Nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark. Quite the contrary. And it’s worth considering in bigger, dysfunctional – if not hopelessly rotten – democracies like the US and the UK. So this week, let’s all look to Copenhagen for self-government lessons for adults.
Borgen shows the US and the UK how to do democracy right
If the above description sounds familiar, it probably means you’ve spent the better part of the past decade gorging on four seasons of Borgen, a sophisticated Danish drama series that makes House of Cards look amateurish. Borgen is the nickname for Christiansborg Palace which houses the legislative, executive and judicial branches of Denmark. As such, it’s the eponym of the fictional series and also the location for this week’s live action. As they say, life imitates art, art imitates life.
In the real Borgen, outgoing Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen looks set to stay in power, defying earlier predictions that her cross-party “red bloc” would lose to another coalition, the “blue bloc.” Having won by a hair’s breadth, she nevertheless withdrew, in order to form a new and even broader alliance to govern the country. No change at the top, in other words; but a lot of change below.
Such a lack of outward drama may seem odd to Americans, Brits, Brazilians, Israelis and other cantankerous Democrats. How do the Danes do it? The answer begins with their system. Denmark has the type of governance typical of continental Europe but often incomprehensible to Anglo-Americans – a combination of proportional representation and parliamentary democracy. In this system, many parties are represented in a given legislature. In Borgen, there are 17.
In these motley parliaments, executive power is invariably filtered through arduous coalition negotiations. This process in turn presupposes and requires a willingness on the part of all parties to accept certain basic rules: respect the facts and the truth; comply with decorum; and ultimately to compromise in the interests of a new consensus.
Lest you think I’m about to draw halos around Danish politicians, think back to the fictional Borgen. Its suspense rests on the clash between human nature — which is the same everywhere — and the surrounding cultural and systemic constraints.
The main character of the series is Birgitte Nyborg. She is a politician and a mother who excels in coalition maneuvers, forms a new party, becomes prime minister, returns to the opposition, becomes foreign minister, aspires to power, insecure, struggles in her marriage, has menopausal hot flashes at the worst possible times, makes mistakes and almost sells herself but ultimately stays true to herself. She is human-too-human.
In more ways than one, this character therefore anticipated Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, or even Mette Frederiksen. But her gender – although it nods to the country’s generally progressive vibe – is incidental. What makes the show so captivating is how Nyborg and all the other pols, pollsters and hacks do and undo things in and around Borgen.
To Americans, who are accustomed to two parties clashing like hostile armies, these storylines initially seem chaotic, as they involve a dozen or more blocs and shifting alliances, not to mention a queen somewhere back- plan. Gradually, however, a theme emerges.
This is the sanctity of institutions in a democracy. Chief among these – listen, MAGA Republicans – is the concept of a loyal opposition. Added to this is a pesky free press corps – embodied memorably in Borgen by news presenter Katrine Fonsmark, editor Torben Friis and others. Like politicians, the show’s reporters feel the relentless tug in the moral swamp, but ultimately remember the idealism that drove them to choose their careers in the first place.
On all sides, taboos continue to be broken, in private and in public. But ultimately, everyone involved is remembering why they erected these taboos in the first place and patriotically reaffirming the rules of engagement. One of them is mutual respect and the rejection of brutality. Another is the stipulation that truth is above any individual’s vanity. Whenever this ethos is upheld, all antagonists are reminded of their common bond, and compromise becomes thinkable.
You may object: Denmark is a small and simple country; the United States and the United Kingdom are not. Granted, the nation has about the population of Wisconsin, and pigs outnumber people twice. The scandal that led to this week’s election involved not people but minks (in an overreaction during the Covid pandemic, the government slaughtered them).
But the on-screen and off-screen Borgen has long been buffeted by all the other winds of geopolitics. Denmark was the first Nordic country to limit the entry of migrants – this is one of the reasons why the Danes, unlike the Swedes, have largely relegated the far right to the political margins. And with its borders stretching from the Baltic to the Arctic, the country is constantly at the wit’s end between Russia, China and the United States – Frederiksen once had to remind former US President Donald Trump that Greenland is not for sale.
Many countries – Hungary comes to mind – could react to such tension by turning to populists and authoritarians. That’s why authors like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have recently pondered “How Democracies Die,” as they gradually sacrifice their freedoms on the bonfires of personal vanities and tribal hatreds.
The Borgen in fiction and reality rather shows us how democracies live. Individually, all of the people there are as childish and brittle as the rest of us. Collectively, they constitute a mature and resilient policy. Congratulations Mette Frederiksen. But above all, skål Birgitte Nyborg, skål Borgen, skål democracy.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion