Friday, September 19, 2014

Turds, Swedish Politics, and My Mom: Val 2014

Sweden had an election on Sunday. And the Left won. Kind of. But really, Sverigedemokraterna won. Which means that no one won. People are angry, confused, defiant, deflated, surprised (some people, unfortunately, are also happy). Politicians are refusing to work with SD. Pundits are urging cooperation with SD. And these reactions are legitimate in response to the tide of nationalistic right-wing politics reaching Swedish shores.

Many English-language accounts of the election (Bloomberg and The Economist come to mind) seem convinced that Sweden’s change of heart was just out of sheer boredom. The articles spend time praising the economic gains, the growth in GDP, the tax cuts, the privatization. From an American perspective or a fiscally conservative perspective, these things are good. But these articles seem to forget that it is was over six million Swedes who voted. And that for decade upon decade, Swedes have embraced taxes and a social welfare state. It wasn’t a bunch of American or British citizens voting with American and British values. Plus, they seem to have forgotten that Alliansen, the incumbent government, received almost 40% of the Swedish vote. It just wasn’t enough. Swedish voters didn’t just wake up on Sunday and think, I’m bored. I want to throw turds at the Swedish political system.

So while they many not have thrown turds because they were bored, Swedish politics is covered in turds now. And I don’t have any idea how to clean up those turds, despite several years as a janitor back in high school. But politicians better start talking to the people who voted for Sverigedemokraterna and better figure out real quick how to convince them that the concerns they have for Swedish society are not best served by voting for a racist party. Convince them that the structural systems in place do not allow for one group of people to judge themselves better than another. That means actually getting something done. Something accomplished. Something that makes a difference in the everyday lives of a whole lot of people. I’m not interested in whether or not 800 000 people in Sweden are overt racists. I’m really not all that interested in even having that conversation (just like others who have written here and here in Swedish). Plenty of people are having that conversation. It doesn’t really matter whether we can look at Herr Sven Svensson from Skåne and say for sure that, yes, fictional Sven is a racist. What does matter is that over 800 000 people feel that their interests are best served by a party that holds such strong anti-immigrant opinions. Because those anti-immigrant opinions foster hatred and fear and racism. And when you feel like an immigrant (even if your passport says otherwise), you start to notice. Especially when you realize that because you have a Swedish name, white skin, and speak decent Swedish people never, ever, ask: where are you really from?

But that question pops up a lot in this country. And there is plenty of academic work exploring that question when it comes to identity formation and identity politics. We can have that discussion too, but right now, it feels way more personal than theory and academics. I have so many friends in this country who were not born here and are immigrants and get that question. Friends who were born here, but were born to a foreign parent and get that question. Friends who were born here but spent time in other countries as an immigrant. Friends who are now having children of their own, who will be born to a foreign parent. It hits a bit close to home. Mostly because that is me. And my brothers. And my dad. And my mom. Especially my mom.

My mom is a badass. She’s taught hundreds of elementary school kids. She’s run marathons. She reads books like the printed word is endangered. She learned Swedish as an adult and dusts it off every time she’s in Sweden like it’s no big deal. She’s taken a sexually active teenage woman to Planned Parenthood years and years ago, only to be verbally accosted by the young woman’s parents, despite her role as a social worker. She’s raised upwards of one hundred thousand dollars for cancer research. She’s also raised three boys, two dogs, and one Swedish husband. She’s a badass.

But she’s also American. Not Swedish. So she’s an immigrant. Or was at least. For about eight years, she was an immigrant.

When the third largest political party in Sweden, the party that is claiming the biggest gains in Swedish politics, wants to decrease immigration by 90% (without explaining exactly how) it says to me that all those friends might not have been allowed in to this country. And that means my mom might not have moved here. And that gets personal.

