Jan E. Jørgensen wants more nuance in Danish political debate. An MP for the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the party’s spokesperson on the EU and human rights, he’s made a name for himself through strong performances in TV debates and an active social media profile – a profile committed to telling it like it is.
“Liberal VVD in Holland. Huge victory. The greatest. Much greater than bad Wilders. Anti-EU-populism. Loosers. Mark Rutte. Winner,” Jørgensen wrote on Twitter after the election in the Netherlands, mimicking a certain populist president.
We meet in his office in the Yellow Hall of the Danish Parliament, Folketinget. Maybe it’s just the vibrant colours, but I sense a warm collegial atmosphere throughout the entire floor. There seems to be an open-door policy, and several colleagues drop by to say hello during the interview.
“People always say hello, and it’s a nice place to be. And it’s necessary, considering how much time we spend fighting over this and that – we need to be extra nice to each other after those fights,” he says.
Jørgensen has been in politics for over three decades, but he’s trained as a barrister – a background that has been especially useful in his political career.
“It’s easier for me to separate professional opinions from personal ones. That’s why I can fight with someone and still be friendly with them afterwards. I’m used to fighting verbally with my opponent with the aim of winning – and we both know it’s not personal. It’s like a tennis match,” he explains.
Disagreement is the very goal of politics, he adds, so you’re in the wrong place if you can’t handle a debate. But that doesn’t justify harsh or personal attacks.
“I have great respect for people who disagree with me, and I don’t have any ambition to agree with things the Red-Green Alliance [Enhedslisten] believes, for instance. We’re just on two separate planets in that regard. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t debate and discuss properly with one another and recognise each other’s arguments,” he says.
“What upsets me is when someone is a jackass or rude.”
He is referring to a recent radio debate between himself, MP Kenneth Kristensen Berth from the Danish People’s Party (DF) and Pernille Vermund from the New Conservatives (Nye Borgerlige). Berth and Vermund accused Jørgensen of being out of step with the public and not caring about Danish workers – Vermund even went so far as to call Jørgensen a totalitarian. In the now-viral recording, Jørgensen loses his temper.
“I reacted that way because some personal things were drawn into the debate, like my education and previous job. And by Kenneth of all people, who himself is an academic and who, unlike me, has never worked a single day in the private sector. The man’s lived off taxpayer money like some party tycoon. And then he pretends to be some representative of the people – some working class hero – who knows what’s up. And I’m this elitist, highly-educated, well-paid lawyer, who doesn’t understand shit? That upsets me, because I find it to be completely unreasonable,” Jørgensen says.
But what about when his own party behaves provocatively? The Liberals are divided between pragmatists like Jørgensen and finance minister Kristian Jensen on the one side, and populists like immigration minister Inger Støjberg on the other.
Støjberg is also known for her active social media presence, though she takes a more divisive approach. After passing her 50th new law restricting immigration, Støjberg posed for a photo on Facebook with a celebratory cake. It was widely condemned as a tasteless gesture.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and it can be a very powerful tool in communication. But it can also offend a lot of people if taken out of context, so you have to be careful. She’s apologised for upsetting anyone, and I can only concur,” he says.
Jørgensen is worried that facts are becoming less important in the Danish political debate. While he accuses Vermund and Berth of being especially fond of using so-called “alternative facts”, he doesn’t limit his criticism to the right wing. He calls out the green and pro-entrepreneurism party The Alternative (Alternativet) for proposing unrealistic and impossible bills, too.
“You have the right to your own opinions, but you do not have the right to your own facts,” he says coolly, adding that Danish debate culture has shifted over the years. Instead of focusing on cold, hard facts and rationality, the debate has become more fluid and relative.
He points to the debates ahead of the referendum on Europol membership in 2015, which he believes left voters confused. Danes decided to vote no on the referendum for lack of better reasons to vote yes.
“At one point during all these Europol debates, I remember calling it ‘brainstorming live on air’. I mean, it’s fine to debate possible results and solutions, but once you’re on live television, it’s frustrating to deal with politicians who don’t have clear solutions. Perhaps my frustration is boosted by my background as a lawyer, where you’d have to do all the math before you got into the courtroom,” he says.
“This, to me, is dangerous for democracy. I mean, you can become President of the United States and still debate this way. Unfortunately it’s a sign that there is a market for these types of politicians. And if you really want to be a pessimist, you might even fear that this could pave the way for despots and put an end to democracy. So we need to fight this.”
