The “Swedish model” is popular among many members of the American Left, who see a progressive heaven: a healthy social democracy that combines a strong economy with an all-encompassing welfare state. But that image is dated. Sweden today is angry. In its upcoming September elections, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party could well become the largest political force in the country as the political establishment whistles past the graveyard.
The model’s bubble burst in 2015, when Sweden took in more than 160,000 asylum seekers—nearly 2 percent of the population. By November of that year, Green Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson—the leading advocate of open borders—announced, unable to hold her tears back, that Sweden’s borders would now be closed. There was no more space.
Immigration is only part of the problem: For years, core elements of the state showed evidence of significant dysfunction. After the 180-degree turn in immigration policy, normally deferential Swedish voters suddenly began questioning their political class as never before. Once begun, the public’s willingness to obey their thought police in government and media dissipated rapidly; it was as though a magic spell of some sort had been broken. Since then, Swedes have begun to remake their country’s politics, and there is now no going back. But exactly what lies ahead is not yet clear.
The Rise of Swedish Exceptionalism
To understand how Sweden got to this point requires a short review of Swedish exceptionalism: how Sweden’s elites convinced themselves, and their population, that their country is more moral and righteous than the rest of the world.
Sweden used to be a poor country: In the 1860s, it experienced one of the last great famines in Europe, which among other factors triggered massive emigration to North America. Yet by 1900, Sweden had recovered and began to build what would become an immensely successful economy. An advantageous geographic location and political leaders that kept the country out of two world wars certainly helped. But so did a market economy, a homogenous population where farmers had been free and never experienced feudalism, and an ensuing culture of consensus that rendered society peaceful and orderly. Sweden spawned industries that figured among the world’s leading brands: Which other country of just seven million in 1960 could boast brands like Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, Electrolux, or IKEA, and build its own fighter jets?
The economic boom was remarkable. From the turn of the 20th century to the 1970s, Sweden’s GDP grew by an average of 2.4 percent—compared to less than 2 percent for the United States and Western Europe. Sweden’s GDP per capita soared from the global average in 1850 to double the average by 1930 and triple in 1965.
This export-fueled growth occurred in a peculiar political setting: From 1928 to 1991, Sweden was ruled by a single political party—the Social Democrats—for all but six years. This single-party rule presided over a corporatist state that was extremely friendly to large corporations, while building a cradle-to-grave welfare system on the back of very high levels of taxation. This stifled small business and entrepreneurship, but that mattered little as long as big industry and government provided sufficient employment for the population.
The Social Democratic “Swedish model” became in effect a hegemonic state ideology: a third, allegedly morally superior path in opposition to both Soviet-style communism and American-style capitalism. With this came a public rejection of all political or military alliances with a view to maintaining neutrality in wartime. In private, Sweden’s Social Democrats—who in the interwar period had taken a clear stance against communism—threw their lot in with the West, including far-reaching covert defense planning with NATO. But only a select few in the country’s military and political leadership knew this; the population at large, and the left-wing grassroots, did not.
Following the events of 1968, the Swedish Left became mesmerized by an increasingly intense Left-radical ideology that embraced Third World leftist revolutionaries, and identified the United States, NATO, and Israel as the enemy. During the 1970s, this powerful leftist wave took over much of the Social Democrat Party, the bureaucracy, and even the Lutheran State Church. Cooler heads ensured they never gained influence over finance and the economy, but they became dominant in foreign policy and particularly foreign assistance. During the long tenure of the charismatic Olof Palme, Sweden’s foreign policy became increasingly focused on supporting leftist causes. The growing aid budget largely went toward left-wing regimes, in particular the “African socialism” experiment in Tanzania, for which Sweden provided a whopping US$7 billion. As the late Per Ahlmark has documented, the Swedish Left fawned over all sorts of left-wing demagogues and tyrants. While Palme compared American bombings in Vietnam to Nazi Germany, during the 1970s and 1980s his government championed left-wing “liberation movements” across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. During a visit to Cuba in 1975 Palme hailed Castro’s revolution; in 1984, he was the first European leader to visit Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
The extent and depth of the ideological zeal that gripped Sweden for a generation can hardly be overstated. In the 1970s, many young leftists like Birgitta Dahl publicly defended Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and rejected allegations of their mass murder as “lies.” Dahl rose to become Speaker of Parliament in 1994, without having to recant. Pierre Schori, a life-long advocate for communist dictators like Castro and the Sandinistas, was elevated to Deputy Foreign Minister and then Development Minister. Crucially, whereas Swedish Social Democrats had been ardent supporters of Israel in the past, in the 1970s they turned against Israel and embraced Yasser Arafat long before he publicly renounced terrorism.
