When it comes to power and inequality, we in the Netherlands imagine ourselves to be naive innocence. When we think of terms like corruption and oligarchy, we only think of distant lands. Things may not always go well here, but at least we try to give everyone equal access to power. At least that seems to be the consensus.
The recent revelations that various political parties, in particular CDA, D66 and VVD, received large donations during the last election campaign, put this self-image slightly to the test. These donations are made possible by the fact that political money flows, certainly in comparison with other countries, are hardly regulated in the Netherlands and existing rules are easily circumvented. There was only modest, very temporary commotion.
This fleeting attention is bad. Large donations have no place in a democracy. They reinforce political inequality and create a corrupt government. Yes, relatively modest amounts are involved in Dutch politics, especially compared to a country like the United States, but the trend is in the wrong direction, and even small amounts are problematic.
To my knowledge, no research has been conducted into the consequences of political donations for policy in the Netherlands, but the reported incidents leave little room for doubt. The CDA, for example, added a plea for extra educational training to its election program after a million-dollar donation from fundraiser Hans van der Wind, whose company provides such training. Pending definitive evidence, we can draw the reasonable conclusion: the question is not whether donations buy influence, but how and how much.
Dining with VVD politicians
This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that political donations can lead to different policies in different ways. Many donors and fundraisers deny that they want to influence election manifestos, which is undoubtedly true in some cases. But if these donors choose a party that already expresses their opinion and fill the campaign coffers, this can still influence the election results. Because although a well-founded campaign is by no means a guarantee of success, it is likely that it will help.
Nor should we underestimate the importance of access to those in power. Take the evenings where entrepreneurs dine with prominent VVD politicians for a fee. The more often politicians enter a certain circle, the more they will internalize that worldview. Even if this cannot be read from official positions, it can be of great importance in their day-to-day work. Donations can therefore trickle down into the policy process via various routes.
Corruption is not an exotic phenomenon, it occurs here too
In addition to direct donations, there are many other ways that money is turned into political influence. For example, people with high incomes participate more easily in all kinds of political activities, and politicians themselves often come from higher socio-economic backgrounds, which affects their priorities and perceptions. We don’t know how important each of these sources of political inequality is, but we do know that they create political inequality.
My own research (with Armen Hakhverdian) shows that the opinions of MPs more often correspond to the preferences of wealthy citizens than of middle- and low-income citizens. We also see strong inequalities in policy outcomes. For almost 300 possible policy changes between 1979 and 2012, the policy is closely aligned with the preferences of wealthy Dutch people. The less fortunate have little or no influence.
There are several answers to the question of what is bad about donations and the unequal influence they promote. The clincher is that this damages trust in politics – but above all, it is simply undemocratic. It undermines the democratic premise that everyone has equal opportunities for representation.
As the political theorist Camila Vergara argues, we should see this as a form of corruption: a political system that promotes the interests of a small group of privileged citizens at the expense of the majority. Corruption is not necessarily an individual or illegal phenomenon, it can encompass the entire system. In short: corruption is not an exotic phenomenon, it also occurs here.
Also read this interview: ‘Corruption charges are serious’
Political donations are only one source of political inequality in the Netherlands, and the phenomenon is only relatively modest. But the last thing we need is more corruption than already exists. Banning donations above 5,000 euros per year and of foundations, as suggested by political scientist Simon Otjes, is a good start to turn the tide. More transparency regarding donations and the establishment of independent supervision are other logical measures. By limiting the influence of money on political decision-making, we come a little closer to our self-image of an equal country.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 3 August 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 3, 2021