Lessons from "Borgen": on working with politicians
Today’s newsletter is niche and slightly different than my normal fare. Below are my reflections of Borgen Seasons 1-4. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been watching Borgen for the past few months and become somewhat obsessed with it. For those that don’t know, Borgen is a Danish drama about a woman that becomes Prime Minister and learns how to be a master politician. It’s a fascinating tale of power, the art of negotiation and politics.
I first happened upon Borgen from Stewart Brand and Tyler Cowen recommendations. Once my friend Alex also recommended it, I had to watch this show!
Below I try to summarize some of the main lessons from Borgen - what it teaches me about politics, about politicians and about working with politicians. I debated whether or not to publish this post but I figured some people might find it valuable since I think most people (myself included) often misunderstand politicians.
A few quick notes: this post might not be that interesting if you haven’t watched Borgen. It’s also full of spoilers so if you care about that kind of thing, skip and return at some other point. And finally, I try not to focus this blog on politics, so this is going to be more about the ever-lasting themes of Borgen vs. any specific plot elements.
Alright, with that preface, let’s get to it first with a quick reminder on the plot.
Quick plot overview
For those that haven’t seen Borgen the main plot is as follows: each season of Borgen encapsulates a different part of Birgitte Nyborg’s career as the leader of the Moderate party in Denmark.
In the first season we see younger Birgitte, a second-level politician that wins a larger share of votes than expected and then goes onto become the country’s first female Prime Minister. As she learns to become a good politician she also spends less time with her family and ultimately gets a divorce.
The second season sees Birgitte become a master politician and pass a number of reforms while her family life continues to deteriorate. After these two seasons, Birgitte has gone through a divorce and increasingly caused tensions in her family as she invests so much time at work (e.g., her daughter ends up anxious and depressed). However, Birgitte is now recognized as one of the best politicians in Denmark.
In the third season we learn Birgitte has left politics for a few years only to re-enter and find herself estranged from power - after being sidelined by her party, she goes onto form her own (the New Democrats) who then have to build a power base and compete for office. Birgitte rises successfully and becomes Foreign Minister after various negotiations and after a lot of sweat and tears.
The fourth and most recent season takes place almost a decade later (in both real and fictional time): Birgitte is now a veteran politician, the New Democrats are no longer a new party and she remains Foreign Minister. Her kids are now older and she is entirely focused on work - her family tensions continue as her son (who is now in college) becomes much more politically radical. The season focuses on the politics of finding oil in Greenland and how Birgitte goes about handling that situation, changing stances multiple times, becoming increasingly aligned with non-progressive stances and she eventually resigns after alienating all of her friends and family.
Borgen Season 4 then ends with strong hints that Birgitte might now join the European Commission in the next season as part of her negotiation out of office.
Sociological Storytelling: understanding Birgitte’s journey
When I first started watching Borgen I thought it was similar to the first seasons of the The West Wing - a show where the main characters pursue ideals, have clever conversations about politics and reach happy, idealistic compromises every episode.
It turns out that Borgen is much deeper than that. While on the surface the show is about Birgitte as a hero, for those watching closely, all seasons point in the opposite direction: Borgen is a tale about the nature of power and Birgitte’s gradual obsession with it to the exclusion of everything else. While Birggite is not a hero, she is not an anti-hero either; the story is more complicated as it’s a sociological story about the making of a politician.
“Sociological storytelling” is a term from Zeynep Tufekci’s “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones: It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological”:
In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency [greatly] shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces […] People then fit their internal narrative to align with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way. […]
The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. “Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances”
For Borgen this means that as you watch the show you understand how Birgitte ends up changing her perspective as she navigates impossible tradeoffs. By making Birgitte such a charismatic character we are able to empathize with her and often dismiss her faults: She’s not a bad person, she really does mean well. But over the course of four seasons it’s hard not to see that she’s ended up in a very dangerous place. In Season 4, Birgitte literally is on the point of selling Greenland to China while placating Russia and constantly going back and forth cynically on whether or not global warming matters while partnering with Laugesen to run fake news about climate change. She ended up here little by little.
