DANISH DEMOCRACY DNA
A few weeks ago, I spent a weekend at one of the so-called People’s High School, to meet with other Danes to discuss the state of affairs of Danish democracy, and the impact of the Trump presidency. How are we doing?
A HISTORY OF 175 YEARS
Let me start with my conclusion: In Denmark, we are not doing so badly after all! There is something in the DNA of Danish democratic culture that I believe will serve us well during the times of turbulence we are presently experienc-ing. There are plenty of ‘challenges’ to our democracy, and plenty of policies by the present Danish government that we must be concerned about. How-ever, I believe that we also have enough resistance in our DNA to be able to respond to the challenges facing us.
For those of you – and that could very well by the large majority – who have never heard of what a Danish ‘People’s High School’ is, let me offer a few hints. It will probably be difficult to understand why I conclude this story by stating that I am optimistic about the Danish democracy DNA despite the turbulence we are experiencing in the world, if you do not understand what this special and precious institution is all about.
The first school was founded in 1844, and it was in fact Rødding Højskole, the school that I visited this weekend. It was founded by farmers in the southern part of the country bordering to Germany, as part of the struggle to maintain a Danish identity, and it was stated that the purpose was “to edu-cate sons of the country and citizens of the state”. People bought shares to make the building of the school possible, and to start with it took two years to get through the curriculum. At the beginning the students were mostly sons of rich farmers and government officials.
Over the years, the concept of the schooling was increasingly focused on its contribution to democracy. This would be a place where the children – first the sons and later also the daughters – of ordinary farmers could meet, dis-cuss and learn. No certificate was given at the end of the period, so it was not a traditional institution for learning, but rather a place where young peo-ple could find their feet in life and learn to be active participants in society.
Much has changed since the first schools were started almost 175 years ago. Over the years, the number of schools has been changing, with some closing and maybe some of them later opening again, and new ones coming up. Today, all 70 schools continue to offer broad-based non-formal civic edu-cation, where dialogue is a critical aspect. You will find people of all ages represented, but young people form the majority in the courses running over a period of six months. In addition, most schools specialize in certain sub-jects, sports, creative arts, communication, literature, politics or global is-sues.
Well, this should be enough. I am attaching an English version presentation of this Danish phenomenon, published by the Association of Danish People’s High Schools.
CLOSENESS AND INFORMALITY
What would probably strike many non-Danes as exciting and surprising is the possibility of meeting top-ranking Danish politicians close up and in an infor-mal setting. Over the three days we met, we met the following politicians, mentioned in the sequence they appeared in the program:
- Marie Krarup – MP from the Danish People’s Party
- Özlem Cekic – former MP from the Socialist People’s Party
- Søren Pape Poulsen – Minister of Justice from the Conservative Party
- Jakob Mark – MP and group chair for Socialist People’s Party
- Rasmus Jarlov – MP from the Conservative Party
- Marianne Jelved – MP and former minister from Social Liberal Party
- Merete Riisager – Minister for Education from the Liberal Alliance
- Christine Antorini – MP and former minister from Social Democrats
- Pelle Dragsted – MP from the Red-Green Alliance
- Jakob Engel-Schmidt – MP from the Liberal Party
A total of ten present or former politicians and MPs, two of them present day ministers, and others former ministers, representing eight of the nine parties represented in parliament right now. Only The Alternative, the new party vot-ed into parliament in June 2015, was not represented in the panels. In the case of the ministers, they obviously arrived with the official car driving minis-ters around at all times. They came accompanied by personal assistants, but not protected by a heavily armed security detail. All other participants came by taxi or private car, and I know that several used appropriate public transport, which means the train if you are coming from Copenhagen.
Having received many foreign delegations of politicians in Denmark over the years, I know that politicians from countries like Tanzania, Ghana, Zimba-bwe, Egypt, Nepal and Myanmar generally express surprise about the level of closeness and informality that exists between citizens and politicians in Denmark. I have often told them the story about a meeting I organized back in the 1990s, as part of the follow-up to the global 1992 Rio-conference on sustainable development. NGO-delegates from around the world were stand-ing in front of the main entrance into Parliament (Christiansborg), waiting for the Minister for the Environment and Energy, Svend Auken, to arrive. No black Mercedes was to be seen, no police officers or soldiers were lurking in the shadows, as far as we could see. Suddenly a tall man comes riding on an old bicycle, puts his bicycle next to many other bicycles parked in the street, and starts walking up the steps. When he started to address the visi-tors, they were taken by surprise. How could this be the Minister, without the black Mercedes and the soldiers? Svend Auken just smiled, as he often did, and simply stated that the word ‘minister’ means ‘servant’ of the people.
While the closeness and informality between citizens and politicians is a phenomenon we have grown up with as Danes, it does not exist to the extent we practice it many other places around the world. It remains, I believe, a precious treasure we need to protect. It is a symbol of the democratic culture we have developed in Denmark over a 100-year period, following the adop-tion of our first genuinely democratic constitution in 1915.
CAN ‘TRUMPISM’ HIT DENMARK?
Over the three days, we (the participants on the weekend course and the mostly younger students on the six month course, a total of 120 people) lis-tened to the politicians discussing among themselves, as well as us asking them questions, on a number of key issues presently being debated in all corners of Danish society:
- Is integration of immigrants failing?
- Can Denmark manage the number of refugees and immigrants?
- How can we strengthen development in the periphery of Denmark?
- Do politicians have any visions for our country?
- Does media weaken or strengthen our democracy?
- How to define and practice ‘justice’ in Denmark today?
- Should we be for or against globalization?
The general question of concern underlying our discussion was to what ex-tent our democracy is really in a fundamental crises. If this is the case, what can we do about it? Like in similar debates all over the world, the surprising and successful ascendance to power of President Trump is lurking in the shadows, forcing us to discuss how democrats can democratically deal with the rise of populism and nationalism, and the policies of isolationism and rejection of international cooperation as the best and only way to manage the many global threats we are confronted with.
We did not take a vote on any of the issues and questions. The idea of spending three days at Rødding Højskole was really to open our hearts and minds to other ideas and positions. Yes, the politicians obviously argued for their own positions, just like people from the audience did. What was im-portant was that we also listened. It was a two-way street. We had time to digest what was being presented to us, and we allowed each other room to explain and to clarify. It was not a twitter-like exchange of superficial state-ments.
This is possible in the setting of a people’s high school like Rødding, but not equally possible most other places in Denmark today. Television can only rarely offer a quiet room for peaceful reflection; social media is as violent and cannibalistic in Denmark as elsewhere in the world; debates in parliament often end up being statements against statements rather than dialogues.
Still, at least every four years we conduct parliamentary elections, where more than 80 percent of the electorate participate by casting a vote. Every four years, more than 60 percent of the electorate participate in the municipal elections, to elect councilors to around 100 councils that manage just about half of all the tax resources of the state for various public services. Hundreds of important decisions are taken by consensus, both in parliament and in municipal councils. Thousands of people participate in the courses offered by the people’s high schools scattered all over the country.
All of this is part of our democratic DNA. I am not saying that we should not be vigilant and concerned about the forces at play in many countries. But three days at Rødding Højskole did remind me that we have a lot to build upon in Denmark when we try to energize our democracy.