Don’t learn the wrong lessons from Denmark on nationalism

The Nyhavn canal in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The Nyhavn canal in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I wasn’t much of a connoisseur, I admit, in the matter of Nordic cultural differences before I moved to Sweden from Turkey in 2011. Narcissism of minor differences, I’d always thought, complacent in my half-baked knowledge of Viking history and Norse mythology. It took me several years and two seasons of The Bridge (Bron/Broen), the riveting Scandi-noir TV crime series, to realise that the Danes and the Swedes neither resemble nor necessarily like each other.

At first I felt closer to Martin Rohde, the Danish police detective in the series who has to work with his Swedish counterpart, Saga Norén, after a corpse is discovered exactly in the middle of the Øresund Bridge which connects the two countries. Like him, I was enthralled by the Swedes’ tendency to follow rules to the letter, their passionate upholding of all forms of equality and, above all, their concurrent devotion to a paternalistic state and individualism. Norén’s character, brilliantly played by Sofia Helin, has, it was suggested, some form of Asperger syndrome. But in reality it isn’t odd for Swedish women to buy drinks for men in a bar, to be acerbic about intimate relationships and children, or indeed to get changed in the office.

In time, the Martin Rohde in me faded away and I blended in, dutifully paying my progressive income taxes every spring, the most important time in a Swede’s year. Over a pint of lager, I even laughed at jokes about Danes.

All this is perhaps why I was so flabbergasted at the media’s slapdash attempts to carve a “national populist” success story out of the most recent Danish elections in June. For anyone familiar with the political context, the results were anything but unexpected. Nearly every opinion poll had corrrectly predicted that the Social Democrat-led “red bloc” would emerge victorious and that the far-right Danish People’s party would see its vote share diminished, partly because its nativist anti-immigration stance had become part of the mainstream political discourse.

Yet for the ever-expanding national-populist industry, this was just the beginning. The results showed, their story went, that populists were here to stay; that the Social Democrats could not have won had they not aped the far right on immigration and embraced a “nationals first” approach. The other message was that this is the strategy that centre parties (of both left and right) in other parts of Europe need to adopt. Commentators in the UK suggested that working-class voters were flocking to the likes of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini or the centre-left in Denmark. They cherish “faith, flag and family” and they want politicians who will defend their way of life, culture and traditions.

We can’t, of course, expect pundits to binge-watch The Bridge to familiarise themselves with the idiosyncrasies of Nordic culture, but we could at least expect them to do some fact-checking before churning out sweeping generalisations about widely differing contexts. The Social Democrats’ vote share actually fell by 0.4 percentage points compared with 2015. They did not manage to lure back many working-class voters since only 12% of Social Democrat voters were former far-right Danish People’s Party voters; and at least some of their success was accounted for by an electoral campaign that emphasised unabashedly leftwing policies, including promises to boost public spending and welfare benefits, and embrace more of an environment-friendly agenda.

Truth-bending is not the only flaw of the national-populist narrative, however. A potentially more perilous aspect is its self-righteousness, its claim to moral superiority through an appeal to the wishes of the people, invariably pitted against a vaguely defined “rootless cosmopolitan” elite. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the Manichaean narrative is correct, that the Danish Social Democrats did succeed by adopting nativism and that the only winning strategy for parties of the centre – both on the right and left – is to mimic the far right, not just on immigration and reducing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, but also in adopting a more forgiving attitude to nationalism.

But the question is not whether nationalism matters, but what kind of nationalism? The xenophobic anti-immigrant nationalism the Danish Social Democrats espoused, including support for the creation of “ghettos” in neighbourhoods where more than 50% of residents have non-western nationality or heritage, where harsher punishments for certain types of offences apply, and the notorious “jewellery law” that allows Danish authorities to confiscate valuables or cash from migrants and asylum seekers at the border? The jubilant mood radiating from the rightwing media in Britain following the ascent of Farage and Boris Johnson suggests that the national-populist answer to this question in the UK is a resounding “yes”.

Yet there is an alternative. Swedish Social Democrats reintroduced border controls in 2015 to stem the tide of immigration without embracing a nativist rhetoric. So one can defend a kind of nationalism that accommodates cultural diversity and pluralism, one that prioritises common destiny over myths of shared ancestry, integration over exclusion or deportation, and respect for the existing social contract over cultural assimilation. I unhesitatingly choose the latter, for I know that no political project can succeed in the absence of mutual recognition of each side’s dignity.

Who knows, perhaps it is the Saga Norén in me, with a slight preference for the Swedish over the Danish, for demos over ethnos, and with no time for small talk.

Umut Özkırımlı is a political scientist based at Lund University, Sweden, and the author of Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction.

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