The end of the Cold War only temporarily slowed this left-wing juggernaut. The Swedish Left quickly reinvented itself by embracing the postmodern causes of the New Left and repackaging itself accordingly. It now presented itself as a world champion of globalism. It had embraced “New Left” issues such as feminism and environmentalism already in the 1970s, but now expanded and fortified them with postmodern and postcolonial theorizing. At home, the Social Democrats determined that Sweden suffered from “structural discrimination,” was essentially a racist society suffused with deeply ingrained prejudices against “the other,” and had to be transformed from above by policies that counteracted all real or supposed manifestations of “white privilege.” A growing element was climate alarmism: Hardly a day goes by without dire warnings of impending doom unless Swedes, who are responsible for about 0.2 percent of world carbon emissions, radically change their lifestyle.
The prevailing ideology also led Sweden to adopt one of the world’s most liberal immigration policies. The number of people granted residence permits grew exponentially, the yearly average climbing from 20,000 a year in the 1980s to 40,000 in the 1990s and 70,000 in the 2000s. Between 2010 and 2015, the average hit 110,000: more than 1 percent of the country’s population each year, exceeding the peak of U.S. immigration over a century ago. Between 1995 and 2017, Sweden took in more than 1.8 million people. Meanwhile, the country’s leftist establishment in government and media branded as “racist” anyone daring to use the term “volumes” when speaking of immigration policy. The Left’s media dominance is palpable: Polls have showed that over half of print journalists, and two thirds of those in state TV and radio, sympathize with the Green or Left parties, which have never achieved a combined vote of more than 16 percent.
While the globalist agenda was driven by the Left, the center-right gradually accommodated to its rhetoric. Indeed, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who took over as leader of the supposedly conservative Moderate Party in 2003, gained power in 2006 largely be realigning the party with prevailing dogma. He slashed defense budgets and labeled national defense a “special interest,” while memorably stating that “only barbarism is genuinely Swedish. All development has come from abroad.” When the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were first elected to parliament in 2010, Reinfeldt reacted by concluding an immigration pact with the Green Party to further liberalize immigration. His explicit purpose was to show that a vote for the Sweden Democrats would not cause him to change policies.
Key to the dominant leftist dogma has been to divide people into oppressor and oppressed groups. In the spirit of this “intersectionality,” the Swedish Left at home and abroad embraced Islamists because they claim to represent oppressed Muslims. The driving force has been the Social Democrats’ influential religious organization, which in a formal agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Swedish Muslim Council pledged to secure political representation for Swedish Muslims—or rather, their self-proclaimed representatives. In 2013, the Social Democrats elected Omar Mustafa, leader of the Brotherhood-aligned Islamic Association in Sweden, to its party board—only to backtrack following reports of his connections to anti-Semitic and anti-gay statements. The Green Party has similarly been embroiled in Islamists scandals: In 2016, Housing Minister Mehmet Kaplan was forced to resign over connections to Turkish far Right and Islamists, and a candidate to the party board was forced to withdraw after his refusal to shake women’s hands caused a furor.
