Is the West turning Conservative?

  12 minutes    By Thomas Rademaker, English

In this episode, podcast producers Amber and Boris interviewed Prof. Dr. Annelien de Dijn on a relevant topic. It is likely that you heard of the result of the past elections in the Netherlands. It was a blowout victory for the right wing nationalist party, as Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, scored 37 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. There seems to be a trend going on in Europe, since Meloni in Italy, Le Pen in France and the AFD in Germany are high in the polls in their respective countries. Should we be talking about a worldwide rise of the right wing?

Prof. Dr. Annelien de Dijn. Source: Annelien de Dijn.

Annelien de Dijn is a professor in Modern Political History and mostly writes on Political Thought from an historical perspective, while most of her research focuses on Europe and the United States from 1700 to the present. Amongst her most acclaimed publications is her latest book Freedom: An Unruly History, which was awarded with the 2021 PROSE Prize in Philosophy by the American Association of Publishers. In this book De Dijn discusses the perception of freedom from Ancient Greece until the 21st century. Besides Freedom, De Dijn has extensively written about subjects like democracy, liberalism and religion.

This article highlights and compiles the podcast interview with Prof. Dr. Annelien de Dijn, now available on Spotify.

Conservative politicians have taken centre stage in the news coverage, not in the least after the results of the last Dutch election. However, we feel that terms such as conservatism, populism, radical right and sometimes even fascism are used interchangeably. Do you see any similarities between these concepts and ideologies, or are they wrongfully confused?

“As with everything, it is important to place the popular vote in its context: since around the year 2000 a new ‘party-family’ is on the rise in Europe, that has won success during elections. They can indeed be described differently, with some experts opting for populism, while others prefer the term radical right. The parties themselves often choose the term conservatism to refer to themselves. I myself see those parties as nationalist first and foremost; They are parties that attach great importance to the nation and to national sovereignty […] and who support a very specific type of nationalism, that I like to call ‘paranoid nationalism’, so they want to protect the nation against a variety of enemies. But why paranoid? Because these enemies are mostly imagined.”

Columnist Rob Wijnberg published a video-essay in de Correspondent after PVV’s [‘Partij voor de Vrijheid’; right wing nationalist party] victory in november 2023. He explained his view that the Netherlands voted for a fictitious past that no longer exists: one without problems caused by globalisation, such as the refugee crisis, the overbearing European Union, growing diversity and climate change. He calls the politicians who hold these positions “nostalgic nationalists”, and shows their effectiveness by listing their victories: “74 million American votes for a pathological liar, 17 million British votes for an exit from the European Union, 14 million Argentinian votes for a far-right climate change denier.”1 Annelien de Dijn agrees with Wijnberg, but finds the term “paranoid nationalists” more fitting: “I mean, nostalgic. That sounds like they all lie in hammocks wistfully longing for the 50s. But you can see that these parties are a bit more active, can’t you? They really flourish on the basis of seeing enemies all around. That is a very clear characteristic: being Dutch. Wilders wants to give the Netherlands back to the Dutch people, which suggests that it currently is not under Dutch authority. The ‘others’ that have occupied the Netherlands according to Geert Wilders [leader of the right wing nationalist party PVV] are supranational organisations such as the EU and NATO, but also marginalised groups such as refugees and immigrants, specifically religious Muslims. This second category has given Wilders significant backlash, most notoriously following his “More or less Morrocans”-speech in 2014, which was the reason for the Public Prosecutor’s Office (OM) to persecute the party leader.2 Due to the controversy surrounding his anti-Islam statements, he significantly moderated his party’s views, something that seems to have paid off in the recent popular vote. In addition, Geert Wilders has argued in favour of a “Nexit”, which would result in the Netherlands leaving the European Union, following Britain’s example in an effort to regain national sovereignty.

These paranoid nationalist parties often use the term “freedom”, such as the PVV, literally translating to Party for Freedom. What do they mean by this?

“You see that these parties often mention freedom, but now you see that they usually mean something very specific. And I think this tendency over the last couple of years has been discussed more often, which is to say, they are primarily talking about the national freedom that is threatened by supranational organisations like the EU. During the time when [Frans] Timmermans was responsible for the European climate policy he was constantly dismissed as ‘the climate pope’. 

