Thomas Friedman Has Some Strange Ideas About Scandinavian Social Democracy

His suggestion that Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, is the true embodiment of the Nordic model for society is historically and politically illiterate

Ben Burgis
May 9, 2020 · 8 min read
(Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)

Once the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination narrowed to two candidates, voters faced a stark choice. One of the candidates regularly invoked the successes of Scandinavian countries, places that have spent decades successfully beta-testing reforms like socialized healthcare, postal banking, and more union-friendly labor laws—the very reforms the candidate had been calling for. The other candidate had no interest in turning the United States into Norway. He sought to turn the United States into the United States—just, prior to the Age of Trump.

The Candidates and the Coronavirus

The status quo vision—or, I should say, the status quo vision that was in place one status quo ago—won the day.

For a democratic socialist like me, this was a tragic missed opportunity. Especially given that the COVID pandemic has been the grimmest but also the most effective advertisement possible for the importance of Bernie Sanders’ political program.

Yes, there are countries with national health services that have been overwhelmed by the pandemic. But to treat that as a reason not to create one would be irrational in a way that’s best brought out by a quick thought experiment.

Imagine that America in 1939 still had colonial-era militias rather than a standing army. Watching Hitler march across Europe, some Americans started to say, “Gosh, maybe it would be a good idea for us to have an army in case anyone ever tries to do that to us.” It would surely be very silly to respond to this by pointing out that Poland had an army but the Germans still conquered them.

Having an army is one thing. Having an army that’s sufficiently well-funded, well-trained, and well-armed to meet any particular threat is quite another. Britain today is reaping the bitter harvest of decades of Tory (and neoliberal New Labour) governments cutting and partially privatizing the National Health Service. But things would be a lot worse without one. And in the future it should be funded the way countries like the United States fund their militaries — with an eye to being prepared for all sorts of unlikely scenarios.

Bernie Sanders hasn’t gone this far. Although he praises countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, where hospitals are generally government-owned, he’s so far only proposed that the United States nationalize health insurance. Biden, meanwhile, won’t consider even that.

Even as the bodies piled up in New York City’s mass burial site at Hart Island, Biden remained steadfastly opposed even to Medicare for all, never mind Denmark-style healthcare.

Was it because he had some other proposal ready to show us that tried to meet the gravity of the moment? Not at all. Rather than offer a proposal for sweeping reforms, which is what is clearly needed, Biden has seemed more interested in agreeing with Trump’s premise that the pandemic is entirely the fault of a foreign enemy. As if that bare fact should paper over the myriad ways in which our healthcare system has grotesquely failed us.

Worse, Biden has spent his energies trying to outflank the president using 1950s-style fear mongering about that foreign country, much as John Kerry tried his hardest to out-hawk George W. Bush on the War on Terror in 2004.

Although I’ve said in various places that I’m prepared to “hold my nose” and vote for the man in the general election, I see the outcome of the primaries as a missed opportunity of historical proportions.

Thomas Friedman’s Analysis

In the last column he wrote for the New York Times before the pandemic drove the primaries from most commentator’s minds, Thomas Friedman offered a strikingly different analysis.

Bernie Sanders often cites Denmark as the kind of country he would like America to be under his ideology of ‘democratic socialism.’ Well, here’s a news flash: Bernie Sanders, with his hostile attitudes toward free trade, free markets and multinational corporations, probably couldn’t get elected to a municipal council in Denmark today. Ironically, Joe Biden, with his more balanced views on trade, corporations and unions, probably could.

I’m not sure how much research Friedman did before writing this column, but the Social Democrats, the party that had governed Denmark for most of the period from the 1930s until the beginning of the 21st century, the party that has implemented all the reforms Bernie Sanders is talking about when he cites the Danish example, aren’t even the most left-wing party in Denmark’s Parliament (the Folketing). That distinction goes to the Red-Green Alliance. If Friedman had taken the trouble to so much as glance at the party’s Wikipedia page, he would have found this quote from their 2014 manifesto, which stakes out a position several miles to the left of anything Sanders has said in either of his presidential campaigns:

A new and actually democratic system of society requires fundamental changes in the ownership of the means of production, such as companies, land and natural resources. Collective forms of ownership will be dominating. We propose that public authorities, co-workers, local communities and other collectives of persons should own and run institutions and companies. … A democratic economy means a democratic work life as well. The work place should be characterized by democracy, and the employees must have a constitutional right to decisive influence on the organization of work in the workplace.

Friedman would have also discovered that this party has over a dozen seats in the Folketing and in Denmark’s delegation to the European Parliament. Oh, and over a hundred in municipal councils.

