Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dutch Elections

The Dutch election results are unequivocal: the pro-EU parties of the center-right and center-left won a resounding victory, Geert Wilders' xenophobic and Europhobic extreme-right party will lose 1/3 of its seats, and Emile Roemer's Euroskeptic Socialists fared poorly.

To be sure, the Netherlands is one of the lucky ones: a northern economy in trade surplus. Still, it's interesting that wherever "Europe" has been put to a test vote, a referendum on the Europe question, as this election was billed, Europe has won--even in Greece. This should give pause to those who argue that Europe is an anti-democratic project, that the European Central Bank has become the supreme autocrat, and that "the people" would reject Draghi's program if only they could. These are the sentiments of people who confuse their own judgments with "the people's." The latter are often confused, ambivalent, and far less certain of what they want than their self-appointed spokespersons. And this, as I say, has been the case not only in the fortunate Netherlands but also in the unfortunate Greece, albeit less univocally. The people just want this torment to end.

The ECB's recent actions will of course become wildly unpopular--unless they work. Since there seems to be nothing else afoot at the moment, the people are not about to be panicked by the cries of "anti-democratic" usurpation of power. Their approval may be quiet, but it is approval. Not only the Dutch but the German Constitutional Court seem content with only the mildest of checks on the bank's power (future increases of ESM funding must be submitted to the Bundestag, the court said). And for now, that is where things stand, pending either an easing of market tensions or a heightening of social tensions. I'm sure there is a pithy Tocquevillean generalization to be uttered about democracy's response to the deep redistributional dilemmas posed by a major financial crisis, but the right formula eludes me at the moment. It seems that the people are more forbearing than they are sometimes given credit for, more willing to experiment in times of high uncertainty, and perhaps rather more optimistic than they have a right to be that things will work out in the end.

They are not, however, eager to plunder the rich, as they are sometimes accused of being. They know that the banks have already taken serious writedowns, and they also know that their own savings are tied up in the banks. They may want to help those in difficulty but are wary of bankrupting themselves in the process. So they temporize while rejecting the extremes. As Tocqueville might have observed, such inaction lacks the decisiveness of the hotheaded aristocrat sure of himself and persuaded that he knows where honor lies. Sometimes patience is a virtue. Could this be one of those times?

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