How Did Nordic Countries Get So Democratic?

Norwegian parliament
Norwegian parliament in Oslo

Democracy is easy, right? Just hold elections and select a leader? Not quite. We have seen in countless countries from Iraq to Afghanistan that merely holding elections does not create a fully functioning democracy. This applies to well-developed countries as well, such as Singapore and the US. Both are ranked as “flawed democracies”. The map below shows the democracy index. Only the dark green countries are considered fully democratic. The top rankings are all dominated by the Nordic countries except for New Zealand which managed to sneak in at second place.

Democracy index. Darker green means more democratic.

Observations like this have made many people in the developing world skeptical of democracy. Such experiences are not new. In the 1930s, totalitarian beliefs spread all over the West as people lost faith in democracy. Fascists took power in one nation after the other and abolished democracy: Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Japan, and Germany. Reality is that working democracies are difficult to make. Germany had not had much time to get democracy to work in the 1930s when Hitler rose to power. Democracy had only existed since the end of WW1 in 1918 and through that period the country had suffered from all the effects of heavy war reparations and the 1929 stock exchange crash in New York leading to the great depression.

In this story, I will take a look at how one of the top ranking democracies in the world, the Nordic ones, got built.

How do you build a working democracy?

Democracies rarely establish themselves fully formed and perfect. Few countries go from deeply oppressive regimes to perfect democracies. Democracies evolve from flawed democracies which again may have evolved from hybrid regimes, absolute monarchies or dictatorships.

Thus, there are two important questions this article will address.

  • How do you advance a flawed or partial democracy into a fully working democracy over time?
  • How do you create a public which is responsible and sensible when picking representatives and leaders?

The former is about having some kind of process which can allow a society to gradually progress towards democracy. The latter is about what exactly is needed to create the kinds of citizens a fully working democracy needs.

Many constitutions stress the need for an enlightened electorate. If your voters have been left in the dark and don’t know anything about society, government or the important issues of the day, then they cannot be effective voters. Instead, they will be swayed by demagogues, populists, and conspiracy theories. Another essential endeavor is creating a sense of unity. A sense that we are all in the same boat. That we have responsibilities towards each other. If you cannot do that, then everybody will pull in different directions and democracy will end up as a crowd of people trying to shout over each other.

The rest of this story will try to answer these two essential question by working backwards. The top boxes represent these questions and each section will be a supporting blue box which answers a question or challenged posed higher up. For instance I ask how you pick good leaders, then the next section answers: Create an enlightened public. Yet every section will create new questions which need answering.

How we work ourselves backwards to the main driving forces which allows us to build a society where voters select sensible leaders. If voters don’t pick sensible leaders then democracy itself will malfunction.

How do you create an enlightened public?

Education is key, but does that mean that the success of democracy is directly proportional to how many people have higher education? It is essential to distinguish between an educated elite and a broad and good education of the common people. There will always be more cleaners, McDonald’s workers, shop clerks and truck drivers than University professors. Each of them have a vote in a democracy. The votes cast by the well-educated elite constitute a small minority of the total votes. The bulk of the votes will be cast by average Joe and Jane working at the register, driving trucks, working at a farm, doing customer support and picking products in a warehouse. It is going to matter more how well you educate the average truck driver, than how brilliant your math professors are, as the truck drivers will have more votes.

Political leaders are selected by regular people like this guy. Democracy relies on how well Joe and Jane are educated.
Political leaders are selected by regular people like this guy. Democracy relies on how well Joe and Jane are educated.

Nor can we consider education to be something that exclusively happens at formal institutions such as schools and universities. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. People have to learn through their whole life and keep themselves informed. How do you achieve that?

Those questions can be reduced to:

  • Difference between broad and elitist education.
  • Creating a learning culture. A culture of readers and curious people who discuss and ask questions. People who get involved in the political process.
How an enlightened public necessitates a focus on broad education rather than perfecting education of the intellectual elites.

