Matthijs Rooduijn and Sarah de Lange argue that recent developments provide fertile ground for the resurgence of agrarian populism. The rise of the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement gives an idea of what such a resurgence might look like in years to come
In the last decade or so, whole libraries have been written about populism. Most of the books, reports, articles and other sources concern one specific type of populism: radical right-wing populism. This is not strange. A vast majority of the most successful populist parties and leaders of the last few centuries have had a clear radical-right outlook. Think, for instance, of the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen in France, the American Republicans under Donald Trump, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Yet, in the libraries of contemporary populism you will also find several shelves dedicated to other types of populism. Radical left-wing populism, neo-liberal populism, and valence populism are just a few. But you would probably find very few works dedicated to ‘agrarian populism’. This type of populism emphasises the antagonistic relationship between the virtuous peasants and people from the countryside on the one side, and the evil and corrupt urban elites on the other. Examples include the nineteenth century People’s Party in the US and the French politician Pierre Poujade, who enjoyed success during the 1950s.
Agrarian populism is the first form in which populism fully expressed itself in the nineteenth century
The lack of attention to this type of populism is striking. Agrarian populism, after all, is the first form in which populism fully expressed itself in the nineteenth century. But it's understandable that contemporary scholars write so little about it. Most ‘traditional’ agrarian populist parties have ceased to exist. Some have developed into fully-fledged radical (right-wing) populists; the Finns Party, for instance, is a direct successor of the Finnish Rural Party. In other cases, existing parties have incorporated their key messages, making the agrarian populists themselves obsolete. As we concluded in a book chapter written a decade ago, agrarian populism has become a 'marginal phenomenon'.
Recent developments, however, show that our analysis needs updating. This year’s regional elections in the Netherlands marked the remarkable upsurge of what might be classified as a typical agrarian populist party: the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB). Founded in 2019 as a party representing the interests of farmers and peasants, the party combined a rural-versus-urban message with a clearly populist people-versus-elite discourse, and managed to win one seat in the 2021 general elections.
In the 2023 Dutch provincial elections, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) gained 24% of the vote, making it the largest party in the country
In the wake of this electoral breakthrough on the national stage, support grew rapidly. In the 2023 provincial elections, BBB gained 24% of the vote, making it the largest party in the Netherlands.
One reason for BBB's increasing appeal was the so-called ‘nitrogen crisis’. In 2019, the Dutch government announced plans to reduce nitrogen emissions by cutting livestock numbers. The plans sparked large-scale protest movements across the country. In summer 2022, protestors blocked roads and food distribution centres, and occupied public spaces. Citizens across the country – mostly those in the countryside – hung the Dutch flag upside down in support of the protesters.
More generally, BBB's success can be explained by the mobilisation of three levels of discontent. First of all, the party succeeded in galvanising protesting farmers' severe political discontent. Support from this relatively small group of citizens, however, would never have been enough to give BBB victory in a national election.
The party therefore embarked on a strategy of broadening the in-group it claimed to represent, from farmers in particular to people in the countryside in general. They emphasised not only the interests of farmers, but also the values and ideas of people living in rural areas more broadly. BBB tapped into a widespread feeling of being ignored by those in power – in particular by self-absorbed, city-dwelling elites. So-called ‘regional resentment’ is the feeling that one’s region is unappreciated culturally, ignored politically and disadvantaged economically. Studies show that such resentment is prevalent across the Netherlands.
BBB emphasised not only the interests of farmers, but also the values and ideas of people living in rural areas more broadly, thus tapping into broader political discontent
The third element of the party’s strategy was to connect this feeling of not being appreciated to broader discontent with politics. Two high-profile political scandals in Dutch public debate offered BBB convenient examples to help make this connection. One involved tax authorities violating the rule of law by wrongly accusing thousands of parents of fraud, thereby plunging them into debt. The other concerned the extraction of natural gas in Groningen in spite of citizen protests. In other words, BBB employed a typical agrarian populist discourse to connect several stories about how urban and political elites have systematically ignored the interests and values of ordinary (rural) citizens.
For the Netherlands, interesting political times lie ahead. BBB is still a very young party. How will it develop? Will it become an ideologically moderate party, operating in the political centre, able to compromise with parties on both the left and the right? Or will it evolve into a radical-right force, securing a more radical position on the edges of the political spectrum, as many other agrarian populists have done in recent decades? Both options are still on the table.
Importantly, the relevance of this trend goes beyond the Dutch political context. In many countries, green issues are increasingly becoming part of the cultural division between progressive cosmopolitans on the one hand and conservative nationalists on the other. Farmers have not only been protesting in the Netherlands. They have also taken to the streets in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Widespread worries about the green transition provide fertile breeding ground for agrarian populism across the globe. We might well see a shift towards this type of populism in the years to come.