The Polder Model

One of my sons lives in Amsterdam, having moved there almost two years ago to accept a position with a tech firm. (No matter how often he explains what he does, I am incapable of understanding it–but as his mother, I’m impressed.) Thanks to FaceTime, we “see” each other several times a week, making the distance between us less daunting, and serving as evidence of the ways in which technology is accelerating globalism.

The pandemic, of course, is added testimony of the global and deeply interrelated nature of today’s world.

My son has generally been delighted with governance in the Netherlands, and has found their political processes to be more democratic and far more collaborative than ours. Public policies are considerably more focused on the common good. The social safety net is generous and private economic activity seems to flourish, so he was surprised by what he has seen as the Dutch government’s hesitant (and in his opinion, at least) relatively inadequate response to the Coronavirus. It led him to do some research.

When we were talking the other day, he shared the theory that emerged from that research. It involves the origins of a generally positive aspect of Dutch political culture that does, however, get in the way of immediate, decisive actions of the sort required by a pandemic.

It is “the Polder Model.”

One of the more unique aspects of the Netherlands is that the country consists in large part of polders, or land reclaimed from the sea. These areas require constant pumping and careful and continuous maintenance of the dykes. (Dutch water engineers are the best on the planet–and with climate change, increasingly in demand.) Ever since the Middle Ages, when this process of land reclamation began, people living in the same polder, including those from different societies or backgrounds, have been forced to cooperate because without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dykes and pumping stations, the polders would flood.

According to historians, even when different cities in the same polder were at war, they still  cooperated to prevent the polder from flooding. This long history has deeply influenced the country’s political culture; it has taught the Dutch to set aside differences for a greater purpose, and to work across differences for the common good.

The Netherlands has benefited enormously from this aspect of the country’s political culture. But working across differences to achieve consensus is necessarily a slower process than a decree from an official-in-charge, or an autocrat. My son’s theory is that it has slowed the Dutch response to the pandemic.

Obviously, this theory is conjecture, although there is data to support it and it certainly seems reasonable. Moreover, it serves as yet another example of the multitude of ways in which political cultures evolve and influence governance and elections.

How much of the current dysfunction of the United States is an outgrowth of our own, very different, history? What percentage of current racial attitudes and animosities is attributable to our slaveholding past? How much rabid individualism can be traced to the sheer size of the country, where for generations, people who didn’t “fit in” could go West, acquire land and ignore the constraints and conventions of more settled regions? What about the often-mystifying differences between Canadian and U.S. cultures that share so much? Do they stem–at least in part– from the need of Canadians to band together to help their neighbors in a much colder environment?

Given the reality of global interdependence, the most pressing question is: what can we learn–or, ideally, import– from the polder model? 


  1. Because, the United States is the touchstone!

    The great experiment is showing a lot of cracks. And, a lot of countries use the example of the United States to try and avoid pitfalls. American obsequious prostrating to the altars of various God’s, including gods of personality and gods of wealth, lead many to believe that this experiment is a failure!

    The Netherlands have welcomed diversity after they abolished slavery in the 1800s, they welcomed diversity in to their breast so to speak. Of course there are plenty of bigots in the Netherlands, but on the whole people are much more liberal minded than here. Live and let live, and know that your neighbor has your back. Here, your neighbor would have drawn target on your back.

    Here, you have religious fanatics trying to bring back the good old days, and those were the days of slavery! Extremely divisive behavior and behavior that excludes large swaths of Americans who have roots deeper than some of those newer European sorts.

    Donald Trump already said that he wanted more people like those from Norway and such, and stop the influx of central and South Americans, and Asians. Let’s not forget North Africans and Africans in general. (SH!+ hole countries)

    The Netherlands have learned from their past, they never had the KKK or night riders, they never allowed people to hoard weapons looking towards an insurrection of government. Conspiracy theories are routinely shot down, and many are not given a chance to fester on social media.

    America being the touchstone and birthplace of fascist beliefs, allows others to learn how to be nefarious more so than Russia or China. How can some politicians be immune to the law? Isn’t accountability equal across the board? Eventually the sea will reclaim the Netherlands, at least the lowest portions, because I highly doubt if this climate change can be reversed in time to prevent that type of catastrophe! But, there just might be an opening!

