There was good news for the progressive Left Wednesday when the Social Democratic Party, led by 41-year-old Mette Frederiksen, won an impressive victory in Denmark’s parliamentary elections. Frederiksen will be become Denmark’s youngest-ever prime minister, and only the second woman to hold that office. The Social Democrats’ win unseats the Liberal Party, which had formed the Danish government for 14 of the last 18 years, while support collapsed the far-right populist Danish Peoples’ Party (DPP), the second-largest party in the last parliament and a supporter of the government coalition.
This should be good news. The conventional wisdom following last month’s European Parliament election was that the failure of far-right parties like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and the Rassemblement National (Marine LePen’s rebranded National Front) in France to make a significant breakthrough signaled that the surging tide of right-wing populism had begun to crest. The Social Democrats’ success in Denmark and, above all, the drubbing they delivered to the DPP – a party that advocates for a complete ban on immigration from “non-Western” countries – seems to signal that the tide has turned.
Although it should be good news, it isn’t. Denmark’s Social Democrats haven’t turned back the tide of ethnonationalist xenophobia that propelled the populist far-right from Budapest to Bakersfield, so much as they are surfing it. Frederiksen and her party ran an explicitly anti-immigration, and anti-immigrant, campaign. From the very beginning, party leaders like Per Jimmie Åkesson advanced the argument that immigration – specifically immigration from non-Western countries – has been a drain on Denmark’s social welfare system.
Using the white nationalist language of a “clash of civilizations” to appeal to voters who backed the Peoples’ Party in 2015, Frederiksen characterized it as an “us-versus-them” choice. “We social democrats must accept that there is a clash,” she said at a campaign even in May. “It is a very strong part of our identity that we help when people need help… but just as strong is our value that we must have a well-functioning welfare state.”
That the strategy worked and, more importantly, that a political party Americans would consider “progressive” would use it should not come us a surprise. Indeed, America’s first Progressive Party was created in a political compromise in 1912 that excluded African Americans and studiously avoided mentioning racism and segregation in its platform. The famed social reformer and activist Jane Addams held her nose and supported Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party because it advocated for women’s suffrage.
This willingness to compromise, often to use race as a way into the hearts and minds of the fabled “white working class” has long been a Progressive calling card. The unions of the American Federation of Labor – Progressivism’s “common-sense” workers movement – were as much tools of industrial segregation as they were the collective voice of American workers. Well into the 1920s, they defended the economic rights and wages of their members in closed shops that excluded African-American workers they viewed as both racial inferiors and economic rivals.
The Left claims to be a movement dedicated to justice, and it should be axiomatic that social justice is indivisible; you can’t throw some people under the bus to save others. But it is an axiom that progressives and some self-styled socialists often forget in the pursuit of power, and you don’t have to go back to the early days of organized labor to see it.
The “Third-Way” politics of François Hollande’s French Socialist Party and Britain’s Labour Party under Tony Blair and his disciples proposed to build a socialism compatible with global neoliberalism. They had few qualms about deregulation, imperialist wars, and exploiting anonymous workers in Asian sweatshops to achieve the Cockaigne of a European consumer’s paradise. It was a simple transaction, a compromise that would benefit us at the expense of the invisible them. It didn’t seem to matter that all it delivered was global want and domestic austerity.
The Clinton administration’s “practical progressivism,” etched in the whiteboard of political history as “the economy, stupid,” was – and is – founded on just this kind of Faustian deal-making. America built NAFTA by stealing the Chiapas peasants’ ejidos, we drove investment in the booming prison-industrial complex through policies of over-criminalization, mass incarceration. We were enjoined to believe that our security and consumer affluence could be bought with injustice visited on others. Just don’t think about it, and it will go away.
But you can be sure that “progressives” in the Democratic Party are thinking about it, and that they have been watching Denmark with interest.
Republican voters, and particularly the 35-to-40 percent of Americans whose support for Donald Trump is virtually unshakeable, disagree on a number of issues. Some applauded Trump’s tax reform, some didn’t; some favor an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, others are isolationist; many are Dominionist Evangelicals eager to promote Christian values, others are secular amoralists happy to play them for the fool. Some even want a national health insurance system (as long as it isn’t called “Obamacare”). But the one thing that they all agree about is race, as Brian F. Schaffner, Matthew Macwilliams, and Tatishe Nteta noted in their groundbreaking study last year.
Denmark’s lesson for many Democrats will certainly be that xenophobia and racism are the royal road to the “white working class” that voted for Trump in 2016, and whose votes they covet for 2020. Progressives can break the back of Trump’s nationalist coalition, and executive power could fall back into their grasp if they can make the case that the “migrant caravans” and the global refugee crisis are a threat to their real goals. Self-styled socialists might even call for “building socialism in one country” and turning away from the world.
It will be a kinder, gentler xenophobia, of course. They will still be appalled by the thought of caged children and Border Patrol tear gas canisters. They will talk about “common-sense” policies to deal with the immigrant threat. Gradually, many will come on-side with bipartisan initiatives to “secure the border.” Some might, after deliberation, compromise on the wall. They might even win in 2020.
But if they do, it will be for naught. Hate and fear are insatiable hungers, once they have been piqued, they demand more. The compromises of Blair’s Third-Way fed the rise of English nationalism and led inevitably to Nigel Farrage, Boris Johnson, and Brexit. Hollande’s neo-colonial neoliberalism inspired the euroskeptics and white nationalists of the Rassemblement National. By embracing anti-immigration policies and rhetoric, Denmark’s Social Democrats and any party or politician of the Left who follows their lead, can only legitimize xenophobia in the name of “progressive” goals and values.
Social justice is indivisible. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, demanding justice for one group while denying it to another is the very definition of oppression. And if the Left has any purpose, it is to stand up to and to stand against oppression. Denmark shows us that the fight is far from over; in fact, we must be prepared to face it in our own ranks.