The Fortunes of Power
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“A prince should have no other aim or thought but war and its organisation and discipline.” – Machiavelli
The Danish political saga Borgen begins with a quote from the famed and often misquoted Florentine political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli. The name Machiavelli has become synonymous with treachery, trickery, thievery and in a plethora of ways it is quite misleading. Machiavellian thoughts are quite varied, especially when his three major works (The Prince, Discourses on Levy, and The Art of War) are compared, but that variation makes quite a bit of sense within context. Machiavelli’s writings differed greatly from circumstance to circumstance not out of a lack of consistency in the author’s viewpoints, though those could have been subject to alteration, but out of political considerations. The Prince, for example, was written during a period of political delicacy for the equally delicate hands of the de Medici family, whose grip on Florence was largely formidable. Over the centuries, The Prince has become a heightened symbol of the iron grip of the aristocracy, a supposed treatise on the proper role of a monarchic figure in ruling his kingdom. A key line that opens the series is the sentiment of a prince preoccupied above all with war and not just war itself, but the logistics and practical means surrounding it on all sides. The political arena of modern-day Denmark is no less than a battlefield and the carnage is just as ubiquitous, if not as obvious. Every election is a war, every vote cast is a shot fired, every single seat is indicative of survival or utter annihilation.
Politics is in many ways about wearing a mask. It is little mistake that the first image is of a newscast filling the airwaves as a makeup artist dabbles her brush into a powder. The brush is raised into the air and applied generously to Moderate Party leader Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, hiding the lack of sleep for a fortnight as she prepares for an interview whose questions have already been pre-approved. It’s a mask on top of a mask, layers of deception designed above all to win that very war. Brigitte arrives in front of the reporter Katrine and the interview begins smoothly enough, right up until there’s a veritable bombshell dropped with aplomb. Birgitte’s coalition partner Laugesen from the Labour Party has gone ostensibly right-wing on immigration, specifically on asylum seekers. In a parliamentary system, the idea of a political party winning an outright majority is essentially unheard of. As such, coalition partners become vital to political survival. Without the Moderates, at the moment neither major party has a full coalition, bur Birgitte herself is faced with poll numbers whose statistics spell doom for her own headship of the Moderate Party. Reporter Hanne describes to Katrine at the end of the opening montage that the entire election process is above everything else a game, chess to be precise. All the pawns are simply being shuffled around, the clock constantly ticking away until the last ballot has been signed, dropped, sealed, delivered, and counted.
Birgitte fashions herself as the the head of the Moderate Party, but what does it mean to be a moderate? The general assumption of a moderate is someone who takes policy stances that lie firmly in the center, the decency of the middle as echoed in the title of the episode. In one sense, espousing that very center can be beneficial if you are seen as level-headed, a sort of safe harbor amidst a tumultuous storm. But the word “moderate” is hardly sexy enough to garner support in an election, especially when there are at the very least eight parties represented on the final debate stage. The moderate can be seen as boring, uninventive, and at worst unprincipled. A passionate individual believes in something and if that passion never exudes, the voters will never see it. If the voters never see it, well, then the rest is quite obvious. And if someone can’t be bold enough to take a firm position on a subject, then why should the voters reward that politician with their vote? Perhaps that is what is swirling around in Birgitte’s mind as the cameras turn towards a smiling Katrine and the candidates. She’s sure that her headship of the part is going down the drain anyway and at that juncture, there wasn’t much else to lose. Her spin doctor Kasper tells her to just be herself and perhaps taking his word more literally than he intended, Birgitte takes Kasper’s pre-written speech and throws it straight out the proverbial window. In that moment, she clinches her party’s survival, if not ascension.
Voters care for honesty, or at the very least what appears to be a blunt sentiment of it. Everyone can hear phoniness or once again what appears to be pretentiousness and it turns people off. The typical bureaucratic politico language is so entrenched into society that it creates an inherent disgust. Birgitte’s blunt, unscripted honesty hits home unlike anyone else’s speech that night. She says everything that people always assume but never hear. The questions in her interviews are pre-approved. She was told to wear a black dress but the one she had no longer fit her. Denmark, despite all of the fear mongering from the fascists, is a multi ethnic society and everyone knows that, so it’s time to move on and cut the crap. There is no real equality in Denmark and the Prime Minister’s leadership has only fostered seven years where the wealth gap has significantly widened. The idea of personal responsibility is a great one in theory, but to somehow believe that the free market is the best cure for the income gap is like relying on cars to cure the climate crisis. Every politician on that stage throws around the words socialism and liberalism, but the modern world is manifold, just as a democracy should be. Birgitte’s honesty fires up a storm, but is stained by the reality of the betrayal that pushed her party to gain fifteen seats in the election. She never wanted to gain power by using dirty tactics, as she makes clear to Kasper when he presents her with an opportunity to crush her opponents. The irony, never lost, is that she just might.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Never let your children down, Kasper, because they grow up to be voters.”
+“When I was young, the words ‘champagne’ and ‘labour’ ruled themselves out.”
+“Do you know what’s worth pissing on? This naive idea of a nation run by the people. The people don’t run a bloody thing. A tiny privileged circle of people rule Denmark; from the corporate world, the media, and a few politicians. As long as I’m part of that circle, they can call it anything they like.”
+“A vote for the Moderates tomorrow is a vote for a new Denmark. Thank you.”
+It is almost eerie that the asylum seekers question remains highly prescient in today’s Denmark as it did in this fictional program that took place in 2010. The war has just changed.
+Birgitte: Polls shouldn’t rule policy
+The Liberal Party in Denmark is right-wing
+Hanne is coming back, right?
+Birgitte riding her bike to Parliament
+“They want me for Prime Minister.”
Episode Title: Dyden i midten/Decency in the Middle
Written by: Jeppe Gjervig Gram, Tobias Lindholm, Adam Price
Directed by: Søren Kragh-Jacobsen
Image Courtesy: Tad Photography