Lest we dismiss this as “just TV” I believe there are some interesting lessons here about working with politicians.
Lessons from Borgen
1. Negotiation is the single most important skill of a good politician
“… as a matter of fact, it’s partly my fault, I let [the Chinese] use the area where my hunting hut is and they gave me this fine boat as thanks.” - Greenlandic Seal-hunter talking to Birgitte on the boat while hearing icebergs get blown-up by the Chinese oil company
The first thing we can learn from Borgen is the enormous power of negotiation and its quintessential role in politics. This is Brigitte’s superpower and she develops it at hyper-speed throughout the first season.
In the first episode, we see Birgitte get bandied about by the various political parties as they promise her the PM role, then take it away and try various shenanigans to keep the Moderates out of power. Oh how things change! By the end of Season 4 there is no more experienced and conniving negotiator than Birgitte - she is not only negotiating with smaller political parties but leading a cross-national negotiation between China, Russia, the United States, Greenland, her internal parties and national media.
At the end of Season 3 when Birgitte is campaigning for Prime Minister for the third time, the TV1 moderator asks her why anyone should vote for her? Her response: because I’m the best negotiator! That’s her value proposition. Almost every episode of Borgen is ultimately a negotiation where Birgitte continues to up the ante…
Another great example of this was when Birgitte is negotiating in Season 4 with the American Secretary of State. He initially tries to bully her into going to the press without any discussion. After Birgitte pushes back his response is that it’s “So nice to meet an experienced colleague. So many rookies... Let’s go for a walk.” Game recognizes game! After he again bullies Birgitte she then asks for a selfie, adding new tools to her arsenal and taking something from an otherwise failed negotiation.
Throughout Borgen we see that negotiations happen constantly across all levels of society: it’s not just what is happening in Christenborg. For instance, in Season 4 we see China and the United States modify their negotiating stance by pulling a lot of levers that are far outside the literal scope of the negotiations. This comes across most clearly in the Greenland episodes with China: the personal relationships between the ambassador and Birgitte are one negotiating axis; the gift of the boat to the seal-hunter another; the purchase of the oil stake by a Chinese company a third; the Chinese drone that crashes a fourth; kompromat on Russia a fifth; and the layers go on. The negotiation is extremely multi-dimensional and does not follow any clean contours.
2. Politicians are driven by incentives - just like you and me
“The median voter theorem is underrated” - Tyler Cowen
While writing this post I happened upon this whole school of thought called Public Choice Theory. Ironically it is within George Mason University where Tyler Cowen works. As I understand it, Public Choice theory is political science influenced by economic theory: it treats politicians as humans with rational self-interest; “role maximizers” with motivations and self-interest that can be modeled. Public choice theory is sometimes called “democracy without the romance” - if you’ve watched Borgen, you know this could be its subtitle!
In every episode of Borgen, Birgitte is faced with a problem that she somehow has to work through. The answers are almost always unsatisfying as she tries to reach solutions while keeping her majority role in government or pleasing the Prime Minster. The answer to most of Birgitte’s problems is usually about figuring out where the equilibrium solution will be and then pushing in that direction. This is very much in line with the “median voter theory.” As Tyler writes:
“The most enduring truth is that the median voter theorem, as social scientists refer to it, continues to explain a lot of political outcomes. […] Expressed most simply, the median voter theorem suggests that politicians will try to court the voter in the center of the ideological distribution — not necessarily because they want to, but because they are forced to by political competition.”
What this means for Birgitte is she has to always manage incentives and try to negotiate a compromise for the median voter (i.e., the median position across the political parties that make up her majority in office). Almost all more ideologically “pure” outcomes and her values fall by the wayside - it’s just about negotiating a solution that lets her fight another day.
