Jacob Christensen

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Gunnar Sjöblom, 1933-2009

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Last week I received the sad message that my former teacher and colleague Gunnar Sjöblom had died at the age of 76.

If you find a copy of the book which was published in honour of Gunnar on his 60th birthday and open it, you will be greeted by a photo of a sardonically looking professor (no tweed-jacket, though), a look which might be a bit unsettling for some. Maybe Gunnar imagined that the photographer was Thomas S. Kuhn or, even better, some 1970s or 1980s marxist student. He had very little love indeed for that bunch. Behind that professorial façade, though, was a man who in smaller groups could be very witty, funny and insightful, also beyond the world of political science.

Gunnar’s claim to fame was his dissertation which was published in English in 1968 as Party Strategies in a Multiparty System. Tellingly, Google Scholar informs us that the book was still quoted into the 2000s, more than 35 years after it was written.

Party Strategies is in many ways a strange book in political science as it is completely theoretical in nature without any open references to empirical data, just as it does not make any use of cases or examples to illustrate its argument. In a way, the book also lacks a thesis to be proved. Rather, the ambition was to apply a systems analysis approach to the study of (well, duh) parties that operate in a multiparty system to discover the various conflicts and dilemmas they face. Even if you are only marginally oriented in the history of the discipline, you will know that Gunnar was playing ball with David Easton (systems theory) and Anthony Downs (party competition).

The book looks at parties acting in the different political arenas and attempts to make a comprehensive overview of the tools and strategies available at each point in the decision-making process. Trying to make a complete empirical analysis of the parties in an existing party system using the scheme of analysis being presented would be a daunting, and in all likelihood impossible, task for any single researcher, but there are many bits and pieces which still merits consideration. And applied on more specific research topics, the book and its scheme could be put to good use.

Gunnar never repeated the feat but spent the 1970s and 1980s producing articles and book-chapters on aspects of party government, usually working in a network of party researchers organised around the late Rudolf Wildenmann. To mention some examples: In 1977, he took on the question of cumulating knowledge in the social sciences in an article in the European Journal of Political Research and in the mid-1980s he contributed to a series of publications about party government with chapters on parties and problem solving in politics and – unusually, for somebody who spent almost his entire career addressing theoretical and methodological questions - the role of parties in the Danish and Swedish political systems.

In Gunnar’s career, one big ambition eluded him: His plan was to write a comprehensive study of party government in Western societies and he made extensive preparations for this work, but it never resulted in a book or a series of papers. He told me, that when he had the opportunity to review the data and literature during a sabbatical, he discovered that much of the material was beginning to be out of date. Other priorities, including national and international organisational duties, had taken up the time needed.

That may be so, but I also suspect that Gunnar lacked the temperament needed to write a synthesis in the style of Giovanni Sartori’s Parties and Party Systems . His approach lent itself better to analysis than synthesis. But then again, who knows what would had happened, if somebody at the right moment had put Gunnar in the office next to Sartori’s?

Still, his contributions to the study of political parties and party strategies stand.

For some examples of early Sjöblom, here are two open-access articles from 1967 and 1968 published in Scandinavian Political Studies. Two reviews of Party Strategies (gated) can be found on JStor here and here.

PS: In case the Google Scholar link fails, this is what you should be looking for – http://scholar.google.dk/scholar?as_q=&num=50&btnG=S%C3%B8g+i+Scholar&as_epq=party+strategies+in+a+multiparty+system&as_oq=&as_eq=&as_occt=title&as_sauthors=sj%C3%B6blom&as_publication=&as_ylo=&as_yhi=&hl=da

Written by Jacob Christensen

December 21st, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Svend Auken (1943-2009)

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I’m breaking my promise of not doing any politics blogging during my more-or-less vacation here but the death of the former chairman of the Danish Social Democrats and former labour and environment minister Svend Auken more than merits a mention.

First a note to non-Danish readers: In Denmark Auken (I’ve read somewhere that the name is Dutch, by the way) is best known for being de-selected as Social Democratic chairman in 1992 and thus becoming the first ordinary chairman of the Social Democrats since P. Knudsen (who was excused as the party until 1914 didn’t want to enter government until it commanded a majority but who would probably have made a competent prime minister) not to become prime minister. So, what happened and what was Auken’s role in Danish politics since he entered parliament in 1971?

