As the final votes are counted in Sweden’s general election, the rifts in this famously conformist society are getting deeper. Sweden may be the western world’s most self-consciously liberal state, but significant cracks are appearing in the foundation.
To get a sense of the trend, look at the trajectory of the gradually-building support for the Sweden Democrats.
In 2010, they entered parliament with 5.7 per cent of the vote; in 2014, they upped their game to 12.9 per cent; now, with almost all of the 2018 vote counted, they’re on 17.6 per cent.
To be sure, this number is less than some of the opinion polls suggested, and the scenario of a surge to first place (in an eight-party universe) didn’t materialize. But don’t let that fool you.
The Sweden Democrats’ rise is notable on two counts.
First, the party has unsavoury antecedents. Going back to its early days in the 1980s, some of the initial players had neo-Nazi or neo-fascist associations. And while the modern party has worked at expelling those elements and changing its leadership, the taint is difficult to entirely expunge.
Second, the Swedish political and media establishment has combined in an attempt to exclude the party from the national stage. In effect, the Sweden Democrats are to be deemed illegitimate and, by implication, this shunning extends to their voters. Politically, they’re the Nordic untouchables.
The Sweden Democrats’ mortal sin is their outspoken opposition to the liberal policies on immigration and multiculturalism that became official Swedish orthodoxy over the last several decades. And with Sweden’s per capita intake from the 2015 migrant flood exceeding that of Germany, the issue has become ever more controversial.
However, controversy doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to talk about it.
Swedish political scientist Nicholas Aylott puts it this way: “But of course you have to think about the nature of political debate in Sweden, and the parameters of what can be said at any time. What is considered legitimate and what is considered illegitimate to say and do are relatively narrow in Sweden, particularly on some questions.”
Stefan Jonsson, a journalist turned academic, makes no bones about excluding the Sweden Democrats from the national debate: “They think the media has to be a mirror that reflects society, but the media doesn’t work like that. There is always an evaluation of what kind of news to promote.”
This type of social control has deep roots. As an agrarian Lutheran society, Sweden strongly encouraged conformity. English journalist Andrew Brown has described how a “web of formality and obligation, codified only partly by law, kept everyone in their place and very conscious of their relative social position.”
For most of the 20th century, Sweden was effectively a one-party polity. The rulers provided an extensive cradle-to-grave welfare state in return for which they “regulated every aspect of their dutiful, acquiescent citizens’ lives, doing their utmost to ensure adherence to the prescribed modern, progressive social norms.” In other words, conformity in exchange for security.
Folkhemmet is the Swedish term for this concept. Literally translated as the “people’s home,” it evoked the idea of Sweden as a national family, an entity that you were born into and to which you have obligations. This cut both ways. Quoting Brown again, “No one asks to be born into a family, yet once you’re a member, the others have to take you in.”
Ironically, this enforced sense of familial solidarity contributes to the mindset behind the Sweden Democrats.
If you think about it, the concept of a national family is akin to that of a tribe. Indeed, tribe is logically an extension of family.
The tribe emphasizes blood relationships, shared history, congruent social values and broadly similar experiences. Tribal members speak the same language and have compatible aspirations. They may even tend to look and dress alike.
The tribe isn’t necessarily hostile to other tribes, but it’ll generally favour the familiar over the foreign. And at barest minimum, it’ll expect newcomers to adapt to it rather than vice versa.
Multiculturalism and mass immigration can run into trouble in this kind of environment. And attempting to impose them while simultaneously ruling related discussion off-limits is inherently problematic.
The Sweden Democrats may be flawed messengers, but they’re uniquely asking questions that resonate well beyond their hitherto voting base. Stay tuned.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.