Being a citizen, Danish style

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Britta Paulsen, a nurse in Copenhagen, said in an interview in July that she, along with almost all other Danes, had reaped the benefits of the welfare system through the free and universal services it provides — such as health care, education (including higher education), child care, eldercare, and parental leave — and that she was therefore willing to pay the high taxes that are necessary to finance it.

“I think you can ask anyone on the street and they will tell you that part of being Danish is taking care of other Danes.” —Britta Paulsen, nurse in Copenhagen

“In Denmark if a politician tries to lower taxes, we vote them out,” she said, “because we know that that means that we will have to cut something.”

But Paulsen added that the welfare state also reinforced the sense of civic duty from which it was born. “We have grown up with it,” she said. “I think you can ask anyone on the street and they will tell you that part of being Danish is taking care of other Danes.”

Lars Lyngse, international counsel at the United Federation of Danish Workers, agreed.

“In Denmark we have been able to maintain a national identity, a national unity,” he said. “A big reason why we have been able to do this is because we don’t have a lot of people falling through the cracks.”



While the welfare state is perhaps the best known outgrowth of the Danish conception of citizenship, Korsgaard said that it cannot be viewed in isolation from a number of other features in society, which have an interrelated role in reinforcing the civic-mindedness.

The Danish education system, for example, places a high degree of emphasis on civic education. In fact, preparing students to take an active role in democracy is one of the public education system’s primary objectives, as defined in the folkeschool (public school) charter:

The multi-party danish electoral system

The Danish electoral system guarantees a parliamentary seat to any party that gets more than 2 percent of the total vote, a structure that has led to a proliferation of political parties of different sizes. Though their number has fluctuated slightly over time (eight won seats in last week’s election), parties have largely maintained their distinct ideological platforms. Because Danes have a wide variety of political parties from which to choose, they are rarely forced to vote against their interests or beliefs, Korsgaard said, which allows individuals to feel more invested in elections.

At the same time, though, the large number of political parties has historically meant that in order to make majority decisions, those parties are constantly forced to negotiate with each other and form coalitions. According to Korsgaard, this system “has created a long tradition of consensus, so we haven’t had this ‘winner take all’ dynamic that you’ve seen in the United States.”

As different parties win or lose seats in Parliament, coalitions change, but individual parties continue to advocate for their platforms. Korsgaard said that this system has allowed citizens to maintain a sense of agency in the political process, because policy outcomes are “not taken for granted,” and because the positions for which each citizen has voted continue to be publicly articulated.

“There is a sense that [by voting] you are both expressing yourself and influencing the direction of the country…it’s not thought of as a formality,” he said. 

“[The education system must] prepare students for active participation, joint responsibility, rights and duties in a society of freedom and democracy. The teaching and the whole school’s daily life must therefore build on intellectual liberty, equality and democracy. Students will thereby acquire the preconditions for active participation in a democratic society…”

“The purpose of school is in the first place to provide qualifications for society and then to socialize kids to active citizenship,” Goul Andersen said.

Jens Ulrik Engelund, a schoolteacher in Copenhagen who teaches social science, history, and economics, said that the public school system attempts to instill in students, from an early age, a sense that they are part of a society and that they have certain responsibilities to it, as well.

“We always try to explain to students why we are making them learn something,” he said. “So when we are teaching about Danish history or government or policy, we tell them, ‘If you want to live in this society, and not just live in it but take part and have a say in the direction of society, then you must learn about your civic rights and duties.”

While schools offer no course in civics per se, Ulrik Engelund said that lessons about Danish democracy and policy are woven into several subjects, including history, economics, and social science. In high school, students are encouraged to actively debate issues in class. “Students come with all sorts of values and opinions, and we encourage them to debate them,” he said. “We have very heated discussion over what is best for the country.”

Remapping Debate spoke with Ulrik Engelund by phone the day after the Danish election. He said that, though they are too young to vote, many students had gone to the polling sites simply to see the process at work. The week before, various politicians running for Parliament visited a number of Copenhagen schools, including the one where Ulrik Engelund teaches, to meet students, make speeches, and hold debates.

According to Korsgaard, the Danish tradition of civic education is another way in which the Danish sense of citizenship has successfully propagated itself through time.

Ulrik Engelund agreed. “We are very proud of the education program,” he said. “As teachers, we feel that teaching the students about democracy is a way we are contributing to it, the same way that we were taught.”

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