Lars Lokke Rasmussen as Every Dane

But setting aside Friedman’s failure to do even the most rudimentary research on Denmark’s political spectrum, let’s look at his analysis of Denmark’s alleged divergence from Sanders’ vision.

Friedman talks about how much of Denmark’s economy is accounted for by international trade, but this is obviously irrelevant. Neither Sanders nor anyone else advocates an end to international trade. Sanders is certainly critical of the rules currently governing international trade, but that’s not at all the same as being against international trade itself.

Friedman also talks about how many successful businesses are headquartered in Denmark, but this misses the point for similar reasons. In fact, it strengthens Sanders’ case for Nordic-style reforms. If Denmark has in some ways gone further than Sanders’ program and this hasn’t killed the capitalist geese that Friedman takes to lay golden eggs, why should we be worried about Medicare for all, postal banking, and the rest having that effect in the United States?

Finally, Friedman quotes former Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who said this:

I would like to make one thing clear, Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state, which provides a high level of security for its citizens, but it is also a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish.

It is certainly true that Denmark doesn’t have a fully planned economy or anything like it. It’s also quite irrelevant to the Sanders/Biden comparison since Sanders doesn’t advocate a “socialist planned economy.” Sanders advocates the collective ownership of health insurance and energy grids and he wants to offer banking services at the post office. But as he made clear in his Georgetown speech on socialism in 2015, his vision of “socialism” is fundamentally social-democratic and not Marxist.

Said Sanders:

I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.

Much of his description of that fair deal was about how his healthcare proposal — which, remember, is less radical than the one implemented by the Social Democrats, who have governed Denmark for the great bulk of the 20th century — would make life easier for both workers and small business owners:

Business owners will not have to spend enormous amounts of time worrying about how they are going to provide health care for their employees. Workers will not have to be trapped in jobs they do not like simply because their employers are offering them decent health insurance plans. Instead, they will be able to pursue the jobs and work they love, which could be an enormous boon for the economy.

This last point is one of the central themes of Finnish-born journalist Anu Partanen’s fascinating book The Nordic Way of Everything. Partanen is no radical, but after she moved to the United States, she was shocked to see the way America’s miserly welfare state and for-profit health system generated what she thought of as premodern forms of dependency in both workplaces and families.

Not only do workers not quit jobs they hate because they don’t want to lose their employer-based health insurance, people stay in bad or even abusive marriages because they’re worried about losing their spouse’s employer-based health insurance. Adult children who have to rely on their parents for college tuition are tied to their parents wishes in ways that their counterparts in countries like Finland and Denmark are not.

The liberation of workers, spouses, and children from this degree of dependency was the great historical accomplishment of political parties (primarily the long-dominant Social Democrats) and allied unions that strove to represent the interests of the Danish working class during the 20th century. But it is important not to represent countries like Denmark as if they were governed by national hive minds, as Friedman does when he takes the views of Lars Lokke Rasmussen as if they were the views of every Dane. As in any other democracy, right-wing parties as well as left-wing ones sometimes win elections.

Rasmussen became prime minister as the leader of the “free market”-oriented Venstre party. It is rather unsurprising that he would downplay the historical connection between the socialist movement in Denmark and other Nordic countries and the sweeping reforms that came to define the “Nordic model.” Friedman’s tone-deafness about this is incredible. Taking his cues from Rasmussen, Friedman attributes Denmark’s success to the “the high-trust social compact among its business community, labor unions, social entrepreneurs, and government.” He goes on:

I know a little something about this because in March 2018 Rasmussen, who was then still the prime minister, invited me to give a talk about globalization to a retreat at Marienborg, his official residence, as part of a meeting of the Danish ‘Disruption Council.’ It brought together all the country’s stakeholders — corporate leaders, national union leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs and cabinet ministers — to brainstorm about how they should work together to prepare the country for the rest of the century.

It was fascinating for me to watch them respectfully interact. Obviously, in a small, largely homogeneous country of 5.8 million people, it is a lot easier to generate that kind of social trust than in a diverse nation of 327 million. But the point is, no one was demonizing others as ‘corrupt’ by the very fact of who they were — whether labor organizer or corporate titan or someone of wealth.

So … no one at a meeting of a “Disruption Council” convened by a right-wing Prime Minister used Bernie Sanders-style rhetoric about economic inequality? That’s about as shocking as the fact that no one at a meeting of Bernie Sanders’ advisors is likely to sound like Thomas Friedman. But it would be hard to imagine a visiting Dane attending such a meeting and concluding much of anything about the views of Americans in general.

So why does Friedman think this? And more importantly, why does Thomas Friedman have a column at the New York Times?

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Ben Burgis

Written by

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Ben Burgis

Written by

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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