Photo credit: Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Jönsson | 29 August 2018
The Sweden Democrats may double their share of the votes for the third consecutive election. But the supposed clear-up of the party’s racist and flat-out neo-nazi elements has only been done by half. So what constitutes their unique - and uniquely Swedish - appeal?
“Sweden is for Swedes”
- Björn Söder, second deputy speaker of the Riksdag
Sweden is turning nationalistic. Though this development may be halted in the coming years, the nationalists believe electoral triumph is in the offing. “We are certain that sooner or later we will be the largest party, and in the long term the dominating party in Sweden”, said Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats. If the opinion polls are accurate then Åkesson may be proven right on election day September 9th. One poll placed the Sweden Democrats on second place with 21,6% of the vote, close behind the governing Social Democrats. Another poll estimated their support at a near incredible 28,5%, making them the largest party by a wide margin. These forecasts are quite striking; the Sweden Democrats were a fringe party without any parliamentary representation prior to the 2010 election. As nationalism is gripping the country it is increasingly important to know it’s origins and the reasons for its rise.
The Sweden Democrats is not a party like other parties. Its populistic tone and anti-immigration message have rankled opponents from both the left and the right. Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has said that they “bring hatred into Swedish politics”. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has gone even further, calling them a “racist party with Nazi roots”. Although the Sweden Democrats like to see themselves as a strictly non-racist nationalistic party, their chequered history with racialism, fascism, and Nazism is well known. The party’s origins were rather shady: they were founded in 1988 from the remnants of the race-baiting Keep Sweden Swedish movement. By 1996 things had not improved much, Sweden Democratic member and former party vice-chair, Tina Hallgren-Bengtsson, attended a book burning of Jewish literature, wearing Nazi regalia, whilst vowing to “crush like lice” the “vermin” of the “Zionist occupation”.
Tina Hallgren-Bengtsson wearing Nazi regalia.
Photo credit: expo
The current Sweden Democratic leadership under Åkesson has attempted to distance the party from its early history. There is now a “zero-tolerance policy” towards expressing racist views and a string of party members have been ejected for doing so. For instance, when MP Anna Hagwall said that no ethnic group should be allowed to control more than five percent of the media she was promptly expelled by Åkesson. Her conspiratorial antisemitic statements had harmed the party, he claimed. The Sweden Democrats often bemoan not receiving more credit for reforming the party and sometimes foreign journalists join in this complaint. Douglas Murray, for example, writes that “No credit was given to them for doing so. The media and other politicians continued to describe the Sweden Democrats as ‘far-right’, ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’, and continued to portray them as neo-Nazis.”
But this clean-up has only been partial. Several high-ranking Sweden Democrats have retained their posts after involvements in race scandals. One MP, Jonas Åkerlund, allowed to stay within the ranks after calling immigrants “parasites” - a comment he made when deputy party leader. And Björn Söder, when asked if being Jewish was compatible with being Swedish said, “most [people] of Jewish origin who have become Swedes leave their Jewish identity.” Some years ago, Söder was pictured hugging a man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan tee shirt. Another time, early in his political career, Söder was photographed posing next to SS-veteran Franz Schönhuber. Then there are the murky formulations in the Sweden Democratic programme of principles. On page eight one can read that there is an “inherited essence of each human … Parts of this essence is common for most people and other [parts] are unique for some groups of people”. This is a mere sampling of an overabundance of instances.
Björn Söder embracing a Sweden Democrat wearing a Ku Klux Klan tee shirt.
Photo credit: expo
The zero-tolerance towards racism has, to put it mildly, not quite hit zero. As journalist Niklas Orrenius writes about the clean-up, “it was largely about shining the surface, but keeping the content.” To back up this allegation he quotes from a leaked email written in 2004 by then party secretary Torbjörn Kastell.
One does not say “kick out the blacks”, one says, for example, “work for the repatriation of ethnic foreign and criminal or non-assimilable elements”; one does not say that one shall “hang traitors to the country”, one says that one shall “hold to account those politicians who have acted in clear conflict with their country’s interests”; one does not say “faggots back in the closet”, one says “maintain the nuclear family”.
Critics of the Sweden Democrats look at evidence such as this and conclude that the moderated rhetoric of the current party leadership is merely euphemistic, concealing hard reactionary racism.
These scandals have been a barrier to mainstream acceptance, but they have also served to boost popular appeal. Media spotlight ensures that Sweden Democratic talking points remain firmly in the public’s consciousness. The outrages, moreover, signal to the base that it is a party that will not go back on its word - indeed may go even further than advertised. For voters tired of much talk and little action this could perhaps be welcome reassurance. The constant scandals also allow the party leaders to take a tough position by expelling the most blatant transgressions of moral decency, thereby appearing to be hard at work cleansing the party from its fascist past.
This September the Sweden Democrats will likely have doubled their share of the votes for the third straight election. This rise must be understood in terms of the broader recrudescence of populism in Europe and America, but the analysis cannot stop there. One cannot think about Swedish nationalism only in terms of Brexit, Orbán, and Trump. For although the timing of the upsurge is closely connected with broader developments; the way it manifests is more distinctly Swedish. It is of some importance to see both the way Swedish nationalism differs (and resembles) other nationalisms.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Swedish populism is the complete absence of razzmatazz. The contrast to the American flavour of populism is marked. Swedish Democrat party leader Jimmie Åkesson has cultivated an image of being thoroughly ordinary. Growing up in Sölvesborg, a small and sleepy town with only a few thousand residents, Åkesson claims to hold the ambition of also retiring there. Even his student days at Lund University were thoroughly unremarkable stuff, he has said. The rationale for creating this image may be found in the Scandinavian jantelagen, a traditional collectivistic ethos which scoffs at individual achievement. (Rule number one of jantelagen: You're not to think you are anything special.) A soap-opera television host turned politician would, if the expression can be allowed, be very un-Swedish.