In a statement, former prime minister Poul Schlüter called Auken the last of the old-school Social Democrats. This is wrong: Auken belonged to a more or less well-defined group of Social Democrats who ushered in a new era, when they entered the Folketing at the 1971 election. The generation which was born between 1895 and 1910 and came of age in the 1920s gave way for a new generation born in the late 1930s and early 1940s who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Auken and the group around him wrote history already during their first year in parliament as they lead a minority openly opposing Danish membership in the EC. This hadn’t happened in the Social Democratic party since the left-wing split in 1917 to form the Communist Party and in the labour movement solidarity and unity were essential values. Just a few years earlier, a stunt like “Social Democrats against the EC” would have ended Auken’s political career for good. But then again, the Social Democrats of the 1970s were not the Social Democrats of the 1960s.

As a left-winger and an effective orator and campaigner, Auken was useful to Anker Jørgensen and he was made political spokesman for the party and later labour minister. During the long spell in opposition he again served as political spokesman and parliamentary strategist. It was here his weaknesses became clear: Auken had a tendency to win the battles while losing the wars against Poul Schlüter.

In December 1983, Schlüter failed to get a majority for the government’s budget as the majority of the Progress Party under Mogens Glistrup wanted more concessions – or just to make some noise – and Auken and Jørgensen decided to break with the Danish parliamentary tradition with the argument that the Social Democrats were against the budget.

And so what, non-Danes may ask. Well, according to Danish parliamentary tradition responsible political parties vote for the budget at the final reading unless the government hasn’t been able to secure a majority in advance. If that is the case, then it is perfectly okay to test the government’s majority. But Auken chose to play the policy card. The Social Democrats won the vote but lost the election because Poul Schlüter cleverly managed to frame the Social Democrats as an irresponsible party and turn the attention from his own problems with the Progress Party to the economic policies of the Social Democratic governments between 1979 and 1982. 1984 wasn’t 1929 even if many Social Democrats wanted to believe so – and continued to believe so until the early 1990s. Propaganda and wishful thinking got the better of long-term strategy.

The pattern repeated itself with the process leading up to the 1988 “missile election”. The government claimed that the foreign minister had reached a gentlemen’s agreement with the Social Democrats. Auken – by now the party chairman after claimed there wasn’t an agreement. The Social Liberals said there was – and then bizarrely supported the Social Democrats in the vote in parliament. But the image stuck: Auken was not somebody you could do parliamentary business with.

This prompts the question how he become chairman of the Social Democrats in the first place. Compared with his predecessors, he didn’t look like an obvious choice. He had a background in the academic middle class, not the working class and even if society had changed there were people around with a more appropriate social background. He was an orator rather than an organiser. He was careless with details. You might as well have made Niels Helveg Petersen chairman of the party.

But then again, who were the alternatives? By the late 1980s, Knud Heinesen was too old, Svend Jakobsen had put his career on the backburner, Ritt Bjerregaard was far too divisive, Mogens Lykketoft the technocrat’s technocrat and nobody, absolutely nobody, outside the trade unions had ever heard of a guy name Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. And Anker Jørgensen wanted Svend Auken as his successor.

For a short time, it looked like Auken could defeat the demons haunting his parliamentary career and make it to the prime minister’s office. The 1990 election was a famous victory for the Social Democrats but things turned sour when it was revealed that neither the Social Liberals nor the Centre Democrats wanted to support a Social Democratic government under Auken. It would be too left-wing for the two parties and, well, Auken was not a credible partner in negotiations. And if you’re not a credible partner in negotiations in the Folketing, you’re a dead man politically. That left a big zombie Social Democracy facing an undead government until the party finally produced a credible alternative to Svend Auken. One result of this political impasse was a massive unemployment crisis in the early 1990s, another that immigration became a dominating issue in Danish politics. And maybe the Maastricht Treaty was yet another casualty of the situation as the Social Democrats couldn’t mount an effective yes-campaign in early 1992.

In any other party, the deselection of Svend Auken in 1992 would have been just another change of party leader, but for the Social Democrats it touched more than one nerve in the party. Getting rid of the chairman was the rational outcome, but it felt wrong, and it also left the party’s left-wing with a permanent grudge against the new leadership. Auken on the other hand finally proved that he could be an effective minister in Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s goverments between 1993 and 2001 – but the question is how much of the success of his time as environment minister was due to the professionalism of the Danish civil service. In his role as minister, Auken could provide visions and oratory, while the civil service could organise his work and formulate workable solutions.

