Denmark’s a Prison

In parliaments and in the public square, European democracy appears to be on its last legs. The European Union, garlanded last month with an incomprehensible Nobel Peace Prize, has become ever more feckless. National governments pushing senseless austerity budgets are losing public favor by the day. But on TV, democracy is thriving, and nowhere more than in the Danish political drama Borgen. From Greece to Ireland, where political leaders have been reduced to glorified accountants, audiences have made a series about a peripheral EU administration the most surprising television hit in years.

Borgen (“The Castle,” a nickname for Christiansborg, the Copenhagen parliament building) depicts the trials of a new prime minister, her squabbling coalition government, and an aggressive, scandal-hungry news media. A quarter of the nation watches the program each week, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the country’s actual prime minster, is said to be an obsessive fan. Borgen is more than a sensation; it is a kind of parallel government. Borgen stories are reported in Copenhagen’s free newspapers as if they were actually happening; an educational program that introduces the main fields of Danish politics—welfare spending, environmental policy, the status of Greenland—does so under the rubric “Borgen in reality.” You can even download Borgen ringtones or an iPhone app—not exactly the sort of spinoffs you’d expect from a program about the challenges of parliamentary democracy.

In Denmark, Borgen has been on the air since 2010. Its third season, also its last, starts this New Year’s Day. Borgen was a less likely hit than the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s other flagship show, the police procedural The Killing—and not least because public estimation of politicians is now at a justifiable low. Certainly outside of Denmark little was expected. “When we started writing this series, the head of drama at DR said that this drama would not travel,” the series’ creator, Adam Price, told an interviewer. This was a reasonable assumption: despite the vogue for Scandinavian noir of recent years, American programming still nets the highest ratings across European television. Very few programs outside the English language ever travel, and when they do, they tend to be translatable police dramas or mysteries, like The Killing or France’s Spiral—not shows about recondite European party politics.

But in Britain, where Borgen airs in the original Danish, the program was the undisputed hit of 2012—and as in Denmark, came to be confused with political reality. One London mayoral would-be billed herself as “the Borgen candidate,” while the deputy first minister of Scotland incongruously suggested the success of Borgen proved that her nation was ready for independence. Borgen has had similar success in France, where the show has acquired the patronizing subtitle Une femme au pouvoir (“A Woman in Power”), and has been picked up by one European national broadcaster after another. The show airs quietly in the US, on a network nobody has heard of called Link TV, but it’s catching on all the same. “The Best Political Show Ever,” Newsweek insisted in one of its last print issues. The New York Times read it through the lens of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “have it all” lament.

It does help that Borgen has, in its prime minister, one of the most compelling political characters in recent times. Insider and novice at once, confident but constrained by circumstances, personally engaging but politically much shiftier, Birgitte Nyborg can only do so much with the rotten state of Denmark. She is nothing like the magical President Josiah Bartlet on the intolerably sanctimonious West Wing, to which Borgen has sometimes been lazily equated. In Aaron Sorkin’s White House, the president radiated righteousness, and good governance required nothing more than his natural nobility and a clutch of logorrheic, bushy-tailed idealists willing to walk and talk. But Nyborg—portrayed by Sidse Babett Knudsen, a veteran film actor who played the Nicole Kidman role in the first version of Lars von Trier’s Dogville—has none of that. She is just one participant in a daily brawl for power and influence, and if her megaphone is a little louder, that only means more people are out to knife her.

Like no other fictional character, Nyborg makes politics visible in personal terms without indulging the delusion that individuals rather than systems are Europe’s fundamental problem. Both her family and her convictions crumble in her quest for political survival – and beside Martin Sheen’s avuncular Bartlet, Babett Knudsen’s nearly tragic Nyborg is a marvel. You can see her waste away as the episodes unfurl: in the pilot she complains that she’s too fat, but by the end of the first season she looks as fragile as a marionette. In a recent interview with Le Monde, the actor said she learned about how politicians atrophy by watching Tony Blair.

