Tag Archives: dykes

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?¬†