    Maybe if the United States would be bright enough to run this right-wing religious fanatical nationalism out of Dodge, and dismantle everything that points to them, maybe the United States can set a more positive example and help its neighbors save their countries.

    Of course the United States has to change how it treats its own citizens 1st and instead of being a touchstone of what to steer clear of, convert to a touchstone of how to the work for freedom, it would be the touchstone example of compatibility and symbiotic relationships, that everyone is treated the same, that you love your neighbors and you’ll help your enemies if you can. Because nothing works better than doing things for others without reciprocation.

    In the Netherlands they have really pushed religion out of government, people can practice their religion, they can talk about their religion, but it’s Separate from their politics! That’s supposed to be the case here, but as everyone can see, it causes more turmoil than it’s worth. Those who spout religious epithets to force policy need to be banned from secular government. Many in The United States still want to be a slave driven country, the rest of the world has moved on for the most part! At least what’s considered the free world!

  2. “One of the more unique aspects of the Netherlands is that the country consists in large part of polders, or land reclaimed from the sea.”

    The “polder” system obviously began long before Climate Change and Global Warming became daily top issues throughout the world. I immediately thought of the story of the “Boy with his finger in the dike” and wonder if the Netherlands isn’t fighting a losing battle as sea levels and temperatures are changing at a rapid rate world-wide?

    “Given the reality of global interdependence, the most pressing question is: what can we learn–or, ideally, import– from the polder model?”

    Unless I am mistaken, Trump’s recently chosen primary residence of Mar-A-Lago (hoping to slow or avoid those NYSD court cases against him) is in line to be washed away by the Atlantic Ocean and he and his cronies are leading the climate change denial movement.

    Question; is the polder model simply an avoidance of denying Climate Change and Global Warming and allowing people in this country to continue their wasteful and comfortable living style rather than making changes to save the environment?

    As an aside: my day began with a laugh, an E-mail from DC Swamp Watch organization asking for my help to stop Biden from stealing Trump’s election. Republicans are getting desperate.

  3. One of the things I have found fascinating about the Scandinavian societies is how easily they have accepted policies aimed at fostering the common good. They routinely embrace policies that protect those at the lower end of the economic ladder and hold back those at the higher end. There is a big caveat to that, though. One the whole, they are very strict about “foreigners” coming into their country. I think it also highlights part of the reason the US has had so much trouble advancing measures that protect lower classes.

    Empathy is easy when you imagine everyone is just like you. It’s easy to see yourself in their situation and want their situation to be better. When your country is made up of many different cultures, races, and creeds, it’s much more difficult to promote empathy.

    Essentially, racism, and other -isms that divide us, must be overcome for us to all prosper.

  4. Let me just say that America is more diverse than most European countries. I have a friend who came from Iowa to work in Indy. After being there for a couple of years, he commented that he didn’t understand the racial divide in Indiana, as it was never that way in Iowa. My reply: Yes, I’ll bet both of your African American families felt right at home. The point is you only hate what you know. Until we get past the need to describe ourselves by race (an artificial construct designed mostly to separate us) we won’t be able to reconcile our perceived differences.

  5. While extolling the ideal of the “greater good”, the United States has always praised those who practice rugged individualism and extreme personal independence. It isn’t so much “all for one and one for all” as it’s “I got mine too bad about you”. Large swaths of the population desert “civilization” in order to get off the grid, live off the land, or survive in the woods. For others, it’s the gated planned community or the large private estate designed to isolate oneself from all that diversity out there. If not of that ilk, others close ranks in family oriented clans centered on religions that have no room for outsiders. This then quite naturally leads into a kind of tribalism that is based on political and social views that dismiss all ideas that run counter to one’s ideology or social behaviors.
    We are a divided nation all right, and not just as the media portrays us to be.

  6. Most Canadians know more about American civics and public policy than we do as birthright citizens.

  7. I figured John would jump on this issue this morning but he didn’t take the route I thought he would take. When he mentions religion, I always think which denomination of the 2000+ Christian religions is he referring to.

    Sheila writes, “…set aside differences for a greater purpose.”