Frans Timmermans has been a member of the Dutch Chamber of Representatives for the PvdA (Labour Party) since 1998. Between 2012 and 2014 he worked as the Foreign Minister. Thereafter he moved to the European Commission, where from 2019 he became EU Commisioner for Climate Action and was responsible for the so-called Green Deal. For the Dutch elections of November 2023 he was proclaimed party leader for the fusion between ‘his’ Labour and the GreenLeft party.

The association then of course is that of some kind of dictator who from Brussels dictates what we in the Netherlands all have to do and especially are not allowed to do. So, that idea of freedom is certainly a very important thought, although if you start looking, it often is  about individual rights and freedoms, but lately it has been mainly about that national freedom, which fits well into the nationalist discourse.”

When looking at the conservative movement now, their opinions seem to run counter to the “original” conservatism that arose in the 19th century. How has this changed over the years?

When looking back at the history of conservatism, it was very different to the positions held by conservative parties such as the PVV. In the early 19th century, people such as Rene de Chateaubriand were the first to refer to themselves as “conservative”. This French politician was against democracy and at this time his views were shared by many. Another early conservative was the English Whig Edmund Burke, who firmly spoke out against the French Revolution.

De Dijn explains: “Originally, these politicians had a very negative view of humanity: people were weak, sinful beings. There was a certain Christian idea behind this. And as such, they were not able to make their own decisions and most definitely not capable enough to help govern.” 

Philosopher Edmund Burke. He is widely considered as the father of conservatism as an ideological movement. Source: Wikipedia.

Burke was horrified by the treatment of traditional institutions such as the monarchy and the church in France, and wrote the bestselling pamphlet Reflections of the Revolution in France (1790)3. This solidified his identity as one of the founders of conservatism. Conservatists historically believed a monarch or nobility would be better able to rule, thus they used to be part of the antidemocratic movement. “This is also a reason […] why I think it is better to call those groups today ‘nationalist’, as I believe that is the main part of their ideology. Politicians from conservative parties such as Vlaams Belang or Forum voor Democratie also take part in the National Conservative Conference, with Giorgia Meloni, Victor Orban and Tucker Carlson also making appearances. This shows they all portray themselves as upholders of traditional Christian values, and while for example Fratelli d’Italia and the Hungarian Fidesz do, Wilders does not feature this as a main point. What really unites these parties as one family is their nationalism. A good example of Wilders’ apparent progressive views is his partial pro-LGBTQ+ policy. To directly oppose Muslim Sharia laws, he has portrayed himself as a champion for the rights of the gay community and women. This has got him to speak at a pro-Donald Trump rally organised by gay republicans in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.4 In this way he differs from other conservative politicians in Europe, such as Meloni and Orban who are outspokenly anti-LGBTQ, by appealing to the Dutch historical sense of tolerance, and positioning himself against the ‘intolerant Muslims’.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump. There is a chance he will be re-elected on the 5th of November when the popular vote for the Presidentials elections take place. Source: Pixabay.

Certain points of the PVV’s plan go directly against the Dutch constitution. An example of this has been discussed often in the media: “The Netherlands is not an Islamic country: no Islamic schools, Qurans or mosques.” You often give lectures about, for example, Rousseau, whose ideas seem very relevant today. How do you see the relevance of Rousseau’s General Will in modern-day society?

So I have characterised this party as nationalist, right? But you can very well be nationalist and still a good democrat. You could even argue that you need nationalism for a well-functioning democracy, because what is nationalism in the end? It’s an ideology that says: ‘we aren’t just 17 million people living next to each other. No! We are one community, and so we help each other.’ Without nationalism, without a sense of community, you won’t have a well-functioning democracy. […] The problem with this party once again is that they aren’t just nationalist, but paranoid nationalist, so that they see imagined enemies everywhere. That of course is threatening to democracy, in two different ways: Firstly, because the groups they deem not to be part of the ethnic ‘Dutch’ community, those minorities, they will not be treated in a democratic way. Wilders thinks we should get rid of Article 1 [of the Constitution], so that you can discriminate freely.”

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Invented the idea of the ‘General Will’ in ‘The Social Contract’ in 1762. Source: Wikipedia.

