Monotonous or Pluralistic Public Discourse? Reason-giving and dissent in Denmark’s and Sweden’s early 2020 COVID-19 responses

Baekkeskov Erik*, Olivier Rubin, PerOla Öberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


COVID-19 outbreaks forced governments into epic policy choices conciliating democratic legitimacy and science-based policies. We examine how pervasive crises like this pandemic shape public discourses, proposing two ideal-types that discourse may tend toward. One is pluralism, which includes authoritative voices that represent viable alternative policies and credible reasons for them. The opposite is monotony, where authoritative voices offer credible reasons for one policy option only. Two crucial cases for monotony are analysed, where news media represents public discourse. In initial COVID-19 responses, Denmark pursued hard lockdown while neighbouring Sweden enacted voluntary distancing. Pluralism in public discourses could be advantaged while solutions remained uncertain and social and economic disruptions high, in polities with mature democratic and scientific institutions. The empirical analyses show that Denmark’s elected leaders and Sweden’s leading health scientists publicly represented their respective national responses. Yet in sampled public discourses on highly disruptive policies on school closures and crowding limits, both leaderships focused on justifying national choices rather than elucidating options. In turn, other sources skewed toward justifications for national policies rather than attention to alternatives. We suggest finally that such skews toward discourse monotony create risks to democratic legitimacy and long-term response efficacy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of European Public Policy
Issue number8
Pages (from-to)1321-1343
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2
  • Pandemic response
  • crisis management
  • democratic deliberation
  • public discourse

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