Sweden Turns Inward

Sweden Turns Inward

Most politicians now nod in agreement with the right’s calls to reduce immigration, deport the undocumented, restructure criminal policy, and prevent further political integration with the European Union. A new nationalist consensus is forming.

Supporters of the right-wing Sweden Democrats cheer during the party's election night celebration on September 11, 2022. (Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

I have only gloomy news from Sweden. Gang wars. Burnings of Qurans wrapped in bacon. Ballooning wealth inequality.

My country has long been regarded as the homeland of the “middle way” between capitalism and socialism. Such a view is no longer tenable. Maybe it never was. In fact, Sweden is a country of extremes. In the 1960s, it was often hailed as the world’s most modern country. In the 1970s, the most equal. And in the twenty-first century, Sweden has seen neoliberal privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts more extensive than elsewhere in Western Europe. Among the Nordic countries, all known for their successful redistributive states, Sweden is now a stark outlier.

After short periods of political turmoil, each recent electoral reshuffle has resulted in a consensus: “There Is No Alternative.” Today, we’re there again. But this time it looks dark—seriously dark.

During the last elections, in September 2022, the long-dominant Social Democrats (known by their Swedish initials, SAP) remained the largest party in parliament, with 30 percent of the vote, and even gained a few seats. But they lost governing power. At the same time, the right-wing nationalist Sweden Democrats (SD) became Sweden’s second largest party, with 20 percent of the vote. The parliamentary situation has been messy since the SD’s first electoral breakthrough, almost ten years ago. Now, a motley liberal-conservative coalition rules, thanks to an extensive cooperation agreement with the SD.

All this comes despite the party’s barely disguised origins on the fascist right. The SD was formed in Nazi circles in the late 1980s; over the following decade, it made a deliberate attempt to “modernize” far-right ideas. For several years, various polls have shown it to be the most popular party among white men. All parties are mesmerized by its success. Most politicians now nod in agreement with SD’s calls to reduce immigration, deport the undocumented, restructure criminal policy, and prevent further political integration with the European Union. A new nationalist consensus is forming.

Meanwhile, the SAP is suffering from a serious loss of political direction. A few weeks after the 2022 election, I met a younger colleague who is a well-known figure on the SAP’s left wing. He told me he had visited the SD’s election night celebration at a restaurant in Stockholm. “I almost started crying,” he said. He witnessed the political conviction, motivation, and joy that had disappeared from his own party.

What went wrong? The SAP’s descent from a 40 percent parliamentary plurality to 30 percent occurred in the decades around the turn of the millennium, as the party largely embraced neoliberalism. Even as they voiced discontent, the Social Democrats allowed significant parts of the primary school system to be privatized—a policy that was completely unthinkable for other governments, left and right, in Europe. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the SAP also became one of the European Union’s toughest proponents of austerity.

Still, the SAP remained one of Europe’s most successful social democratic parties. It didn’t collapse like those in France and the Netherlands. Instead, the Social Democrats gradually lost their political will and power to act. In response, most of the SAP’s voters did not go to the left, as one might expect, but drifted instead to the neoliberal right.

The success of the SD has not primarily come at the expense of the SAP. Instead, it is the old liberal and conservative parties that are losing voters to the far right. To try to meet the challenge from the Sweden Democrats, those parties are giving up their ideological and political distinctiveness bit by bit. They are emptying themselves of political meaning—just as the Social Democrats did during the neoliberal years—and look set to suffer still greater, even fatal, electoral losses.

The new right-wing governing bloc, which includes the SD, holds only a slim majority over the sprawling red-green alliance, which is dominated by the SAP. But even in opposition, the Social Democrats seem to be accommodating the new nationalist turn, appealing to voters with their own anti-immigration policies. The strategy is hard to understand, but the effect can only be to accelerate the party’s loss of political meaning.

Everyone is rallying behind the new, supposedly winning paradigm of right-wing nationalism. The destination is still unclear, but the direction of movement can be summed up in three conservative refrains: inward, homeward, backward.

Per Wirtén writes about culture and politics for the daily paper Expressen. He is the author of several books, including one that will be out in the fall of 2024 on the principle of hope.