The Decline of the “Friendly” North: Denmark’s Struggle with Nationalism

The rise of the Danish People's Party in Denmark mirrors that of the Trump administration in many ways, challenging many of the social and political foundations attributed to Denmark's social democratic system. Bram Barnes examines what this means for Denmark.


Since the 20th century, much of the world has thought of Scandinavia as the benevolent and kind people in the north and looked to their Nordic Model of social democracy as an inspiration. However, recent political developments in Denmark are endangering that perception. The rise of the Danish People’s Party, a.k.a. the Folk Party, that in many ways mirrors that of the Trump administration, is challenging many of the social and political foundations attributed to Denmark’s social democratic system, including the labor unions’ power of collective bargaining and social norms of tolerance.

Earlier this year, the Danish government proposed a number of changes to the contracts of public sector workers, including one proposal that was particularly troubling to teachers- the elimination of paid lunch time, effectively taking away one tenth of the employee’s wages. The public sector’s response was to declare a general strike, set to begin in April, which the employers (the Danish government) threatened to counter with a full lockout of the public sector. By locking out the public sector, the government attempted to render the strike meaningless bringing the Danish economy to a standstill until the proposed changes were accepted.

This is not the first time the Danish government has used this tactic. In 2013, they locked out the teachers in order to break their strike. It resulted in massive financial losses, which specifically impacted the teachers as the government attempted to turn public opinion against them. Though an agreement was made to prevent the general strike and subsequent lockout this past April, the use of such tactics to break strikes challenges the union’s right to collective bargaining, one of the foundations of democratic engagement in Denmark.

One of the pillars of the Nordic Model of democratic socialism is the strong presence of organized labor. But with neoliberal reforms beginning in the 1990’s, many of the pillars of the Nordic Model have been challenged by increased privatization. Labor has had to face financial setbacks as well as decreased support since the unions and the government are increasingly at odds.

It’s not only the structures of their democratic model that’s in danger. The perception of the north as friendly and tolerant is being challenged with a series of new policies targeting the poor, largely immigrant and largely Muslim communities.

As part of Scandinavia’s Cold War policies, there was a concerted effort to brand the Nordic region as non-aggressive and friendly in order to balance the geo-political tensions between the Eastern and Western blocks. Because of their efforts, the small countries of Scandinavia have often been looked to by the international community as inspiration for their practices in conflict resolution and peacekeeping. However, anti-immigrant policies heavily targeting Muslims domestically is showing cracks in that friendly veneer.

A series of recent proposed policies, meant to be applied in what has been labeled “ghetto” neighborhoods (a label determined by the prosperity, crime level, religious and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood) is enforcing cultural assimilation and criminalizing populations. Considered by the fields of sociology and communication studies to be the most oppressive form of contact between different cultural groups, cultural assimilation practices actively degrade the cultural identity of the minority of marginalized group and replaces them with what is considered the dominant culture. One of the proposed policies would force children in these “ghetto’s” to attend extra schooling for cultural education in Danish norms and would prevent these children from taking extended visits to the countries of their family’s origin because it would damage the re-education efforts in Denmark.

Such practices of forced cultural assimilation and cultural re-education were used on Native American children during the early 20th century, and were commonly used during the colonial period, particularly by the Portuguese as a tactic of pacifying their African and Timorese subjects. With the use of the term “ghetto” also paralleling the Nazi’s segregation of Jews prior to WWII, these policies seriously challenge the common international perception of the north as being a friendly and tolerant region.

There is hope, however, in combating these nationalist efforts. In the local elections of November 2017, the Social Democrats and other more left leaning parties gained significant ground on the Danish People’s Party The more traditionally conservative region of the Jutland now stands in opposition to the Danish People Party’s control in Copenhagen.

After decades of championing the “middle way” as a compromise between capitalism and communism, privatization and neoliberal reforms are showing signs of rifts in the Danish social system, from welfare to education. In order for the institutions that many liberals in America look to for inspiration to survive, the very structures that are being weakened must be actively supported by the public. Otherwise we may be observing a slow erosion of Denmark’s social democratic system from the ground up.

Bram Barnes is a PhD researcher on international history at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Geneva. He has written articles on topics relating to history, sociology, globalization and education. Originally from Seattle, Washington, Bram just completed his masters degree at Aarhus University in Denmark with his wife, Alexa, and baby daughter, Penelope.

Photo Credit: Telegraph

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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