A Threat to the Status Quo: The Rise of Nationalism in Sweden and Europe

Swedish speakers take pride in being what they call in Swedish “lagom,” meaning they are not attracted to extreme behavior or ideals. They don’t want anything to be metaphorically too hot or too cold, but just right, the perfect middle point. They have historically enjoyed the status quo, especially in politics.

In September, however, Sweden faced a decisive parliamentary election. Three-hundred forty-nine members of parliament would be elected who would in turn elect the next Prime Minister. The election was highly publicized, and voter turnout was of 87 percent, the highest Sweden has seen in over thirty years. While the historically working-class center-left party, the Social Democrats, had enjoyed a comfortable majority in parliament for as long as most Swedes could remember, it was able to secure only 113 of the 349 seats. The most powerful and popular party in Sweden is seeing a remarkable decline in popularity.

The election was so divisive and so important because the biggest threat to the center-left, the “lagom” party, was not the Moderate party or a further-left party. Instead, the comfortable center-left was facing threats from a rise in popularity for the Sweden Democrats, a once obscure far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. In 2010, the Sweden Democrats won 20 seats, about 5.7 percent of the vote. In 2018, they doubled their support, earning 17.6 percent of votes and 49 seats in parliament. The party represents the ideological antithesis of what most people associate with Sweden: they tout a platform of national-conservatism, anti-immigration, and anti-L.G.B.T. rights. The growing support for the Sweden Democrats seems unprecedented in what many would consider one of the world’s most tolerant, and liberal countries. However, Sweden’s election shows that no country is immune to populist, far-right movements.

The rise of right-wing populism in Sweden is simply a case-study in what political philosopher William Galston has called “the most important European political development of the 21st century.” [1] In the beginning of the rise of populism, many analysts believed it to be a temporary symptom of the Great Recession. As Europe has returned to a stable, healthy economic climate, however, populism has enjoyed an even more favorable standing in the public eye. In times of economic prosperity, populists direct the conversation away from policies and towards identity politics.

Populist support, therefore, is not drawn from economic uneasiness, but instead from “cultural dissonance” experienced by European citizens. Sweden, for example, took in over 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015, and the unprecedented number of newcomers has strained the historically stable Swedish economy and government. The Swedish Democrats have been able to opportunize on the general discomfort of cultural Swedes by posting advertisements depicting non-white beggars and homeless people with slogans such as “Sweden should do better than this!” and “Sorry about the mess here in Sweden.” [2]

Within European right-wing populist platforms, the distribution of welfare and efficiency are secondary problems. The core issue that they aim to address is national identity. Culture plays a very different role in the United States than it does in Europe. Most Americans would argue that becoming a true American citizen is less about ethnic or historical roots and more about embracing certain democratic and constitutional beliefs. For many Swedes, Germans, and Poles, being a citizen is embodying and understanding a wide range of historical and cultural eccentricities, a new language, and a conscientiousness that is hard to mimic. Right-wing populists tap into this reactionary desire many have to preserve culture, and it’s working.

The political implications of right-wing populist rise in Europe can not be emphasized enough. As the Swedish Democrats, or Alternative for Germany, or Law and Justice party members in Poland win more seats, the center-right and moderate parties will be forced to work with them. The working class center-left parties, primarily concerned with issues of social welfare, will have to follow suit, and engage in fruitless conversations about identity politics instead of economic policy. The political spectrum is effectively narrowed into right and populist right. If the problem is left unaddressed, or uncontested, anti-immigrant and anti-internationalist sentiment could have serious consequences for democratic values in Europe and internationally.

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[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/08/the-rise-of-european-populism-and-the-collapse-of-the-center-left/

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/racist-advert-for-far-right-sweden-democrats-on-stockholm-metro-prompts-huge-protest-10438016.html

https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1015469/Sweden-elections-latest-europe-liberalism-far-right-Sweden-democrats-social-democrats

https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/07/europe/sweden-election-issues-intl/index.html

https://www.thelocal.se/20170510/tide-turning-on-swedens-attitude-to-immigration-report

https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-11/sweden-was-among-best-countries-immigrants-thats-changing

https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/05/21/in-europe-the-only-choice-is-right-or-far-right/

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Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

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