The confusion of the Swedish Left as its simultaneous embrace of feminism and Islamism clashed with one another would be amusing if the consequences were not so dire. Left-wing anti-Semitism has grown rapidly in the country, often bolstered by immigrants from the Middle East. The Swedish Left has been remarkably reluctant to deal with the problem in its own ranks. And in foreign policy, this romance with Islamism helps explain the harshly anti-Israel positions that have characterized Swedish foreign policy in recent years.
Trouble in Paradise
Left-wing elites gained firm control over agenda setting, which they exercised through Sweden’s media and political landscape. But as pollster Markus Uvell has detailed, this agenda did not correspond to the views of most Swedes, surprising numbers of whom espouse conservative views. How, then, did the Left succeed?
Swedes as a whole differ from Americans with their contentious civic associations and raucous debate. By contrast, Swedes are reluctant to speak out against a perceived consensus, which they tend to follow—until it fractures. In recent times, this phenomenon has been named the “opinion corridor”: a society with a very narrow space of acceptable political speech, with everything outside considered beyond the pale and leading to the exclusion or banishment of the perpetrator. In this sense, Swedish society as a whole could be likened to a liberal U.S. college campus, where views challenging the dominant Left-liberal ideology are voiced only at one’s own peril.
But reality has a tendency eventually to break even the most rigid dogmas. In Sweden the reality that ate away at the national fantasy was the gradual decay of four core functions of the state: education, health, public order, and defense. All the dominant parties were complicit in this failure: the Social Democrats who ruled from 1994 to 2006, Reinfeldt’s center-Right coalition that ruled until 2014, and particularly the Left-Green coalition in power since then. It stems from a combination of mismanagement, opportunism, and political correctness, exacerbated by the massive challenge posed by large-scale immigration. Leftist ideology played a key role in this. But mishandled privatization efforts played their part, too, as did fads in public administration, such as New Public Management theories, which imposed enormous administrative and reporting requirements on public service providers.
Sweden’s defense was long based on a healthy deterrent force. But after 1989 Swedish politicians surpassed their counterparts elsewhere in Europe in concluding that national defense was anachronistic in the new and peaceful era they believed to be emerging. Defense spending is headed toward less than 1 percent of GDP. By 2013, the Chief of Sweden’s General Staff announced that if faced with a foreign invasion, Sweden had the capacity to defend itself only for one week. It was in response to this sober assessment that Prime Minister Reinfeldt angrily dismissed defense and everyone connected with it as merely a “special interest.”
As for education, the Swedish public school system became a kind of guinea pig for the social experiments conjured up by the 1968 generation. Grades and report cards were banned until the eighth grade. Schools came to focus on social skills and “values” rather than knowledge. The authority of teachers was downgraded, so that they can no longer discipline students. Classrooms are notoriously chaotic, with students chatting, playing, and spending time on their smartphones. A firm selling hearing protection now actively markets its products to teachers and children with brands like “Silenta” and “Coolkids,” which motivated students use because it is the only way to shut out the noise and concentrate on learning.
Meanwhile, new public administration practices have imposed huge administrative and reporting requirements on teachers, while their pay in real terms shrunk to under $40,000 per year. Teachers burn out and quit at an alarming rate, while schools are unable to recruit replacements. By 2022 the country will need 77,000 new teachers, but they are nowhere to be found. The impact on test results has been predictable, with Sweden sinking like a stone in the Program for International Student Assessment rankings. In 2003, Sweden was above average in reading, math, and science; by 2012, it was below average in all three. The downward trend was halted by 2015, but Swedish schools are far below the performance of their counterparts in neighboring countries.
Generous and high-quality healthcare has been another signature of the “Swedish model.” Sweden’s medical system does continue to deliver high-quality treatment—the problem is getting access to it. To reduce wait times, the government guarantees that patients see a primary care doctor within seven days, a specialist within ninety days, and receive surgery or other action within another ninety days. These are among the longest waiting times in all Europe, but even these goals are not being met. The National Healthcare Board in 2018 concluded that health providers fail to meet this timetable in more than 25 percent of cases.
