Let’s Make California Politics More Danish

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

For years, I’ve been asked what my vision of California politics is, if we ever reach that moment of ditching our irredeemable state constitution and building a new system of governance for America’s largest state.

I’ve usually punted, and said there are any number of governance models, from other states and from other countries, that would represent an improvement. But now I can, during the pandemic, I’ve seen the governance future I want, and it’s Danish.

I’m not talking about Solvang, that lovely faux-Danish village in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley (though I do recommend going there—there are some great pancake places that need your support now). No, I’m talking about Denmark itself, and its multi-party coalition politics.

You can see for yourself what you mean by watching the highly entertaining Danish series “Borgen” on Netflix. The central character is a woman who leads a very small centrist party, called the Moderates, who, through an unscripted emotional appeal to voters and a strange set of failures by the major left and right parties ends up as Denmark’s first female prime minister.

That’s where the fun begins. Denmark is a parliamentary democracy, and we see six parties in the first two seasons maneuver for power. Since no one party can form a government by itself, the parties are constantly negotiating and scheming about how to form coalition governments, and divvy up the spoils of those governments. 

It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics, even in this fictional form. The political parties are all opponents of each other, and all potential allies. It makes the political complicated, but it also forces them all to talk to each other more. Ideas flourish, and often are inspired by the unexpected collisions of parties. Compromises and collaborations are vital. You have to keep up relationships with your opponents because they might soon be your friends, and you have to be wary of the people in your government because they might bolt. The relations between the different leaders of the parties are often warmer than the relations between the leaders in each individual party. 

There’s also a Danish political culture that brings them together. The party heads have multiple debates among all of them before elections, and then they party together in the Parliament on election night, before going on public TV to maneuver and talk about which parties might go into government and which into opposition.  Since this is a present-day show, it takes place at a time when the divisive politics of immigration are roiling Denmark. It’s interesting to see how, in a multi-party system, polarization both empowers the more extreme parties, but also ends up reinforcing the center.

I wrote recently that California needs a Water Party to focus on essentials. But we also clearly need more parties to better represent the views of a state as big and diverse as ours. A big multi-party system doesn’t make much sense in our current. But a system that was more parliamentary, and set up for shared power and coalition, would fit us well.  Something—our governance and politics—is rotten in the state of California. Denmark offers a better way.

 

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