We can pretend that 13% isn’t a lot. That 87% of voters did NOT vote for Sverigedemokraterna and that’s a good thing. That it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to push through any of their hardcore election promises. That they can’t even find enough people to fill some of the seats they’ve won at various levels of government. Fine. Those are all fun little tidbits to remember, but all the while a racist party is normalized in Swedish politics. But those fun little tidbits are not really the point. Instead, the point is that Sverigedemokraterna have seen a steady increase of votes, percentage of the vote, and seats at all levels of government since their founding in 1988 when they only received 1 118 votes. They’ve inserted their coded language into the mainstream discussion. They’ve turned to fear mongering and blaming the other, whoever the other may be. Suddenly, 800 000 people have succeeded in making hundreds of thousands of other people feel unsafe. And that matters a lot. Because it’s not just happening here in Sweden. It’s happening throughout Europe.

Convincing our fictional friend, Herr Sven Svensson from Skåne, to not vote for Sverigedemokraterna is a good start. But that doesn’t mean it ends there. It doesn’t mean that suddenly, those turds have been cleaned off Swedish politics. Turds leave a mark. And Sverigedemokraterna have inserted a brown streak in the red, green, and blue, of Swedish politics. The risk is that that brown streak will remain unless something happens. And quick.

Welcome to Sweden. And a rising tide of right-wing nationalism.


  1. I agree that the election analysis from the English-speaking press has been categorically terrible. Hairbrained economists especially seem to be baffled at the idea that a party could lose voters when GDP went up.

    I realize getting into the weeds wasn't your intention, but I stumbled across an article which I think has a really fantastic conjecture for the success of Sverigedemokraterna that goes a long way towards understanding why Mr. Svensson voted the way he did:

    Because the two main blocs attract nearly identical levels of support, Swedish politics has become somewhat Americanized through the new focus on the “swing voter.” The Moderates took power by sounding like Social Democrats, the Social Democrats now emulate the Moderates, and a hall of mirrors ensued. The result is a race towards the middle that has dulled conflicts, disciplined all but the two biggest parties, and a paradoxical situation where no party seems to offer what the majority of the population actually wants.

    While 80% – 90% of the population wants a stronger welfare state nobody is really running on that platform besides the Left Party, which at 7% has little to show for it. This dulling of political conflict has allowed the Sweden Democrats to gain over 10% of the polls through their single-minded focus on opposing immigration. This is somewhat strange considering Swedes’ generally positive views on immigration. Polls show that less than 4% of the population thinks that immigration to Sweden is too high.

    There are two possible explanations for this apparent contradiction. First, when core issues of political economy aren’t up for debate, cultural and identity issues can take its place. A party speaking in favor of “Swedish tradition” can tap into nostalgia for a welfare state without immigration, LBGT rights, and modernist culture, and argue that the only way to strengthen the former is to get rid of the latter. Second, the consensus between the two blocs opens up a space for a party of discontent. To many people, the Sweden Democrats are the only party that tries to explain to Swedes why they feel worse off now than they were a decade or two ago.

  2. Does there not need to be a distinction made between disagreeing with 1) immigration policies, and 2) Refugee policies? A non-racist person may disagree with the policies of continuing Sweden's past refugee policies. We are a small country, and there needs to be a more rational examination of how many, and for how long, we continue to admit refugees from anywhere for whom we have few resources in place to help become assimilated. I voted somewhere near the middle of political spectrum, and not for the SDs, I am not a right-wing, racist troll. The term racist is too easily thrown about to discredit people with whom one disagrees. We need to have a rational, not emotion-laden, discussion on these matters.

  3. Bra skrivet Hairy! I voted for F! (in earlier elections I voted Miljöpartiet) and the results of this election, and all the shit that's happening in Europe and the rest of the world, just left me scared for the future...

  4. Fascinating article. There indeed needs to be a deeper, more meaningful dialogue with the people in order to solve the real problems. SD, like our American "Tea Party" is very deceptive. Such is the nature of politics.

  5. A great set of comments. And, as always happens with this sort of thing, I'm kind of torn. I'm torn byt he whole freedom of speech thing, because I'm not an absolutist when it comes to that. So what happens when you get people who spew hate speech? And then there's the philosophical questions about democracy. What room do parties have n a democracy that were voted in by a democratic process, even though their policies are anti-democratic?

    I don't have any good answers to any of these things. But I do want to see more of the parties figuring out what it is that attracted people to SD. Because I really really really want to believe that it wasn't just the thought of cutting immigration by 90%...