Being a citizen, Danish style

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Sept. 21, 2011 — In last week’s parliamentary election, an estimated 87 percent of Danes went to the polls to vote. That figure represents one of the highest voter participation rates in the world, especially when countries with compulsory voting are excluded from the rankings. But for Denmark, this is nothing new.


Earlier this month, we started a series on how the Danish experience offers an example of how a democratic country can thrive having made very different societal choices from those the conventional American narrative claims are the limits of the possible.

The first article looked at the distinctly more positive view of the role of the state that those in the Danish business world take as compared with their counterparts in the U.S.

The second article focused on examining Denmark’s approach to low-wage jobs: one that rejects the assumption that an ever-increasing number of such jobs is the inevitable price to pay when competing in a globalized economy. 

This article turns its attention to the Danish view of citizenship and how that view — distinctly more collectivist than the dominant view in the United States — is sustained through an interconnected network of institutions and values.


“We have always had a very high degree of participation,” said Ove Korsgaard, a Danish historian at Aarhus University. “Unlike in most countries, we haven’t had big declines in the last 20 or 30 years.”

According to many Danes, much of the explanation for Denmark’s high level of public engagement can be found in the country’s institutions, which have evolved over the last several decades both to reflect and reinforce the notion of collective responsibility. “There are many ways in which Danish society reinforces a [shared] sense of citizenship,” Korsgaard said, stressing the interplay of multiple factors. From the welfare state to the public education system and from the tax system to the media, it appears that an emphasis is placed on putting the public good before the private good.



Korsgaard said that the participatory nature of Danish democracy is rooted in Danish history and stems from a strong national identity and collective spirit. “It’s quite remarkable that we have maintained this when you look at what has happened in the rest of Europe and in North America after the Second World War,” he said. “In Denmark, the nation is still thought of as a collectivist project. There is a much stronger sense of coherency and citizenship than in most other countries.”

There are two different words for citizenship in the Danish language —statsborgerskab and medborgerskab. The former translates to state-citizenship and refers to the legal conception of citizenship. “Statsborgerskab means you have the right to vote and you have a Danish passport,” said Jørgen Goul Andersen, a political scientist at Aalborg University.


Voter turnout in different oecd countries

Map & Data Resources


Voter turnout in OECD countries in recent national elections.

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By contrast, medborgerskab translates roughly as co-citizenship and is used to denote a broader conception of an individual’s role in society. “It is the notion that citizenship means having rights but also being willing and able to participate in society,” Goul Andersen said. “It is used to talk about civic-ness and the duties that each member of society has to the rest of society.”


That mutual relationship between state and citizen — the give and the take — is a central part of the Danish notion of collectiveness, Korsgaard said, and it is evident in many aspects of Danish life and policy.

For example, Goul Andersen said, Danes are very likely to participate in matters concerning their local communities. “The majority of Danish parents are in some way involved in their children’s school.” he said. “If something is not working, especially in the public sector, it is very common for people to attempt to influence it somehow. There is a sense of responsibility to make sure that things are working smoothly.”

That sense of responsibility can extend to ethical matters, as well. Remapping Debate asked Per Jørgensen, a college student in Copenhagen, what he thought his responsibilities were as a citizen. He mentioned voting and knowing about politics, but he also said that it was important not to take advantage of the rest of the society, noting that even small infractions, such as jaywalking — known in Denmark as “burning the red” — are considered taboo.

“If you’re going to burn the red, be careful that there is nobody around with children, because they will be upset that you are setting a bad example,” he said.


The welfare state

In the aftermath of World War II, and of the hardships that Danes endured during the war, there emerged a widely shared sense of solidarity between and among Danes. According to Goul Andersen, that sense has been constantly cultivated and reinforced over the decades since. “We have set up a system of social institutions that work to support this idea of active citizenship,” he said.

Perhaps Denmark’s signature achievement is its extensive welfare state, which is one of the most generous in the world. “There is still a general consensus that to be a Dane, this idea of Danishness, means to be in favor of the welfare state,” Korsgaard said. In stark contrast to the United States, none of the political parties running in the recent election advocated for deep cuts to the state.

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