Borgen opens in the middle of election season. Seven parties are in the running, and one of two men seems likely to lead the next government. Lars Hesselboe, the incumbent Liberal prime minister, is losing ground. The Labor party, led not by a trade unionist but by an apolitical opportunist with a taste for television named Michael Laugesen, seems on the cusp of power. (The parties on Borgen are fictional, but they correspond roughly to Denmark’s real political system. The Liberals are clearly Venstre, the center-right party in charge when Borgen first aired; Labor is supposed to be Socialdemokraterne, which came to power in 2011.) A few days before the vote, Laugesen tries to shore up the working-class vote with a little xenophobia: if he comes to power, he tells a TV interviewer, asylum seekers will be denied work permits to keep them from “taking Danish jobs.”

The foreigner bashing plays well, but it costs Labor the support of a smaller party, the Moderates (a stand-in for Det Radikale Venstre, the center-left party that is the junior partner in the current Danish government), with whom Labor had planned to form a coalition after the election. Their leader is Birgitte Nyborg, and she is pissed. Her party supports an expansion of the asylum system, but what really angers her is less the new policy than that Laugesen “broke a political deal three days before an election.” (There is an Othello-like compression of time that goes on in Borgen: politicians’ fortunes rise and fall precipitously from day to day, and mooted policies can be put into action overnight.) Laugesen, who is Borgen‘s one true villain, insists his position is tactical. Champagne glass in hand, modernist Danish lighting fixtures overhead, he complains that “these suburban bigots are ready to sell their votes to the Freedom Party”—a proposition with real resonance in Denmark. The so-called Freedom Party is a stand-in for the real Dansk Folkeparti (DF), the country’s third largest, whose platform mixes strong support for welfare programs—specifically for seniors—with strident Islamophobia, rage at the EU, and a total rejection of multiculturalism. The DF is perhaps the most successful populist party in Europe, strengthened first by the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy and further by the euro crisis, and most of its gains have come at the expense of the left and not the right. At the time of Borgen‘s pilot it was propping up the Venstre government.

The evening before the election on Borgen, with the polls suggesting that 750,000 voters remain undecided (Denmark’s population is about 5.5 million), the party leaders all appear on a televised debate. Nyborg, who is already thinking she might have to resign after the election, goes off script. As her spin doctor freaks out in the greenroom, she muses on how professionalized she’s become, decries the “myth that we’re all equal” in a Scandinavian paradise, and mocks politicians’ faith in the free market. She concludes:

If we’re to create a new Denmark together, we have to invent a new way of communicating and of doing politics. Words like socialism, liberalism, and solidarity might just be words describing the world of yesterday and not the world of tomorrow. A modern world is manifold, and our democracy should be as well.

This is surely part of the story of how Borgen became the most important program on European television. The current failure of Europe is epistemological as much as economic, and not only have the structures of parliamentary representation outlived their functionality, but so have the very terms and principles by which we conceive of democracy. As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued, the shift we are seeing in Europe is one from “government” to “governance”—or, if you prefer, from democracy to administration, from a system in which political leaders enact the will of the people to one in which they act merely as “debt-collecting agencies on behalf of a global oligarchy of investors.” It’s not as if Germany and the other, richer EU nations are bailing out the citizens of the EU’s troubled nations (if only!); instead they’re going to banks and other financial institutions capable of pressuring the chancelleries of Europe, net creditors and net debtors alike, into submission. Market orthodoxy has reduced politics to such narrow territory that, in this fourth year of the crisis, even Iceland has a brighter political and economic future than the states of the Eurozone and European Union. So one part of Borgen‘s appeal is that it postulates a Europe of another kind, where different politicians still generate different outcomes, and where the future of the country is not yet written in the bank ledgers. This is alluring even in Denmark. Partly because the Danish krone is pegged to the euro, Denmark’s economy is still nowhere near recovery, and Thorning-Schmidt has driven Socialdemokraterne to its lowest opinion poll ratings in decades.

Since this is television, Nyborg triumphs in the election and heads to the palace. But since this is Danish television, it takes her an entire episode to cobble together a parliamentary coalition. Hesselboe, Laugesen and two other men all try to sabotage her attempts to form a government, and decent Nyborg—who bikes to parliament and eats muesli with her adoring husband and two sweet blond children—looks like she can’t hack it. She hikes up to the bell tower of Christiansborg, looks out over the whole of Copenhagen, and wonders whether she’s cut out for authority. She is: she signs off on a smear campaign that leaks Laugesen’s Islamophobic emails to the press, forcing him to resign; she outmaneuvers a trade unionist who succeeds him as Labor leader; and, in her most impressive sally, she suckers the Greens into joining her government by offering them a new ministry she has no intention of funding (that would be “international development”). If power corrupts, on Borgen it happens even before you get your hands on it.