Broad vs. Elitist Education

In terms of higher education, Nordic countries have historically been laggards. Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and many other European countries had highly respected universities for hundreds of years before most Nordic countries even had a university. In Norway for instance we did not get a university until 1811. Contrast this with Oxford, which has existed since 1096 and Cambridge since 1209.

Souls college, part of the University of Oxford, which as existed since 1096
Souls college, part of the University of Oxford, which as existed since 1096

Even today, the Nordic region is not a top ranker of people with higher education. Whenever the news covers something smart we did in the Nordic region, there will often be some Americans who make remarks such as: “Oh, those Nordics are much better educated than us.”

But are we really better educated in the Nordics? If you look at rankings of how large percentage of the population has gotten higher education, the US is, in fact, a top performer. The US even beats most Nordic countries.

What differentiates the Nordic region from Britain, the US and many other countries is not education for the elite but for the common people. Denmark and Norway introduced public education for everyone in 1739.

Midtbygda school, Norway 1907. Nordics were late with higher education but a pioneer in public education for all citizens.
Midtbygda school, Norway 1907. Nordics were late with higher education but a pioneer in public education for all citizens.

Britain in contrast did not get public education until 1870 and the US not until 1830. British literacy rate then made a big jump to 76 percent. Everybody in the Nordic region could read and write at that point. In fact, it was perhaps the only fully literate region of the world. In fact, it has been estimated that already in 1739 most of the Norwegian population (90 percent) could read. It is just that they could not all write. Writing was not necessary for most farmers, but analysis of farms from that era shows that most of them had books and read with some regularity.

These observations are part of a broader difference between Nordic countries and many other highly developed and advanced countries. Nordics countries did not have as well-developed elites, but focused instead far more on the common people. Nordics developed a much broader literary culture for the common people.

School alone cannot create an educated population. A love of reading and learning must also be nurtured.

A Nation of Readers

If you only read and engage in intellectual pursuits within the walls of a school building or university, you will not get far. An interest in learning has to be broadly established. One way to do that is to create a literary culture. A culture where people engage in and enjoy reading. This has very much been the case in the Nordic region.

For instance, in 1879 Norwegian author Jonas Lie reports back from his visit in Stuttgart, Germany (loosely translated):

The common people here in southern Germany is 50 years behind Nordic countries in terms of literary culture. The men and certainly not the women, do not know their own poets and writers. The writers enjoy no esteem or respect. They have great writers and books, but the wife does not read what the husband writes. The people do not read what their esteemed write.

What Jonas Lie is describing is a general difference between the Nordic countries and the rest of Europe. There were talented authors elsewhere, but they were mainly read by an elite, while the great national poets and writers of the Nordic quickly became something even peasants read. Among the common people, it was seen as important to be well-read. To not know your national authors was almost an embarrassment.

The four great ones: Bjørnson, Ibsen, Kjelland and Lie, icons of Norwegian literature from the 1800s
The four great ones: Bjørnson, Ibsen, Kjelland and Lie, icons of Norwegian literature from the 1800s

My mother grew up in postwar Norway. Her father from a dirt poor family of sharecroppers. He lost his parents when he was just a boy. He got a job at the paper mill in my hometown of Moss. My grandmother was a housewife. In other words, they were simple working-class Norwegians. Norway was far behind the US at the time. In the street my mother grew up, there were perhaps one or two cars. Neither of her parents ever had a car. Cars were luxury imports you had to apply to the government to buy. Limited foreign currency could not be used to buy what was deemed almost a frivolous thing.

Postwar Norwegians did not grow up with cars and phones but with plenty of books
Postwar Norwegians did not grow up with cars and phones but with plenty of books

Yet, in their home they have a bookshelf with all the Norwegian literature classics: Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, Knut Hamsun and many more. My mother was an avid reader from an early age. It was not all that different for my father. They lived in Oslo in what was almost a luxury apart by the standards of the day because they had their own bathroom and toilet. Yet, it was tiny. My father and his sister had to share a room, and their parents slept in the kitchen. Yet, they still had plenty of books. My grandfather loved all sorts of books about Norwegian polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen.

