The rise of populism & the Sweden Democrats

Here is the opening salvo from our group of well-known Swedish thinkers who will be publishing columns on our FinnishNews/NordicWeek newspaper website. As Editor- in-Chief I am proud to present Ulf Dahlsten, Visiting Professor in Practice, London School of Economics, and a Former Secretary of State to Prime Minister Olof Palme.


Western societies have not been this divided since the 1920’s. Between those who see a future full of possibilities and those who are left behind, between those amassing unfathomable riches and those losing their jobs, houses and health care, between those who have fled from wars and famine and those who feel threatened by disruptive change, between those who believe in reason, internationalism and modernity and those who reject science and embrace nationalism and traditionalism. There is a Left-Right dimension in the different perceptions, but this is no longer the only, not even the main disparity.

The global elite perceive a stunning victory for the liberal projects. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the innovative and open market economy has been embraced all over the world, become global, hauled hundreds of millions out of poverty and almost eradicated early child deaths. With trade, travelling and the age of free-flowing communication have followed cultural and social tolerance and togetherness, the promise of a free, inclusive and global society.  Globalization, Urbanisation and Digitization have become buzzwords describing an era of progress. Not long ago a philosopher even declared The End of History, the final victory for all the values that the Enlightenment once bestowed upon us. Many established parties from the traditional left to the traditional right have only seen this great success story and refused to recognize that there are downsides, although they have been there from the start for everyone to see.

The British author David Goodhart[i]famously have called us the Anywheres those of us who are internationalists, often are progressives and believe in an open, liberal and global society. We generally belong to a mobile minority, graduates that have gone into a professional job without returning to the place where we were brought up.

Those Goodhart call the Somewheres are on the other hand nationalists and traditionalists, have in general not experienced higher education, feel a strong responsibility for their local community and seldom move more than maximum 20 miles from where they are born.

Many of the Somewheres feel part of another side of the modernity and globalisation story, a negative story of loss and despair that has been discarded by the Anywheres for far too long but has become more and more apparent.  Many Somewheres have lost their jobs to outsourcing, information technologies and robotics as well as their belief in the future and they have come to increasingly distrust established politicians who they find arrogant and, perhaps even worse, clueless. This is a Western phenomenon, not just a British or Nordic.

The perception is that affluent Western societies have seen growing emphasis on post-materialist and self-expression values among the younger birth cohorts and the better educated strata of society since the redefining of the liberal projects in the ‘70s, the social researchers Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris notes. While market liberals have focused on globalisation and the liberalization of markets, progressive liberals have brought policies “such as environmental protection, same sex marriage, and gender equality in public life to the center of the political agenda, drawing attention away from the classic economic redistribution issues. But the spread of progressive values has also stimulated a cultural backlash among people who feel threatened by this development. Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries. As cultures have shifted, a tipping point appears to have occurred.”  “Throughout advanced industrial society, massive cultural changes have been occurring that seem shocking to those with traditional values. Moreover, immigration flows, especially from lower-income countries, changed the ethnic makeup of advanced industrial societies. The newcomers speak different languages and have different religions and life styles from those of the native population—reinforcing the impression that traditional norms and values are rapidly disappearing.”[ii]The evidence that the two scientists have gathered suggests that the rise of populist parties reflects, above all, a reaction against a wide range of rapid cultural changes that seem to be eroding the basic values and customs of Western societies. “Long-term processes of generational change during the late twentieth century have catalyzed culture wars, for these changes are particularly alarming to the less educated and older groups in these countries. It is not an either/or story, for the two sets of changes may reinforce each other in part—but the evidence in this study suggests that it would be a mistake to attribute the rise of populism directly to economic inequality alone. Psychological factors seem to play a more important role. Older birth cohorts and less-educated groups support populist parties and leaders that defend traditional cultural values and emphasize nationalistic and xenophobia appeals, rejecting outsiders, and upholding old-fashioned gender roles. Populists support charismatic leaders, reflecting a deep mistrust of the ‘establishment’ and mainstream parties who are led nowadays by educated elites with progressive cultural views on moral issues.” The net result is that Western societies face more unpredictable contests, anti-establishment populist challenges to the legitimacy of liberal democracy, and potential disruptions to long-established patterns of party competition, Inglehart and Norris conclude.

During the last two decades, in many countries, parties led by populist authoritarian leaders have grown in popularity, gaining legislative seats, reaching ministerial office, and holding the balance of power, Inglehart and Norris notes. So far, the response from the established parties has been following a quite depressing pattern. When a Right-Wing Populist party has been established the official reaction has first been to ignore it, but that probably quite wise response soon gives in to the itch to tell people who the populists really are. Established politicians and media start to expose the dark background of many of the populists, their Nazi or fascist sympathies or criminal records. And then they start the name-calling: They are racists and bigots. All with the unintended consequence that the populists get more attention and more followers. The leader, who often is very charismatic, is given the opportunity to “defend” himself and become a household name. When it starts to be obvious to the established parties that many are attracted by the populist’s rhetoric follows a second equally depressing phase. Accommodation. The established parties adopt the anti-immigration rhetoric and try to match the proposals by the populists. That is when the Right-wing parties become accepted partners in government coalitions. The Right-Wing Populists are now part of the governing majorities in several Nordic countries, most notably in Denmark, the country known for having the happiest citizens in the world according to global polls. And they are forming the new government in Italy. In recent elections we have seen notable gains for the Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn. Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France, and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have become serious contenders for the political power in their respective countries.  In Eastern Europe, the success of the neo-fascist Jobbik party in Hungary pushed the ruling Fidesz party even further to the right; leading them to build a wall against the wave of migrants flooding across Europe. And now a Far-Right party has got 13 % of the votes in Germany and for the first time since the Second World War nationalism is back with force into German politics.

