Sweden’s xenophobe Democrats have a lot in common with the US Tea Party

Sweden’s Neo-Nazis, seen here protesting in 1996, are seeing a surge in power.
Sweden’s Neo-Nazis, seen here protesting in 1996, are seeing a surge in power.
Image: AP Photo/Bobo Lauhage
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Underneath the happy glow of Abba, IKEA and a reputation for progressive social policies, there is a “dark Sweden.” In his blockbuster Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson exposed subcultures of  racism, corruption and nefarious neo-Nazis that, while not a total secret, had previously escaped the spotlight, both inside and outside of Sweden.

But now, amid an uncertain economic climate and growing resentment toward the steady flow of immigrants into the country, Larsson’s Sweden is emerging more strongly.

The Sweden Democrats, a 25-year-old party with neo-Nazi roots, is riding a wave of national popularity despite a series of scandals, including pipe-wielding top leaders involved in a street brawl. The country’s third-most popular party according to recent polls, is following a template for political legitimacy set by Islamophobic politicians in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, and its baby-faced leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has vowed to clean out the “bad seeds” and focus on protecting Swedish cultural identity.

I discussed the rise of the Sweden Democrats by email with Martin Gelin, a journalist who wrote a 2012 book, in Swedish, on the American right that got rave reviews across Sweden. It will be published in English later this year with the title The White Minority: Why conservatives feel like they’re losing their country. Gelin points out that the Sweden Democrats can trace their origins to the same cultural currents in the US that saw Southern Democrats flock to the Republican Party in the 1970s, “Reagan Democrats” take a turn to the right in the 1980s, and in the past five years, led to the rise of the Tea Party.

Nathan Hegedus: Can you compare the rise of the Sweden Democrats with any American political shifts or movements in recent decades?

Martin Gelin: In the US, third parties are usually absorbed by one of the major parties, if their ideas are popular. The historian Richard Hofstadter has said that “third parties are like a bee, once they have stung, they die,” which explains the lack of a xenophobic party in the US.

But I think a fairly good comparison for the Sweden Democrats is the 10 million people who voted for George Wallace (an independent pro-segregation US presidential candidate in 1968). Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern strategy” to win those voters after the 1968 election by focusing on issues like law and order, and reaching out to southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond. He was very successful. Studies showed that more than three out of four Wallace voters supported Nixon in 1972.

The Tea Party movement is more complex, but certainly has a large group of southern, white supporters, who are also using a lot of the rhetoric that Wallace, Nixon and Ronald Reagan used before, particularly on redistributionist policies.

NH: What do you see, specifically, that is similar between those Wallace voters and the Sweden Democrat supporters?

MG: The populist message of resentment against elites, non-whites, immigrants and women. It’s an appealing message to working class white men who feel removed from the new centers of power in the country.

They think that the country they used to know, where they had disproportionate power as white men, is slipping away from them, and fear that immigrants, and also women in general, are competing for “their” jobs and social status. Nixon, and later Reagan and George HW Bush, were able to absorb many of those voters by appealing to that fear in more subtle ways, and I think the same thing is happening now in many European countries.

NH: And do you see any mainstream Swedish political party co-opting the Sweden Democrat voters and their attitudes the way the Republicans did in the US?

MG: When a populist independent party gets 10% support like Wallace did in 1968, and the Sweden Democrats in recent polls today, it becomes very tempting for the mainstream political parties to win those voters back. None of the major Swedish parties have made explicit appeals to those voters, but there’s been a general move to the right in Sweden in the political discourse on topics like immigration, crime and the nation’s cultural identity.

That’s a win for the Sweden Democrats. If you want to win their voters back, I think talking about immigration is the worst thing you can do, because they will always be “one louder.” It might be smarter to talk about, say, energy policy or education, rather than immigration, because it would expose the Sweden Democrats’ lack of serious policy  options on those issues, which would diminish their appeal to many of their voters.