For decades, America’s liberals have looked across the Atlantic with envy. France has socialized medicine. Germany has strong trade unions. Italy and France have excellent food. (Sometimes envy is understandable.)
Sweden has often been particularly idealized. Indeed, certain delicate Democrats were once mocked by red-meat conservatives as “Volvo-and-beansprout” liberals. With lavish welfare spending (and attendant taxes), low-income inequality, and feminism as a guiding political ideology, American liberals have looked to the Scandinavian land as something of a lodestar. The weather may be dreadful — who wants 62 degrees and a cold drizzle in July? — but for the Swedes, who can come across as a bit smug and a little pious, life has been pretty good.
But there was a dirty little secret to Sweden’s success. That success depended largely on maintaining a racially and socially homogeneous society. Reams of social science data have made similar findings. Surveys suggest that people tend to support, for example, generous welfare systems so long as they think they’re helping out their own kind. Multiracial democracies like the United States have always been less than lavish.
That simple finding explains a lot about what’s going on in Sweden now. The country held parliamentary elections last weekend, and “the ruling center-left Social Democrats, Greens and their Left Party parliamentary ally won 40.6 percent of the vote, while the opposition center-right Alliance won 40.3 percent,” the Reuters news agency reported.
The big news is that the rest of the vote went to the Sweden Democrats, a party that takes a hard line on immigration. Neither the center left nor the center right is willing to align with the Sweden Democrats — it has roots in Nazism — meaning the elections produced a stalemate. It’s unclear which bloc will take control.
Their taking nearly 18 percent of the vote represents a record for the Sweden Democrats. In the last Swedish election four years ago, they took 5 percent fewer votes. But over that period, migration into has Sweden boomed, giving the Sweden Democrats an opening.
Sweden is no longer the homogeneous land of yore, where everybody ate pea soup and collected wooden horses. As of 2017, fully 24 percent of Swedish residents were from a foreign background. They were either born abroad, or both parents were. While many of those immigrants come from neighboring Finland and Poland, many are from farther afield. The largest single group of foreign-born Swedish residents are from Syria, for example. Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia and Turkey have also supplied large groups of immigrants.
Sweden took in a disproportionally larger number of refugees during the migration crisis that began roiling Europe in 2015. The country thinks of itself a “humanitarian superpower,” and 160,000 refugees entered the country that year alone. That’s a huge number for a country with fewer than 10 million residents.
The political and social effects of this decision have been large. Paulina Neuding, a Swedish journalist based in Stockholm, laid out the facts in Politico magazine earlier this year. “Gang-related gun murders, now mainly a phenomenon among men with immigrant backgrounds in the country’s parallel societies, increased from 4 per year in the early 1990s to around 40 last year. Because of this, Sweden has gone from being a low-crime country to having homicide rates significantly above the Western European average. Social unrest, with car torchings, attacks on first responders and even riots, is a recurring phenomenon.” Sweden has also seen terror attacks — an Uzbek Islamist killed five people with a truck in central Stockholm in 2017 — and a campaign of violence against Jewish sites. Many immigrants live far from city centers in grim housing estates, and have not assimilated into Swedish culture.
The turn toward the Sweden Democrats was predictable as mass migration destabilizes society. Sixty percent of Swedes polled earlier this year want to curtail the number of refugees allowed in the country. That suggests that Sweden Democrats actually underperformed in the election. That could also be because the center left and the center right have co-opted Sweden Democrat positions. Even the center left bloc has come around to restricting immigration.
It’s odd that the country that produced IKEA, Volvo, Saab, H&M and Ericsson has been considered “socialist.” The “Swedish model” is actually a highly managed capitalist democracy, based on consensus politics and economics. But with immigration changing the country, that model may not last. Consensus is over, and now the fighting begins. The success of the Sweden Democrats demonstrates that things have changed, and changed a lot.
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