What U.S. Politicos Can Learn from Denmark

What U.S. Politicos Can Learn from Denmark
A pitch for shorter campaigns and a ban on TV ads to curb the impact of money in American politics.   

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in The Hill.

COPENHAGEN—With the 2012 campaign in full swing, and Election Day now 14 months away, let’s put the brakes on for a moment and focus us on a different national race.

On September 15, voters in Denmark elected a new parliament and prime minister. The campaign lasted all of three weeks. There were no political ads on television. And participation was estimated to be above 80 percent. 

Compared to the United States—the land of the permanent campaign—the parliamentary democracy of Denmark offers us a glimpse of what elections could be.

Like in the United States, during campaign season here in Denmark it’s hard to drive a block without seeing wall-to-wall campaign signs. And like in America, the top issue here is overwhelmingly the economy.

But the biggest difference in campaign season between our two countries (aside from the length) is the money. With a ban on political TV ads in Denmark, cash plays a much smaller role in the blitz for votes here. This is where the American political establishment, if it really cares about the strength of its democracy, would do well to take a breather from the already frenetic 2012 race to learn a thing or two from the Danish elections.

By shortening the official campaign period and taking television ads out of the process, you decrease the money involved in campaigns and increase the genuine democratic debate.

It’s well known that negative ads drive down turnout. (Turnout in Denmark in 2007 was 87 percent compared to 62 percent in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.) Smear campaigns solidify a negative impression of all politics in the minds of the voter which does little to stir confidence in government.

If there are no such misleading ads on the air, then less time would be wasted by pundits analyzing these ads and reporters correcting the record for a public who may take them as truth. In short, a ban on TV ads would hurt only those who make them, denying them the success they sought – to derail a campaign away from substantive issues.

With about 5 million people, Denmark is roughly the size of Maryland in population and geography. And yes, this size makes campaigns more manageable in some ways, but there are eight parties in the parliament here covering the full political spectrum. They spar about job creation plans, government spending and immigration, but they all agree on one thing.

Every political party here backs the ban on political ads. One major party leader recently called the ban “the best thing ever.” And smaller parties say allowing ads would only infuse money into the process. Often left unsaid is a desire to keep their elections from turning into America’s.

Having been around the block in Democratic politics, I know a thing or two about the strengths of the U.S. system and how political operatives, including me, have devised every strategy possible to win.

Yes, the systems are different, and yes, there are many more political parties that sit in the Danish parliament than we are ever likely to see in Congress, but the democratic tradition here seems to have bread a culture of civility around its short campaigns.

With the campaign lasting a matter of weeks not years, cash plays a smaller role. In the 2007 election, Denmark’s two leading parties combined, including their public financing, spent less than $8 million – a fraction of the $5.3 billion candidates spent on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Considering population size, per voter the U.S. candidates spent 11 times as much as their Danish counterparts.

Though it involves less money, the Danish system is far from perfect. In fact, Danes could learn from Americans when it comes to campaign finance too, specifically on transparency. Danish law only requires political parties to file annual reports of contributors to their accounts. Even then parties need only name contributors who gave more than 20,000 Danish kroner (about $3,770). Anonymous contributions are also allowed, but only if the party does not know the identity of the donor.

In the end, campaigns are about building people’s faith in government to operate in their best interest. But if voters never get the chance to see government function and only see politicians campaigning against each other, then public trust erodes, and the barrage of negative ads does nothing to change the low regard the public holds for their elected representatives.

If we govern more, campaign less, debate more, and spend less, someday we’ll give American voters a taste of what elections could be.

R. Spencer Oliver is secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly and has led election observations in more than 100 elections worldwide. He previously served in senior positions in the U.S. Congress and at the Democratic National Committee.

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