Tag Archives: Netherlands

The emergence of pillarization in the Netherlands

A par­ty defining itself merely as the representative of a certain, clearly distinguishable part of the population, automatically rafrains from addressing itself to potential voters not belonging to this part of the population. It sets drastic limits to its potential voter-reservoir. This self-chosen restraint only seems sensible if there is a likelihood of compensating for this loss of possible voters by an eventually total absorption of the chosen group. To this end the parties not only claimed to be the only representatives of this part of the population. They moreover tried to integrate their followers as totally as possible into their sphere of influence, mainly by creating a system of organizations and associations that corresponded to the various party lines. The result was a fairly complete exclusiveness and absorption of all members of the group in question. The pillars thus created were defined by their belief or ideology and deliberately closed to non-members.

At this stage it becomes clear, that the Socialist pillar is oriented along the same lines as the denominational pillars. The Socialists too had a clearly defined reservoir of followers—the workers. They had a common ideology; they closed their front against dissenting ideologies; they created a broad network of organizations and associations into which they tried to integrate all social activities of their followers. They used the same ideologically based exclusiveness and the same totality of absorbing their followers as the denominational parties did. The only difference was that they could not take over an existing network of church associations—they had to create everything from scratch. So the Dutch parties, deciding to recruit their followers exclusively from an ideologically clearly defined group, had to anticipate two consequences—a desirable and an undesirable one: By pillarization they could ensure a longlasting, nearly blind loyalty but on the other hand they had to accept a strict limitation of their sphere of influence, because all members of different religious or ideological groups were by definitionem beyond reach. …

It appears very much as if the parties decided to choose pillarization after checking the costs and benefits of mobilizing ideologically defined groups. They compared the disadvantages of limiting their sphere of influence with the big advantages: if a realistic chance could be expected to gain a majority, pillarization would be the best strategy possible for gaining both: majority and loyal voters. Indeed, all three parties—the Catholics, orthodox Protestants and Socialists—seem to have reckoned with this possibility. The Catholics expected to gain a majority among the population in a surprisingly short time because of their high fertility rate. They dreamed of the ’Catholic Netherlands’ and of an unchallenged political supe­riority. The orthodox Protestants clearly wanted to gain as many voters as possible from liberal Protestantism. They at least explicitly strived for the Protestant’s dominance and for a structuring of social life according to their religious beliefs. The Socialists assumed that the workers would help them to gain a majority at the polls, as they likewise hoped in other countries too. All three of the parties could reasonably count on winning the majority because of the considerable overlapping of the categorial groups (for example among the Catholic and Protestant workers). The condition was that they succeeded in mobilizing totally their specific reservoirs. The course of events however showed that the parties considerably overestimated their possibilities of such total mobilization. Only the Catholic were able to win over nearly the whole Catholic part of the population. They profited mostly from the support of the organizationally united Catholic church. The Socialists and especially the Protestants were less successful. So it is no surprise that the ’doorbraak’ — a refrainment from pillarization — was explicitly justified by the disappointment of hopes for a majority.

Pillarization in the Netherlands is linked so closely to the origin and the behaviour of the political parties, that each attempt to explain it without reference to these parties must necessarily lead to contradictions. Pillarization is not the consequence of struggles for emancipation or for protecting the identity of the churches only, it is mainly an effect of the mobilization activities of the Dutch political parties, focussing on religious and ideologically defined groups and arguments, during a time of specific conflicts.



Pillarization: the secret of Dutch success

Discussing a number of hypotheses, Lijphart concludes that there are two factors, plus one indirect explanation and one comprehensive explanation. (Politics 1968, ch. 5) The two factors are firstly, the basic sense of nationalism among the members of all four blocs, which is reinforced by a few national symbols, and secondly, the crosscutting of the religious and class cleavages. The first factor promotes unity and the second diminishes sharp divisions. The so-called indirect explanation is the deferential character of the Dutch political culture: Dutch politics is “highly elitist” and the masses accept this elitist leadership. (Politics 1968, 102) The reason for this is to be found in the comprehensive “explanans,” in itself the crux of Dutch political stability, namely, the spirit of accommodation among the political elites. “That is the secret of its success.” (Politics 1968, 103)



Here’s a term that I don’t see often enough.

From a summary of the work of the Dutch sociologist Arend Lijphart:

In the fifties and the sixties many political scientists in the Western world were concerned with the crucial question of how political systems could be made both stable and democratic. Their concern to find an answer to this question had clearly been stimulated by their desire “to clean the world up” after the chaotic Second World War, to prevent a further spread over Western Europe of the Communist type of totalitarian stability, and to support the democratic experiments of the newly independent but unstable countries of the Third World. In their search for the conditions of stable and democratic political rule most of these political scientists came to believe that political fragmentation of a society poses enormous obstacles to the realization of stability and democracy. In their view the cleavages or fragmentation, created by differing social, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, had somehow to be overcome before there could be any prospect of a stable, democratic regime.

In other words, in the fifties and sixties, the mainstream opinion of political scientists was that diversity and democracy can’t coexist.

About fifteen years ago this dominant belief among political scientists was challenged by the young Dutch Arend Lijphart. In 1968 he published his The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in The Netherlands. Both within the country and elsewhere (thanks to the English edition) the work was highly acclaimed. Its success was due, in large part, to his description of Dutch politics as a paradoxical case of strong social segmentation or pillarization which was also marked by stability and democracy. That is, contrary to expectations, Holland is both stable and democratic despite its extensive social cleavages.

A notable (and likely unique) feature of Dutch pillarization was the tradition of cooperation among the elites of the different pillars. Needless to say, this will not be replicated in any redevelopment of pillarization today…

But how did pillarization work? A firsthand account of pillarization is given here:

I am Protestant by birth and when I talk to my Catholic peers it seems to us that we are from different countries. … When I was born my mother was helped by a Protestant midwife and my birth was announced in the Protestant newspaper. The announcements (and paper) were printed by a Protestant printer. … I went to a Protestant school … we didn’t go to the greengrocer next door, who was Catholic, because we imagined that the quality was no good and the prices exorbitant, but rather, we went several blocks away to the Protestant greengrocer where they had exactly the same things but we believed that the quality and the prices were far better … we went to Protestant summer camps … and followed the Protestant t.v., radio, and newspapers.

In other words, pillarization was a system of mass voluntary segregation. Members of one phyle chose to take part in only the social institutions associated with that phyle. Some people tried to reject pillarization, but in practice, they ended up in the Liberal pillar.

Secularization led to depillarization in the Netherlands. In Belgium, on the other hand, pillarization had both a religious (Catholics vs. Protestants vs. Liberals and Socialists) and an ethnic (Walloons vs. Flemings vs. Germans) aspect. Belgium is still pillarized—and between its political deadlock, the now-infamous failure of its police, and the dysfunction of Molenbeek, it’s no model of good governance.