    This might also mean setting aside our individual ego/will to serve a higher will or some would say the will of God. Others have called this the higher self which I prefer because I can literally observe and watch my thoughts as they come and go. I am not my thinking brain. I am higher than the ego. This higher self is connected to all others. We are equals at that level. Some would say our God-consciousness. It’s there where we must develop policies and systems for the good of all mankind.

    However, that’s not really how the land was divided up across the globe. I certainly don’t think the original British Colonies or the subsequent United States was created on that level. Many historians would say we were founded on egalitarian principles – to be treated as equals.

    As I look at our Founding documents, we were not created as equals. I will gladly listen to any arguments to the contrary. If you listen to modern-day Republicans, they wrongfully claim we were founded under Christian principles. They also don’t believe you can be an atheist and still have morals (Democrats believe in abortions so they are all going to hell or just baby-killers).

    Were we a class system? I mean our economic system was based on slavery and slaves had no say in how they were governed because they were assets of their owners.

  8. And yet right backlash against Middle East/African immigrants has raged in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries with pretty strong political parties emerging.

    I remember visiting Denmark in the 1970’s and marveling at the “community” culture there. I daydreamed about living there. At the time, it was likely close to 100% white. Now they have strong laws reducing immigration and support for immigrants.

    The disease is not unique to us.

  9. To John Sorg. The last paragraph is precise and unerring. The more we as a nation stray from separation of church and state, the deeper our divide.

  10. John Sorg and William Poppen; the right, both conservative and far right, have managed to bastardize that part of the 1st Amendment regarding separation of church and state and armed their believers by making almost a religion of the 2nd Amendment. Totally losing the meaning of both and enacting laws to force their beliefs on the nation as they ignore the Rule of Law in toto. Evangelicals armed with military level weapons has definitely deepened our divide to the chaotic, frightening situation we are now facing. All thoughts of saving lives or the environment have been totally lost over the past two weeks and the countdown has two months and almost 12 hours to go.

    By the way; the Covid-19 Pandemic is winning.

  11. All the points mentioned by the author and commentators are goals of America, too. We are a nation that just doesn’t believe in what the Founders wrote, so have ignored them.
    They are stated in two words within The Preamble of the Constitution. Those words are “…general Welfare, …”

  12. Jo Ann, Todd and William,

    Absolutely 100%, there needs to be an impregnable wall against religion seeping into secular government. You cannot have a wholesome and healthy civil society with people of many different beliefs and people of different sorts if you take a specific set of religious beliefs and try and force it on them your civil society ?

    Every single citizen is entitled to their own belief, now, that doesn’t mean that if their belief involves some sort of ritual sacrifice or some sort of repugnant practice, should be allowed!

    Worshipers of Baal demand child sacrifice! That’s part of their ritualistic beliefs. And you can best believe that there are still many followers of this particular god!

    So, people should be allowed to practice their beliefs as they see fit as long as they do no harm to the whole of society or secular societies citizens in general. And, this particular tenant should be done either in the privacy of one’s home or a privacy of one’s place of worship.

    Religious entities should also be taxed! considering Christian groups which Todd mentions number in the thousands, claim to follow Christ’s law, Romans tells everyone to pay their taxes and give honor to those who deserve it. It doesn’t say that Christian religions should get a free ride, I’ve never read that in scripture.

    Just take a look at any point in history where there was an overabundance of tumult! Every single conflict that erupted was because of religious beliefs. You will not find one that is not related to religion. It could be religious beliefs against a secular government’s beliefs, but mostly it’s one religion and it’s adherents fighting another religions members.

    The only way this country let alone the world, will have peace and have security, is with the abolition of
    public religious practices and beliefs which are openly detrimental to civil society.

    I am a religious individual ! And I do believe in god! And I know scripture! I espouse my beliefs and most hate them in the religious field and in the secular field. So, I guess and that way I’m equal opportunity John, lol!

    There are plenty of governments that have their problems, but most of the time those problems have a religious bent to them. And, it’s time that these things are abolished.

  13. And JoAnn,

    Agreed, one cannot claim to be religious and following Christ’s law as a Christian and horde weapons and hate everyone else who is not like you. That goes against every tenant and scripture! But, they practice their false doctrine openly and eventually that’s going to be their demise.

