands. A new coalition government will be formed with some new faces. But below the surface, trust in public administration may further erode. Citizens demand change, and politicians will promise it with increasing sound and fury—but if they don’t deliver, democracy will suffer.

Like in the United States, governing in the Netherlands gradually becomes less political. It is done, rather, by quick executive orders, controversial referendums, backroom stakeholder deals, and via the courts. For example, on Feb. 16, a Dutch court declared the government’s COVID-19 curfew illegal. Meanwhile, government and opposition groups go through the motions. Some groups pose as anarchists, Marxists, or fascists. But in truth, they have little to do with real politics: There are very few ideas about workable alternatives. It’s empty. It’s theater, as QAnon proved with its farcical gear.

The Dutch still have it good, mostly. But they should be aware that some undemocratic undercurrents in society are not so different from those across the Atlantic Ocean, albeit at an earlier stage. They should tackle kludgeocracy now. They’ve had their warning, after all: Even those ruled by leaders living modestly and resigning by bike are not immune to it.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Oslo.

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