In the wake of the Swedish national election on Sunday, September 9, a lot of pundits have gone to work to try to "explain" the results. Many of them sing the same tune: Sweden has now joined the rest of Europe in favoring nationalism and racism and openly demonstrating their purported antipathy toward demographic diversity.
Perhaps the most flawed example of this argument is presented by Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research. In a piece titled The Why of the Swedish Vote he suggests that the people of my native country have somehow been pushed into racism (or shunning demographic diversity, which boils down to the same thing) because they don't want to share the perks of the welfare state with people from faraway corners of the world. For example:
Trying to mix two public priorities of demographic diversity together with large welfare provision and regulatory control is going to create political pressures to throw out one priority or the other.
Tucker's point, which he tries to beef up with quotes from academic research, is that Europe's native peoples will accept either the welfare state or demographic diversity, but not both. For reasons that none of his academic sources can explain - but assume as true - a people like the Swedes allegedly do not want immigrants to tap into single-payer health care, general income security, tax-paid child care and other welfare-state perks.
The line of reasoning that Tucker follows is the typical table-talk, drive-by observation that is neither accurate nor meaningful. Unfortunately, the idea that Europeans go racist when non-Europeans want to share the welfare state is so common that it has almost morphed into a truth by its own volition. Yet nobody ever questions the premise, namely that Europeans vote for nationalist parties because they carry within them an urge to keep the welfare state under some sort of Apartheid-style "whites only" banner.
On the contrary, as Jeffrey Tucker demonstrates: the hostility toward diversity can be treated as an axiomatic truth with such eloquence that people do not even discover that the emperor is naked.
First of all: racism in Europe has nothing to do with the modern welfare state. It is much older than that. My own ancestors experienced it centuries ago when they migrated from northern Finland to Sweden. Not speaking Swedish and not having Swedish names was all it took to be treated as second-class citizens. Jews all over Europe can testify to centuries of racial hostility from ethnic Europeans. Ask the Irish how the Brits treated them when the Green Island was part of the Queen's Empire. Not to mention the centuries-long hostilities between ethnic groups on the Balkans, or between the Germans and the Polish.
Racism also existed behind the Iron Curtain. Just as a casual observation, I saw plenty of examples of it during my weeks-long trip through Eastern Europe in 1988. Once Berlin Wall came down, Germans started being racist against each other. East Germans coined the term "Besserwessis" as a defense against widespread condescension and second-class treatment by West Germans.
Ask a Flemish Belgian what he thinks about French-speaking Belgians, and for how long his family has resented their southern countrymen.
If Tucker had gone looking for racism in Europe, he would have had no problem finding it without bringing the welfare state into the mix.
Secondly, it is a common, uninformed American mistake to bundle together Europe's nationalist parties under one umbrella. Yet Front National in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, both founded on openly fascist principles (despite Marine Le Pen's continuing campaign to whitewash her father's creation), basically have nothing in common with most other "nationalist" parties. For example, the Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats, SD), the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People's Party, DF) and the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party, FP) are all traditional social democratic or socially liberal parties, both in ideology and in political practice.
It is telling that nobody in the American conversation over Europe's changing political landscape even cares to mention the last two parties, which have been part of the government in their countries for several years. That is unfortunate, because the view of Europe's growing nationalism would change dramatically with a wider, deeper perspective.
It might interest a libertarian like Jeffrey Tucker to know that the FP in Norway started as an anti-tax party. I still remember meeting its chairman Carl Hagen back in the mid-1980s when he visited my university in Uppsala. His passionate talk about low taxes and limited government would make any American libertarian cry with joy.
Later on the FP modified its libertarianism and became more or less another mainstream, center-right party. Its profile issue in Norwegian politics, aside lower taxes, is law and order. When the Norwegian public began seeing a correlation between immigration and rising crime, the FP was quick to add restrictions on immigration to its party platform.
In other words, they did not want restrictions on immigration because they wanted to reserve the welfare state perks for Norwegians only. They wanted to restrict immigration because they saw that as a means to lower crime.
The DF in Denmark began its life more directly with the relationship between crime and immigration. When I lived in Denmark they pushed for a change in welfare policies in some housing-project heavy cities around Copenhagen. Crime statistics showed that kids from immigrant families were heavily over-represented in some categories, so the DF proposed, and won support for, a change of eligibility rules. A family whose kids were criminally active would lose part of their welfare.
This policy, again, had nothing to do with the fact that welfare recipients came from one part of the world or another. It was simply the result of unusually high crime rates in some housing projects.
Today, the DF is a basically copy of what the Danish social democrats were like in the mid-20th century.
