Chris Aalberts spends some two nights a week in a back room somewhere in the Netherlands, where a political party is holding a meeting for members and interested parties. As an ‘impartial outsider’, Aalberts is ‘acutely interested’. He is particularly interested in the political parties on the right of the spectrum. “I’m trying to understand what is happening there.”
In the week of the interview, Aalberts attended a meeting of BVNL – a new party founded by Dutch right-wing politician Wybren van Haga – at a golf club in Elst, a small town in the east of the Netherlands. He knew ahead of time that, at the very least, he would be writing a piece about that evening for his own website. But he also went to see what was going on, who was there, what was said and how people reacted to it. In those back rooms, Aalberts is learning to understand public opinion. “If there’s one place where politics are being discussed, it’s there.”
On top of that, he is fascinated by the ideals of right-wing parties. “Do you know what Van Haga’s ideals are?” He keeps talking, as though the question were rhetorical. “I’m fully aware of what Van Haga’s going to say at that meeting, but the more time I spend with that group, the better I understand what’s going on.”
Number of books per year: one every two weeks.
Biggest motivator: to gain new insights.
Favourite genre: non-fiction, politics.
Last book read: Far out, encounters with extremists by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson.
Make your voice heard... or don't
Aalberts studies political parties (particularly the right-wing variety) and levels of political administration by closely monitoring their actions. He sees – and appreciates – the same method in the work of author Nina Eliasoph. In her book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life, Eliasoph accompanies volunteers, activists and cowboys to explore how these groups talk about politics in a personal setting. After following the group closely for a long time, Eliasoph concludes that no one is talking about politics at all in groups where you would expect them to.
Aalberts explains: “People choose not to engage with the debate. Here at the university, for example, we don’t sit around and discuss the essence of the university. We take the institution as it comes. There’s no socially acceptable way to comment on its Anglophone nature. Let alone organising an evening where we all get together for the purpose of discussing that trend.”
Join the public discourse
“There are myriad reasons why people refrain from talking about politics: people prefer actions over words, and opinions can be demoralising or cause you to pigeonhole others. Though Aalberts is a proponent of political discussions among friends, he finds himself somewhat reticent as well in giving his own opinion. He says, for instance, “It’s conceivable to me that not everyone benefits from migration.” And he says, “You’d have to do a pretty awful job writing this up to embarrass me.” Aalberts, in short, is careful with his words.
As a publicist, however, he is more forthcoming. On Twitter, he posts sharp commentary on the radical right, and he was denied entry to a political event for the Forum voor Democratie party because of his critical writings. “In my mind, I’m a non-threatening, clever, jovial and easy-going sort of fellow – but that’s not the case.” He shrugs. “In the end, the freedom to write whatever I want means everything to me.”
Aalberts teaches at EUR and at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. But in the public domain, he refers to himself as a publicist. He explains, “You have this triangle between academia, journalism and opinion. People in the public eye tend to belong to one of the three. My background is in academia, but I’m no longer a pure academic. People see me as an opinion writer, but I think that’s a bit simplistic. I take a critical view of journalism, so rather than ‘journalist’, I prefer to call myself a ‘publicist’. Let’s just say that I write things and am accountable for the factual nature of what I write. That alone is quite something, in this day and age.”
Chris Aalberts is a lecturer and researcher in Political Communication. He specialises in high-quality research into the relationship between citizens and the political establishment. His work focuses on journalistic innovation, populism, social media, spin-doctoring, popularisation, the European Union, local politics and young people. Aalberts earned his PhD from the University of Amsterdam for a thesis on the political engagement of young people. He is currently a lecturer in the Master’s programme Media and Journalism at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Besides teaching, he also works as a reporter, publicist, columnist and researcher.