In 1966-67 I was a Rotary Fellow for International Understanding, and I returned to teach at two Danish universities (1971-72), for two sabbaticals (1979-80; 1986-87), and two shorter visits in 2007 and 2015.
On Nov. 22, 1966, I was privileged to witness firsthand a national election. The Social Democrats, even though losing 7 seats in the Folketing (lit. “the people’s thing), was able to form a “red” coalition with the Socialist People’s Party, which had doubled its representation.
Over the past 50 years, center-right and center-left parties, sometimes in shaky coalitions and often as minority governments begging for votes, have traded places since then.
Center-right governments have left the welfare state essentially intact. The exceptions are a reduction in pensions and child care subsidies, some adult dental care must now be paid, and unemployment benefits were limited to four years.
In June the Social Democrats returned to power in a broad leftist alliance. They garnered only 26 percent of the vote — as opposed to 38 percent in 1966 — but they were able to form a minority government with the promise of enough votes on the left to pass legislation.
The Social Democrats campaigned on promises to increase government spending, increase taxes on the rich, and repeal pension limitations set in place by earlier conservative governments.
The previous center-right minority government fell primarily because the anti-immigrant People’s Party, on which it had relied for support, lost half of its seats. Two new parties on the far right split their base, and one leader gained a lot of negative attention by burning Qurans and calling for the deportation of all Muslims.
Environmental issues are now replacing immigration concerns, and young voters are especially keen on reducing Denmark’s carbon footprint, already small because of the great success of wind power. Polls show that 46 percent of Danes place climate change as their top issue, up from 27 percent in 2017.
Lobbying on behalf of the environment has borne fruit, because the new government announced that it would commit itself to reducing Denmark’s CO2 emissions 70 percent by 2030. Leaders of the People’s Party found themselves out of step with the electorate when they said that “climate fools” were fomenting “climate hysteria.”
Denmark has lower economic growth than Sweden (the best in Europe), but its unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is almost half that of its neighbor and almost even with the U.S. Trump has brought the U.S. budget deficit up to 4.7 percent, but Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and several other European countries are running small surpluses.
Keeping in mind that the budget deficit is different than total public debt, the figures from 2018 are instructive. The U.S. stands at 106 percent of GDP, which is in stark contrast to Denmark at 34, Norway at 36, and Sweden at 39 percent respectively. These countries are more fiscally responsible because they are more careful with credit and they balance spending and revenue.
In 2016 the World Economic Forum ranked Denmark third in the world for ease of doing business, and the U.S. trailed in 7th place with Sweden, Norway, and Finland close behind. The same organization placed Denmark 10th for economic competitiveness, putting the lie to the conservative view that high taxes and comprehensive social services undermine economic performance.
All Danish governments have been committed to “taxing and spending,” but wisely and efficiently. Tax breaks for the poor are the Republican solution to helping them, but a study done by the Nation magazine has shown that if these tax breaks are included in the calculation, America’s social programs actually cost more per capita, but are far less effective.
The same result is found for medical care: Denmark and all other industrialized countries spend less (generally half per capita) but obtain much better health results.
My critics will most likely tell me “Love it or Leave it,” but I respond: I want to change the country I love or we will lose it to a corrupt, racist president and a conservative party that cares only for the corporate bottom line.
Hillary Clinton was wrong to answer “we are not Denmark” in response to Bernie Sanders’ praise for the country in a 2016 primary debate. With sufficient political will we can easily scale up the great success of these “Northern Lights,” as the Economist calls Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.