  14. I am Adrian, living in Amsterdam most of my 73 years. I am impressed how well informed you followers of this blog are! Jo Ann Green: the poldermodel is not mended for us to continue our dolce far niente. There is a task force working on climate changes and the consequences for the dykes in the coming 50 years.

  15. Not much hope in the GOP these days. Every once in a while there is light.

    From The Guardian:

    Of all the Republicans to push back on Donald Trump’s baseless claims about voter fraud, Brad Raffensperger, the mild-mannered top election official in Georgia, did not seem like a likely candidate.

    But after Trump lost Georgia to Joe Biden by around 13,000 votes, Raffensperger has emerged as one of the few Republican officials across the US who has aggressively disputed Trump’s baseless claims that fraud tainted the election result in the state. Trump, who endorsed Raffensperger in 2018, is now directing his ire at the secretary of state, and Georgia’s two Republican senators, both locked in separate runoff contests against Democrats, have called on Raffensperger to resign.

    “I’m a conservative Republican. Yes, I wanted President Trump to win. But as secretary of state we have to do our job,” he said in an interview with the Guardian. “I’m gonna walk that fine, straight, line with integrity. I think that integrity still matters.”

    Raffensperger and his wife have faced death threats since election day – something election officials around the US have reported as Trump continues to stoke baseless accusations about fraud. And Raffensperger said it was “sad” to see it coming from his own party.

    Raffensperger at this point is one of a very few members of the GOP to stand-up against Trump and The Trump Cult. Like Raffensperger said, “I think that integrity still matters”.

  16. Raffensperger should be offered a place in the Biden administration. Symbolic gestures can be meaningful.

  17. Raffensperger should be offered a place in the Biden administration. Symbolic gestures can be meaningful. How to heal….

  18. Charleston, SC, which now floods when there is a high tide (no rain required), contracted with a group of Dutch engineers last year to seek their advice on how to deal with global warming. Like Miami and naval shipyards in Virginia, flooding has gone from a pressing to an urgent problem. In the future, local and county governments will survive or fall based on their ability to cope with this manifestation of climate change. To date, all of the solutions suggested have involved awesome infusions of money – more than local citizens can provide. Will government-hating South Carolinians need to look to the federal government for help? Ironically, we are already accustomed to sucking at the government teat for monetary bailouts in many areas, so there’s no adjustment to be made.

    On occasion the U.S has adopted a polder mentality – worked as if we were all in this together – in the face of threats from outside. One would expect a similar response to a pandemic, but as we’ve grown older we’ve given the polder the cold shoulder and shown how much bolder we can be as individualists. With a quarter million corpses and ten million cases of coronavirus, what could go wrong with that approach? Oh, that’s right. The experts say the worst is yet to come! And we have a president working to assure that outcome.

  19. When the Constitution was written more of us were rural folks and it seems that cooperation was the norm for people that we knew and we had very little contact with people we didn’t. The colonies didn’t trust each other much and for sure the free colonies didn’t trust those that employed human livestock. Our founders were committed however to find a way to unite those colonies knowing that the defense of the nation required one large enough so our Constitution was built with compromise upon compromise to get sufficient buy in but, in total, reflected the theories of freedom that stemmed from the Era of Enlightenment that in order to get diverse colonists to accept federal government they insisted that they regularly and reliably got to choose who governed. Liberal democracy was invented.

    It has held up through trial after trial more or less intact for 250 years. Over that time communications among people on this continent and with other continents has become unimaginable in scope and capability and now it can be said everyone has exposure to everyone of the 7.5 billion human who roam the globe. Of course it’s those in the cities of business where that’s most true. The rural areas remain somewhat insular and increasingly obsolete as progress happens.

    Is democracy still the best idea for governance? Some other countries notably in Europe have followed us into that model but other models are competing. Russia it seems has a hybrid government combining Communism, Fascism and Oligarchy which seems to work for them but puts them somewhat at odds with their European and Asian neighbors. The other notable exception is China which seems to be a single party model with compromised regard for human rights organized more like a huge corporation than a benevolent liberal democracy.

