Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Danes turn Populist

Personal disclaimer: I have fond memories of Denmark.  It is the place where it first dawned on me that aesthetics was a critical element to any realistic understanding of economics.  Not only is beauty essential to any feeling of prosperity, the ability to create beautiful things is a damn good indicator of a superior social organization.  Denmark has beautiful little towns, cities, historical artifacts, street-scapes, furniture and the other details of life to go with stunningly beautiful people.  It took me several days to realize that I wasn't looking at some tourist attraction dolled up to impress the visitors, this was a real country with real people doing real work to make it through life.  The difference was, they had chosen to live beautiful lives and even better, had figured out how to do it.

Lots of lessons to be learned!  So I try to keep track of what the Danes are up to in their efforts to get really green and the social organizations that move their program forwards.  And so I was utterly delighted to see this account of the smashing victory of Danish People's Party.  Naturally, they have been labeled 'populist' by an establishment voice like The Guardian. (Note the condescension in the title.  Trust me, this story is about a LOT more than meatballs.)  But what is truly interesting is the DPP really is Populist and even more interesting is that they evolved through some of the same stages as the People's Party of 19th century USA.  As a self-appointed expert on USA Populism, I give the Danes at least a 9.5 for authenticity.

In the story below, I have boldfaced the sentiments that are so similar to the versions of Populism we had here in Minnesota, it is almost scary.  The most interesting similarity is that in both cases, these movements have produced a highly self-confident citizen who has well-thought-out positions and can explain them simply and effectively.

Denmark votes to defend meatballs – via party with the ordinary voice

The surge by Denmark's populist DPP in recent MEP polls mirrors a Europe-wide disconnect with established politicians

Jon Henley in Copenhagen, The Guardian, 30 May 2014

It may have shaken Denmark's political establishment to its roots, but the scale of the Danish People's Party's (DPP) victory in last weekend's European elections did not much surprise Mikkel Dencker.

"Well, maybe a bit," he conceded. "I knew we would do well, the polls said so. But I'm naturally a pessimistic person, I suppose, so I didn't really believe them. I should have known better. This is a big moment."

On the well-kept streets of Hvidovre, a working-class suburb of Copenhagen barely 10 minutes by train from the central station, there are plenty who agree with Dencker, a local MP and now deputy mayor of a town council previously dominated by the centre-left Social Democrats.

Just over 35% of Hvidovre's voters cast their ballot for the DPP in the European poll, which saw the rightwing party, derided by many in the mainstream as scaremongering, populist upstarts, seize a record 26.6% of the national vote and win four of Denmark's 13 seats in the European parliament.

Its MEPs will now join an influx of some 230 similar insurgents from all corners of the EU, ranging from the far-right to the radical left and from moderate euro-criticals to outright Europhobes. But in Hvidovre, at least, the vote seems to have been about rather more than Europe.

"It's plain why people vote DPP," said Henrik Kristiansen, 46, a delivery driver, outside the Victoria cafe. "The rest are just politicians. Do you really believe them? I don't." Mette Lindhard, a nursing assistant, said the party "does really seem to care about ordinary people. With the others, it's always just about numbers, and excuses."

Commentators see the DPP's triumph – the party pushed the Social Democrats of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, riding high on 32.6% of the vote as recently as 2004, down to just 19% in the poll, and Venstre, the leading rightwing party, to below 17% – as indicative of a deeper crisis of traditional politics, with echoes across Europe.

"I don't actually think people voted for the DPP as a response to anything to do with the European parliament," said Kasper Fogh, a long-time Social Democrat spin doctor who now help promotes Nordic cuisine.

"I think they were going to vote for the DPP, period. The sad fact, speaking as a lifelong Social Democrat, is this: we no longer represent the people we claim to represent. There's a disconnect between voters and the political class."

At fault, Fogh said, is partly a system that produces "young politicians, very bright, very decent, very able – but political science or law graduates who've shaped their lives into becoming politicians, and who represent no one. If you want to represent the working class, you know, it might help to have a few people who've actually worked."

