After the September 9 election last year, Sweden confronted a predicament familiar to other Europeans: Elected politicians seemed unable to form a government. This was a new situation for Swedes, who have benefited from political stability and a predictable Left-Right scale in their politics. It was also peculiar: Voters returned the most anti-socialist parliament ever, with 57 percent of voters choosing right-of-center parties. But when a government was eventually formed four months after the election, the socialist-green coalition that had ruled the country since 2014 remained in place, with Stefan Löfvén staying on as Prime Minister. This happened because the country’s two liberal parties defected from the Center-Right alliance formed in 2006, and instead negotiated an agreement that allowed the government to remain in place.
Voters have defected in droves from established parties to the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who gained close to 18 percent of the vote. That is five percentage points more than in 2014, and fully three times their share in 2010. Because the Sweden Democrats draw heavily on working class, formerly reliably socialist voters, the traditional leftist domination of Swedish politics is being dismantled. Thus, for the first time ever, a decisive majority—57 percent—voted for political parties that are right of center. Sweden now has a right-wing populist party as sizable as the Danish People’s Party or the Norwegian Progress Party. This decisively cracked one of the most treasured myths of Sweden’s left-liberal political establishment: the notion that the country was somehow different from (and superior to) its neighbors and did not harbor the bigotry found in other European countries.
Because of such Swedish exceptionalism, the establishment has had noticeably more trouble than its neighbors adjusting to this new political reality. Across Europe, politicians have begun to come to terms with shifts in the popular mood. They have been forced to recognize that right-wing populists must be treated like other political forces. In Finland, for example, the establishment has discovered that the best way to puncture the populist balloon is to include them in coalition governments. Because this forces populists to accept real responsibility for running the country and make hard choices, they promptly see their votes fall in the next election. Similarly, governments in Denmark and Norway have been formed with the support of populist parties.
Not so in Sweden, where the establishment has taken a moralistic approach bent on stigmatizing the Sweden Democrats and making any interaction with them “indecent.” The political and media elite continue to depict them as evil incarnate, and all established parties have refused so much as to talk to the Sweden Democrats. If we don’t give them the time of day, the thinking goes, they might go away. But this strategy has clearly failed to stem the growth of the Sweden Democrats. In fact, it may well have boosted their meteoric rise.
Yet, faced with the election results, the establishment stubbornly doubled down on its haughty approach. Over the summer, the leading liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter ran a number of ominous stories about 1930s Germany, and its editorial pages worked to sow fears that Swedish democracy was in existential danger. Only a total rejection of the Sweden Democrats, they argued, could save democracy—and therefore, all other parties should band together in a unity government, just as they had during World War II. Meanwhile, the conservative parties that floated the idea of forming a government with Sweden Democrat support were compared to Franz von Papen, the German Conservative who facilitated the rise of Adolf Hitler. Of course, well aware that the Left and Greens now controlled only 40 percent of the vote, the socialist government fanned these fears. Its only chance to stay in power was to continue to brand the Sweden Democrats as untouchable.
This only had a limited effect on voters. A slight majority actually see nothing wrong with established parties negotiating with the Sweden Democrats.
But among the political elite, the strategy worked beyond all expectations. Given the election results, the Center-Right alliance of four parties that had governed the country from 2006 to 2014 could have formed a government with Sweden Democrat support. That is exactly what the two more conservative parties—the Moderates and the Christian Democrats—advocated. And to support a government, the Sweden Democrats required only continued strict immigration policies, significant investments in law and order, and healthcare reforms to reduce long waiting times. But the two liberal parties refused to even consider this option. Instead, they negotiated a 73-point agreement with the socialist-led government. This bewildering agreement commits the socialist government to a set of neoliberal reforms that it strongly opposes, particularly in the housing and labor markets. But to pass a confidence vote, the government needed passive support from the former communist Left party. Amazingly, following what the Left party leader called a “secret deal” with the socialist Prime Minister, it allowed the government to be formed. Meanwhile, although the four-party agreement binds the liberal parties to negotiate budgets with the government on a yearly basis, they claimed they are actually opposition parties, not part of the government’s support base. This leaves an obvious accountability issue.