“We are going to make sure that the Dutchman comes first again”

– Geert Wilders’ speech after his victory in the elections

In Germany, the AfD received massive flak after their call to deport not only refugees, but also German nationals who have a migratory background. This plan, made at a party conference last year, was met with large scale protests across the country, as people were quick to draw parallels with the Nazi regime.5 Similarly, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative party proposed the Safety of Rwanda Bill, that would declare the African nation as secure and allow the government to ‘relocate’ or deport refugees to Rwanda.6 After their first attempt was stopped by the Supreme Court in 2022, an argument erupted within the Tory party. Now Sunak is trying again however, and the bill passed the House of Commons in January.7

But there is a second way that these parties pose threats to democracy. Because they define themselves as representatives of the community, that is not only problematic for the people that are minorities that are not a part of this community, but that is also problematic for everyone that disagrees with them. Because these aren’t just political opponents that differ in opinion, these are also enemies of the people. Think about how Wilders talks about GroenLinks or even Labour, which is such a moderate party, but they are labelled as a gang of extremists bent on destroying the Netherlands. And that also is undemocratic, right? If you believe you are the only one capable of representing the Dutchman, you won’t be very happy if you need to pass the baton to someone else.”

This is evident in the way the right wing Hungarian president Viktor Orbán deals with the elections, and he has been dismantling democracy since 2010.8 It has reached such critical levels, that the European Parliament declared that the country is now ‘a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy’ in 2022.9

There were quite some demonstrations after the victory of PVV by left voters who took to the streets to show they did not agree with the results of the election. Does that go against democracy? Because that’s what we hear often from the right parties.

In the past, and now I’m talking about the 70s, you indeed had left-wing groups in Europe that were explicitly communist, and some of these were indeed antidemocratic. They also had that idea about enemies within them, so everyone that didn’t belong to the proletariat is a capitalist and thus an enemy who shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the democratic process. [For them,] a real democracy would be a proletarian democracy, but this of course is not a real democracy; that is a dictatorship of the proletariat. That is their ideal, and at a certain point you see those groups commit acts, such as terrorist attacks et cetera. That is evidently not playing the democratic game, because in democracy you shouldn’t try and convince your opponent by placing a bomb under his chair, but with good arguments.”

The most notorious of these groups, the Baader Meinhof Gruppe or alternatively the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) terrorised Germany in the latter half of the 20th century. After the 90s and the fall of communism however, this group died out. Recently, a report released by the Dutch intelligence service (AIVD) shows that far right extremist groups have become a much larger threat to security in the Netherlands.10

This article does not compile the complete interview recorded in the studio. The author tried to include as many interesting questions and answers as possible.


  1. Rob Wijnberg, “De zege van de PVV laat zien: als vooruitgang geen verhaal heeft, vertelt het verleden waar we naartoe gaan,” De Correspondent, November 23, 2023.
  2. “OM vervolgt Geert Wilders wegens discriminatie,”, December 18, 2014,
  3.  Bruce Mazlish. “The Conservative Revolution of Edmund Burke.” The Review of Politics 20, no. 1 (1958): 21–33.
  4. Cynthia Kroet, “Geert Wilders will attend pro-Donald Trump gay rally,” Politico, July 14, 2016,
  5. Nadine Schmidt and Sopie Tanno, “Mass protests against Germany’s far-right AfD over deportation ‘master plan’,” CNN, January 21, 2024,
  6. Jennifer McKeirnan, “Rwanda Bill: Peers continue scrutiny of deportation plans,”, February 14, 2024,
  7. Pippa Crerar and Rajeev Syal, “Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation bill passes third reading in Commons,” The Guardian, January 17, 2024,
  8. Paul Kirby and Nick Thorpe, “Who is Viktor Orban, Hungarian PM with 14-year grip on power?”, February 13, 2024,
  9. Jennifer Rankin, “Hungary is no longer a full democracy, says European parliament,” The Guardian, September 15, 2022,
  10. Raymond Boere, “AIVD: Steeds meer dreiging vanuit extreemrechts, ‘fantaseren over het plegen van een aanslag,’ AD, April 28, 2023,  

Thomas Rademaker is currently a first-year history student. He is particularly interested in political and military history, both ancient and contemporary. Since the beginning of this academic year, Thomas has been an editor at Historical Journal Aanzet and is also a podcast maker for Studio ’82.

Image at top: Geert Wilders on a campaign in Prague for the European Parliamentary election in 2019. Source: Wikipedia.