Politicians respond by pouring money into the healthcare system. But the problem is not money: Sweden ranks fourth in the OECD on healthcare spending. The average German doctor treats over 2,400 patients per year, but in Sweden the number is under 700. Swedish doctors, again because of mismanagement and the quest for quantifiable reporting, spend so much of their time doing paperwork that they have less time to see patients. Meanwhile, real salaries in healthcare have plummeted. Specialist doctors receive half the salary of their counterparts in France or Britain; nurses earn so little and have such heavy workloads that group resignations are now commonplace. Sweden now has the lowest hospital bed capacity per capita in Europe, at 2.4 per thousand, compared to an EU average of 5.1.
Law and order is the last core area of state decline. Sweden has always prided itself on being a safe country, but things have decisively changed. Most dramatic is the unrelenting rise in gang crime, including deadly shootings, in Swedish cities. Gang criminals regularly target each other in public places in broad daylight, and they increasingly issue threats or take action against law enforcement officials. Swedish women, in particular, express growing concerns about crime, making it the top issue ahead of the September 2018 elections. A third of women now report fearing violence in the vicinity of their homes at night.
When critics of immigration point out the massive over-representation of immigrants and asylum seekers in crime statistics, they step on a hornet’s nest of political correctness. Meanwhile, like teachers and doctors, policemen are mired in paperwork and are quitting in droves. A thousand officers have left the capital region alone in recent times, leaving only 1,300 officers for a metropolitan area of 2.2 million. The result: the percentage of crimes that are ever solved is plummeting. Less than 4 percent of burglaries and 12 percent of assaults were resolved in 2015. Unsurprisingly, alternative and social media are rife with anger and frustration over the breakdown of law and order.
These facts, and the proliferation of social media, lend themselves to exaggeration. Some Swedish populists, as well as Russian news channels like RT and Sputnik, regularly portray Sweden as being on the brink of total collapse. This, of course, is nonsense. But it does feed the rise of violent right-wing extremists who seek to capitalize on the anger in the population.
It is against this background that the dominant dogma began to slip. As Uvell details, a growing rift is now opened between what politicians have said and what regular people have seen in their daily lives. Some 74 percent of Swedes, he reports, agree that politicians “focus too much on odd symbolic issues rather than things that matter in citizens’ life.” The decline of the public services created a powerful disconnect precisely because Swedes had been led to think of themselves as constituting the world’s most perfect society. When it became clear that this was no longer the case, and Swedes saw their country ranked with poorer southern European countries in category after category, the traditional Swedish deference to authority began to crack. As it did, the anti-establishment Sweden Democrats rose to take advantage.
The Rise of the Sweden Democrats
The rise of the Sweden Democrats has been dramatic. In 2010 it gained representation in parliament with less than 6 percent of the vote. Today, polling data predict that it has a realistic shot of becoming the country’s largest party. But unlike the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish People’s Party, and more like France’s National Front, the Sweden Democrats have nasty roots. When formed in 1988, its leadership included many skinheads and Nazi sympathizers. But by the mid-1990s, a new generation of leaders began to clean the party up—particularly after a “gang of four,” led by the 26-year old Jimmie Åkesson, took over the party in 2005. The four, who had been student friends and built a nationalist association in the university town of Lund, rapidly rebuilt the party with a nationalist and social conservative ideology. Over time, Åkesson and his friends introduced what they called a zero-tolerance approach to racism and fascism, and have used this policy to expel literally hundreds of members. In an important turnaround, the Sweden Democrats are now strongly pro-Israel.
Because of the Sweden Democrats’ shady past, members of the establishment parties did everything in their power to freeze them out. In 2014, to keep the Sweden Democrats down, the established parties agreed to let the largest bloc rule even though it did not command a parliamentary majority. In practice, this means the center-Right has refused to govern even though there is an anti-socialist majority in parliament. But this strategy, which involved high-pitched alarmist rhetoric and public shunning and shaming, backfired spectacularly. In a development that will seem familiar to Americans, the Sweden Democrats turned out to be much more attuned to the sentiments and fears of the rank-and-file of voters than the political and media establishments. Every effort to isolate Åkesson and his group only increased voter sympathies for them: In 2014 they doubled their vote to near 13 percent. Opinion polls now indicate they are on track to receive between a fifth and a quarter of the vote. These new voters are comprised mainly of disillusioned former Social Democrats and conservatives.
