A Dramatic Lesson About Political Actors The Danish series ‘Borgen’ speaks to the growing detachment between leaders and the led.

Let’s look at last week’s theme—the growing detachment between Western leaders and the led—in a different way. I have spent much of my downtime the past year watching and re-watching the three seasons of the Danish drama “ Borgen.” It is the fictional story of the surprise election and government of the first woman elected prime minister of Denmark, and it is one of the greatest portrayals of modern politics and government I have ever seen. As drama it is riveting and full of unexpected turns, also somewhat haunting and discomfiting, which I’ll get to in a moment. But I couldn’t get over how wonderful it was—how universal in terms of politics, and of the moment (it premiered on Danish TV in 2010 and ran through 2013), and how it anticipated political events in the West (including the election of an actual female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in 2011). Also how beautiful it is—elegantly shot, acted, written. It had a cult following in Denmark and the U.K., and ought to here.

Borgen is the popular name of Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Parliament and prime minister’s office. The new prime minister is Birgitte Nyborg, played by the luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen. Her character is beautifully created—young, kindly, smart, attractive, determined, warm. Also a tough little broad who understands the tough ways of the world. Her politics are left-liberal; she butts heads with the hard left, the hard-hard left, moderate liberals and a small right-wing populist party.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg
Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in the Danish drama ‘Borgen.’

The living gargoyles that populate her world are people you would recognize if you watch too much American cable news. She deals with ideologues, hacks, ambitious allies. There is her tormented spin doctor—Danish politics is on some level so innocent they consider that an honorable profession and don’t even bother with the title of press secretary. The journalists around her treat politics as a commodity. They are curt, vulgar, hungry, sometimes but not always redeemed by idealism and the people’s right to know.

Almost all the characters are on the left, the only question being what kind of leftist you are. Those who seem centrist are really just bored with politics. There are two conservatives, a malevolent newspaper editor, who torments figures of the left for the enjoyment of the right, and the populist party’s head, who is old and homely, wears the wrong clothes, and accepts being sneered at as the price he pays for where he stands.

He is occasionally given his due. In a live television debate Birgitte eloquently advances her government’s plan to take in more refugees from the Mideast, which she paints as a grand gesture in line with Denmark’s long moral tradition. He wins the moment arguing for prudence, at the end quoting feelingly from an old Danish poem. In a way he is one of the moral characters, if always an object of fun. Eventually he is overthrown by a sexy rising rightist, a dim little mover who knows the old man isn’t attractive or compelling enough to win the future.

Two plotlines capture something about the show and its larger reality.

Early in office Birgitte, head of a tenuous coalition government, chooses to back a major new feminist initiative. Her government will push a bill demanding quotas on corporate boards—half those chosen now must be women. It had been a campaign promise. Also she thinks it fair—there hasn’t been an increase in female business executives in 10 years.

Denmark’s biggest industrialist asks for a meeting. He opposes state intervention in this area, he tells the prime minister. He is not hostile to women’s rights but needs the freedom to do what is best for his company. If she doesn’t pull the bill, he will move his company and its 10,000 jobs out of the country. With the courteous imperiousness only a 70-year-old major CEO could pull off, he gives her 48 hours to decide.

She leaves, rattled. A media conglomerate that turns out to be owned by the CEO quickly begins smearing one of her ministers.

She studies up. The CEO begins meetings at headquarters with a song about Denmark. He plays cards with the royal family. He is a philanthropist. He’s been knighted.

She realizes she can use his patriotism against him.

When they meet he asks for her answers. No, she says, she’ll go forward. All right, he says, my company will leave.

“But you won’t,” she says. You’ll stay because you are not going to spend the end of your career negotiating your departure from the country you love. You will stay and we will make you modern. You’ll end a hero.

Their eyes lock in silence. It is true—he’ll never leave.

What do I get? he asks. Her government’s environmental taxes are hurting his company. Perhaps they can be delayed two years?

She smiles, nods. They shake hands.

As he walks away, her face is convulsed by a tic. You see what the high-stakes bluff cost her. You feel sympathy. It is a very great drama that leaves you moved by and rooting for the person whose stand you disagree with.

The second revealing plotline:

The previous government had taken steps to privatize health care. Birgitte is opposed to private health insurance—it would make Denmark the mess America is. Her health-care bill, in her words, “declares war on private health insurance.” The rich shouldn’t be allowed to buy their way out of the public system; it needs to be strengthened. It’s unjust that private hospitals get the best doctors.

Then her teenage daughter has a nervous breakdown. Birgitte is informed public psychiatric hospitals have a 50-week wait. She sends her daughter to a private hospital with the best doctors. She is accused of hypocrisy; a public uproar ensues. Throughout this drama she never once doubts her policy—the one she herself is buying her way out of. She knows what’s good for the people and she knows what’s good for her family, and when they’re not the same she does not question her assumptions but only barrels on.

This great drama shows all that. Which is why there’s something haunting in it, and discomfiting. You get a strong sense of why things don’t work.

“Borgen” captures this: History is human. Political leaders are driven by personal imperatives every bit as much as—often more than—public ones.

It demonstrates, knowingly or not, that to be of the left in the Western political context is to operate in a broad, deep, richly populated liberal-world that rarely if ever is pierced by contrary thought. They are in a bubble they can’t see, even as they accuse others of living in bubbles. Birgitte sees herself as practical and pragmatic, and she is—within a broader context of absolute and unquestioned ideology.

It reminded me that as a general rule political parties and political actors do not change their minds based on evidence or argument. They have to be beaten. Only then can they rationalize change to themselves and their colleagues: “We keep losing!” Defeat is the only condition in which they can see the need for change. They have to be concussed into it.