David Heinemeier Hansson

March 30, 2023

America is never "getting to Denmark"

It took moving back to Denmark to realize the folly of thinking America is ever going to "get there". Whether on guns or healthcare or taxes or any other major policy position that's so fiercely contested in the US. Despite growing up in this little Nordic country, I didn't fully appreciate the tremendous, underpinning power of a homogenous culture to fasten all these planks of a socially-democratic state – until I returned after 15 years Over There. I do now.

Denmark is a notoriously difficult country to integrate in. Not only because the language is difficult, but because the people are too! I say this with all the love and respect of a Dane that continues to marvel at what a high-trust, high-coherence society these former Vikings have managed to construct. But it's true. Danes are ever so graceful and kind to foreigners when they're visiting, but once the welcome of a guest is worn out, they're also incredibly demanding of the integration process.

This is why it all works! There's an immense cultural pressure to assimilate, and comply with all the major norms and beliefs. That process is how you forge that deep national unity, which makes Danes, as a whole, happy to pay their high taxes for the common good.

Americans usually first notice this dynamic in a few funny ways. They chuckle at why most Danes will dutifully wait at the crosswalk in the rain, at night, with nary a car around, for the little man to turn from red to green.

It may sound silly, but it's this kind of fierce conformity that  carries everything else. From a level of compliance with public health authorities during the pandemic that would shock a lot of Americans (or maybe even scare them!). To rituals like using the Danish flag to celebrate birthdays or greet family at the airport (a display of overt patriotic symbolism that would instantly be coded as politically partisan in the US!).

Danes are on a whole very proud of being Danes. And they have ample reason to be. So it's hard to fault them their strict expectations for integration.

Let's take that language for example. I know of immigrants here in Denmark who have lived in the country for five years or more. In total command of the vocabulary, the idioms, but still lacking that last bit on pronunciation. It's common for them to face private admonishments to "try a little harder to work on it". In addition to the inherent alienation this country silently produces when you're not able to match the perfect pitch of those æ, å, ø characters.

Contrast this again with America. I arrive at immigration, and the officers literally guarding entry to God's own country will have a thick, foreign accent. This is normal. Nobody bats an eye. I don't think Americans critical of their own country appreciate just what a strength that is for the ease of integration!

Now I'm of course just contrasting two countries here. Denmark shares many cultural sensibilities and preferences with other Nordic and European countries. Americans aren't exactly the only country more forgiven of a thick accent (hello Spain!). But the contrast is instructive nonetheless.

The irony is that living in Denmark has actually made me appreciate America more! For all its navel gazing about its supposed structural racism or other irredeemable sins, it is by far and away the most welcoming, open, and integratable country I've ever spent serious time in. The cliché of the melting pot might be trite but it's still apt.

What I've come to accept, though, is that this openness and integration probably only works because of the individualistic streak that defines the original America ethos. That if we're going to live in a truly multicultural, heterogeneous country together, we can't also expect the levels of trust and collectivism that makes countries like Denmark capable of working like they do.

That's a hard trade-off! When you've seen what benefits accrue to Danes from having a competent government that literally runs everything from the healthcare system to the mass-transit systems to the education system, you'd be forgiving for wishing that could be true, with the same outcomes, in America.

Which brings me to the notion of American Exceptionalism. I used to find that idea delusional. A self-aggrandizement typical of Americans. But in light of the comparison above, I think it actually is more true than I would have cared to admit before this latest stint in Denmark. 

Creating a nation out of so many other nationalities, and making it not just work, but thrive on so many parameters absolutely is an exceptional achievement! Not sure it's ever been replicated at this scale in the history of the world. Over three hundred million people living in relative(!!) harmony, and besting the rest of the world in discipline after discipline. That is something special!

Don't construe any of the above as apologetics for the myriad of deep problems facing America. But do consider, as an American, to what extent you might have soaked yourself in so much pointless envy about "what every other country in the world can do!" that you've drowned the ability to appreciate the marvel of your own grand, underlying experiment.

I've seen it both ways now. As an immigrant to America and married to an immigrant to Denmark. I can fully appreciate why there are still legions of people around the world who dream of making it to America. That however tattered the American dream might be, the promise of being able to integrate – truly and fully – is still there. And it's worth much more than America's critics – internally, externally, and including yours truly – usually give it credit for.

So. Despite it all, having consumed a never-ending, dreadful stream of dreary news about America for at least a decade now, I'm strangely more optimistic than I've ever been. Sure, the empire might still come tumbling down in tumultuous ways, but I'm not going to count America out just yet. And regardless of what may or may not actually happen, I can at least personally change my perspective from being so incessantly negative about its prospect to focusing on its true and inherent exceptionalism.

So that's what I now choose. I choose to cheer for America. In all its contradictions, despite all its flaws. I no longer yearn for it to just WAKE UP, and become like Denmark. Let America be America. The best, most beautiful version of America. But America.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.