There has been much discussion over the past few years on the best ways to stop democratic erosion, especially democratic erosion in countries with solid constitutional principles and consistent protection of individual, classically liberal rights. A perfect example of a country that has so far completely averted any, according to several measures of freedom, is Denmark. Often keeping a low profile, Denmark’s lone time on the international stage recently was when President Trump proposed purchasing Greenland, a move that quickly earned both laughs and ire from many.
In 2015, Denmark was poised to follow the path of many other European nations at the height of the refugee crisis. France was warming to ultra nationalist Marine Le Pen. The UK had just decided to Brexit. And in Denmark, the situation was similar, and the elections results were too. The far-right Danish People’s Party made massive gains at the expense of many smaller parties, and Danes seemed ready to follow the trends. The far-right Danish People’s party was able to collect the second largest number of seats in Parliament and formed part of the governing coalition (although their leader did not become prime minister.)
So how in 2019 at the next election was this same party absolutely crippled? Even more interestingly, how was it that the center left party was able to win many of their votes? What happened behind the scenes, did ideologies switch? Did voters reject populism and ultra-nationalism, turning back towards a more globalist leftism of the 1990s? Could a solution to the democratic erosion so often caused by right wing populism have been found in little Denmark? Well, yes and no, and it depends on who you ask.
Mette Frederiksen is an unassuming, average Danish Gen-Xer. Part of her appeal was her ability to relate well to the average voter, she seemed sort of like any everywoman as all over social media “she posts unglamorous pictures of herself kayaking, mowing the lawn or dressed for a run, and she does not shy away from less-than-flattering images — photos of her combing a bull or midway through having her hair styled.” (Selsoe-Sorenson, Penaz Pera, 2019, New York Times.) Also, while for the most part echoing the typical (and often losing) ideologies of the European center left, she decided to take the otherwise extremely average party in a new direction, one particularly surprising for both an establishment party, especially for one on the left. She brought the Social Democrats to the right on immigration, and markedly so. Not much else changed – strong support for labor unions, gay rights and anti-racism still remained key parts of her agenda, but immigration stances notably toughened. According to some, she may have established a model to “reinvigorate the left across Europe.” It certainly seemed to work in Denmark, as Frederiksen thrashed her opposition, gained over a quarter of the votes (a decent number in a multiparty system like Denmark) and formed a coalition with other left-leaning and far left parties leaving the right wing populists in the cold
So, is this an adequate solution for stopping the spread of populism, especially of the right-wing variety? Well, it certainly worked in Denmark, it is unlike that the Social Democrats, with deep anti-racism connections would go down the road of Fidesz in Hungary, where an establishment party is corrupted by fascist forces. Still, many on the more internationalist parts of the left could be turned off by these changes in policy.
Note that this is not the first time the left has worked with the more anti-immigration part of a country’s voting pool. In New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, a darling of the left and internationally recognized as a compassionate and fair leader, only came to power at the blessing of the kingmaker New Zealand first party, who chose to partner with her to form government rather than with John Key and the Nats.
Is what happened in Denmark last year a sign of things to come? If one looks at how much of the left discusses immigration in the United States, more questions than answers come about. With Trump winning on the back of anti-immigration ideals, the American left must be extra careful to come across as an antithesis to this while also not bleeding any more white, blue collar voters in swing states. It remains to be seen if a Mette Frederiksen will emerge across the pond, or if the left in America will diverge in a more globalist direction.