When Home Feels Like a Battlefield


Three months in Amsterdam, over and done with. It’s impossible for me to believe how quickly the time has gone by. I love this city, and I’ll miss so many things about it.

I’m very excited to be headed home, but I can’t help but feel a sense of dread about the political situation that awaits me there. These past three months have made me realize how psychologically comforting, politically cathartic, even morally clarifying it is to live in a country with policies that so strongly resonate with my personal sense of fairness and justice.

Almost all of the progressive political battles that seem so stuck in the mud in the United States have been fought and won in the Netherlands. And the system they’ve created here works! Taxes are high, but the country as a whole is extremely prosperous. Certain sectors are heavily regulated, but there’s plenty of market-based competition. Individuals and families have extensive freedoms and protections, quality of life is high, inequality is low, and even the least fortunate enjoy a decent standard of living.

In the Netherlands, there’s broad agreement that the state should play an active role in society. This frames public policy debates in constructive and often creative terms. This simply isn’t the case in United States, where one of our two political parties is almost entirely devoted to cutting taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the private sector, and dismantling the ability of government to do things for the common good. Even as corporate profits go through the roof, income inequality rises to all-time highs, and social mobility sinks to new lows, efforts to promote slightly greater redistribution, modest expansions of the safety net, better protections for workers, etc. are smeared as somehow un-American, or worse—socialism (gasp!).

As a highly political creature, I can’t escape the feeling that when I step back onto American soil, I’ll be returning to a bloodbath. The country has never been more divided, at least in my lifetime. And it’s not just about policy anymore. Democratic values that I thought were ironclad are under constant attack. The dignity that I’ve come to expect from the White House is being defiled on a near-hourly basis. Politics often feels completely detached from reality. It’s still hard for me to believe, but I’ll be returning to a nation where 63 million people felt that Donald Trump would be an acceptable choice as President of the United States. That people were so blinded by resentment of some undeserving “other” that they were willing to vote for him…it’s still very difficult for me to comprehend.

As I prepare to leave Europe, I can’t help but wonder—why is it that the United States has been so resistant to adopting the kinds of policies that have existed for decades in the Netherlands and many other European countries? What is it about us that makes us willing to stomach such intense inequality? What is it that led nearly half our country to feel angry and alienated enough to vote for someone like Donald Trump?

It’s a line of questioning that I was often subject to while I was here. I don’t know the answer. Is it our racial and cultural diversity? The way that wealth has concentrated in cities, home to the reviled ‘cosmopolitan elite’? Our evidence-immune devotion to the supposed moral superiority of unregulated markets and the farce that is trickle-down economics? Our mythic elevation of the pioneer’s spirit, the worship of the individual over society? Has our tolerance for inequality itself exacerbated the distance we feel from others, thus diminishing our level of empathy for people unlike ourselves?

Whatever it is, the place we’re in now clearly demonstrates that what we have isn’t working. Healing our divisions; creating a kinder, fairer, more trusting society; restoring some sense of shared purpose—these will be huge battles that play out on a generational scale. It sure would have been nice if our postwar generations could have figured this out like their Dutch or European counterparts, or at least made a bit of progress. Instead, they gave us Donald Trump. But such is life—with the Dutch spin on social democracy as my political compass, time to jump back in.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.