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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Trump Moment for Sweden?

By:   Paul Hansen
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A Trump Moment for Sweden?

Europe is presently experiencing a reaction to liberal sensibilities, especially generous migration policies. In country after country, so-called populist parties rise in polls and elections, and even gain power, in parallel to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016. One can see this simply as a correction of the political elite to what concerns people in general, but it also bears witness to a crisis concerning core principles of liberalism, for example, freedom of expression and the idea of a secular state with religion as a private concern.

Sweden has long prided itself of being an exception to such a development; the self-understanding is of a country so thoroughly modern, both in mentality and in social organization, that it is immune to nationalism. The Swedes have, the exceptionists think, decided for a multicultural society, in which the framework of liberal freedoms makes coexistence possible between widely different religions and cultures. They believe that most people, when presented with the Swedish model, realize its reasonableness and adapt their religious and cultural values and practices to it, together forming a colorful social mosaic sustained by generous welfare policies.

Many Swedes looked, therefore, with some contempt and alarm towards Denmark, when in 2002 —as a consequence of the electoral success of the Danish People’s Party a year earlier — the new Danish government introduced strict immigration laws.

At that time, Sweden, had (as it does presently) a Social Democratic government supported by the former communist party and the environmentalist party. The minister of integration, Mona Sahlin, expressed harsh critique of the Danish laws, labelling them as extreme and as demonizing immigrants. This ignited a high level confrontation between the Danish and Swedish governments; and the leader of the Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjærsgaard, retorted that if the Swedish government wanted to turn its larger cities, for example, Malmö, into Scandinavian variants of Beirut, with war, honor killings and mass rape, then the Danes could always close the bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. 

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That year Sweden was moving towards its own parliament election. But the parallel party to the Danish People’s Party in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats, did not reach the four percent of the electorate necessary for entry into the parliament; their score was only approximately one and half percent. “The Swedish Exception” seemed to hold; and with the support of the communist party and the environmentalist party, the Social Democrats once more formed government.

One difference between Denmark and Sweden, put forward by some commentators to explain the different Nordic temperaments, was that Sweden lacked the kind of newspapers that openly expressed immigration critique; newspapers that Swedish mainstream media considered as reveling in sensationalism, populism and racist tendencies. In Sweden, media, with few exceptions, stayed within the sphere of respectable views; and as the nationalist party remained outside the parliament, it could safely be ignored.

Unsurprisingly, the Danish critique was then that it was not possible in Sweden to discuss the negative aspects of mass immigration, as politicians and media, in an unhealthy alliance, kept this topic off the table in a form of nationwide self-censure. In the election campaign of 2002, however, the leader of the Swedish Liberal party, to the shock of the other established parties, said something to similar effect.

In the election of 2006, a liberal conservative alliance took over the reins of Swedish government, while the Sweden democrats nudged up to three percent, still one percent from the magical four percent threshold.

The success of the conservative party, The Moderates, calling themselves now the New Moderates, was due to that, besides forming a large alliance, they had moved their ideological platform toward the crowded liberal socialist middle, styling themselves as the new working class party. This left the right of the political spectrum wide open for the nationalist party, and even some Social Democrats now wondered if it had been a mistake to try to “ignore the Sweden Democrats to death.”

In the election of 2010, quite rightly, the Swedish Democrats managed to reach almost six percent, despite that they were denied participation in central debates. The liberal conservative alliance could not continue to govern without their support, as they did not have a majority, but vehemently rejected all ideas at cooperation.

Moreover, in the days following the election, large anti-racist demonstrations took to the streets of the larger cities targeting the Sweden Democrats. One young demonstrator said, “It is our duty to gather and make our voices heard, to show that we do not tolerate them.”

In the following election in 2014, the leader of the conservative party and the government, Fredrik Reinfeldt, even made the generous Swedish immigration policy into an election issue. He coined the phrase that Swedes should now “open their hearts” to receive the large masses fleeing from wars in the Middle East, the effects of the Arab Spring, and prepare for the increased costs that this would lead to.

fred gay pride 2Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt during the Stockholm Pride Parade 2014

This appeal backfired as the Swedish Democrats rose to almost thirteen percent in the election, and it now became impossible to form a liberal conservative government without their active support. True to his ideological position, Fredrik Reinfeldt choose to resign and effectively hand over power to a socialist minority government.

The Social Democrats did not change the immigration policies, which acted like a powerful magnet, but then came the extreme year of 2015, for which Reinfeldt had tried to prepare the Swedes, when 163,000 asylum-seekers flooded the country and overstretched the system. All political parties now realized that this was the end of the generous immigration policies, and in a strange turnaround, the Socialist government tightened the regulations and reintroduced passport controls for those travelling on the bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, somewhat ironically even suggesting shutting it down.