These developments, as fundamental as they have been unexpected, show that the deeply engrained status quo in Swedish politics is collapsing. The Social Democrats are tumbling in the polls, amid a deep division between a Left focused on identity politics and those seeking to restore their position among the working class through a pragmatic approach that includes more restrictive policies on immigration. Their leader, Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén, appears at a loss to manage this very public rift.
As for the opposition, Swedish liberals (in the European sense of the term) and conservatives traditionally buried their differences in order to struggle against the almighty Left. Reinfeldt’s Allians för Sverige coalition of four center-Right parties—Moderate, Center, Liberal, and Christian Democrat—succeeded precisely because he took his nominally conservative party in a liberal direction. But the upheavals of recent years brought rising divisions within the Allians to the fore. The Moderates have rediscovered their conservative roots and embraced a restrictive immigration policy. While their new leader, Ulf Kristersson, is well-liked and competent, the party suffers from a credibility problem: All its top leaders were part of Reinfeldt’s inner circle and supported his open-borders immigration policies. Voters concerned with immigration thus ask themselves, “Why not vote for the real thing?” Such reasoning grew in appeal after Kristersson’s would-be coalition partner, the Center Party, refused to jettison its libertarian approach to immigration.
While broad sections of Swedish society are trashing about in this deep turmoil, the establishment has shown little inclination to adapt to reality. Just this spring, the Left-Green coalition government and the Center Party passed a special law to provide residence permits to 9,000 “unaccompanied minors” whose applications for asylum had previously been rejected. Most of these 9,000 were young Afghans who, according to medical examiners, were disqualified by age from the category of “minor.”
Meanwhile, the government’s most visible priority is to free Sweden of dependence on fossil fuels by 2030, a policy it has pursued by instituting punitive taxes on aviation. Opinion pages regularly publish articles that demand the prohibition of domestic air travel altogether. If successful, such a policy may temporarily restore Sweden’s tarnished self-righteousness, but only at the cost of its economic competitiveness. Amid heavy snowfall in 2016, Stockholm’s city government applied a feminist snow-removal policy, prioritizing sidewalks and bike paths supposedly used mainly by women rather than roads in business districts where mainly men work. And while the Russian Air Force simulates a nuclear attack on Sweden, the Swedish government emphasizes that it will be guided in all its actions by its “Feminist” foreign policy.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Sweden faces massive challenges in coming decades, challenges that require sober and pragmatic approaches rather than fantasies derived from progressive ideology. But the political and media establishments appear incapable of adapting to changing circumstances. All established political parties continue to proudly proclaim they will never cooperate with the Sweden Democrats. This, of course, is the safest recipe to ensure their continuing rise.
In the meantime, the country could become ungovernable. After the September 2018 elections, there is no realistic scenario in which either the Left-Green or center-Right blocs will be able to achieve a parliamentary majority. There is no denying that a dramatic shift has occurred in what has long been a center-Left society: Swedish voters are revolting against left-of-center parties, who are likely to command less than 40 percent of the vote this coming September. By contrast, right-of-center parties—if we include the Sweden Democrats—are likely to win the support of nearly 60 percent of voters. This is the new Swedish paradox, at least as things stand now: The Left is discredited, but the Right cannot or will not step up to the challenge of ruling the country.
After September, something will have to give if Sweden is to have a government. Liberals could defect to the Left, or conservatives could decide to rule with Swedish Democrat support. In any case, Sweden is destined for the foreseeable future to be ruled by weak coalition governments. That is unlikely either to solve the country’s problems, or to restore the myth of the perfect nation.