Sanders and the Denmark Model

Denmark prides itself on the happiness of its people who benefit from generous government social programs ensuring access to quality health care and education. But the country also has become an issue in Campaign 2016, whether it can be model for the U.S., writes Josh Hoxie.

By Josh Hoxie

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.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

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 off the table the so-called “public option,” which would have given all Americans a chance to steer clear of private insurers. 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’s 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 Sanders 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 Sanders’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. Distributed by

17 comments for “Sanders and the Denmark Model

  1. Sarah Jenkins
    November 12, 2015 at 20:06

    Denmark is second to Iceland in anti-depressant use, Danes work fewer hours than most people globally, which reduces Danish productivity, and, probably most relevant to Sanders’ candidacy, Danes have the world’s highest personal debt. They have the 4th largest per capita carbon footprint, the world’s highest taxes, and Danish schools are behind even the UK’s. The percentage below the poverty threshold has doubled in the last decade.
    Denmark also relies heavily on coal for its energy generation.

    Sanders has initiated an exceptionally powerful anti-socialist, anti-Sanders campaign with this rhetoric. I’m not a Sanders fan, and I’m impressed.

  2. Erik
    November 1, 2015 at 19:19

    Cultural comparisons are quite valuable, even when tricky to apply. Doubtless the US could adopt the model of Denmark, with modifications to deal with entrenched selfishness and scammers. It would have broader income disparity anyway, due to alienated and disadvantaged subcultures, but that would melt away in a few generations.

    But the “conservative” is neither rational nor humanitarian, but rather a selfish opportunist, a propaganda warrior, an economic rapist and proud of it. The economic aristocrat will concede happiness to humanity only as the military aristocrat did, at the point of a sword, and not by education.

  3. Abe
    November 1, 2015 at 19:16

    Bernie Sanders as Democratic “Sheepdog” and State Department Socialist
    By Webster Tarpley

    As Bruce A. Dixon pointed out in the Black Agenda Report in “Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016”:

    “The sheepdog’s job is to divert the energy and enthusiasm of activists a year, a year and a half out from a November election away from building an alternative to the Democratic party, and into his doomed effort. When the sheepdog inevitably folds in the late spring or early summer before a November election, there’s no time remaining to win ballot access for alternative parties or candidates, no time to raise money or organize any effective challenge to the two capitalist parties.”

  4. Joe Tedesky
    November 1, 2015 at 18:10

    At what point will the rich need the poor to come to their rescue? It would seem to me, that at the rate average Americans are going financially, these hard workers won’t be able to purchase the crappie products, the rich are bringing into the U.S.. It’s time, all boats are lifted.

  5. holdbar
    November 1, 2015 at 15:41

    “Danes get a lot of things right,” he wrote, “and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics.”

    The states that conservatives represent in congress refute everything they say about economics. They are all welfare states in that they receive more federal money than they pay in taxes.

    A decade of conservative tax cuts and deregulation gave us the 1929 crash, and three generations later, the 2008 crash – the two largest economic collapses in the history of humanity. Just when has conservative economics ever been successful?

    • F. G. Sanford
      November 1, 2015 at 17:04

      It would be worth checking to see to what extent both crashes actually made the super-rich even richer in terms of tangible assets. Mortgage defaults and privatization of public property to achieve liquidity may have lowered the face values, but long term accrued assets were no doubt vastly increased. My parents both lived through the “Great Depression”, and 2008 by comparison was a non-event. But they both recall the rich getting even richer. By 1930, maids, butlers chauffeurs, gardeners and cooks could be had for room and board. Other activities which essentially amounted to human exploitation were never so reasonable…for lack of a better way to put it.

      • Pat
        November 1, 2015 at 18:15

        F.G. Sanford, the mistake that most people make — perhaps 99 percent — is in thinking that economic crashes, chaos in the Middle East, and other interventionist disasters happened due to the stupidity of political leaders. It should be pretty clear by now that these “mistakes” are intentional. Your parents were more than halfway to connecting the dots. If it has taken 85 years to connect the rest, it’s likely because it’s less menacing to think that they’re just a bunch of idiots.

  6. Pat
    November 1, 2015 at 15:36

    P.S. Thanks, Bob, for presenting a viewpoint of one of the key issues of the Sanders campaign rather than the usual (and increasingly tiresome) progressive left commentary about Bernie Sanders being a “fake socialist” and shill for Israel.

  7. Pat
    November 1, 2015 at 15:29

    I’ve been waiting for someone to respond to Hillary Clinton’s write-off of Denmark during the debates by pointing out that it’s one of the happiest countries on Earth. Josh Hoxie is right that we should be looking for ways that we can adapt its success to the United States rather than blowing it off as irrelevant to our exceptional selves.

    FWIW, I was a foreign exchange student in Sweden and developed quite a liking to pickled herring. My host mother bought fresh herring and made her own. I missed it when I came home. The mushy fish swimming in sour cream found in supermarkets bears little resemblance to the real thing. I probably should learn how to make it at home…

    • Jay
      November 1, 2015 at 18:38

      The perfect response is that “No, the US isn’t Denmark, the Danes didn’t invade Iraq in a criminal war of aggression.”

      • Pat
        November 1, 2015 at 19:37

        Sadly, Denmark approved the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was a member of the coalition. Moreover, its prime minister at the time, Rasmussen, publicly declared that he knew for a fact that Saddam had WMD.

        In any case, if I recall, Denmark came up in response to the question about Bernie’s definition of socialism. He was trying to make his point strictly in terms of domestic policy, particularly regarding healthcare and social safety nets.

        • Jay
          November 2, 2015 at 12:20

          Crap, I knew about the Dutch and the Poles buying into the lies.

          Yes I understood that the debate line was mostly about domestic policies.

        • ks
          November 6, 2015 at 01:49

          Yes, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quite the hawk, both as Prime Minister and Secretary-General of NATO. Now he seems to be making money in the security industry. He is also more neo-liberal than socialist and would undermine everything Sanders values about his country.

  8. Jay
    November 1, 2015 at 13:07

    How about instead of Denmark as an exclusive model: Look to single payer medical are real banking regulation in CANADA.

    Canada also didn’t go for that Iraq fiasco.

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