But aside from the political theater, do the 73-point agreement’s priorities rhyme with those of voters? Ahead of the elections, poll after poll showed voters saw healthcare, immigration, and crime as their top three priorities. And while the agreement does introduce meaningful healthcare reforms, it is essentially silent on crime while liberalizing immigration policy—making it easier for asylum seekers to bring family members even if they are unable to support them financially.
Furthermore, only 16 of the agreement’s 5,413 words address the decline of law and order. It promises 10,000 more police officers by 2024 but is otherwise silent on what has now become an epidemic. Violent crime is out of control, particularly in the exurbs, and Sweden has the highest rate of young people killed by gun violence in Europe, double the EU average. The use of hand grenades by criminals has reached levels only seen in Mexico. Most troubling, cases of sexual assault have grown rapidly: Official statistics indicate the percentage of women that reported having been exposed to sexual assault has grown from three percent in 2012 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Among women aged 16-24, the increase is even more remarkable: from 7.3 percent to 34.4 percent.
The rapid deterioration of law and order, and of the state’s delivery of services, has fed anger at the establishment’s failure and boosted support for the Sweden Democrats, who, unsurprisingly, have pointed to immigration from countries with radically different perceptions of gender roles as the cause of this rapid shift. Yet for the longest time, the establishment sought to stymie even discussion of such a link, terming it “racist.” Yet belatedly, even Swedish official statistics now acknowledge that 58 percent of convicted rapists are foreign-born, overwhelmingly from Middle Eastern countries. Government efforts to seriously deal with these sources of popular discontent have been underwhelming.
Why has the establishment refused to tackle immigration and crime head-on? Some point to the far-right origins of the Sweden Democrats. While this is true, party leaders have spent the past 20 years ridding themselves of fascist and racist elements. The real reason is more likely what expatriate Swedish writer Kajsa Norman has called the “Unimind.” In her book “Sweden’s Dark Soul,” she bores deeply into the instinctive conformism that has been hegemonic in Swedish society, and that she attributes to a population that social democratic social engineers from the 1930s onward worked to mold into a coherent, homogenous utopia. This, incidentally, is what British writer Roland Huntford in a scathing 1973 book termed the “New Totalitarians.” And as Norman puts it, “The combination of uniformity of language, experience, and social engineering helped ensure that Swedes even thought as one collective Unimind.” Under the influence of New Left ideology from the 1970s onward, this Unimind came to embrace open borders immigration policy and a self-proclaimed role for Sweden as a “moral superpower.” Any deviation from this catechism soon came to be stigmatized as heretical and evil.
The problem is that things did not work out quite like the Unimind expected. In fact, the Unimind ignored, and suppressed, the fact that the Swedish population has been consistently and increasingly skeptical of large-scale immigration, especially when it became clear the country was actually rather poor at integrating new arrivals. Scarcity of housing has reached critical proportions, forcing migrants to congregate in cramped apartments in housing projects on the increasingly crime-ridden outskirts of cities. Healthcare and schools have struggled to cope with the challenges brought by large cohorts of new arrivals with considerable needs and low literacy levels. And while Swedish businesses complain they can’t find qualified labor, young immigrants can’t find jobs: Sweden has (next to the Netherlands) Europe’s largest discrepancy in labor participation between natives and immigrants.
But instead of addressing these problems head-on, Sweden’s left-liberal establishment allowed its actions to be determined solely by the GAL-TAN scale—which pits Green, Alternative, Liberal against Traditional, Authoritarian, Nationalist. That brings leftists and liberals together and allows them to suppress their significant disagreements on economic policy that not long ago formed the core of Swedish politics.
But the January agreement might well be the left-liberal establishment’s swan song. Polls show that both the Liberal and Green parties would fail to clear the threshold to parliament if elections were held today. And the liberals may end up leaving their former conservative brothers-in-arms with no option but to strike a deal with the Sweden Democrats. Indeed, a constellation composed of the Moderate party, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats could well command a majority of their own. They differ on many issues, but the lines of agreement are also obvious. If the government proves unable to deal with the country’s pressing problems, as seems likely, Sweden may very well be governed by a conservative government resting on Sweden Democrat support after the next election. That would be a testament to the unintended consequences of the Unimind.
Democrats in the United States are fond of pointing to Sweden as an exemplar of democratic socialism. But they should look closer, and take heed. Left-liberal rule has turned Sweden’s population rapidly to the Right. The elites may have delayed the impact of this shift for a few years. But they are unlikely to stem the tide.