An article in the The Economist titled “Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch?” lumps together all Dutch Americans, by which it means a few Michigan politicians and the residents of the city of Holland, Michigan, to explain why they are such backward conservatives. The article’s subtitle betrays the game the author wants to play: “The most conservative Americans, the most liberal Europeans.”
By what measure, I ask, are Dutch Americans the most conservative Americans? Perhaps the author is not aware of Orthodox Jews or the Amish, or the average Southern or Midwestern evangelical, who, culturally, is likely to be more conservative than the Average Dutch American.
At any rate, to explain why Dutch Americans are so conservative, the author interviewed Dr. Robert Swierenga, recognized authority on Dutch Americans, resident of Holland, Michigan, and author of a three-volume history of Holland, Michigan. Oh my mistake. They didn’t interview Dr. Swierenga, or any other of the dozens of historians who have written books on Dutch American history. No, to learn more about the topic The Economist interviewed Jay Peters, local Democratic politician and failed mayoral candidate.
Peters’ response is full of hyperbole. “The people who left the Netherlands were some of the most conservative Dutch-speaking people on the planet.” Well, since most of the Dutch-speaking people on the planet were in the Netherlands, this is hardly a surprise. Then again, it’s not even entirely true. The Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa, the colonial administrators of the Netherlands East Indies, the slave-holding plantation owners in Dutch Suriname were all in a variety of ways more conservative than the backwater peasants from the Netherlands who emigrated to the United States.
Nineteenth century Protestant Dutch Americans, by and large, wanted to maintain their faith and guard against secular values. Many of them believed that Christian schools were crucial to this end. But Dutch Americans never intentionally isolated themselves nor maintained a single political allegiance or cultural code. They encouraged “Yankees” to join their settlements and they were quick to sing the praises of their new country. Michigan’s Ottawa County may have gone Republican for every presidential election since 1864, but local and state elections reflect less Republican dominance. At any rate, we should not think that the Republican party represents some unchanging conservative position for over 150 years. There have been ethnic tensions in Holland, Michigan, over the years, but I suppose no more than any other American town. This is no Ferguson, Missouri.
What accounts for the cultural gulf between conservative Dutch Americans and the liberal Dutch, The Economist wants to know. Any short article is necessarily limited in scope, but it seems strange that the article finds the explanation on only one side of the ocean. What it neglects is that the Netherlands was a pretty conservative country until the 1960s. What it neglects is that both sides have changed. Dutch Americans are conservative, but not overwhelmingly so, and their political and social views today have come a long way since Albertus Van Raalte visited Michigan in the winter of 1846-1847. Historians looking at the Dutch Americans of the nineteenth century have found communitarian and egalitarian elements that contrast with the image of modern-day conservatism. Liberal and socialist Dutch Americans tended to settle in larger cities like Chicago. Dutch Americans writers like Arnold Mulder, Peter DeVries, and Paul DeKruif, represent twentieth century liberal voices who learned to both love and hate elements of their childhood culture.
It is difficult to say to what extent someone like Betsy DeVos is even influenced by her Dutch heritage. In truth, there are few Dutch Americans left today. That is, people who explicitly identify as such. Instead, there are many Americans of Dutch descent, whose cultural identity is shaped much more by American institutions than by some family or group history.
Modern conservatism in West Michigan owes to more than Dutch Calvinist heritage.The region had no great source of wealth, and so success had to come from hard work and frugality. Faith and family were the bedrock of the region. Other immigrant groups in the area were nearly as conservative. The Dutch, meanwhile, are liberal, but there have conservative elements in the country as well, and the Dutch have changed in the past fifty years as much as any one else.
In my book, How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch (Univ. of Amsterdam Press, 2014), I describe the many forms that Dutch identity has taken within the United States. Identities are shaped within a group, but they are also a response to how others see the group. Outsiders have frequently ignored the complexities of group identity to paint the Dutch Americans as some kind of quaint, old-fashioned, ignorant, isolated conservative subculture. It was, after all, non-Dutch descent residents of Holland, Michigan, who pioneered the city’s first Tulip Time festival. Dutch Americans knew the festival was a bit hokey, and that it was far from an authentic portrayal of the Netherlands, but it was also good business for the city. You can’t really blame a Dutch town for hosting a Dutch parade.
We like to look for simple dichotomies, like liberal and conservative, and it’s easy to draw historical lines connecting Albertus Van Raalte with Pete Hoekstra, Betsey DeVos, and Eric Prince. But such long lines are always going to be a stretch.