Science - June 24, 2010

‘The south needs a strong father figure’

Text:
Astrid Smit

Why do so many Dutch people, especially those in the south, vote for Geert Wilders? Gert Jan Hofstede searches for the explanation not on the level of the individual but on that of the group.

Father and son Hofstede
What many feared and others hoped for, has happened. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party  (PVV) obtained an enormous election victory on 9 June. One and a half million Dutch citizens voted for a party which wants to ban the Koran, stop mass immigration and which regards Europe as a threat. How did this happen? And why does the south of the Netherlands in particular - the PVV was number 1 in eighty percent of Limburg municipalities - choose this man? The media has come up with all sorts of explanations in the past weeks. The Dutch citizen, especially that in the south, feels himself wronged. He feels threatened by the economic crisis, the raising of the retirement age and by immigrants who would take away a piece of the cake.
Wageningen social scientist Gert Jan Hofstede does not search for the explanation on the level of the individual, but on that of the group. According to him, all of us operate in a so-called ‘moral circle', the group with whom we feel at home and for whom we have deep feelings (see other write-up). We will always try to maintain this moral circle because it offers us safety, says Hofstede, who works at the department of Logistics, Decision & Information Sciences. We are therefore constantly involved in fixing the boundaries of the group, especially in the face of danger.
‘Riding the waves of fear - economic crisis, political murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh - we determine once again at this juncture the boundaries of the group, the Dutch people', says Hofstede. ‘Who belongs and who does not? Parties such as the D66 and GroenLinks say: we belong to the group of Europeans. PvdA and SP say: all those who live in the Netherlands belong together. While the PVV says: your family has to be born and raised here.'

Subculture
Hofstede places the southern preference for the PVV against its subculture. ‘People in the south have a strong tendency to avoid all things foreign and uncertain', he says. ‘Now that the CDA is at variance with their sentiments, they look for another party which can offer them certainty. And that is the PVV, which in fact has promised not to mess with the AOW pension and the length of the unemployment (WW) benefits, and shows foreigners the door.'
Another aspect of the southern subculture is the acceptance of a authoritarian leader. Hofstede: ‘You can see that within the Catholic Church and in politics.' Hofstede quotes a woman from the Limburg village of St. Willebrord who told the Volkskrant: ‘Geert is an extended piece of Pim. Geert doesn't always say the right things, but what he says is true.' Leaders turn easily into ‘heroes', and people just follow them unquestioningly. Hofstede says: ‘That's why I think that PVV voters would accept a letdown concerning the AOW age limit if Wilders continues to come across powerful enough.'
Roman
According to Hofstede, the subculture in the south is rooted in Roman times when leaders governed their subjects from a great distance. Farfetched? ‘No', says Hofstede. ‘Every culture has a long history. The borders of the Roman and subsequent empires were marked by the big rivers. That has led to the south having another culture than that of the north.'
The subculture in the north, which has never been ruled by a big empire, is almost opposite in nature, adds Hofstede. The people there are less focused on certainty, are quicker to accept foreigners into their midst, and value an egalitarian society. ‘Therefore, the PvdA (egalitarian) and the VVD (individual freedom) have won the most votes there.'
It is therefore not so surprising that the PVV has a big following in the south, adds Hofstede. ‘If you know something about culture and group behavior, many developments in society can be explained.' As such, he ventures to forecast that the voting behavior in the south will swing to and fro as long as a strong leader has not come forward in the Netherlands. Wilders tries to fulfill this role, but if he fails, chances are high that - with so many angry men in his party - a new hero has to emerge. Hofstede quips: ‘The south needs a strong father figure.'

Like father like son
Gert Jan Hofstede follows in the footsteps of his father, Geert Hofstede. Father Hofstede, a social psychologist, was known in the nineteen eighties for his book Culture's Consequences, made popular later under the titles Cultures and Organizations: Software of the mind and Allemaal andersdenkenden. In this book, Hofstede unfolds the theory that national cultures can be characterized by a number of fixed parameters, such as the degree of inequality between a leader and the rest of the group which the society will accept, the degree of fear for the unknown, or the notion concerning ‘bad' characters. These parameters - differing further from country to country - are passed down unconsciously from one generation to the next. Gert Jan Hofstede, a biologist by upbringing, has added a new dimension to his father's theory. He puts forward the idea that the group - the ‘moral circle' - is a major driving force within a culture. The human being is a social animal and becomes successful according to his ability to work together in a group, the result of an evolution process of millions of years. He operates with the standards and values of the group and tries to keep the group going. In times of fear, the boundary of the group is re-adjusted and, in most cases, tightened.

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