In the 1920s, the ever-caustic K.K. Steincke once said about Frederik Borgbjerg who had a tendency to get carried away by his own oratory: “First Borgbjerg delivers the speech and then the speech delivers him”. The same could be said of Svend Auken. One crucial difference between Borgbjerg and Auken was that P. Knudsen had a better hand in choosing his assistants (Th. Stauning!) than Anker Jørgensen.

Some obituaries in Danish: Helle Thorning Schmidt, Politiken, Berlingske Tidende, Jyllands-Posten, Information, Ekstra Bladet, Jarl Cordua.

Written by Jacob Christensen

August 5th, 2009 at 12:56 am

Posted in Politics

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Gert Petersen 1927-2009

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First, a personal recollection. Back in the early 1990s a group of historians organised a series of meetings at Christiansborg Castle – the scene of the crimes, if you wish – where participants in crucial political events were invited to tell about what happened and their own roles at the time. A sort of oral political history.1

Obviously, the “Red Cabinet” – the ill-fated cooperation between the Social Democrats and the Socialist Party in 1966-1967 – was one of the themes covered and as a prominent member of the Socialist Party, Gert Petersen, the party chairman between 1974 and 1991, was invited to tell his side of the story.

As I recall, the meeting started with some confusion because there had been a mix-up in the bookings of rooms, but Petersen took this in his stride. The group was given a room, Petersen sat on a table and started his talk. And continued for something like 90 minutes, keeping the absolute attention of his audience.

Of course, we weren’t any old audience, but a group of politics nerds political historians and former and active politicians, but I still dare any member of the Folketing to give a fluent and engaging 90 minute talk without using a manuscript, teleprompter or PowerPoint. I’m convinced that, had journalism and politics not gotten the better of him, Gert Petersen would have been a much-loved teacher and writer. And who knows: Maybe even a Danish equivalent to Eric Hobsbawm?

But politics became Gert Petersen’s vocation. If we leave aside a brief flirtation with nazism as a boy, Petersen spent his life on the Danish left wing becoming a member of the Danish Communist Party in 1945 and following the party’s chairman Aksel Larsen to become one of the founders of SF, the Socialist Party, in 1959.

Petersen’s big break came in 1974 when he took over the leadership of the party, coincidentally the same year when Poul Schlter took over the Conservative leadership. Both faced massive challenges and during their long tenures, Petersen to 1991, Schlter to 1993, managed to turn initial defeats into success.

In 1974, SF just like the Conservative Party was plagued with intense factional battles and Gert Petersen’s first task was to establish himself as the party’s middle man and internally stabilising force while the party, which had won 17 seats in the 1971 election slumped to 9 in 1975 and just 7 in 1977. It is easy to forget, that VS and DKP almost pulled even with SF in 1977 and that SF was seen as an endangered party, even a spent force, in the mid-1970s.

Then, Petersen’s and SF’s luck changed. The mobilisation on the extreme left following 1968 started to recede but Petersen and the rest of the SF leadership rightly saw that SF had a potential in the anti-nuclear power movement – this led to a focus on environmental policy in the 1980s onwards – and in the peace movement and the party managed to attract former DKP and VS voters as the broad church of the Danish left wing. In 1979, the party won 11 seats at the general election, and in 1981 a staggering 21 – unfortunately for Petersen and SF at the expense of the Social Democrats.

The 1980s were active years for Gert Petersen both as a politician and a writer, but even if the party maintained its support at the 1984 election and even won 27 seats in 1987 – SF’s best performance ever – and was able to influence decisions on foreign and development policy as well as environmental policy through the “alternative majority” of Social Liberals, Social Democrats and Socialists, the party was ridiculed as winning from the hammock. The “working class majority” of Social Democrats and Socialists remained frustratingly elusive.

With the decline of the peace movement and the fall of the iron curtain, SF’s and Petersen’s luck also began to run out. In 1990 the party suffered a major defeat in the election and in 1991, Petersen quietly bowed out but left SF an orderly, if slightly dull house.

  1. The meetings were taped but I’m not sure where the material is now. Probably the Danish National Archives. []

Written by Jacob Christensen

January 1st, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Politics

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Mogens Glistrup 1926-2008

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This one really deserves a longer post but let me just note that the lawyer and politician Mogens Glistrup, founder of the Progress Party, has died. Whether or not you liked his politics, his impact on Danish politics in the 1970s onward was huge.

Written by Jacob Christensen

July 2nd, 2008 at 3:26 pm

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Charles Tilly

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Daniel Little interviews Charles Tilly who died yesterday.

The entire series is here.

I don’t have any personal links to Tilly but when I was involved in a project on the history and development of the Danish public administration back in the early 1990s, Tilly’s work on the development of Western European states was among our sources for inspiration.