Swedish nationalism, like most other contemporary nationalistic movements, has an incessant opposition to immigration. It is here we find one of the main reasons for their growing popularity. The official Swedish policy on immigration was for many years an open border policy, a policy that was taken further than in most other European countries. Following the 2015 migrant crisis, therefore, the credibility of the established parties dissipated as the borders rapidly closed. In mere months border controls went from being political plutonium to something widely accepted. The turnaround was poor optics for both the government and the opposition. The then Vice-Prime Minister Åsa Romson was brought to the brink of tears at a press conference where the government proposed tougher migration laws. She called the proposals “terrible decisions”. And back in 2013 the Social Democrats described integration as a “problematic concept” that they would rather not use. Ylva Johansson led the charge, saying that integration should not be a separate area of policy. Today Johansson is serving in the Swedish government as the minister for immigration and can be heard advocating for the teaching of “Swedish values” to immigrants.
The expressed ideal of Sweden Democratic nostalgia is folkhemmet, a term coined in 1928 by the Social Democratic Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson. In sum, folkhemmet is a welfare state characterised by social cohesiveness and egalitarianism. The potency of Hansson’s idea, and the moral capital of democratic socialism, was so considerable that folkhemmet, along with the Social Democratic party, came to dictate the terms of Swedish politics until the mid-1970s. The pre-eminence of the party was so pronounced that former minister Marita Ulvskog said that losing the 1976 election, after 44 uninterrupted years of Social Democratic government, “felt like a coup d’état”. That was the extent to which the psychology of the country had become social democratic; the party and the state had, with only mild exaggeration, become synonymous. It is in these terms that Åkesson’s comments about dominating Swedish politics should be seen – as hopes that the precedent of long-term political hegemony is emulatable.
The word folkhem is quite revelatory of the ideology that underpins new nationalism. It is a compound word consisting of folk (people) and hem (home). “People’s home” rather neatly sums up the aspirations of the Sweden Democrats, though it differs from the social democratic meaning of the term. In the politics of the nationalists the welfare state exists to serve the native citizens, not the immigrants. I have already noted some of the more unsavoury moments of Sweden Democratic rhetoric regarding the “people” part, but elaboration on how the two items interlink is in order.
Since the early twentieth century the social contract between the state and the people has been that the state provides for everyone in generous welfare programmes, in return no one (save the very poorest) are exempt from high-levels of taxation. There is a palpable feeling among some reaches of the public that the state has betrayed its part of the social contract. Welfare is being eroded because of immigration, the nationalists contend: there now exists a group in society that has not contributed much in taxes, thus the economic burden falls on the rest. Jimmie Åkesson & co. are promising to rectify the problem by halting immigration. Here we can see how the Sweden Democrats use the appeal to folkhemmet – the welfare, they say, should go to the people, not those people. This tactic may fail, but word from academia is that there are reasons it might succeed. Professor Walter Scheidel of Stanford University writes in The Great Leveler that,
Greater heterogeneity and more immigration are in fact associated with less extensive social policy provisions as well as higher levels of poverty and inequality. In European OECD countries, ethnic diversity may be only weakly inversely correlated with levels of public social spending but has a stronger negative effect on attitudes that is mediated by the unemployment rate. Affluent Europeans – who carry much of the fiscal burden – express less support for redistribution if many of the low-income members of their societies belong to ethnic minorities.
It would be reductionist in the extreme to credit immigration for causing the stress that the welfare system is under, but immigration has been an exacerbating factor. Hospitals and schools are becoming increasingly strained. The housing market has been chronically short of affordable residences and the 2015 migrant crisis only exacerbated the problem as the authorities struggled to find places for migrants to live. Or take dentistry: a friend of mine was told that her appointment had to be pushed back six months because of the need to treat migrants with severe dental ailments – treatments that are almost completely payed for by Europeans. The total costs of immigration are hard to estimate but official statistics put the annual cost at around 50 billion Swedish kronor (circa 5,5 billion USD). One study claims that the average per person and year outlay is roughly 74 000 Swedish kronor, the equivalent of more than 8000 USD.
The moral case for immigration may be sufficiently strong to warrant such expenses, but that debate has often been stifled by concerns about causing “offence” (and incurring the wrath of those offended). The chief worry, for traditional parties, has been the accusation of angling for support from the Sweden Democratic base. For example, it is well known that one cost of immigration is increased criminality, but there is considerable queasiness in stating it openly and will generally only be done after a lengthy throat-clearing. Official government statistics from 2005 put the facts bluntly: people with immigrant background are over-represented in crime. However, there has been no follow up data assembled since then. Instead we are forced to look at Norwegian and Danish statistics – which are not encouraging reading for open borders advocates. (A recent overview by Swedish Television of sexual crimes is equally dispiriting.) The reason for why the most recent official data is more than a decade old is that the government is reluctant in seeming to slight immigrants. Morgan Johansson, Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, has said that to amass new statistics would be to play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats. This message insults the Swedish public at least twice over; first it condescends them by implying that they are unable to handle facts without turning racist, and second, it gives the false impression that the government simply ignores the problem. Few elections are won by insulting the voters.
The Sweden Democrats have got a lot of mileage out of being viewed as “no-nonsense” and “straight-talking”. In fact, “we say what you think” is one of their old party slogans. That they say what others dare only think is probably true, however, what people think is often falsehood and babble.