The SD in Sweden has a similar ideological profile, but different roots. Originally, they were formed as an effort by neo-Nazis to try to work within the parliamentary system. During the 1990s the party changed character, disposed of its Nazi-inspired ideology and instead adopted much of the ideological platform that the Swedish social democrats operated with from the 1930s and on. Over the past 15 years their criticism of immigration has been largely similar to that of the DF. The two most commonly heard arguments are:
- Immigrants need to learn the language of the country they move to, or else they will never integrate; and
- Immigrants who commit crimes should be expelled.
There is nothing racist in this. As a lawful immigrant - from Sweden by way of Denmark - and naturalized citizen here in the United States, I wholeheartedly agree.
The SD, like the DF, has added a third point to their criticism of immigration, namely that unemployment is considerably higher among non-European immigrants than among other demographic groups. Until their unemployment has declined, it is unwise, these parties say, to permit many more of the same background to come to the country.
A typical response to this point is that non-European immigrants are victims of racial discrimination and therefore cannot find jobs. However, this is an unproven premise, much like Jeffrey Tucker's attempt to explain the rise of nationalist parties with a whites-only Apartheid attitude to the welfare state. Truth is, many of the same ethnic groups that are notoriously unemployed in Europe's welfare states do well here in America, a country that often accuses itself of being the mother lode of racism on Earth.
It is also interesting to note that the SD did well in some - but not all - precincts around Sweden with a majority immigrants in the population. (For those who are familiar with Swedish geography, I recommend the election statistics published by the national radio company, the Sveriges Radio.) This is not surprising: many in the immigrant communities in Sweden work extremely hard to build a life in their new country, running businesses or toiling at low-wage jobs to try to work their way up somewhere. They strongly dislike the new wave of immigration of the past 5-10 years.
Why? The opinions often expressed in social media, interviews on television and other media tend to gravitate toward one point: the new arrivals come with a sense of entitlement and would rather live on welfare than to work, pay taxes and support themselves and the welfare state.
It is an open question to what extent this is indeed true, or if new immigrants are unemployed because of inadequate education, but that is not the point. What matters is the attitudes that people have, and how those attitudes drive them to vote. In fact, the same views are shared by many native Swedes: those who do not contribute to the welfare state should not take its benefits for granted.
Right here, we have the real reason why parties like the SD in Sweden and the DF in Denmark have made such electoral headways as they have. The Scandinavian welfare states were built on the old idea of "first do your duty, then claim your right". This does not mean that a person has to pay 1 krona in taxes for every krona he gets from the welfare state, but it means that everyone should contribute as best they can, and only then go out and demand what they are entitled to.
As unemployment has risen among immigrant communities, the duty-first-then-right argument resonates with people who have jobs and pay their share of the high taxes in the world's most costly welfare states. And, again, this attitude is not limited to genetic Swedes, as it would have to be to validate Jeffrey Tucker's argument. It resonates with immigrants as well, especially those who have been in Sweden for a while.
There is one more reason why immigrants support the SD. For far too long, the Swedish government has ignored the growing problems with radicalization of muslim communities around the country. Imams with ties to extremist interpretations of islam have gained more and more foothold, to the point where women in these communities raise increasingly frequent complaints about "sharia police" patrolling the neighborhoods and enforcing dress codes complaint with fundamentalist interpretations of islam.
Concern for the proliferation of radicalism is only a supplementary explanation of why the SD has grown so strongly in four elections in a row. The main reason for their voter support can be summarized as "work ethic" and the high taxes that fund the welfare state. In other words, the welfare state is part of the explanation, but not in the way Tucker suggests.
To further make this point, there is an active, aggressive racist party in Sweden, called the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). They want to cleanse Sweden of people who are not ethnic Swedes, and they want the welfare state to become available only to those who can prove their Swedish ethnic heritage. They campaigned harder this year than any time before, holding rallies around the country with hundreds, even up to a thousand people at a time. They have had podcasts, opened Youtube channels and used every conceivable outlet to reach voters. Not to mention violent confrontations with both the police and political adversaries.
Their voter share did not even register in the electoral statistics.
If Swedes had been Apartheid-minded, they would obviously have flocked to the NMR, or their now-defunct "parliamentary" arm, the Svenskarnas Parti (Party of the Swedes). Yet at no time has this racist, openly Nazi movement even become a blip on the Swedish political radar.
Americans tend to over-simplify Europe. That's OK - Europeans are notorious for over-simplifying America - but it does not help in understanding why the European political landscape is changing. In the next few decades, this tectonic shift from mainstream social liberalism and social democracy toward parties on the flank, is going to radically redraw the European economic and political map. Long term, the European Union itself is in peril, as is the euro.
There are many reasons why this will happen. Racism is not one of them.