In other words, the common people of Norway were relatively poor compared to those of other advanced nations like the United States, Britain and Germany. But what made them different was they were avid readers. Nordic countries were not that much richer than Spain or Italy in the 1870s, but everybody could read and write when only 47 and 42 percent of Spaniards and Italians could do the same.

But, how is this culture created?

Creating Book Lovers

Habits and interests tend to be formed early in life. It is not without reason that Nordic countries are so preoccupied with children’s literature and libraries. Despite the Nordic countries combined not being much bigger in population than a large city in China, the region has long punched above its weight in several literature genres. Nordic Noire is well known around the world. But many children around the world have probably at some point been exposed to Nordic children’s books:

  • Pippi Longstocking and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter from Astrid Lindgren,
  • The Moomins from Tove Jansson
  • The Ugly duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, or the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Anderson.
  • Sophies World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Pancakes for Findus by Sven Nordqvist.
  • The Billy Goats Gruff
Modern scandinavian children's story about an old man and his cat Findus
Modern scandinavian children’s story about an old man and his cat Findus

Reading for children is taken very seriously in Nordic countries. It is pushed and promoted at all levels. Growing up, I never thought about it as anything special until the American 2020 presidential election, where Joe Biden talked about getting children to learn more words by putting on a TV and turning on the record player. It was interesting to observe how commentators and Americans made fun of his reference to old technology. But to me as a Scandinavian, it was the lack of references to reading books for your children which surprised me. It occurred to me that very rarely in American discourse do I see a discussion on developing a joy of book reading in children. In Norwegian, we have a word for it, “leseglede.”

In Norway, creating “leseglede” is seen as essential. That is why government spends a lot of money on libraries. Not just city libraries but collections of books at pre-school, elementary schools and elsewhere. In Finland, they even have library busses with books inside that drive around to remote areas to make sure everyone gets access to books.

In fact, I think the concept of “joy” is taken a lot more serious in the Nordics than many other countries. Norway has more winter olympic medals than any other country in total, despite being just 5 million people. Finland and Sweden have the most olympic summer medals per capita of any country. “Idrettsglede,” or sports-joy is a key strategy behind that success. In an agreement with China, Norway once agreed to train Chinese winter sport athletes. What they discovered they had to spend most time developing was a joy of the sport. They did eventually achieve that, but as soon as Norwegian trainers left, the Chinese gradually reverted to the old system and killed the joy.

A nordic ideal in sports has been to create self drive through sports joy "sportsglede"
A nordic ideal in sports has been to create self drive through sports joy “sportsglede”

The Nordic idea is that people cannot be micromanaged and pushed at all times. Education cannot happen alone while people are in school. Instead, one must foster a self-drive to improve and learn. Norwegian sports training is about turning athletes into their own trainers. To make them push themselves towards success rather than leaving that job exclusively to the coach. Likewise, school teachers cannot be left with the sole responsibility of making sure children learn. By fostering curiosity and love of reading, you can put people on a lifelong journey of continuous improvement.

Perhaps it is not an accident that many of the toys which foster the creativity and exploration of children are from Nordic countries, such as Lego blocks, Brio wooden railways, and Minecraft.

How do you make citizens believe reading is important? Tie reading in with national identity. Reading the works of national poets means you care about your identity and culture.

The Role of Nationalism in Developing Literacy and Democracy

Nationalism grew in Norway and Sweden through the 1800s, but in very different context in each country. The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 was the catalyst. In 1814, the crown prince of Sweden, Karl Johan, leads Swedish troops into Denmark and force Denmark to abstain Norway and let Sweden form union with Norway under the Swedish king. These actions lead to a series of evens where Norwegians rekindle an old wish for sovereignty. Representatives from across the country gather at Eidsvoll to create a Norwegian constitution inspired by the American declaration of independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789.