When deciding amidst a set of policy options, Birgitte follows the path most likely to result in long-term stability for her personal interests while reducing short-term pain. This isn’t just Birgitte of course. We see this across all the politicians in Borgen. They are all changing positions as needed based on their incentives. While of course there are other types of leadership (e.g., sometimes we have visionary leaders that have very specific agendas of the world they want to see), I think most politicians resemble those in Borgen. Understanding their incentives is key understanding their world.
3. To effect change, you need to focus on the options under consideration
“He who dares not loses himself” - Kierkegaard
Since politicians work via negotiations and since most politicians end up being driven by incentives to stay in power, it follows that the best way to manage change and to encourage politicians to your way of thinking is by changing the options under consideration.
One common phrase across seasons of Borgen is Spyro telling Birgitte: “What are your options?” Anytime she is facing a crisis he comes back to this question to force her to step back and consider the range of moves available. Time and again the options available are bad ones, so what does Birgitte do? She creates a new option!
The way Birgitte creates new options uses the full gamut of negotiating tactics as well as all of the axes available to her. Often it relies on creating some new media story that can then change the agenda. When you see it through this lens, you see why there is so much focus on TV1 since ultimately they help set the agenda for what is the topic of the day.
On the one hand, yes this is a fictionalized drama that is using one-new-dramatic-event-per-episode as a TV plot device. On the other hand, the interplay between the agenda that is on TV (and in Season 4, on Twitter and Facebook) and what the main politicians work and focus on, is very real. Setting this agenda (and the complex dynamics between the TV reports, the politicians, private citizens, international groups, and general life) has enormous implications. One of the main ones is that it changes the calculus for how the median voter feels about a topic which then influences the political negotiations (e.g., remember the pig episode where Birgitte makes pig antibiotics the topic of the day after Jeremy’s sickness?).
This lesson is maybe one of the most counter-intuitive for people working with politicians. The most natural way of arguing for something is by arguing on its merits: “this position is a good one”, “this stance is moral,” etc. However, that approach is usually bound to fail with politicians. To actually effect change you have to modify the calculus of the median politician and change their incentives. So for example, let’s say you want to change the housing rules in a certain area and influence a set of local politicians. Instead of just arguing on the merits of the policy, you’d be more likely to succeed by identifying their incentives and thinking of it as a negotiation. Imagine the politicians are Birgitte - what would change her mind?
4. Beware the power spiral
“If you want to test a man’s character give him power” - (apparently misattributed to Abraham Lincoln)
The final lesson I’ll call out from Borgen is to beware of the intoxication of power.
Birgitte’s change from the first to last episode is quite stark. While some people (and most reviewers) seem to think that everything changed in Season 4, a darker reading of Seasons 1- 3 shows that she was the same the whole time. Her obsession with power started early.
In the first season, Birgitte faces numerous challenges that force her to confront how much she values being Prime Minister over other things in her life: does she prioritize work over Filip? How about her kids? How much does she care about the free press? What about playing fair? As she increasingly goes deeper into power, Birgitte follows the path towards nihilism. Whatever values Birgitte started with quickly vanish as she learns realpolitik. While in her first speech Birgitte tells the audience she has a vision for what Denmark should become, by the end of Season 4 another minister calls her out on how far she’s fallen: “You’re offering me the Greenlandic oil to save your political career?” Yes!
Borgen paints a cautionary tale for what it is to be power-hungry. While at the beginning of the show Birgitte doesn’t even really want the job, by then end it’s all she has: “I’m 53. I’m divorced. I live alone. And I have a flower subscription... if I’m not the woman working 19 hours a day then who the hell am I?”
We also see these changes in the shows aesthetics: the clothes Birgitte wears become increasingly expensive (long gone is her one dress she doesn’t fit into); the shows soundtrack changes from a “West Wing” drama-like theme in Season 1 to an eery, whispered theme in Season 4; her houses become increasingly isolated too: her family home, once full of life, becomes a nondescript corporate apartment that is just a crash pad since Birgitte spends all her time at work.
