Bernie Sanders Has America Talking About Denmark. That’s a Good Thing.

(Photo: Phil Roeder | Flickr)

(Photo: Phil Roeder | Flickr)

If you ask Bernie Sanders about his version of socialism, you’ll probably hear a lot about the small Scandinavian country perhaps best known for inventing Legos.

Anderson Cooper experienced this firsthand when he asked about the Vermont senator’s embrace of democratic socialism during the first Democratic presidential debate. That prompted the full Sanders rap on the wonders of Denmark, including the Nordic country’s strong safety net and egalitarian ethic.

As a longtime fan of all things Danish, from their bike lanes to their Viking hats, I’m excited to see this northern nation enter the spotlight here at home. While studying abroad in Denmark as a college student, I compared its universal health care system to our own — and found Denmark’s far superior.

This was in 2009, a time when this was anything but an academic exercise.

Back home, Congress and the Obama administration were brushing the so-called “public option,” which would have given all Americans a chance to steer clear of private insurers, off the table. Progressives were outraged when they realized that the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t bring on anything remotely like Denmark’s single-payer health care system.

Upon returning to the States, I interned for a year at Sanders’ district office in Vermont. After I graduated, I moved to Washington and worked in his Capitol Hill office for three more.

I got to hear Bernie talk about Denmark a lot. I watched as he fought to bring a Danish- style democratic socialism to bear in Congress — admittedly a hard sell.

The Scandinavian nation has long served as a model for Bernie’s political ambitions, and for good reason. Not only are Danes among the happiest people on earth, but the country also consistently ranks near the top of Forbes’ list of the world’s best business environments.

It earns this distinction despite a progressive tax code in which the highest rate tops 60 percent — and a robust welfare state that ensures access to child care, health care, parental leave, high quality education, and senior care.

College students not only get a tuition-free higher education, they get a stipend to cover their living expenses and books. In contrast, American college students get the privilege of $35,000 in average debt.

If you were looking for a place where democratic socialism appears to be working, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Denmark. Compared to our country, Denmark has higher wages, less poverty, less inequality, shorter work hours, lower carbon emissions, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality rates, less unemployment, less depression, less crime, and less suicide. And the list goes on.

Columnist and Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman summed it up the best: “Danes get a lot of things right,” he wrote, “and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics.”

Of course, no country is perfect, and policies that work in one place may not prevail in another. Conservative pundits, along with Hillary Clinton, have harped especially on Denmark’s small and largely homogenous population. It’s intrinsically different from the United States, they say.

But I think there’s plenty that we can learn from seeing Denmark as a model.

That’s why it’s exciting to see our country’s newfound interest in Denmark. The Boston Globe published competing columns praising and criticizing the country, and The New York Times held the Danish system up to scrutiny in its popular Room For Debate section.

So far, no one’s saying much about Danish cuisine, but they should. Think ball-shaped pancakes called aebleskiver that could be the next cronut.

While I doubt Americans will embrace the Danes’ love for pickled fish, I’m hopeful we might connect the dots between their successful social outcomes and their progressive public policies. Perhaps, as Bernie Sanders has been advocating for decades, we might even decide to put some of those lessons into practice.

Josh Hoxie is the director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies.

  • pjdxxxwa

    This is not the Original “first study ever” where the USA was 23rd, but we still have a loooong way to go, and it seems only Bernie recognizes this out of all Candidates. I see that there are forces out there on the Internet who are making every effort to bury the truth. There are now “studies” (yeah, right) posted that are claiming their own “research” – however, who out there (outside of me) will go to each one to see how legitimate they are these days?

    I saw the original one and have yet to find it among the scores of others suddenly being done. When I have time to find IT, I will among my many DVD’s of back up information. Until them loo this one over if you so inclined.

  • Vinnie

    I for one, happen to thoroughly enjoy pickled fish. I think as Americans, we should emulate this particular food fetish.

  • Cjones1

    I imagine the Danes have been experiencing a better life long before socialism.
    I am watching how they react to the flood of immigrants. They are very proud about being Danish and will not take kindly to interlopers who make little effort to assimilate. I believe there are roughly 5 million Danes and modern lifestyles have resulted in a drop of the birthrate.
    They also require higher academic standards to attend the universities, but provide training in other skilled areas for those who don’t make the cut.
    Aalborg celebrates the 4th of July and I am sure they appreciate the defense umbrella we have provided after kicking the Nazis out.
    As long as they can maintain a positive balance of trade, they will be able to afford the social frills.

  • John Hutchinson

    Surely one of the lessons of the Iraq War is that one cannot overlay a sociopolitical system upon a people whose prevailing and insidiously enduring ideologies and sentiments are incongruent and intrinsically undermine that sociopolitical system. It may exist for a time, but it is frail, fragile, and ephemeral.

    Likewise, to overlay any Danish, Scandinavian or even continental European sociopolitical model, which is a projection of a communitarian mindset among other things that distinguishes them, upon American society with radically cultural idioms is a hopeless futility.

  • Magnus Sandvik

    A couple of things here. Firstly, for university level education, the stipend given in Denmark, and indeed all the scandinavian countries, are enough to cover about 2 months living expenses. The rest is a loan, though a pretty good one in terms om repayment plans. Also, you have to pay taxes on it and you get it revoked if you spend too much time at work outside of your studies. After 6 years of university education with stipends, I still have debts of 50,000 dollars.
    The general tax burden in Denmark is now the highest in the world at around 49% of income. For comparison, it is 27% in the US. Imagine the effect of all persons in the US having to pay 22% more in tax on top of what they are already paying. This would most definitely hurt those who are poorest, unless you want an even more insanely complex tax and VAT system.
    There is also the matter of culture. Us scandinavians have historically been forced by harsh conditions to work together. The communal good has been the goal, even in older times since it was required for survival. Branch out on your own, and something would kill you. In addition, our cultures have been extremely homogenous, in religious, racial and cultural terms. Our social model has sprung from this, and as 20 years of neo-con adventures in the middle east have proven, applying a foreign social model onto a society that did not spawn it does not work. The people of the US are, for better or worse, simply not wired for a “Danish” model.

    • Downyduck

      Wow, a dose of reality for the starry-eyed director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies!

  • JerseyCowboy

    Denmark is a country with a population about the size of Brooklyn and Queens over a fertile landscape larger than Maryland. The population is 89% white Danish and 78% belong to the same Church. The immigrants that do come are almost universally impoverished and there were riots in 2005, all due to an immigrant population the size of Newark, NJ. It is one of the least diverse places in the world. Comparisons tell us nothing about what to do to improve the U.S.

  • Randolph Haluza-DeLay

    Surprising to see comments about “applying a foreign sociopolitical model.” Agreed. Don’t do that! At least not in a locale that has a very different cultural formation. And maybe the work-togetherness of Scandinavia is different from American hyper-individualism (although America has a history of frontier working-together although overwhelmed by media portrayals of the rugged lone gunslinger and such). But who is to say America cannot learn from others about what might work better?

  • Red Robbo

    From the horse’s mouth:

    Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said that while he’s flattered to see Denmark discussed in a widely-watched US presidential debate he doesn’t think the socialist shoe fits. “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said, “therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

    Bernie is at best a social democrat.

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