“You have no friends in parliament,” Nyborg’s closest confidant warns her, and throughout the first season we watch Nyborg transform from a consensus-seeking tyro to a hardened Realpolitiker. From a political as well as dramatic standpoint, the most impressive episode is one that portrays her attempts to pass a budget (yes, fictional Danish budget negotiations are must-watch television across Europe) during which her government nearly falls. A few members of her coalition rebel and demand pork-barrel spending for their districts, and she tries to outfox them by bringing the opposition on board. She meets with Hesselboe, now leader of the opposition, who wants income tax cuts, no green taxes, and spending only on the military and the constabulary. “We don’t pursue bourgeois policies,” Nyborg says, to which Hesselboe retorts, “A government pursues the policies necessary to its survival.”

This line resonates with the current state of Danish politics, which, like so many other European countries, has lost whatever ideological clarity it may once have exhibited. The political spectrum Borgen abstracts has existed since the upheaval that followed the general election of 2001, now considered the most consequential in modern Danish history. Socialdemokraterne, one of the oldest and most successful parties in Europe, failed to place first for the first time since the 1920s, and the realigning victory of Venstre under Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not just bring down the curtain on what Danes call “the century of social democracy”; it also completely scrambled the left-right divide, replacing class-based politics with a post-ideological landscape not unlike Britain’s after the advent of New Labour. Perhaps it’s not real news that political power can be an end in itself, but in Denmark before 2001, you could at least pretend otherwise. Whereas in June, less than a year into her premiership, the leftwing Thorning-Schmidt allied with the center-right opposition to ram through a tax reform bill, which brought in a higher threshold for the top income tax rate while cutting unemployment benefits.

The move angered MPs on the left and shocked voters and the press, who accused the prime minister of going back on her election promises. But all this had already happened on Borgen: at the end of the budget episode, Nyborg cuts a deal with a smaller God, Queen, and Country party, buying its support with billions of kroner for polluting industries, the police, and the armed forces. In the final scene we see the fictional prime minister in her government Mercedes, looking out over Copenhagen and listening to the news on the radio. “From facing a no-confidence motion, not only has she brought home the budget bill, she has also divided the opposition,” the reporter says. “That is what anyone would call political craftsmanship.” On Borgen, abandoning your principles to wrong-foot your opponents is presented as an unalloyed triumph.

On Borgen politics is a war zone, and while the program uses Nyborg’s personal life as a counterweight to the Danish political sphere, there is no West Wing-style appeal to enduring values or the inherent nobility of public service to temper its acid depiction of governmental affairs. And while on the American show government remained the unquestioned center of national power, its efficacy and its supremacy self-evident, the Danish one is far less convinced that government is where the action happens. What makes Borgen so timely, and another reason for its unexpected appeal beyond Denmark, is its depiction of government as only one player, and not necessarily the dominant one, in a larger network of power relations.

Nyborg might be prime minister, but from her office at Christiansborg she is essentially playing defense. Her government has no idea that CIA rendition flights are stopping in Greenland (still Danish territory) to refuel, and she has no hope of redress. When she plans to pull Danish troops out of Afghanistan, the American secretary of state shuts her down. The CEO of Denmark’s largest corporation blackmails her when she tries to pass a gender equality bill. And hovering all around her is the media, for whom her omnipresent spin doctors design most of her policies. Voters are absent in Borgen; only the media judges.

The trials of Nyborg and her government take up about half the running time of each episode; the other half follows the media and specifically the newsroom of TV1, a national broadcaster. TV1 prides itself on editorial independence, but the actions belie the rhetoric. In the first sequence of Borgen, just before Laugesen delivers his immigrant-bashing screed, he says to a television reporter, “Ask me about asylum seekers only, OK?” and even directs the cameras to shoot him in the best light. At the debate, Nyborg admits to voters that she knows how to answer every interview question because she gets them in advance. By the end of the season, a news editor has agreed to let Nyborg’s spin doctor edit footage in exchange for access to the prime minister’s family.

