It’s Not So Rotten in the State of Denmark

Borgen image

I’ve been doing some binge watching of a Danish TV serial, Borgen. [Borgen is the name of the Danish Parliament Building.] Across three seasons of 10 episodes apiece, the series portrays the life and times of the fictional Birgitte Nystrom, the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, the progressive Nordic country that makes many headlines for its prosperity and for its high place on the global citizen happiness scales. I’m about halfway through the series and eagerly await each new episode.

The show is said to be a favorite of Hillary Clinton, who no doubt sees in the political savvy and the winning personality of PM Nystrom something of herself.

As portrayed by the remarkable Danish actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Nystrom elevation to the leadership of the country is surprising. The leader of the relatively small Moderate party with no hope of attaining the top post in Denmark’s parliament government, she exploits an opportunity when the Hasselboe, the current PM, from the pro-business Conservative Party leader, stumbles and the Socialist Party leader, Laugensen, whose party already has the most seats in parliament, is discredited for the way that he exposes the Hesselboe’s sins. Laugensen nefariously obtains evidence of Hasselboe’s wife’s wild spending spree during a Parisian junket, and he too must step out of contention.

This is no new shiny tile in the mosaic myth of Scandinavian utopia; venality and corruption are woven into the political fabric of any Western government, including this one. But in its portrayal of the decency of political actors, Borgen is a healthy antidote to the portrayal of cynical political operates that we find in House of Cards about which I have previously blogged.

The unsullied Nystrom, with the assistance of her wily mentor and assistant party leader, Bent Sejro, squeaks into office and begins the challenging work of putting together a coalition government made up of her own Moderates, the Socialists, and the Green Party. Indeed, one of the more refreshing aspects of this inside look at Danish politics, is the presentations of the behind the scenes agreements made between parties in order to create legislation. That coalitions are fragile and that the PM must adroitly think about how to distribute the wins and loses without losing loyalty is a given.

PM Nystrom, though a combination of charm and toughness, is an effective manager of the countervailing forces in her government. She knows how to dole out favors (by increasing budgetary lines or assigning stalwarts of other parties to European Union commissions) but also knows how to use the stick. She is clever at disguising marginalizing ambitious members of other parties as a promotion into consequential positions that aren’t. And she’s tough. When an up-and-coming legislator is found to have made, prior to becoming a politician, some threats against the then PM, Nystrom is insistent that she resign, this despite the fact that the boozy threats were recorded at a party more than six years earlier.

One episode in particular indicates the cunning ways in which Nystrom paddles through the shoals while keeping her kayak upright. A poet-dissident from a fictional a Central Asian country comes to Denmark at the request of some human rights activists. On his heals comes the Prime Minister, ostensibly on a good will mission. But it becomes clear that the Prime Minister wants the poet extradited. His bargaining chip is a billion dollar state contract for the purchase of Danish high-tech windmills. Despite their commitment to energy solutions, The Greens, advocates of human rights, want the PM to take a strong stand against despotism and are aghast at the prospect that the poet could be sold out. The business community clearly wants the deal to be done and believes that the return of the poet is a small price to pay. Furthermore, they argue, the continuation of the Danish welfare state is dependent upon the profits from technology exports. Nystrom cleverly maneuvers the visiting PM into buying the windmills, gets the dissident to move to another country, and keeps the coalition and non-coalition parties happy.

Students of comparative governments will find this portrait of a parliamentary system interesting and may wonder if it is any more or less effective in coming up with effective policies that address the country’s. This portrayal also lets us see how one nation, despite its many parties, is still united by a social compact that includes extensive government programs for the poor, the unemployed, students and children. It’s as if everyone in Danish government, even the Conservatives, would be members of the American Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Nyborg faces tough questions public pensions and public works whose cost frays the post-war census about the defining features of the welfare state

But it is not politics alone that fascinates series developer and occasional scriptwriter Adam Price. For politics today is not only back room negotiations about policy but also a media sport. The ubiquitous press with an insatiable appetite for each morsel of information about policy and personality is given full exposure in the series. The press and the government are uneasy collaborators. Two characters are at the center of it all. Katrine Fonsmark is an aggressive, young TV reporter who chafes at the restrictions placed on her TV1 boss. When against orders, she imprudently broaches a personal topic in an interview with Nystrom, she is placed on leave. She is hired by a tabloid paper which is managed by Laugensen, the discredited and scandal mongering former leader of the Socialist party, and guided by Hanna Holm, a veteran reporter who is trying to reestablish her career after falling off the wagon.

The other dominant figure is Kaspar Juul, who is recruited from a newspaper job to become the PM’s “spin doctor.” Skilled at the use of stealth methods, many of which barely pass the test for sound ethical conduct, he’s presented as the best at the business of massaging the messages of the Prime Minister and steering her away from gaffes both large and small. That the career-driven Katrine and lecherous Kaspar have an on-and-off romance adds to the intrigue. Though they rarely share a bed, there’s a lot of pillow talk between them.

Before her victory, the then leader of the Moderate party took her bike to work, like many residents of Copenhagen do. She returns nightly to a home where she resides with her husband Philip, a university lecturer in economics, and two children, an awkward, mid-teenage daughter and a tow-headed 10 year old son. After her election, she is now driven from office to home, but slowly, it’s not the same home as in the days when she was a backbencher.

Borgen presents us with a case study in the damages done to family life where one or both of the partners enters an all-consuming profession. Philip, the modern European man, is initially fully supportive of his wife’s career and is more than willing to rebalance the egalitarianism that governed their management of domestic affairs and their marital life. Philip growing disaffection with his “house husband” role is not surprising. All too often his wife crawls into bed after a 14 hour day with laptop in hand, ready to read a report for a cabinet meeting the next morning at 8AM. The slide is accelerated when Philip must reconsider his decision to become a CEO of a Swedish company because it does a modest business with the Danish government. When he then says “damn to the conflict of interest” and accepts the position. His prospect of power and identity apart from his wife’s position rekindles his libido. The scene of his sexual aggression, though a bit of a false note, does not detract from the conclusion that this is a smart presentation of strains placed on marriage and family in the households of the liberal elite.

Borgen reminds me a lot of The West Wing, the Adam Sorkin series that ran for seven seasons starting in 1999. Brigitte Nystrom does seem like the fictional American president Josiah Bartlett, changed into a progressive European woman. Like the West Wing, each episode, though best understood as one pearl on the string of  American political life, can stand alone, focusing on a particular problem of campaigning, governance, or staff management. Perhaps I find Borgen a better program because its focus on a smaller cast and its more limited run provides more opportunities for character development.

My guess is that many of the readers of this blog will not have even have heard about Borgen and be more familiar with recent TV looks at the American political class, even those shows like Veep with Julie Louis-Dreyfus and Madame Secretary with Tea Leoni, which present portraits of women in high office. One doesn’t have enough time to watch all of the good TV available, so I haven’t watched a minute of these shows. I can’t imagine them being any better crafted or as insightful into political life as this very engaging product of Danish TV. And I can’t imagine a better TV model for a future President Clinton than Nystorm, who despite her increasing frustrations with the burdens of office and motherhood, elegantly soldiers on.

A footnote: Denmark elected a female, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, into the Prime Minister’s office in 2011. Thorning-Schmidt became front page news not for her leadership but rather for a photograph taken at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The photograph showed the Prime Minister taking a selfie with President Obama, apparently to the displeasure of Michele Obama who turned a bit of a cold shoulder to the smiling couple.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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