Birgitte also ends up all alone: Filip is gone, Jeremy is too, her kids are old and she’s isolated them each in a different way. By the end she puts the nail in the coffin by alienating all her colleagues from the New Democrats, Spyro and Katrina. While she tells Jeremy in Season 3, “I’m afraid I’ve gone over to the dark side,” by Season 4, she is fully there: the only friend she has left is Laugesen, the most Machiavellian character in the show.
It didn’t have to be this way of course: Birgitte had a fork in the road at the end of Season 2 where she could have just gone the George Washington path and left politics on a high note. Instead, she comes back from her time in Hong Kong, asks Kruz for a new job, doesn’t get it and then goes scorched-earth on the Moderates and starts the New Democrats. The pursuit of power alone leaves her hollow.
However, Birgitte is not a bad person. The show makes the case that compared to other politicians that are able to stay in power long-term, she is actually as good as it gets. Almost all other characters that get power end up dropping out, burning out or failing. It’s very rare that for any character to stay in power for long: Katrina ends up going higher until her panic attack; Torbin burns out in his role as editor in chief; Casper ends up on TV1 and then fades into the sunset; Katrina’s economist boyfriend ends up dropping out after one media cycle... Only a few people such as Birgitte, Hesselboe, Laugesen and Signe Krau can stay in the political ring, and among them, Birgitte is the most upstanding.
Having dinner with the Arctic minister in Season 4, Birgitte says,
Birgitte: “Becoming [Foreign minister] cost me my marriage and my family.”
Asger: “Would you do it again?”
Asger: “Is it easier for you now that you’re alone?”
Birgitte: “Yes of course it is. I’m not allowed to say that but of course it is. It’s true. We are never going to get normal life. We come back too late, go to work too early and let down too many people we love. But some people are just made to work and love it more than anything else. Wouldn’t you rather vote for someone that works hard than someone that picks up their kids at 4 o’clock?”
Asger: “Yeah, but, it’s also a bit sad right?”
Birgitte: “That’s who we are!” she says and raises her hands with a smile…
We need politicians that can lead us down treacherous paths to negotiate for a better future. But Borgen is a cautionary tale that there is a real cost to power, and for those that commit down that path, the personal impact can be enormous.
Phew. That was a lot… Frankly, I have spent way too much time thinking about this show. I’m happy I watched it. I carry with me some good lessons. And with that, I can now let Borgen go.
Until next time.
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What ever happened to old fashioned movie reviews, looking at a film for its cultural, moral and political pespectives?
I gues they died with Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.
I came to my OC addiction with watching Borgen through reading last quarter's Claremont Review of Books.
Borgen is the tragedy of Lady Macbeth without King Macbeth's blody bodies and weak-kneedness. It's Faust's bargain without the Devil. It's soap operaific like West Wing, but without its venality and grand illusions of importance. It's Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, the incomparably talented woman who achieves her life's dream but ends up sleeping alone and waking up with her job. It's the biography of the liberated modern American female.
You are right about thinking too much about Borgen. On reflection, but not at the time of my Borgen binge, I now see it as dramatically shallow, devoid of compelling dialogue and human insight, and not nearly as enthralling, well written or well acted as excellent political fiction which has made its way into film, like, say, All the Kings Men, Advise and Consent, A Man for all Seasons or even, on a lesser scale, Being There or the Seduction of Joe Tynan, and most recently, Hilary Mantel's incomparable Wolf Hall.
Yet, as I say, I became OC addicted to Borgen, even while I disdained its Scandanvian-left politics, scorned its love of the welfare state (as a moral/political achievment!), disliked all of its leading characters and most of its secondary roles, mustered grudging affection for only two of its myriad characters, appreciated the accuracy of its portrayal of the jackals of the press, marvelled at how such Danes would never be media talking heads in the US (because, while sufficiently vacuous, they are not at all beautiful to look at,) and was fascinated by Borgen's enlightening inside view of a parliamentary system of government.
For me Borgen was an enigma. Glad I watched it but wish I had not.
I am new to your Substack. Your fine Borgen review was my 1st reading. I will read along, for sure.