The 2015 shock of mass migration changed the system in some respects, but the mainstream political parties did not give the Sweden Democrats any recognition of seeing the problem before it arrived, or began to seek ways of cooperating with them. For the established parties, this would be to legitimize racism. They, therefore, tried to keep the Sweden Democrats in the ideological fridge, with the a strategy combining non-cooperation with denunciation.

But with the crisis came also a growing recognition that media had not been reporting fairly on the problems of immigration, that animated by a will to guide people toward liberal values, media had excessively highlighted the good stories. To fill this vacuum, alternative media sprung up, which were treated in the same way as the Swedish democrats, that is, with a combination of quarantine and strong condemnation.

This exploded into a major crisis in 2016, when The Gothenburg Book Fair, the second largest in Europe, decided to have as its theme Freedom of Expression, in honor of the 250-year jubilee of The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act. One of the exhibitors was the new (founded in 2012) right wing newspaper Nya Tider (New Times). Some of the other exhibitors reacted with indignation that this newspaper should be part of the book fair and threatened to withdraw if it would participate. The obvious irony that this took place when the theme was freedom of expression and the celebration of a foundational law of Sweden securing this freedom explicitly for newspapers was not lost on some.

The person in charge of the fair, Maria Källson, first stood by the decision to allow the newspaper a place, but then changed her mind as the pressure mounted and declared that Nya Tider would not be allowed to participate; only to once again change her mind a few weeks later, as it became apparent that it was not legally possible to break the contract with the newspaper. Finally, in 2017, the book fair announced that Nya Tider would not be allowed to participate in the 2018 event.

The liberal principle at stake here is whether media, or political parties, outside the main stream, in this case suspected of racist views, should be allowed participation in the public debate, or if only those deemed to hold “good” values should be included. In the latter case, which became the final position of the book fair, the liberal attitude of “everyone is welcome” comes with certain conditions. Freedom is only for those that agree to a particular set of values. With other words, do not tolerate the intolerant.

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The crucial point is, however, who gets to decide which these core values are. The majority? Or a group of enlightened individuals which stand above populism, that is, unenlightened majority views? In the former case, the chilling fact is that the majority, or at least a sizeable minority, could decide to vote according to other values than those proposed by the enlightened. In that case, the liberal society must become illiberal to stay liberal. To secure its openness to certain groups and lifestyles, it must close its heart to those that oppose such openness.

On September 9 this year, Sweden will once again have a parliament election and the Sweden Democrats are projected to gain at least 20 percent of the vote. The crucial point at which liberal enlightened ideology and the mechanisms of democracy will clash, with decisive force, seems then to have arrived for Sweden. However, the other parties have all decided to stay with the non-cooperation strategy, promising to voters that they will not enter into any negotiations with the Sweden Democrats, no matter what.

It is illustrative that in the beginning of August, RFSL, The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Rights, in connection with the EuroPride event, arranged a political debate in which all parties of the parliament were present, except the Swedish Democrats who had not been invited. When asked why, the representative of RFSL said, ”We do not speak with them.”

During the debate, each of the party leaders were provided with small rainbow flags on sticks, with which to waive if they agreed with a statement put forth by the hosts. At the declaration, “The Sweden Democrats is a homophobe party with which we will not cooperate,” all party leaders raised their rainbow flags. 

Another newspaper report, now on the EuroPride parade in Stockholm, “the colorful manifestation for the human rights of everyone” remarked with enthusiasm on the wide variety of people present: high government officials, Vikings for diversity, Google and the Satanist society.

However, as we have seen, this form of diversity comes with restrictions; you need to accept certain core values to be allowed to participate. And, if you don’t, then you have no right to any public space, even if you represent a large minority of the population. During this year, several parties have, therefore, put forward radical proposals for new laws restricting certain freedoms, especially in connection with religion, which I will come back to in another article. For example, the Social Democrats have made it an election issue to prohibit all religious schools.

The decisive crisis for this attitude of hard liberalism is when certain values lose connection with reality, and when keeping those values afloat endanger the nation as in 2015. Or when the excluded minority is of such a magnitude that it grinds the democratic system to a deadlock.

In both cases, ideologically-convinced liberals are forced to implement their values with more force and more widely than previously, excluding those not agreeing, and at the extreme point give up on democratic principles, which they consider having been taken hostage by an unenlightened populism, and instead therefore decide for revolution.

It sounds extreme, but one can hear how the elites of Swedish society hold their breath until the election. Either they will once again play the game of not tolerating the intolerant. Or they will have to form a large rainbow alliance with the nationalists outside the visible spectrum.

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Last modified on Wednesday, September 5, 2018