This is Sweden’s populist moment
The Swedish Democrats are on the verge of a huge electoral breakthrough. As the general election approaches today, polls have suggested that right-wing populists could become Sweden’s second-largest party and the dominant force in right-wing opposition. If the right wins – and currently it is tied in the polls with the centre-left bloc led by the Social Democrats – there is even a chance that the Swedish Democrats will enter government.
The potential success of Sweden’s Democrats, known for their tough anti-immigration stance, has been a long time coming. When the last general elections were held in 2018, it was clear to me that the decline of left-wing social democrats, long the dominant force in Swedish politics, had created space for a Swedish populist movement. Now it looks like the Swedish Democrats are poised to fill that space.
This scenario would have been unimaginable until very recently. The Social Democrats dominated Swedish politics for much of the 20th century. From the 1930s, the social democrats had peddled a highly effective narrative of democratic nationalism, rather than class struggle. This allowed them to appeal to Swedes as a community of citizens, rather than disparate interest groups. In doing so, the Social Democrats disarmed potential Swedish Nazis and opened themselves up to political alliances beyond the working class, from farmers to the middle classes – groups that would have distrusted mainstream socialism.
The Social Democrats also forged a detente with industrial and business elites, laying the groundwork for the Social Democrats’ formal acceptance of the market economy in 1938. In return, the state played an active role in the management of the economy and in industrial policy, an effort known as the Swedish model.
But in the 1990s, the hegemony of the social democrats began to crumble, with all the dominant parties becoming globalist in one way or another. On the right, the Moderate Party has embraced globalization and neoliberalism, and the Center Party, which began life representing conservative farmers, has become borderline libertarian. And on the left, the parties have abandoned any idea of class in favor of globalist notions of human rights and global civil society.
As a result, the main parties, including the Social Democrats, have gradually moved away from the nation-state and citizenship – in a way the very basis of the Swedish model – in favor of globalism and identity politics.
As I noted at the time of the 2018 election, this multi-party withdrawal from nationhood and citizenship had opened a void for Swedish Democrats to fill. It was clear then that many Swedes still believe that Sweden exists, that citizenship is important and that national community and culture matter. The Swedish Democrats appealed to this constituency and quickly grew from a small party on the fringes of political life to a large party at its centre. Today, only the Social Democrats have a higher poll.
Four years ago, even in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis that brought more than 160,000 refugees to Sweden, the Swedish Democrats were still a pariah party. They were politically untouchable, their anti-immigration stance casually dismissed as an updated version of their far-right xenophobic history (the party was a direct successor to the far-right Swedish Party).
But today the claims of the Swedish Democrats, particularly about the harmful impact of high levels of immigration and low assimilation, are not so easily dismissed – for the practical consequences of the post-national policies of the political elites Swedish are only too apparent.
Growing immigrant communities with high unemployment rates are increasingly ghettoized and poorly integrated. Gang violence is now rampant in these communities, to the point that Sweden’s murder rate is now one of the worst in Europe. These problems are no longer confined to the outskirts of the big cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. They are now also visible in many medium-sized towns and villages.
The Swedish Democrats’ emphasis on xenophobia has tended to blind politicians to the reality of this situation – a reality that their own policies have helped to create. The Swedish elites are not alone in this regard. Across the West, national governments have over-committed themselves to globalism at the expense of their own nations. But perhaps no more so than Sweden – even among its Nordic neighbors it stands out.
As Norwegian sociologist Grete Brochmann has shown, Norway, Denmark and Sweden share similar traditions of strong welfare states and social rights, but have taken markedly different paths in managing immigration. Compared to its Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden is much more open to migrants and has a much looser view of citizenship. Many of the ingredients necessary for assimilation – such as the ability to speak the Swedish language or to be economically independent – are not expected of newcomers to Sweden.
With daily media reports on murders, gang violence and drug wars, Swedish politicians are forced to recognize the problems created by their own policies. The Social Democrats, in particular, began to adopt stronger rhetoric and a tougher policy on immigration and integration.
But there are limits to the adaptability of social democrats. They still remain sensitive to criticism from the left, as they depend on support from the Left Party, Greens and Center Party to form a majority government.
But the right-wing coalition is also vulnerable. Most Swedes do not favor the narrow ethnic conception of Swedishness adopted by the Swedish Democrats. Many are also skeptical of the traditional family values favored by Christian Democrats and suspicious of the moderates’ ambivalent attitude towards the state. Overall, the Swedes want a national democracy, a robust welfare state and a still reasonably open but smarter and more stubborn immigration policy – an offer a million miles from that of the Social Democrats.