It is an alienation from career politicians perceived as at best out-of-touch and at worst self-serving or corrupt that was also reflected, on the right, in record support for Marine Le Pen's Front National in France and Ukip in Britain, and on the left in countries such as Greece, where the anti-austerity radicals of Syriza topped the poll, and Spain, where a 100-day-old citizen's party, Podemos, captured five seats.

That popular detachment is aggravated in Denmark and elsewhere, Fogh said, by the traditional parties of the right and left pursuing "almost the same policies. Here, there are heated rows about whether the public sector should be frozen, or grow by 0.5% over 15 years. That's it. This is now the fault line. How many people feel that discussion is relevant to them?"

Denmark's insurgents emerged from an anti-tax protest movement in 1995, led by a former home-care visitor, Pia Kjaersgaard. A pioneer of a phenomenon now evident across Europe, she has gradually transformed a collection of oddballs, outcasts and racists into a political force seen as both broadly acceptable (though several, including the party's lead European election candidate, Morten Messerschmidt, have been in trouble over racist remarks) and disciplined enough to prop up Denmark's rightwing government for a decade until 2011.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Kristian Weise of the centre-left think tank Cevea, the DPP's focus was "very much on immigration; they were the anti-immigration party". In return for its parliamentary support for Denmark's former right-wing government, the DPP forced a tightening of immigration laws that had allowed thousand of people from countries such as Iran, Iraq and the Balkans to settle in the 1980s and 1990s.

But since the financial crisis of 2008, Weise said, the DPP's attention has switched more "to people's economic fears and concerns". Although at around 7%, unemployment in Denmark has never reached anything remotely like the levels seen in southern Europe, "people are worried now, about jobs, retirement, their children's future – and to them, the DPP just looks like the only party that listens and understands."

Their policies may be "incoherent", Weise said, with assorted spending promises adding up to maybe 8% of Denmark's GDP, "but people don't vote on rational calculations. The DPP are hard-working, and on many of the post-crisis public debates they've sounded more like a progressive socialist party, standing up for the people – while the Social Democrats have sounded technocratic, like financial markets matter more than people. They just haven't connected. And the DPP are now very close to being the largest working-class party in Denmark." Which is not to say, warns Marlene Wind, professor of European politics at the University of Copenhagen, that the EU was absent from the Danish MEP European election debate. Like Britain – with whom it joined the then EEC in 1973 – a reluctant member of anything more than a common market, the Nordic country famously voted against the Maastricht treaty, retains its own currency and has opt-outs in other areas.

"Danes are pragmatic, really," Wind said. "A majority still want to stay in the EU. We've had it pretty easy through the crisis, and studies show foreign workers have contributed far more to the economy than they have cost. But there's now an overriding feeling that elites are bad, the people are good. And Brussels is the elite of elites."

Two issues played into the hands of the DPP's "More Denmark, less EU" message: a ruling by the European Court of Justice that EU students with jobs in Denmark were entitled to generous Danish study grants, and – just as in Britain – the revelation that Polish and other east European workers were able to claim Danish child benefit and send it home.

Mads Brandstrup, political editor at financial news daily Borsen, said if a large part of the DPP vote was down to "the aftermath of the economic crisis, a real anti-establishment backlash", there was a risk that unless the mainstream parties "start taking the problems of real people seriously" they may not regain their former unquestioned dominance.

"It's a question of trust, really," he said. "People feel the DPP are more like them, they speak their language. They have MPs who are ex-motorbike salesmen, construction workers, healthcare workers. They don't talk down to voters. And they've been very smart with small, precise economic policies that benefit their voters specifically – like an extra cheque for pensioners."

Back in Hrvidovre, deputy mayor Dencker is particularly proud of a resolution the DPP group has pushed through council ensuring that, from now on, "only Danish food, traditional Danish food," will be served in local creches, schools, hospitals and old people's homes: "Including pork meatballs, which some local councils have banned. People here don't want that."

Nursing a bank holiday morning coffee, though, the former spin doctor Fogh despairs. "Look," he says, "the only serious problems Denmark faces now are the kind it can't solve alone: climate change, global issues.

"Can the EU sort those? It can't even sort a parliament that shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg. It does mobile phone tariffs. It needs to change. But we need a supranational European body, and we're turning our backs on the only one we've got. It's not looking promising." more

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