But if you think TV is bad, try print. Every now and then the characters talk about Politiken, the real elite Danish newspaper, but they live in fear of Ekspres, a fictional tabloid rag that preys on their gaffes, their families, and their affairs. Its new editor is the villain Laugesen, who has made a seamless transition from political to media power. “The people don’t run a bloody thing,” he says while pissing outside Christiansborg. “A tiny privileged circle of people rule Denmark, from the corporate world, the media, and a few politicians. As long as I’m part of that circle, they can call it anything they like.” Laugesen, once just a few days away from becoming prime minister, is content to run Ekspres instead: either way he works for the massive corporation that owns the newspaper and, as Nyborg later explains, has dictated corporate tax policy for years. When the CEO needs to get her attention, he just has his editors humiliate her ministers on the front page.

Media and government are fully imbricated, and most episodes play Nyborg against a young journalist, the TV reporter Katrine Fønsmark, in David Lynch-style blonde-versus-brunette apposition. Yet on Borgen the media is not so much the counterbalance to government as the proof of its decline. That’s the paradox of its European success: while Borgen‘s emotional appeal derives from viewers’ residual craving for politics in a postpolitical Europe, at almost every turn the show exposes the hollowness and irrelevance of politics even back in the good old days—and even in a country like Denmark, whose problems pale in comparison to the wasted nations of the continent’s south. While it gives the prime minister a degree of charm, it doesn’t give her much real power, and certainly not enough to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Danes, who remain invisible throughout the series.

If Nyborg has any clout, then, it is power of another form: not governmental, but visual. Television has always encouraged a personalization of political power, and, more fundamentally, it’s allowed for new forms of political authority to take shape through the intimacy and seriality of broadcast. At a moment when politics has been voided by forces and actors larger than government, the fictional personalization of Danish politics—and by extension, European politics—is understandably alluring.

“More Nyborg and less Thorning-Schmidt,” one Danish newspaper declared in a recent article. The headline suggests that the problems of Europe have been caused by individual leaders, when of course it’s the entire collective of leaders, institutions, and structures that has brought Europe down. Europe today is ground zero of a global crisis of democratic legitimacy, as the sovereignty of the people has given way to the sovereignty of markets. A real-life Nyborg, if one were to arise, would not make a difference; she barely makes a difference in the universe of Borgen. And yet while nobody expects a TV prime minister to fix things in the real Europe, television itself allows the fantasy of government to endure, offering temporary relief from the almost unbearable fact that democratic representation has had its day. Such is the act of disavowal at the heart of Borgen, and the source of its pan-European success. Its screenplays bluntly expose the relative impuissance of government, but, in its serial form, it still lets viewers hope for governmental salvation.

There is one glaring omission on Borgen, one lacuna that gives away the game, and that is Europe. If only for dramatic reasons, Nyborg’s trials derive mostly from Denmark’s domestic affairs, and when foreign policy comes up, it’s always vis-à-vis the military: the US, the Islamic world and its reaction to the Danish cartoons of 2006, the residual colony of Greenland. The real work of Europe, the negotiations and the strictures, somehow cannot be depicted. In the first thirty seconds of Borgen’s pilot, Nyborg’s spin doctor tries to massage an interview for his candidate: “No, we don’t want to talk about the EU. That’s not sexy election material,” and Europe never comes up again for the whole of the first season.

Which is understandable. Borgen is only television. It has a pointless love story, too many minor characters, and an utterly stupid series of flashbacks to one character’s awful childhood. Yet it is also a genuine pan-European cultural phenomenon, and an indictment of Europe as well: a hit series about the workings of democracy at a moment when democracy has been vacated. If the European crisis now looks more like a permanent state of affairs than a problem to be fixed, Borgen doesn’t just hint at what the world we’re moving into looks like. It also suggests—and the ratings intimate that we already know this—that democracy in Europe is becoming a television show.

“What ties a nation together?” Nyborg asks in the last episode of the first season, speaking to the country from the rostrum of the Folketing. “We’ve got used to the fact that we could have it all. Now that we aren’t as rich anymore, we feel lost.” Everything is changing, Nyborg says, and the times make new demands. There is hope, though, in democracy. Democracy, the prime minister says, can put things right. It’s a ringing speech, and a bit of a tear-jerker. But Borgen would never have succeeded if all Europe didn’t know that she was lying.

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