Right-wing conservative liberals? Centrist liberal socialists?

A guide for two-party voters to understanding the rise of the Danish People’s Party in multiparty Denmark

Thursday’s election results puzzled international observers: how could the ruling Social Democrats win more seats than in the last election and still lose power, while the opposition Liberal Party lost a third of theirs, were overtaken by the nativist Danish People’s Party as the second largest party in the country, and still be expected to lead the next government?

In other words: the winner lost and the loser won?

Not so in a real multiparty system.

It all comes down to fragmented class voting and proportional representation. As I have briefly argued elsewhere today, as parties have realigned to counter the influence of the Danish People’s Party, the constant sum of support for redistribution, immigration and European integration might not have changed much with the present election. Danish voters overwhelmingly seem to vote for pro-redistributive, anti-immigrant, moderately pro-European parties – although there is no single party with all three stances. Add to that large minorities on all three issues, and it is visible why, institutions allowing, a large multitude of parties would form.

This confuses many international observers.

So what happened?

Overall, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) triumphed. This was the one thing that Slate got right about the election. Slate’s self-invented Liberal-Conservative name for the party called Venstre – meaning Left – and usually translated as the Liberal Party only makes sense to those with no frame of reference outside of American politics where ‘liberal’ is always considered ‘lefty’ and conservative the opposite.

As in most other European countries, however, there are still social-democratic and even socialist parties in Denmark, making liberal parties rather right wing: Bill Clinton would have been an unelectable right-winger in Denmark in the 1990s. This is not (primarily) because the word ‘liberal’ is used differently in the two countries. It mostly has to do with ‘left’ and ‘right’ being relative terms and ‘liberal’ being an absolute (if very broad) term.

The DPP was originally built on the ashes of the economically libertarian, but socially conservative Progress Party, whose founder advocated a 0% income tax and the deportation of Muslims from Denmark. This was briefly successful, but the party succumbed to internal infighting and ended up excluding, and then reintroducing its founder. Moreover, the libertarian-yet-racist electorate turned out to be limited, after all.

The DPP was created by a group of decisively anti-socialist senior members of the dying Progress Party, and their voting record is very mixed – the party is deeply pragmatic. They have no ties to the traditional labor movement, which most of its senior figures spent their years in the Progress Party fighting. At the same time, they very successfully rebooted their new party as a social-democratic conservative party, aiming for taking a stance that was not yet taken by any party at the time.

Thus, it’s not clear that Denmark has moved ‘far to the right’. The DPP is certainly the most communitarian, reactionary party in Denmark. They oscillate between openly bigoted anti-Muslim points of view and more coded language, much the same as some Republicans use dog-whistling to signal allegiance to white voters in the US.

Yet, the economic policies of the DPP are shaped by the preferences of the Danish electorate, and their economic policy preferences lie far to the left of any Democratic senators – probably even of Bernie Sanders’s.

The DPP’s pro-welfare rhetoric (and sometimes voting) has earned it a solid representation among the Danish working class and petit-bourgeoisie. Just as British scholars are currently discussing where UKIPs voters come from, so have the Danish party elites, political scientists and news contributors discussed where the DPP’s electorate came from.

Conventional wisdom held that they were disgruntled Social Democratic voters who didn’t like the socially liberal politics of the post-1960s Social Democratic Party. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as often mentioned what impact the Blairite turn in the 1990s might have had (a point that Evans, Mellon, Ford and Goodwin all have a better grasp of for the British case).

I have not worked the data out for the entire period the DPP has been running – it will hopefully be available later – but so far it seems clear the Danish and British cases are alike. The immediate movement of voters was not primarily between the Social Democrats and the DPP, but instead from the Liberal Party to the DPP; however, many of those voters had come from the Social Democrats in earlier elections.

The Danish Broadcasting Company (DR) presents the following data based on almost 5,000 exit-poll interviews:


Voters moving to the DPP from 2011 to 2015


The voting behavior of 2011 DPP voters in 2015



It shows that the party received far more voters from the Liberal Party than anywhere else, but also a substantial number of voters who didn’t vote in the last election – either because they were too young, or because they didn’t participate (this basic dataset unfortunately does not distinguish). The DPP also received a fair number of votes from the Social Democrats. This is unsurprising, given the hypothesis above. Had the US had a system of proportional representation, there is good reason to believe that ‘red state Democrat’, socially conservative, economically moderately lefty position would become very popular in the United States as well. That would be the end of any lefties-must-be-liberals confusion.