Representatives from all across Norway gathered at Eidsvoll in 1814 to create one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe
Representatives from all across Norway gathered at Eidsvoll in 1814 to create one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe

Norwegian independence only lasts for a few months before Sweden invades, but Norway is able to punch back hard enough against Sweden for them to agree to a compromise. Considerable power was given to the Norwegian parliament in the redrafted Norwegian constitution. Yet, Norway as a democracy was at this time not fully formed. The Norwegian government was picked by the Swedish king, and the Norwegian parliament did not assemble very frequently. While the voting laws were liberal by European standards giving a full 40% of the male population above 25 the right to vote it still left out the less privileged people without property and women.

This new position and the end of Danish rule, which we in Norway often refer to as the 400-year sleep, became the starting point for surging patriotic nationalism. Norwegians wanted to re-establish their identity. For Americans to put this into perspective, it may help to think about native-Americans forced to learn English and become like majority Americans. Naturally, many would fight against this process and elicit pride in their culture tradition and language. For Norwegians, it was much the same. Norwegians wanted to establish a Norwegian written language. Until 1814 all writing in Norway had been done in Danish and the elites ruling Norway spoke a form of hybrid Norwegian-Danish. In fact, many of the officials and bureaucrats in Norway were of Danish origin and spoke Danish.

A similar process evolved in Finland. Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809 as part of the Napoleonic wars. Just like Sweden has accepted considerable Norwegian autonomy to get Norwegians to accept Swedish rule without steep resistance, the Russians chose to give Finland considerable autonomy to accept Russian rule. The net effect was that Finland like Norway also got a form of parliament and expanded freedoms, which set the stage for surging patriotic nationalism in Finland.

Literacy Driven by Nationalism

Finns, like Norwegians, had not been able to write in their own language. In Finland, Swedish has been the dominant written-form and the language spoken and used by the elites both in government, business and other areas. In Finland in this period the epic Finnish poetry Kalevala was created:

The Kalevala is regarded as the national epic of Karelia and Finland and is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature with J. L. Runeberg’s The Tales of Ensign Stål and Aleksis Kivi’s The Seven Brothers. The Kalevala was instrumental in the development of the Finnish national identity and the intensification of Finland’s language strife that ultimately led to Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

The hero of Kalevala, Väinämöinen, defending the Sampo
The hero of Kalevala, Väinämöinen, defending the Sampo

Norway had authors Asbjørnsen and Moe, who collected Norwegian fairy tales like the German brothers Grim. They went all around the country getting locals to tell them stores that they would write down and collect into Norwegian Folktales. This is where people today kind find the many stories about Norwegian trolls. These stories were written down in ways that matched more closely the ways actual Norwegians spoke, rather than the hybrid Danish language of the city elites.

The Norwegian fairy tale White-Bear-King-Valemon painted by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen
The Norwegian fairy tale White-Bear-King-Valemon painted by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen

Later Norway would get well-renowned writers such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, Henrik Ibsen and Amalie Skram. These authors made a point of writing in a more Norwegian way.

The problem in Norway is that nobody could agree upon what exactly Norwegian should be. Norway is a fairly large country with dramatic terrain, causing people to live isolated and develop very different dialects, which could almost be considered different languages. Different intellectuals followed different strategies in trying to create a written language from a spoken language which had no clear standard.

Norwegian language researchers Knud Knudsen endeavored to create a Norwegian written form based on the hybrid language spoken in the major cities in Norway. His approach was basically to start with Danish and make it more Norwegian. His work would evolve into two different written forms of Norwegian, called Bokmål and Riskmål.

Ivar Aasen, a Norwegian philologist, and poet took the opposite approach. Aasen sought to build a Norwegian language from scratch by basing it on a variety of Norwegian dialects. He work lead to a Norwegian written form called Nynorsk. As a result, there has existed a number of different competing written forms of Norwegian over the years, which all use different grammatical structure and vocabulary.

The conflict between these written forms have yet to be resolved. Norway is until now stuck with two written forms. It is a persistent source of political debate in Norway. In an American context, the closest analogy is perhaps the abortion debate. In Norway, abortion is a non-issue, but language is an issue people never get tired of debating.