Written by Jacob Christensen

April 30th, 2008 at 9:59 pm

Mary Douglas Dies

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Obituaries in the Guardian and the Valve.

And what does a social anthropologist have to do with political science, you may ask.

There is one or the other link: Douglas’s work on complementary cultures, the grid-group model, influenced Aaron Wildavsky at a late point in his career. Scholars in public administration have also used her approach which can be used to put the present obsession with markets, competitions and rankings into a perspective.

Book tips

  • Mary Douglas and Steven Ney (1998) Missing Persons. University of California Press (Amazon UK)
  • Christopher Hood (2000) The Art of the State. Clarendon Press (Amazon UK)
  • Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky (1990) Cultural Theory. Westview Press (Amazon UK)

Written by Jacob Christensen

May 19th, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Hans J. Wegner Dies

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According to Politiken, the furniture designer Hans J. Wegner has died at the age of 92. The death was hardly surprising as Wegner hasn’t appeared in public for a long time.

Wegner became famous as the designer of “The Chair” which was used in the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. Presidential campaign and he is one of the iconic figures of post-war Danish design.

Written by Jacob Christensen

February 1st, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Posted in General

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Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006)

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Embarassing, but I managed to miss this piece of news completely:

Note that while the Washington Post calls Lipset a political scientist, the New York Times claims him for sociology.

Who is right?

As a matter of fact, both. Lipset’s main body of work was concerned with political sociology but he was very much one of founders of modern political science. (The Lipset-Rokkan thesis, anyone?)

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, Lipset was one of those scholars that we read about – rather than reading the man himself. For a number of reasons, I became more fascinated with Lipset’s contemporary Giovanni Sartori.

Written by Jacob Christensen

January 11th, 2007 at 8:15 pm

Bo Bojesen Dies

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If you’re not Danish or under 40, the name Bo Bojesen probably won’t mean too much to you.

If, on the other hand, you are Danish, over 40 and from Copenhagen, the name will mean a lot to you and bring back a lot of memories.

For almost 40 years, Bo Bojesen was the leading editorial cartoonist at the daily newspaper Politiken and his works gave and still give a fascinating insight into the development of Danish politics and Danish society at large from the mid-1940s until his retirement in 1993.

Even if Bojesen became an icon during his lifetime, he was not alone: Danish newspapers have a long tradition of employing cartoonists and using cartoons as an integral part of reporting and commenting. He belonged to a distinguished line starting with Alfred Schmidt who was active during the first decades of the 20th Century, continuing with Herluf Jensenius who reached his prime during the inter-war era, and with Roald Als as the main contemporary representative.

In my opinion, Bojesen was at his best from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, but his earlier and later work is still very much enjoyable. The crazyness of much of Danish politics during the 1970s and the upheavals of the 1960s obviously inspired him, though.

Over his long career, Bojesen’s style changed markedly, even if his drawings always retained an instantly recognizable “Bojesen flair”. His early work was almost baroque and highly detailed, almost crowded, but from the mid-1960s onward, he refined his style so that the cartoons from later years would often only contain the information essential to understand the message.

Bojesen mixed realism, caricature and gentle humour in a blend which I think is characteristic of the Danish cartoon tradition. An element of self-mockery, even self-depreciation also belongs to the mix. It is not easily understood by outsiders, even if Svenska Dagbladet’s artist Jan Berglin comes close.

Bojesen was first and foremost a professional. He retired in 1993 at the age of 70, passed the baton to Roald Als and stopped making editorial cartoons.

Obituary in Politiken: Bo Bojesen dd, 83 r.

Written by Jacob Christensen

November 17th, 2006 at 12:54 am

Posted in Politics

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John Kenneth Galbraith 1908-2006

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The Canadia-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith has died at the tender age of 97. These days, Galbraith will be considered an eccentric within the field for two reasons: He was what Europeans would call a Social Democrat rather than a conservative and relied on qualitative analysis rather than formal modelling in his work.

Galbraith did play some role in my education through the TV-series “The Age of Uncertainty” which followed the development of the global economy and Economics from the 18th Century onward and which was screened by Danish television back around 1980.

For Brad deLong’s take on Galbraith, read this review of Richard Parker’s biography.

Update: In fact, Brad deLong reposted his review on his blog instead of writing an obituary (that would have had basically the same content). The comments are actually worth reading as well.

Written by Jacob Christensen

April 30th, 2006 at 12:04 pm

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