washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Denmark Lesson

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

The Danish social democrats ran in the recent Denmark national elections on a left, anti-austerity program on economics and a fairly tough stance on immigration–described by the party’s leader, Mette Frederiksen, as both “realistic and fair”. The result: her center-left “red bloc” took the majority of the seats in the Danish parliament, meaning that Frederiksen should be the next prime minister. The far right populists, on the other hand, lost badly.

This excellent result contrasts rather starkly with the dreadful performance of many other European social democratic parties recently. This is generating considerable debate in European social democratic circles about whether Denmark is demonstrating a road forward out of the current mire. And well it should; the situation of European social democracy is dire and in urgent need of correction.

Paul Collier argues the case for the relevance of the Denmark social democratic path in a challenging piece in the New Statesman. His concern is to show that Frederiksen and her party are trying to recapture something vital about social democracy that has been lost in recent times. Their stance on immigration is not just political expediency but about re-establishing something very fundamental about social democracy’s commitment to the common good and common purpose.

“Following her success in the Danish elections, Mette Frederiksen is set to return the Social Democrats to power. This contrasts starkly with such parties’ fate elsewhere in Europe: the long melancholy roar of an ebb tide. Mette’s explanation for that decline, pitched at working class voters, has been “you didn’t leave us; we left you”. She has won not by ditching core values but by returning to them. To grasp that, we need a larger picture than post-millennium Denmark….

The essence of social democracy was to recognise both the value and the grim limitations of market capitalism, building a belief system among citizens whereby the anxieties that it kept generating could be addressed. Political leaders communicated a sense of common purpose to achieve a forward-looking agenda, matched by inculcating a sense of mutual obligations to deliver it. People learnt that they had duties to each other: not just to their families, but to the entire society. Gradually, the society wove a dense web of reciprocal obligations: trapping people in it by the gentle pressure of self-respect and peer esteem. The economy grew, and the benefits were shared…..

Like other social democratic parties, that in Denmark had always been based on an alliance between the provincial working class and the young metropolitan educated. But the change in the belief system of the metropolitans faced the party with a choice. The metropolitans held the advantage: unions were in decline, while they were on the rise. As they took over the party, the working class gradually drifted off, and disdainful metropolitans accused them of being “deplorable”, by which they meant “fascist”….

Depicting [shared identity and reciprocal obligations] as quasi-fascist was the theatrical conceit of those keen to ditch their obligations. The domain of reciprocity has to be national for the simple reason that the nation is the entity within which the tax revenues needed to meet those obligations can be raised. First and foremost, the key obligations are on skilled metropolitans to hand over more of the high productivity now generated by agglomeration, and which they wrongly attribute entirely to their own abilities.

Mette Frederiksen recognized the need for shared belonging. She is rebuilding common purpose around a forward-looking pragmatic agenda of addressing the new anxieties that global capitalism has thrust on the working class. But after years of neglect, working class voters no longer trusted the party. To re-establish credibility, she needed a “signalling action”: something that, had she been a metropolitan trying to bullshit them, she would not have done….

In tandem with her core focus on returning to the party’s roots in addressing the anxieties faced by working people, Frederiksen is paying serious attention to how integration can best be achieved. All citizens need to absorb the belief system of reciprocal obligations and mutual regard that underpins Denmark’s social miracle: that is the condition under which immigration from different cultures is sustainable. The acceptance of shared identity by immigrants does not preclude retaining some other identities. But it has to be sufficiently manifest to generate the common knowledge that they have embraced the identity, the common purpose, and the obligations that come with them….

Frederiksen is pioneering the renewal of European social democracy: at its core is the rebuilding of shared identity, common purpose, and mutual obligations that eludes the metropolitans.”

Very interesting analysis. We shall see how the debate within European social democracy evolves from here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.