Much the same will be the case for Finland. Language is about your national identity. That is why Norwegians and Finns both became preoccupied with reading and writing. While literature may be a question for literature professors in large, powerful countries, it becomes almost like a patriotic duty to read for the people of small countries like Norway and Finland. In Finland, for instance, most citizens could not read books and newspaper published because it was all in Swedish. Finnish was too different to easily bridge the gap to Swedish. Their language being marginalized meant that as a people, they had no news or literature to read. During the Crimean war, Finnish positions got attacked, but most Finns were unable to learn about it because it was all written about in Swedish.

Supporting authors thus became almost a question of national security. In Norway, literature became important enough that parliament would actually debate economic aid to specific authors, such as Henrik Ibsen. Even today, authors and newspapers enjoy strong political and financial support.

In other countries the money may be covered by military leaders, presidents, kings, or queens. Norwegian money, in contrast, was until recently decorated with the faces of authors.

Authors play the same role in Norwegian consciousness and history as founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, play in American history and consciousness. Authors in Norway were not mere writers, but active participants in the political discourse and development of Norwegian democracy.

Democracy Driven by Nationalism

In Norway, the parliament was controlled by the Norwegian population which elected it while the government was in large part controlled by the Swedish king selecting it. Through the 1800s, Norwegian parliament would exert ever more control and attempt to strip power away from the king until Norway developed a parliamentary system, which is how the present Norwegian political system works. Under the parliamentary system, the king becomes a figurehead without any real political power. Government gets selected by the majority of parliament. While the king is still formally in charge of the country his ministers have not been selected by him and thus his actual power becomes symbolic.

Because the king was Swedish, fighting for more power to Norwegians means fighting for more democracy. A more democratic system would shift more power towards Norway. In Sweden, the opposite became the case: More democracy mean less power to Sweden. This dynamic had the peculiar effect that in Norway those fighting for democracy were nationalists, while nationalists in Sweden opposed democracy.

Johan Sverdrup, Liberal prime minister from 1884 who introduced the parliamentary system and thus stripped the Swedish king of most of his power.
Johan Sverdrup, Liberal prime minister from 1884 who introduced the parliamentary system and thus stripped the Swedish king of most of his power.

Thus, nationalism developed into a leftist liberal ideology in Norway, while nationalism evolved into a conservative and right-wing ideology in Sweden. Norwegian nationalist, author and left-wing radical Henrik Wergeland for instance fought hard against an unfortunate paragraph in the Norwegian constitution which forbid Jews access to Norway. Thus, ironically, the man most well known from Norwegian history for fighting racism was a nationalist. Of course, today, it probably makes more sense to use the word patriot.

Even today, this difference in history causes some friction between Norwegians and Swedes. We are very similar people, but when the question of patriotism arises we are on two different planets. Norwegians tend to be fiercely patriotic in a way Swedes are not.

How Literacy Helps Evolve Democracy

While nationalism helped push democracy in Norway, literacy itself also helped tremendously in evolving from a more limited democracy to one of the strongest democracies in the world. That literacy and democracy are connected may not be immediately obvious, but it is something those in power have long understood.

In the old American South, a slave could get severely punished for being literate. The US had anti-literacy laws.

Anti-literacy laws also arose from fears of slave insurrection, particularly around the time of abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 publication of Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which openly advocated rebellion,

Anyone in power fears literacy because it allows people to organize, and that is in fact exactly what happened in Norway and other Nordic countries. Because the population got literate before most other countries, large popular movements for regular people pushing for more rights and democracy sprung up earlier.

I will focus on Norway specifically, as it was the key driver of democracy in the Nordic region. Norway had four mass movements:

  • Born again Christians — They were an alternative to the state church, preaching a pious form of Christianity.
  • Temperance movement — A movement to reduce or completely end the consumption of alcohol.
  • Progressive nationalists — Secularists pushing for progressive and liberal values and Norwegian nationalism. This ideology may sound like a contradiction, but I will elaborate later.
  • The labour movement — Fought for voting rights for the working class, unions, and better conditions for factory workers.

