Foreign observers covering the Swedish elections of September 9 tend to focus on the rise of the immigration-critical Sweden Democrats. It is a story that most often is linked to broader trends involving globalization and migration, drawing a picture that pits liberal-minded globalists against xenophobic nationalists. But the rise of a right-wing populist party in Sweden is particularly stunning. Sweden has for a long time imagined itself and been portrayed by others as a “moral superpower,” devoted to its welfare state at home and to global solidarity and human rights abroad.
During the refugee crisis in the fall of 2015 Sweden also—at least initially—stood out as the most open and welcoming country in the European Union. On September 6 of that year, The Social Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfvén, declared that “my Europe does not build walls.” Yet Löfvén and his Green Party allies would soon have to back down, and at a tearful press conference on November 24, the government was forced to reverse course in the face of chaotic conditions and increasing popular resistance, expressed not least in rising support for the Sweden Democrats. By January 2016 the borders were effectively closed.
Yet the political damage was already done. In fact, the Social Democrats have been losing ground since 1968, when they received over 50 percent of the vote, and support for the Sweden Democrats, who entered Parliament in 2010, grew considerably with the 2014 elections. But this year’s election, with the Sweden Democrats winning 17.5 percent of the vote—their highest ever, though not as high as many preelection estimates had predicted—and the Social Democrats winning only just over 28 percent—their worst result in over 100 years—has prompted many observers to announce the end of the famed Swedish model, or at least the normalization of Sweden, turning it into a country like any other.
So how are we to understand this turn of events? The economy is very strong, and unemployment is low. And while xenophobia and even racism exist in Sweden, like it does everywhere, there is little evidence that these sentiments are particularly strong here. Indeed, data from both national surveys and comparative ones, like Pew, suggest that national identity in Sweden to an unusual degree is linked more to civic notions such as citizenship and rule of law than to ethnicity and the rule of blood.
A useful point of departure is to ask what made the Social Democrats so successful to begin with, allowing them to dominate Swedish politics since the 1930s, arguably making them the most successful social-democratic party in the world.
Central to this success has been the ability of the Swedish Social Democrats to dominate what we can call the politics of national community. Historically speaking this was by no means a given. During the 1920s and ’30s, struggles took place throughout Europe over who would write the national narrative and thus be able to tap into the potent power of nationalism. In general, it was right-wing parties that won out, offering up visions of national community that were cast in the language of xenophobia and ethnic solidarity.