As an expat American who’s lived in Denmark since 1991, I’ve been longing to write about Danish Democratic Socalism, but my colleague, Contenius beat me to it with his entry last Friday (Daily Kos, 6 November). I like what Contenius says: The Nordic Model could never be applied to the USA in its current form but this is no reason to reject it altogether. The MIT study that Contenius refers to, confirms that with reforms and fine tuning, the model is sustainable.
But I have something else on my mind.
What concerns me is why so many Americans want to - choose to - find evil in Denmark’s form of democratic socialism. I’ve been participating in the roller coaster commentary threads following Ana Swanson’s interview with Michael Booth in the Washington Post and I’m sad to see that so many of the comments are harsh and vitriolic in nature. No amount of evidence or clarification is enough to mollify some of these commentators. They just get angrier and more irritated because positive comments are assumed to be lies or to have negative ulterior motives. You would think that Americans would be curious about Denmark after both Bernie and Hillary mentioned it in the Democratic debate.
Why so much anger?
Here’s my best educated guess: Most Americans have been brought up to believe that the USA is the best country in the world and that most people in other nations wish they could live in it. This means that it feels unpatriotic to admire someone else’s political system; disloyal – close to treason - to even consider the possibility that another socioeconomic system might be superior.
America’s superiority is an assumption I carried with me throughout my life and I probably brought it with me to Denmark when I was hired to teach for one year at the national journalism college. The one-year gig became two and then three and then five until I was granted academic tenure and permanent residency. By then, I was well acquainted with Denmark’s democratic socialism and after marrying a Danish national and realizing that I’d probably be staying forever, I started to consider myself fortunate. Let me tell you why.
First, I like Danish egalitarianism.
OK. This clearly makes me out to be a liberal. As moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt teaches us in his provocative book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013) liberals need to feel equal to everybody while conservatives need to feel superior to at least a few. This makes Denmark a perfect fit for American social liberals and a frustrating - even exasperating - experience for Americans who identify as conservative.
Personally, I like how Danes value work and workers. They seem to understand that nothing is produced or accomplished in society without labor and they honor rank and file workers just as much as managers. In Danish society, human beings are judged by the strength of their character, not by their professional status or the size of their pay-check. Weekend getaway planning conferences often include everybody-at-the-office, not just upper and middle management, but secretaries, cantine workers and custodians. Everyone is entitled to express opinions and they do. In Denmark, medical doctors do not wear white coats (except in hospitals) and they normally introduce themselves by their first names. Professors and teachers are also called by their first names and everybody else too that you might meet on the job. The majority of work places have a kitchen and eating area so that mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee breaks are social events with freshly brewed coffee served in cups with saucers and bakery goods – including, on occasion - wienerbrød (yes, what Americans call Danish).
Union membership is not compulsory in Denmark yet 80% of people with jobs (skilled and unskilled) are members of a labor union. Kollektive overenskomster means "collective bargaining" and this is the heart and soul of their economic egalitarianism. Without government interference, it is the employees and employers that negotiate salary, vacation, sick leave and maternity/paternity leave. Women cannot lose their jobs because of pregnancy and all pregnant women are entitled to paid-leave one month prior to giving birth and up to one year afterward. Professional childcare exists so that women can participate in the economy. All children are guaranteed a place in a nursery until elementary school, subsidized through taxation.
Everybody – skilled and unskilled – is formally trained in Denmark. There seems to be an ”education” for just about everything, including the execution of retail sales in department stores. Workers are entitled to upgrade their skills through courses and it is not unusual for management to send some of their staff to various courses on company time. If you lose your job, unemployment insurance protects you, giving you enough to stay inside the economic system; enough to keep you from losing your home to the bank; enough to buy groceries and prescription medicines; enough to live with dignity while you search for a new job. Losing your job in Denmark is inconvenient but not a disaster.
Work/play balance is a Danish value and people who work excessively are not admired but considered anti-social and unhealthy. Normally, everybody works 37 hours a week and gets 5-6 weeks of paid vacation in a calendar year. If you change employers, you are entitled to carry your vacation time with you.
Health care is pre-paid through taxation. Doctors are paid by the State and everyone is entitled to pick their own physician, and/or change doctors, if they choose. The first line of care is with a general practitioner who makes referrals to specialists, if necessary. All diagnostic tests, treatments and surgery are free of extra charge and the costs of medicines are subsidized to make them affordable.
But hey! Democratic socialism is not communism. It is merely a pooling of resources to share the nation’s wealth among its citizens. Democratic socialism means that the decision makers are democratic; transparent; accessible: Not far away; not totalitarian.
I like the Danes’ highly decentralized system of political power so that a nation of only 5.6 million people has 98 municipal districts and five administrative regions. I like the fact that MPs - Members of Parliament - are not professional politicians but ordinary people: librarians, teachers, dentists, building contractors, accountants, journalists, etc. that represent eight different political parties, none of which, by the way, want to dismantle the welfare state.
What impresses me most about Danish political campaigns is the prohibition of television ads so that political candidates run on a level playing field and do not have to raise gargantuan sums of cash. I like the fact that the campaign period is short, not years but a matter of weeks.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Danish democracy is that registering to vote is not necessary. All citizens over the age of 18 automatically receive a ballot through the postal service at their home address. Voting is not compulsory, but in national elections close to 80% of all elligible voters do.
As an American, I know Denmark’s system is not applicable to the USA. Democratic socialism could only happen in Denmark because the population was homogenous with a high concentration of trust. America was founded by immigrants...from all over... folks who’ve had trust issues with ”government” from the beginning. (There are still members of the GOP who like to sing: ”there’s no government like no government!”) Danes do not see “the government” as an adversary but as a mirror. The Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches are fellow citizens working on their behalf.
This is what makes Denmark (and Scandinavia) different. People trust one another. The challenge is to retain this trust in a society that is no longer homogenous.
But in the meantime, Americans should stop demonizing Denmark’s system. It works.
And it makes us ”happy.”