There were numerous smaller movements and sub movements, such as the sports movement. Not every movement was necessarily fighting directly for democracy, but these movements served as places for common people to learn how to run organizations, recording meetings and keep membership lists. The organizations themselves actively engaged in training their members in rhetoric, argumentation, and whatever was important to understand and know about society to advance their cause.

Before these organizations, the bourgeoise, and government officials held a lot of the power. These people understood better how the system and the laws worked. With better education and connections, they were more effective at arguing their case. The folk movements leveled the playing field. It helped that Nordic countries had strong press freedom traditions. In fact, the Nordic region was the first with press freedom in the world. First was Sweden with their Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. Denmark-Norway introduced absolute press freedom in 1770, even allowing straight out insults, slander and lies. Ironically, freedom of expression came in both Sweden and Denmark-Norway long before democracy. Denmark-Norway was still an absolute monarchy. Press freedom in the US arrived several decades later in 1791 with the Bill of Rights. It should be noted that press-freedom did not last longer than 3 years in Denmark-Norway when it first got enacted, but it helped plant a seed that would later grow.

In Norway, press freedom came back permanently in 1814 with the constitution. The combination of press freedom and a fully literate population drove the democratization process.

The labour movement was an obvious democratization movement because it fought for and eventually succeeded in giving voting rights to the working class. Remember, early forms of democracies excluded people who did not own property.

Democracy Spreads to the Rest of Scandinavia

While Norway split from Denmark politically, the cultural connection remained strong. Norwegian authors continued to publish in Denmark, even if Danes would often complain that their writing was not properly Danish. Culturally, Denmark long remained a big brother, but in politics Norway became a key source of inspiration of Danish liberals. When King Christian VIII ascended the Danish throne in 1839 Danish liberals had high hopes that he would advance a liberal constitution for Denmark. The reason was that before taking the name Christian VIII, he was, in fact, briefly the King of Norway in 1814. It was under him that Norway created its constitution at Eidsvoll. So, why did he change his mind? Much was likely from the reason that in Norway his position was much weaker. He needed the consent of Norwegians, and many Norwegians supported a union with Sweden because the Swedes had offered more autonomy to Norway than under Danish rule.

Yet, as Norwegian democracy advanced, it created increasing pressure in Denmark for more democratic reforms there as well.


Nordic countries focused earlier than other countries on broad education and fostering literary culture that went beyond a small intellectual elite. Other advanced nations focused on higher education and their intellectual and cultural elites, while the Nordics focused more on raising up the common people.

By making the average person better read and better educated, Nordic countries were able to create democracy mass movements which drove a rapid democratization processes rooted in popular will.

The point I have been trying to make through this article is that a functioning democracy does not just rely on an educated public to bring it into existence, but also in terms of securing its quality. An ignorant public will not be capable of selecting good leaders.

Ironically, failing to raise up the average citizen can create a vicious circle: Intellectuals observing the failures of democracy become convinced that the common people are too stupid to be entrusted with matters of government and encourage the development of elitism or autocracy, which further undermines the intellectual development of the common people. If citizens are not involved in the political process.

Nordic countries today top rankings in social and economic development, in large part because Nordic countries developed a fully literate and democratic society earlier than most other countries. Well-developed democracies are statistically more likely to focus on things that matter for human development such as infant morality rate, crime, and health care rather than say beautiful monuments and tall buildings.

What lessons can other countries learn from the Nordic experience? Just letting people vote is not enough to build a functioning democracy. If you want your democracy to work, then you need to invest in your people, not just the brightest ones. The saying about a chain being no stronger than its weakest link applies equally well to democracy. Having a splendid scientific and business elite is akin to having some links made of titanium. That is irrelevant if many of your links are rusted poor quality steel.

There is also a hope here. Many people in developing countries transitioning to democracy become disillusioned. They don’t see the rapid improvement in policy and decision-making they had hoped. However, they should know that they have embarked on a longer journey. Democracies are intricate and delicate machinery which takes time to evolve. However, once evolved, they are strong and resilient against many challenges and crisis.



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Erik Engheim

Erik Engheim


Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.