    The world has become a giant experiment on the future of human rights. Is more authoritarianism necessary for required rapid decision making or is the liberal democratic model prioritizing rights conferred by the choice of who governs still workable in an overcrowded unsustainable civilization?

    I think this is where someone usually says, good question, but then silence ensues as answers to the question require continued extensive experimentation. In the meantime politicians will gain employment from pretending to know the answer.

  20. Lester – I’m hoping Raffensperger stays exactly where he is – in the same camp. Our country needs his brand of integrity in both worlds. So maybe not an offer by the Biden administration, but rather encouragement to lead his party. Risks like the one he has boldly taken may be the path to progress for our wide divide. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants – to hear President Elect Biden offer encouragement for leadership in the Republican party? Gives me goosebumps.

  21. As a Canadian, I can tell you that one difference between us and you folks ‘down south’ is that we are not a cultural ‘melting pot’, but rather have chosen the ‘keep your cultural identity’ model for immigrants. This means more work with each other to accept differences. It’s not perfect of course and we are so influenced by the US that give us 20 years and we may be where you are now.

    Thanks Sheila, always thought provoking.

  22. Anthony,

    Yep, as an example, Quebec is mostly French speakers or French and English speakers. I know that they teach French in the schools up in Canada don’t they? Every Canadian person that I’ve ever met if they’ve been born there can speak French and English. And, I might add, I’ve been cussed out in both. ???

  23. Well, Pete, I don’t think your questions have sparked silence. I’ve been paying close attention to the Great Reset as outlined by the World Economic Forum. They are doing some amazing things which are mind-boggling.

    What I find most interesting are all the things the USA says we are good at is really just a public relations concoction. Our systems are producing laggard results. Our leaders are grossly overpaid because our measurement systems reward greed.

    Anyway, I post much of their articles on LinkedIn without any results. On Twitter, there is a growing faction (seems to be the same folks as anti-vaxxers) that are calling the WEF and the Great Reset a giant global conspiracy wanting to suck out our brains to just make automatons.

    Explore their site…wonderful insights:

  24. Americans have been hood winked into thinking that we are and have been the best at everything since WWII. But data shows differently. We are last or almost last in just about everything. Education, healthcare, drug addiction, Mental health, etc. We have succumbed to the lie that greed is good. That wealth in and of itself is the only thing to be judged by. It doesn’t matter if that wealth was gotten by illegal, immoral and unethical ways.
    Who cares about living by the teachings of Jesus as long as you show up to Church every Sunday to proclaim your piety?
    Who cares about actually getting an education if rich daddy can buy your way into the best Universities and pay to ensure you graduate with a degree?
    Ignorance is bliss. Just ignore all the poverty, all the racism, all the disenfranchised who struggle everyday. As long we have our narcotic TVs with our reality series and our sports to show us that tribalism and the “us vs them” mentality is all that matters.
    LBJ said it best: I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

  25. I was acquainted with the boy and his finger in the dike in grade school and learned of the vital role of dikes in providing polders later. The Netherlands and New Orleans (and soon all our coasts) have something in common – advancing waters. I kid those who will listen that I am going to buy some land in the Colorado Rockies fit for subdivision as we seek higher ground, telling them that I will make a bundle and that my purchasers can fish in Lake Kansas, but as we used to say back in the days of radio: “Tain’t funny, McGee.” Advancing water is for real!

    Unless we change our ways and place a premium on living over profit, our befouled air and caustic oceans will exact their existential price from all of us, rich and poor, black and white, socialist, whatever. Like the coronavirus, environmental collapse makes no exceptions. We would do well to meaningfully clean up our act before it is too late and we have no act to clean up since I’m hearing from some that we are already at a tipping point. Let’s not get to a point where we must have dikes for polders. Es la hora!

  26. That devastatingly huge barnacle, the largest and hungriest barnacle, on the American ship is not there because some of the 45 political captains we’ve chosen through our history to lead us put it there; it’s there because it grew there organically.

    It grows larger and more dangerous because it can. When disected, it reveals its origins as educational; no, that’s wrong: its origins are the education gap. In my estimation, the American education gap is wider and deeper than its wealth gap. In fact, there is a much stronger connection between the two “gaps” than economists and social scientists realize.

