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It’s always sunny in Stockholm. Or is it?
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Sweden: The snow-white slate onto which US presidential candidates project their fantasies

Haroon Moghul
By Haroon Moghul

Scandinavia is certainly having a moment in the sun.

Challenged on his comments about Muslims last fall, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump told Jake Tapper, “It wasn’t people from Sweden who blew up the World Trade Center.” Of course, the hijackers didn’t come from the “nation” of Islam, either. What’s more interesting is that Trump’s father, who very much wished to avoid alienating potential Jewish customers with his German roots, often claimed to be Swedish instead.

Bernie Sanders has also pointed to Sweden as an example of progress (and Norway, and Denmark), as well as a model for the kind of society he’d like the US to become: A nation with transparent and accessible government, unspoiled by corporate cash; free markets restrained by government oversight and labor markets softened by a strong social safety net.

Indeed, the media has repeatedly used Nordic Europe as a sort of snow-white slate onto which we project our fears and fantasies. For Donald Trump, Sweden appears to be a throwback to a simpler, whiter time, which his campaign very directly evokes. For Bernie Sanders, it’s a vision for the socialist future America deserves. Can both these Swedens be true?

I set out to find out.

It’s always sunny in Scandinavia

For progressives, any one of the five Nordic countries—Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark), plus Iceland and Finland—seems ideal at first blush.

Thanks to a smartly managed sovereign wealth fund, Norwegians are some of the wealthiest people in the world. A Norwegian political journalist at NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, described to Quartz a Norway in which people enjoy generous “maternity leave, healthcare and education” benefits. But the journalist, who asked we not use her name due to a company policy, notes that most Norwegians “find it hard to understand that a superpower, like the United States, does not offer that to its citizens.”

Elsewhere? Danes are ranked consistently as some of the world’s happiest people. Despite suffering badly during the 2008 Global Recession—Iceland’s banking system failed, and its economy tanked—the smallest of the Nordic countries has made a surprising recovery. Today Iceland runs almost entirely on renewable energy, many Icelanders believe elves are real, and they’ve elected the first openly gay prime minister in the world. When Quartz asked the Embassy of Finland in Washington, DC, why their country keeps ranking at the top of global educational achievement indices, I received a similarly promising picture.

“Finns value education very highly,” Embassy’s press counselor Sanna Kangasharju tells Quartz. “The teaching profession is highly respected,” Kangasharju says. So are the students: “Education is free at all levels, from pre-primary to tertiary education. School meals are offered free of charge all the way through.” But given the stereotype Nordic countries frequently face, one might wonder if all this is accomplished through suffocating, centralized bureaucracy.

Kangasharju painted a different picture. “Schools have a lot of autonomy. There are no school ranking lists or inspection systems, but teachers are required to have a Master’s degree,” she tells me. Not too shabby when you consider, as journalist and author Michael Booth has, that, “Finland had the Soviet Union breathing down its neck for decades,” and took a severe economic hit when the USSR collapsed.

The author of recently published book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of The Scandinavian Utopia, Booth says that he’d grown “really weary of the constant depiction of the Nordic countries as a kind of paradise on earth.” And so he set out to explore whether these countries were really as wonderful as they were described to be. The resulting book subverts several of the more conventional Nordic narratives, providing a more nuanced look at America’s favorite inspirational metaphor.

The money perspective

These are strong social democracies, yes. But also competitive free-market economies: Sweden gave the world Volvos. Their H&M’s are ubiquitous. Through IKEA, Sweden sells furniture we can barely pronounce, occasionally assemble, but mostly afford. (A similar spirit of creative construction perhaps inspired Denmark’s Legos.) Of course, not everyone is so sanguine. Some critics believe the generous social benefits provided by Nordic economies are ultimately unsustainable; others believe that aging populations and high tax burdens will gradually grind their otherwise competitive economies to a halt.