Jørgensen thinks that it is every politician’s duty to convey and communicate his or her viewpoints in a broadly appealing manner, which is why he attempts to keep his language precise and concise when writing op-eds or letters to the editor.
“There is no need to alienate a lot of people by using technical terms and expressions that not everyone understands. You can say clever and well-thought-out things without using a thesaurus. On the other hand, there is no need to dumb anything down either. It’s a balance.”
But conveying ideas and beliefs can be tricky when the media reduces policies to headlines or tweets. He thinks this is what makes some politicians wary of taking a stand in an environment where – alluding to his judicial past – anything you say can and will be used against you.
“Politicians in general are now afraid of being blamed for something that they may have said but didn’t mean, or something that has been taken out of context,” he says.
He points to Parliament’s opening debate in 2013 when the Social Democrats were in power, led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Venstre leader Lars Løkke (Liberal Party) was discussing a tax reform that would give Danes 2,000 kroner extra per month if they moved off benefits and into a job. He said he didn’t think it was a substantial amount of money – perhaps only enough for a pair of shoes.
“The sarcastic remark was aimed at Helle Thorning, who was also known as Gucci-Helle due to her expensive taste in shoes and handbags. But the Social Democrats spun it to make it out like Lars didn’t know that ordinary people couldn’t afford spending 2000 kroner on a pair of shoes,” laments Jørgensen.
He also feels the bias of the press in smaller, everyday situations. For example, in February, Parliament convened a “mini-Denmark” debate, to which it invited 200 Danes representing a fair cross-section of society to discuss their views on the EU. The event went mostly unnoticed by the major outlets, which Jørgensen thinks is a shame.
“The same goes for other day-to-day achievements. For instance, my 17-year-old daughter knows that she can now apply for a driver’s licence earlier, because that is realpolitik and it’s relevant to her. But the press is failing its responsibility to cover more broadly. There are too many articles out there with click bait potential and entertainment value. But the press remains the fourth branch of government and needs to act accordingly,” he argues.
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Anti political correctness
Social media has undermined the established media to some extent by allowing politicians like Jørgensen to communicate directly with the public. And Jørgensen is good at it, using a mix of humour and bite to convey his message in 140 characters or less.
Media monitoring site Infomedia measured the ten most popular tweets using the Danish politics hashtag #dkpol in 2016 – Jørgensen was featured three times.
“Twitter I’ve figured out – but Snapchat I don’t understand. I only use that with my daughter,” he laughs.
“It’s important to communicate according to my age. I’m a fifty-something man who’s married and lives in Frederiksberg. It wouldn’t make sense if I tried to act like some 20-year-old blogger. It wouldn’t be real. I try to use humour because I find it natural. But the thing about humour is that you either have it or you don’t – either it works or it doesn’t. You can’t really force it.”
While Jørgensen enjoys the direct interaction with the voters that social media offers him, he also sees the risks in trying to reduce complex ideas to 140 characters. So he chooses carefully which debates to take on in social media – and which to avoid.
“There is a very harsh tone on the social platforms, and that drives a lot of regular, calm people away because nobody wants to be trashed online. My theory is that a lot of people remain silent in the debate because of this. So what you end up with is a lot of unkind comments by a few very angry people with too much time on their hands. These people are not representative of the entire population,” he argues.
He still doesn’t consider himself politically correct – doesn’t even like the term. He regards the expression as suggesting that some opinions are more valid than others, a view to which he does not subscribe.
“I’m not very diplomatic either, and I don’t necessarily think you should be. I think you should stick to facts and only facts. Take for instance some of the things Trump has said, like this absurd claim that Obama wiretapped him. I mean, if there had been a movie about this ten years ago, we’d all have said that it’s stupid and totally unrealistic. If he were some crazy conspiracy theorist, then maybe that would have been okay – but not when you are the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. On the other hand he probably, and hopefully, acts differently behind closed doors,” he says.
He’s worried about this apparent trend toward untruths, and doesn’t believe lying in politics can ever be justified, as it undermines the very democracy that we cherish.
“I would like my voice to be one of nuance in Danish politics. At the moment there is too much black and white debate going on. Martin Henriksen’s [Danish People’s Party] worldview is too dark and Zenia Stampe’s [Social Liberal Party] is too bright – I’d like to be somewhere in the middle.” M