The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders loves Denmark. But here’s how it’s letting down progressives.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did not mince words at the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, where he talked about Wall Street, NSA surveillance and climate change. (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)
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When questioned about his "socialist" politics at Tuesday night's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders punctuated his usual theme. He hailed the social democracies of Scandinavia as examples of what he stands for and seeks: humane, just societies that provide universal health care to their citizens, offer low income equality and even provide state-paid monthly stipends for university students.

What's not to admire about that, Sanders argues.

His interlocutor, CNN's Anderson Cooper, challenged the Vermont senator, pointing out how small Denmark's population was compared to that of the United States. Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, got to score an easy rhetorical point: "We are not Denmark," she said. "I love Denmark. We are the United States of America."

Sanders obviously doesn't think the United States is Denmark and invokes its example only because he wants a more egalitarian politics to supplant what he deems the growing clout of American billionaires.

But on one major issue this year, Denmark would likely not be the subject of progressive idyll. The country's center-right government has been conspicuously tough in the face of Europe's refugee crisis, as my colleagues have already noted on WorldViews.

This is in part a consequence of the rising clout of the Danish People's Party, a nationalist, anti-immigration party that, while not in government, has gained serious influence in recent months — similar to other right-wing populist parties across the continent.

Last month, Danish authorities cut welfare benefits to refugees applying for asylum. It placed ads in Lebanese newspapers warning Syrian refugees not to consider traveling to Denmark. And it briefly interrupted all train service connecting the country to Europe through Germany in order to stem the flow of refugees, much to chagrin of its neighbors.

Recently, reports also emerged that an Afghan teenage refugee deported by Denmark back to his homeland was possibly killed by the Taliban. Danish authorities had apparently decided that he and his brother, both members of the Hazara Shia minority, would not face persecution at home.

My colleague Rick Noack explains what's driving the current mood:

"The strong anti-refugee stance of Denmark is not a surprise, given the new government that is in place since June," said Astrid Ziebarth, a migration fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a political think tank. Ziebarth was referring to the center-right minority government that has governed the Scandinavian country for the last three months, backed by the populist anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, which won 21 percent of the votes.
"At least since the early 2000s, the prevailing analysis among the political parties has been that elections can be won or lost on the issue of immigration," said Whyte, the migration researcher. Denmark is already among the few E.U. countries that have opted out of the common asylum system which is supposed to allocate refugees fairly among member states.

Still, not all in Denmark share these attitudes about foreign migration. Spirited solidarity demonstrations have been held in Copenhagen.

And last week, a Danish daily newspaper allowed a group of journalists who happened to be refugees to take over the publication for a day. "We all talk about refugees," wrote Christian Jensen, editor of Information, "but today it is the refugees who talk to us."