    I’m not talking about the credential gap. I’m talking about the first or second grader who balks at paying attention, cooperating, doing repetitive exercises, reciting, doing homework, and where that attitude gets him or her twelve or twenty or thirty years later–so far behind more cooperative peers insofar as coping ability is concerned as to seem alien to his or her own planet and species.

    These children who buck the educational system will have to be turned somehow or the USA will never fashion a more egalitarian society no matter what political method is wielded.

    As a public school principal, I’ve monitored numerous teachers’ classes who could not even recognize the laggards and revolters in their own classroom and gave in to that behavior as if it were normal, so normal as to be unrecognized…at least by undiscerning teachers too lazy and dense themselves to take dutiful notice of their immediate environment. This will not be corrected by the present educational worship of permissiveness and Deweyism.

  27. Larry – it is more of a shame that a school principal doesn’t know what “Deweyism” is. It is furthest from the current practice of teaching “facts” and taking standardized tests. And you complain about teachers??

    Per the leading academic definition:

    Dewey believed that human beings learn through a ‘hands-on’ approach. This places Dewey in the educational philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatists believe that reality must be experienced. From Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn.

  28. Anthony – an interesting perspective from my neighbor to the south (growing up in Detroit, we knew you headed south to reach Windsor, Ontario)

    The US “melting pot” encouraged people to lose their “ethnic” identity, which worked, except that it encouraged disdain for those who didn’t melt-in. Also, learning English didn’t help people who look “different”. Since the discovery of “ethnic pride”, the US has been trying to move toward the “gumbo” model (a single delicious dish where each component can be identified – can’t remember where I got that term). However, too many resent this because it replaces their position as the end product – you melted into being a “Yankee” (except in the south) wherein you gave up your language, dress, and culture and tried to be a WASP

    The Polder Model, like comparing us to the Asian countries where mask wearing was accepted early, overlooks (as has been pointed out) our obsession with the “rugged individual”. Still, it is worth thinking about. The world (and the country) is shrinking, with implications for cooperation, and (sorry “conservatives”) the need for more solutions on a national level.

  29. As a Canadian, I think there are a few key differences between the USA and Canada:

    – The number of strongly religious people, especially evangelicals, in the USA. We certainly have some, but not nearly as many, and our governments are not affected by religious issues to anywhere near the degree of the USA

    – The number of Americans who buy into the strength-, male-oriented libertarian ideals. These ideas lead to selfish and completely unrealistic goals. Again, we have some of these people, too, but not nearly as many. We have had legislation in the recent past, for example, that required firearm registration, and it caused relatively little reaction.

    – Slavery was never especially prominent in Canada. In fact, there were laws passed as far back as the 1700s that–while not abolishing slavery–made it completely nonviable for the wannabe slave-owner people. (For example, a law that made it legal for a slave to leave an owner at any time.) So, we’ve embraced multiculturalism and tolerance for awhile now. These values get taught in our schools from a young age, and are reflected by our government. Sadly, we definitely still have racists, but they are a shrinking minority. Similarly, we teach acceptance of LGBTQ members of our society, and gender rights (Jordan Peterson’s idiocy notwithstanding). (Note that we have our own horrible history of issues with how we’ve dealt with our preexisting native population. Reparations for that horror are ongoing.) Ultimately, bigotry and prejudice are lessening because, as a society, we view that as an important goal, and are taking concrete steps to make sure it happens.

    – Canada was a colony of France and England for a long time, before becoming a country quite peacefully. We did not have to engage in a war to become a country. This may be partly why we view diplomacy and humanitarianism as the first reasonable reactions to international issues. We’ll still step in militarily, as necessary, but it’s never our first choice.

    I think a lot of the differences can be traced to how the countries came into being. For all that is good about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, they also contain a lot that is obviously problematic, especially today. It seems to me that Americans treat the founding documents much like they treat the bible. Personally, I see that as a huge problem. Truly, these writings were all produced by men (and I use the pronoun purposefully), and they cause more problems than they solve. I wish you guys would grow out of this, and start to look at those writings more critically. Until then, as the USA has an outsized influence on the world, I guess we’ll all just continue to suffer through.

    For the record, regarding the differences, it’s not because it’s colder up here.

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