This week I’ve been watching the Danish television show Borgen, a series that follows the career of the fictional first female Prime Minister. I’m a good way through the first season (there are three seasons so far) and I’m hooked.
But this isn’t going to be a discussion of the show. If you want to know more about it, go do your own research; go watch it yourselves. For me, the exercise of watching it illuminates–throws into relief, rather–the very narrow limits of our local democracy.
For Borgen is a television show about government. I’m forced to watch a lot of these shorts of shows, and to be honest, ever since The West Wing I have not been sorry that I have done so. Such shows have a lot to say, a lot to teach perhaps, a lot to contribute to the way in which we (I) think about democracy. I’ve been exposed to the blockbusters (The West Wing), the sensational (Scandal), the seamy (Boss), the dastardly (both versions of House of Cards), but, The West Wing aside, most of them tend to exaggerate both the players and the gravity of their actions in the telling of their tales. Perhaps that’s because they all deal with politics and government in countries that are used to having great sway on the world stage–the US and Britain–and so the issues that preoccupy the fictional characters are larger than life; and, in a rather Shakespearean way, the flaws of the characters (in Boss and House of Cards particularly–and Scandal of course, which cannot survive without, well, scandal) are Hamlet-sized.
Borgen is different, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Denmark is not, and never has been, a world leader. It’s a small, rich, successful country that had (and still has, indeed) a very minor empire; that has a very democratic monarchy; that has a parliamentary system that is very typically European, in that political parties are ideological factions and represent many different ways of viewing the world and one’s government, and that has a pretty endearing way of seeing its place in the world. The politicians about which this series is written are pretty ordinary in this sceme of things. They are about as flawed as the people I work with at the College of The Bahamas. The crises that threaten the government are more often than not moral crises (how many times does morality cross the political stage on our side of the Atlantic?), and philosophy often lies at the core of decisions made. What’s even more interesting is that the government in question is a coalition government, so forget the monolithic strong-arming of policy and ideas that we are so used to on this side of the Atlantic; governing in this world has a lot more to do with finding and maintaining common ground than bullying opponents. The main antagonists (I don’t mean this in a protagonist/antagonist sense) are the press, which is really free, and whose right to challenge and question politicians is guarded by almost everyone, politicians included. It’s a fascinating look, for me, into a world in which democracy is related to what ordinary people believe about the world, to consensus, and to paying attention to the rights of the many, where “democracy” is not a code-word for the tyranny of the majority or first-past-the-post voting (a crash course on Danish politics can be found here and here).
It makes me hopeful that it is possible to do the business of government in a different way than we currently do in our part of the world. That’s the main reason I enjoy the show. Every other television show about government that I have seen, has reinforced the idea that politicians must universally be hollow or corrupt, and our familiarity with the (very lofty, very flawed) American political system has hurt our democracy, our government, and our ability to carve our own way. Do we believe in democracy, I wonder? Do we hold our politicians to account? (I can hear you now–are these serious questions?) In the forty years of our independence, how much real work has our legislature done? Why are the laws on the books still patched-up versions of colonial laws, most of which are predicated on the idea that the majority of the inhabitants of our country are little better than children and must be forced to behave well rather than treated as full citizens? Are the decisions we make made for us or in desperation to achieve something worth recording in history books?
I’ll stop there, and just say this to every Bahamian who cares about the state of our nation: go find this TV show, clear your head and clear your schedule, and watch it. Then see how you think about politics, governance, and the possibilties of small societies. Then let’s get together and start making them happen here.