In Sweden, the Elite Lost Touch with the People

Sweden Democrat party supporters rally in Stockholm, Sweden, September 8, 2018. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
As in the U.S., populism gains ground when media and government leaders deride many voters’ concerns.

Sweden’s elections on Sunday carry the same lesson we should have already learned with Brexit and Donald Trump’s 2016 victory: Those whom political elites view as “deplorables” are going to have their say. The question now is whether elites will continue to ignore them and the lessons they bring.

Once a poster child for political consensus, Sweden is now deeply polarized. Parties on the traditional right and those on the traditional left wound up in a photo finish, each with about 41 percent of the vote. The remaining 18 percent of the vote was captured by Sweden Democrats (SD), a once obscure populist party with some roots in 1980s neofascism.

It has since largely cleaned up its act and seen its support skyrocket as other parties have ignored its key issues of immigration and crime. The SD claims it now practices a “zero-tolerance” policy against members who make openly racist or anti-Semitic statements.

Despite the growth of the Sweden Democrats, none of the seven mainstream parties will have anything to do with the party, with most labeling it “racist” and “extremist.” Johan Norberg, a Swedish commentator, says that “no other party will deal with them.” He adds that the SD’s stance on many issues “makes them unreliable partners to either side because on the one hand they want to maintain the famous Swedish welfare state but on the other are climate-change skeptics and promise to cut taxes on fuel.”

Whatever their stated reason, the refusal of all other parties to negotiate with the SD may now lead to political paralysis in Sweden, since neither the combined forces of the Right or the Left parties can command the majority needed to form a stable government.

The irony is that all of this turmoil is happening during relatively good economic times. Just as with Brexit and Trump’s victory, the populist revolt in Sweden is taking place during a time of falling unemployment. But the instability of today’s job markets and slow wage growth cancel that out. In Sweden, only 27 percent of voters believe that the country is heading in the right direction, while 50 percent think that it is going in the wrong direction.

The key moment that gave the Swedish Democrats their opening was the 2015 migrant crisis. In Germany, the admission of 1 million migrants caused support for the major parties to collapse and fueled the rise of the populist Alternative for Germany. In Sweden, a similar result occurred after the country took in 165,000 asylum seekers in one year. That would be the equivalent of the United States admitting some 6 million refugees in a year.

But what really made the Swedish migrant crisis a political tinderbox is that elites decided that discussing the issue in frank terms — including its negative impacts — was forbidden in the media and polite society. As Tino Sanandaji, a researcher of Iranian Kurdish background at the Institute for Economic and Business History Research in Stockholm, wrote at Politico today:

Over time, “openness” and “multi-culturalism” were pitted against “hatred” and “racism,” and that in effect ended the discussion.

Exposing negative statistics about immigration sparked angry accusations of bigotry. Establishment voices shied away from the topic for fear of being accused as racist. Opposition to immigration became off-limits within all establishment parties, and Swedish policy gradually moved toward open borders.

The underlying unease, of course, did not vanish. In anonymous social surveys, there was never a majority in favor of increasing migration to Sweden. Faced with a pro-migration political establishment, the silent majority of voters began to feel they had no other outlet than fringe parties with racist roots.

Polls show that Swedish Democrats even captured 12 percent of the foreign-born vote, perhaps explained by the fact that some of them resent the recent rise in crime and disorder in their own neighborhoods.

Sweden’s governing elites made things even worse for themselves by turning a blind eye to increases in gang violence, sexual assault, and arson that occurred in neighborhoods where migrants congregated. Sanandaji says that the Swedish Democrats “benefited from the government’s decision to obfuscate or simply mislead the public about the rise in violence — despite the indisputable statistics about the phenomenon.”

Much as with support for President Trump, a general belief that elites aren’t telling the truth on key issues has propped up SD’s base of support and solidified it.

And just as the mainstream media have stepped out of their traditional role and declared war on the Trump administration, the Swedish media have taken the side of the elites. During the final election debate on Swedish state television (SVT) last Friday, Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson claimed that the reason many immigrants can’t find a job is that “they are not Swedes” and they “don’t fit in, in Sweden.” After the debate, the SVT host made a sudden intervention: “We must begin by saying that Jimmie Akesson’s comments were blatantly generalizing, and SVT does not stand by them.”

The argument over the poor assimilation of migrants to Sweden is worth airing, though Akesson expressed his concerns in harsh terms. But it was the place of the other parties to debate, not the state broadcaster’s. For their part, the Sweden Democrats tweeted: “SVT chose to take a stand against the Sweden Democrats. It is an act that is unprecedented in modern Swedish history.”

You’d think that elites would see a pattern when looking at Trump supporters, Brexiteers, or Europeans skeptical of mass migration; you’d think that the lesson would sink in by now. But instead, in country after country roiled by populist uprisings, elites steadfastly are refusing to grapple with the legitimate sentiments of working-class voters, dissidents from politically correct identity politics, or workers unsettled by industry that has shut down.

Instead, the elites are continuing to roughly follow the example of candidate Barack Obama, who in 2012 famously tried to explain the attitudes of such people at what he thought was an off-the-record fundraiser:

They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Of course, there are elements in the ranks of Brexit supporters, Trump backers, and the Swedish Democrats that are nasty and retrograde. But so long as elites continue to ignore the legitimate fears and grievances of ordinary voters, they will be both inhibiting a genuine public debate over solutions and encouraging even more of a backlash.


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