But Michael Booth believes that there is another concern, one very much connected to our own anxieties about identity and debates about national security. When I asked him if Sweden could be a model for the United States, in the way Bernie Sanders proposed, he noted that any such adoption would be more complicated than it looks: “Sweden is the way it is because of decades, perhaps centuries, of evolution influenced by its history, politics, social structure, geography and climate. You can’t just will yourself to be Swedish.” Which had me thinking: Right now the great debate consuming Europe centers around the place of Islam, Muslims, and refugees in many countries that have little historic experience with diversity.

Will these newcomers become Swedish, or will Sweden be changed by them?

Cold Comfort

Anders Breivik, the worst mass killer in Norwegian history, was consumed by fear and hatred of Muslims; in the end, though, he chose to target Norway’s social democratic elite for their alleged complicity in the “Islamization” of Norway. And yet, though he was “an ethnic Norwegian and some kind of Christian,” Breivik’s attacks did not spark a substantial enough European conversation on violent Islamophobia. Booth notes that, after Breivik’s attacks, few asked, “‘have Christians done all they can?’” in the way Muslims are often collectively held to account after terrorist attacks.

The last few years have seen a revival of fortunes for right-wing parties across most of northern Europe. (Tiny Iceland seems mostly immune, largely for geographic reasons.) Finnish white supremacists, calling themselves “Sons of Odin,” have begun patrolling the streets; they claim to be assisting police, though immigration—and Islam—seem their primary motivation.

That’s a worrying sign, since Finland is already home to one of Europe’s older Muslim communities. In fact, it may be the oldest in Nordic Europe: “The Muslim community of Tatars in Finland dates back all the way to the 1800’s,” Kangasharju tells Quartz, but they are “small in number, less than 50,000 and thus traditionally not very visible.”

Kangasharju admits that while “there has not been that much ground for Islamophobia to get rooted, the new situation, with a considerable number of Muslim asylum seekers,” might change things. Meanwhile, Finland accepted over 30,000 refugees in 2015, a proportionally huge number for the nation of 5.5 million. While Finland continues to rely on “international law as the basis for migration policies,” Kangasharju believes “the drivers of forced migration need to be addressed”—while Finland and its neighbors might be wealthy, they cannot continue to absorb such huge numbers.

Norway, with about the same population as Finland, received more than 31,500 asylum seekers; Sweden, with twice the population, accepted around 160,000, the highest per capita in Europe (on the order of our accepting Los Angeles and Chicago into the country in one year). Booth believes that “mass immigration from non-Western countries is not sustainable,” and even Sweden, long the most welcoming, is also being forced to close its borders.

Earlier in February, in what one hopes is not actually the beginning of a new trend, neo-Nazi organizers hailed a mob that attacking dozens of migrants and refugees at Stockholm’s Central Station as “heroes.”

But Quartz’s contact at NRK believes that while racism does drive anti-immigrant sentiment, Norway might be proof that the challenge of integration is not an impossible one. “There’s this idea that America is the only country in which immigrants can do well. When you look at social mobility, that’s not the case. We have higher social mobility in northern Europe than Americans do.” She points to the deputy leader of Norway’s biggest party, Hadia Tajik, who at 29 became the Minister of Culture—and simultaneously the first Muslim, first Asian, and youngest person ever to serve as minister. In his New Year’s Address, Norwegian King Harald V even quoted Pippi Longstocking—a character written by a Swedish author—to describe his country’s obligations to refugees: “If you’re very strong, you need to be very kind.”

“Most Norwegians honestly still think, yes, we have a responsibility” to aid refugees,” the reporters says. While these are small societies, they’ve welcomed significant numbers of people from all over the world, and their recent generosity contrasts unfavorably to our own.

Whether that social progressivism and open-minded liberalism can stand the test of large numbers of refugees is an important question; as I found, there are reasons to be optimistic, and reasons to be wary. The great question, it seems, is whether the Nordic model requires homogeneity; many of the struggles now roiling these prosperous and liberal countries are not dissimilar from our own national conversations.

As for Michael Booth, who’d made his home in Scandinavia for many years? He says that, if he were an American, he’d be voting for Bernie Sanders.