Can Bernie Sanders replicate Danish Culture Too?

On any given day, you can find squatters, permanent and temporary, among the old buildings of Christiania, an “autonomous neighborhood” near central Copenhagen. News in Copenhagen regularly features friction between the neighborhood of Christiania and city officials, but the history of squatters settling in is usually a major ire for the Copenhagen municipality.

How does Christiania, a self-identified free state with its own flag, governing body, even its own set of rules relate to the rest of Denmark? Understanding the relationship is key to understanding the fascinating culture of the Scandinavian country. Understanding the culture may provide some insights into the complexities of the Danish welfare state and whether Bernie Sanders’ call for its replication in the United States is even possible.  

Sen. Sanders’ interest in Denmark is well-documented. After inviting then-ambassador Peter Taksøe-Jensen to speak at town hall meetings in Vermont in 2013, he wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “What Can We Learn From Denmark?” The senator highlighted the innate differences between the countries, summing up that “The United States, in size, culture, and the diversity of our population, is a very different country from Denmark.” But Sanders insisted that there are lessons to learn from Denmark, most important of which are values dealing with rights and freedoms.  

So what does Denmark, among other Scandinavian countries, offer that Bernie would like to see in the U.S.?  Basically, very strong social benefits in exchange for equally high taxes. Students are “paid” to go to university (free for citizens, plus a stipend), minimum wage is very high (not set but approximately $16 an hour), and social housing is numerous and in many cases promotes inclusive architecture and community. But income taxes are at least 30 percent for a middle-income job, or more if you make more. This aligns with many of Bernie’s own policy initiatives that are frequently in the news and can be seen on his campaign web page and Senate site.  

And how do these policies work in Denmark? Let’s go back to Christiania and it’s relationship with Denmark.

Just like Sanders, his detractors point to Denmark as a completely different country  whose circumstances are impossible to replicate in the United States. NY Post columnist Rich Lowry wrote in October that, “The first thing to know is that Scandinavia is inhabited by Scandinavians — a hard-working, responsible people who have had high levels of social trust and cohesion for a very long time.” This acts in contrast to the United States, where individualism has generally held sway over the collective good. Even center-right Prime Minister of Denmark Lars Løkke Rasmussen has dismissed Sanders’ apparent notions that Denmark is socialist. But Lowry, Sanders, and even Løkke miss the true reason why Denmark’s system would have a difficult time succeeding in the United States.  

As a student in Denmark for the past four months, I’ve only had an opportunity to pick up some of the most obvious aspects of Danish culture. The Danes are also pretty proud of their history and think their own Viking past is something fun to poke at. But the Danes are also in pretty cohesive support of their social welfare program, believing it to be the best for them. In short, Danes seems to be pretty similar not only about their cultural quirks and oddities, but also about larger sociopolitical concepts.

Christiania doesn’t fit in so well with this model. A former military installation that was abandoned in the middle of the 20th century, Christiania was soon after occupied by people with a hippie, anarchist spirit who looked to separate themselves from the rest of society. Its anthem, I kan ikke slå os ihjel (You cannot kill us) was definitive from the beginning: Christiania did not see itself part of Copenhagen, nor Danish society. Their beliefs are inherently left-wing like the rest of Denmark, but Christiania residents are decidedly more democratic, more inclusive and ultimately more diverse in their beliefs than the largely homogenous society the rest of Denmark offered. The residents of Christiania were outsiders, and this led to their own evolution of sorts during the last few decades of the 20th century and into the 21st.  

What were the residents of Christiania trying to escape from? When I asked a middle-aged Copenhagen resident what he thought of Christiania, he spoke negatively of how they reject the largely cooperative citizenry that Denmark provides. He was, of course, referring to those in Denmark privileged enough to be a part of society. Denmark is a society hard to penetrate; many Danes will admit that immigrants and other foreigners have a very hard time immersing themselves within the society. Danish culture’s treatment of Greenlandic people, for instance, is a very fascinating dynamic that is not unlike North American treatment of American Indians and First Nation peoples. Not all Danes are fully xenophobic, but it’s clear that not everyone is readily welcome by the vast majority of Danes.

Once one is a part of Danish society, however, the benefits are numerous. Friendship there means much more than many Americans may be used to back home. Trust is also of epic proportions, with many tourists shocked by the number of unwatched baby carriages sitting outside restaurants while parents eat inside. Many Danes will discuss how job position or social status will never make one person higher than another. Everyone is called by their first name, no ‘Sirs’ or ‘Madams’ or even calling people by their last name. The Crown Prince and his family commute by bike, like most everyone else. There is a sense of brotherhood that is hard to find outside Denmark.

It is hard to separate this type of tight-knit culture with the social welfare programs of Denmark.  Because of their cultural community, Danes find it rather obvious to have tight and large social safety nets. To replicate the social welfare of Denmark in the United States is to replicate the trust, belief in egalitarianism, and sense of national community that exists. Danish social welfare may not be possible if Denmark didn’t stay culturally and ethnically homogenous. Public opinion polls alone tell us the United States does not share these core values. A 2013 Rasmussen Reports survey said 67 percent of Americans think too many are dependent on government aid, a sentiment considered a fringe belief by all means in Denmark. It’s hard to say whether American liberals would even want to push towards cultural sameness, as much as they’d like to see the social welfare programs. U.S. conservatives (not libertarians) may appreciate the homogeneity, but certainly not the welfare programs.

Still, Sanders isn’t wrong to use Denmark as an example of what he’d like to see in America.  Denmark is one of the most successful social democratic countries in the world. They expouse many of Sanders’ values and make social welfare programs work for those that benefit from it, and society as a whole. Denmark probably provides a great example for a state like Vermont could do, which is largely homogenous and socially liberal. But on a national scale, Sanders ought to look at larger, more diverse nations in Europe for direction. A case like Germany may provide better lessons for what the United States can really do to become a country with a strong safety net.