And now the populist Sweden Democrats may become the largest party in the Swedish upcoming election and are likely to be involved in one way or other in the forming of a new government. During the first months of the election campaign they have been able to successfully steer the political agenda and the larger traditional parties have been preoccupied with accommodation. The Social Democrats and the conservative Moderates have adapted their immigration policies, which has created internal criticism within the Social Democrats and a split in the Center-Right coalition, The Alliance.

But that is not the only accommodation. Less observed is the abandonment of the globalisation agenda. No one dare to stand up for an open, liberal and global society or for a more united Europe, apart from the Liberals that are close to be kicked out of Parliament. This is a bit of a paradox as polls show that a majority of the Swedes see themselves as “citizens of the world” and two thirds want to stay in the EU.

This accommodation has gone on for quite a while. The Social Democrats have had a euro-sceptic as leading name in the latest EU parliamentary elections and ministers don’t speak about EU politics other than in negative terms and then about the need to cut the EU budget and about the lack of common responsibility for migrants.

It helps the Sweden democrats that the traditional parties’ own agendas are so weak. This is another paradox. While Sweden is doing well, is growing and has a falling unemployment and has eradicated the budget deficit is has failed at delivering the services people want. And it is everyone’s fault. A police reform agreed between all leading parties has led to a bureaucratic nightmare. The time police officers spend in the field has as a consequence fallen from 50 % to 25 %. People feel it. The queues to hospitals have increased in all regions independent of whether they are run by the Alliance or the Social Democrats. The reason is mainly that doctors and nurses are spending most of their time at their computers, reporting and buying and selling services. Another bureaucratic nightmare. And after numerous school reforms agreed across the party divides, Sweden has got one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD. An increasing number of pupils leave school without degrees in all subjects.

The election will not be the end of the humiliations the traditional parties can be expected to be subject to. The undermining of human rights and liberal values that has happened in the UK and the US is likely to spread. The UK Independence Party won only one seat in the May 2015 general election. Nevertheless, its populist rhetoric supported by the British tabloids fuelled rabid anti-European and anti-immigration sentiments in Britain, pressuring the Conservatives to call the EU Brexit referendum. The first prominent Tory leader to join their cause was Boris Johnson and he played a decisive role in the campaign. The Prime Minister David Cameron, who had adopted an anti-EU rhetoric, but still wanted the UK to remain, lost the referendum and was replaced by a hither-to mostly unknown politician Theresa May. She allegedly supported the Remain campaign but when in power she has developed a strong anti-immigrant, nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric.

It is not only the UK Tories that have abandoned some of the progressive liberal ideas. Anti-modernity has lived side-by-side with market liberalism as part of the official policies of the US Republican Party for quite a while. The rejection of progressive values is embedded in the Republican base, not simply confined to the views of Donald Trump, Inglehart and Norris claim.[iii]The 2016 GOP platform “is extreme in promising to promulgate strict traditionalist views of the family and child-rearing, homosexuality and gender, demanding that lawmakers use Christianity as a guide, encouraging the teaching of the bible in public schools, opposing same-sex marriage, disapproving of gay and transgender rights, baring military women in combat, declaring pornography a public health crisis”.

The life scientist George Lakoff who have tried to understand why the US is so divided has concluded that the reason is that the conservative base never has accepted the Enlightenment claim that women should be treated as equals. They are still stuck in Patriarchalism.

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy, Lakoff claims, Many of them are poor or middle class and many are white men who see themselves as superior to immigrants, non-whites, women, non-Christians, gays — and people who rely on public assistance. In other words, they are what us who have a liberal worldview would call “bigots.” For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. Conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by the identity policies, which they call “political correctness”, There has been a public pressure against their views, Lakoff motes, and against what they see as “free speech.”

“Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel — with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their ‘politically incorrect’ views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.”

Patriarchal thinking is thus one of the pre-Enlightenment values that have returned, not only in the US but also in Russia, Poland and Hungary and in the rise of religious fundamentalism in all type of forms and in which Patriarchalism is a cornerstone:  Evangelicals, Wahhabis, Safarists. Orthodox, Or is it a return? Has it ever gone away or just been pressed back by a Liberal Modernity, which disability to deliver a future for all, now has undermined its credibility?

Researchers has since World War II followed the values in young generations. A worrying sign is tht the generation X that now is between 13 and 18 is the most culturally conservative since the polling started. Progressive liberals may think that they have won the battle for identity politics. They have not.

The belief in our democratic system and its institutions, in the political parties and in the global market economy is depressingly low in many Western countries and among the young. Twenty-five percent of the Americans now regard democracy as a failed system. Enlightenment values are rejected, religious beliefs and alternative facts trump science and evidence, and patriarchalism, racism and xenophobia replace the perception that all men are born equals. Media moguls are undermining the democratic order and pave the way for the Populist Right that is dangerously close to fascism in its world view.

It is high time to wake up. More of the same is no answer to the Populist challenge. Neither is accommodation. There is a need for a new progressive agenda that takes a grip on global markets that have run away from politics to quote the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and replace identity politics with a society-for-all policies.The biggest mistake by Progressives was probably made when they replaced gender equality with feminism, thereby shutting their eyes and ears to the despair of young men who now feels unseen and forgotten.


[i]Goodhart, 206

[ii]Inglehart and Norris, pp 29 and 30, 2016

[iii]Inglehart and Norris, p 30, 2016


D Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere. The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin         Politics, 2016, revised 2017.

R Inglehart and P Norris, Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism. Economic Have-Nots and         Cultural Backlash. Harvard (pdf), 2016

  1. Lakoff, , 2016


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