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Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch? (Economist)

2 June 2018


The Economist title: Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch?
The Economist subtitle: The most conservative Americans, the most liberal Europeans
Date: 26 May 2018

“PETE HOEKSTRA seemed a good choice for America’s ambassador to the Netherlands when President Donald Trump appointed him last year. Mr Hoekstra, a former congressman, was born in the Netherlands and grew up in Holland, a largely Dutch-American town in Michigan. Unfortunately, Mr Hoekstra had baselessly claimed in 2015 that politicians in the Netherlands were “being burned” by Muslim radicals. A Dutch television reporter in Washington duly asked him what he had meant. Mr Hoekstra denied having said it, prattling about “fake news”. The Dutch press corps was livid. Mr Hoekstra waited three weeks before formally apologising. The Dutch were also irritated by his opposition to same-sex marriage.

As it turns out, appointing a Dutch-American ambassador to The Hague was a diplomatic and cultural misstep. The Netherlands is among the most liberal countries in the world. Most Dutch-Americans, like Mr Hoekstra, are conservative. The regions where they cluster, in north-western Iowa and south-western Michigan, are devoutly Protestant and overwhelmingly Republican. Mr Hoekstra’s hometown has not backed a Democrat in a presidential election since 1864.

Holland’s other favourite daughters and sons include Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, and her brother Erik Prince, who founded the private security firm Blackwater and was an early backer of Mr Trump. Dick DeVos, Mrs DeVos’s billionaire husband, is Dutch-American too; his father co-founded Amway, a sales company based in nearby Grand Rapids. Mr DeVos’s political activism includes a well-funded, ultimately successful campaign against trade unions.

What accounts for the cultural gulf? Some trace it back to the early settlers. “The people who left the Netherlands were some of the most conservative Dutch-speaking people on the planet,” says Jay Peters, a progressive city council member in Holland. The town was founded in 1847 by Albertus van Raalte, the pastor-leader of a group of émigrés who believed the Dutch Reformed Church had become too worldly. Once in Michigan, the group split again. A conservative faction rebelled against Van Raalte’s plan to fuse with Dutch Reformed congregations in New York. (They were also upset by non-biblical hymns, the use of English in the service and abstruse points of theology.) The schism between Van Raalte’s Reformed Church in America and the traditionalist Christian Reformed Church is only now being repaired.

In some ways, though, Dutch-Americans’ values overlap with Dutch ones. “We’ve got that Dutch work ethic,” says Dan Gillett, pastor at the First Reformed Church of Holland. Besides car-parts factories and high-tech startups, the region is the centre of the American office-furniture industry. Haworth has its headquarters in Holland; Herman Miller and Steelcase are close by. Ottawa County’s unemployment rate is 3.2% and the area’s population is the fastest-growing in Michigan, points out Jennifer Owens of Lakeshore Advantage, a regional planning consultancy.

Like the Netherlands, which ranks high on global indices for charitable giving and joining clubs, south-western Michigan has high rates of philanthropy and personal trust. The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland offers sports, tutoring, clubs and nursery school at a spiffy former church a few blocks from downtown. Membership costs just $5 per child per year. Fully 97% of the budget is covered by donations, the lion’s share from business and wealthy families. The club caters to 300-400 children per day, three-quarters of whom are below the poverty line.

Many of Holland’s leaders nonetheless think it needs to change. Ms Owens says the biggest economic challenge is attracting talent—designers and engineers from Europe and India. There is a lack of affordable housing for mid-level workers; half of the city’s residents are spending more than 30% of their disposable income on rent or mortgages. The town’s population is one-quarter Hispanic and 4% Asian. Can Reformed churches and celebrations of Dutch lace and clog dancing make newcomers feel welcome?

Like many other parts of America, Holland struggles with the politics of identity. In 2011 the city council narrowly voted down an amendment to add LGBT status to its housing anti-discrimination statute. In mayoral elections last year Mr Peters, who supports the amendment, lost by a whisker to Nancy DeBoer, who opposes it. Bert Jara, an advocate for Latino concerns, says city elders are dodging hard issues like white flight from the public-school system, which is now over 70% ethnic-minority.

On May 4th police surrounded a car outside a mixed-race church and hauled the occupants out at gunpoint. One of them was the nephew of the church’s pastor, who demanded a meeting about police misconduct. It seemed a grim sign. But Jim Brooks, a leading philanthropist in Holland, sees progress on both race and sexuality. “The strong religious orientation of much of the population is in conflict with the LGBT stuff, we’re working through those conversations,” he says. The amendment, he says, will “absolutely” pass next time: “How do you take a dynamic community that’s plugged into the world the way this one is and not ultimately face up to those things?”

It may be too soon to schedule an Amsterdam-style Gay Pride parade in Holland. At present the city makes do with its traditional Volksparade, a tribute to its Dutch forebears’ meticulousness. The mayor runs a white-gloved finger along the asphalt as a town crier proclaims: “Streets need scrubbing!” Locals kitted out in 19th-century Dutch provincial dress then march down Eighth Street, the town’s main drag, cleaning the tarmac with wooden brooms and water. Standard-bearers carry the flags of the 11 provinces of the Netherlands. State legislators and Dutch diplomats cruise by in vintage Cadillacs, waving. Next come the marching bands: Holland High (the “Marching Dutchmen”), Zeeland High, Holland Christian and more.

Traditional folk dancers roll past on a bed of tulips. A microbrewery’s waiters pedal an Amsterdam-style ten-person beer bike; an investment adviser’s floats are styled as giant wooden shoes. Then come the non-profits: learning-disabled children from the Compassionate Heart Ministry, a family counselling group, staff from a mental-health foundation. Their T-shirts bear the ultimate midwestern exhortation: “Be Nice!” “



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