Johns Hopkins University Press

In the recent election to the Swedish Parliament, the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing populist and nationalist Party, gained 20.5 percent of the vote, making it for the first time the second-largest party in the country. The election resulted in a narrow win for the right-wing bloc that is now in government. In international rankings of factors such as "happiness," social trust, population health, quality of democracy, gender equality, economic prosperity, etc., Sweden is a very successful society. This article attempts to answer the question of why, given these rankings, such a large part of the electorate voted for an antiestablishment, populist, right-wing, and illiberal party.

On 11 September 2022, Sweden held quadrennial elections for the Riksdag, its 349-member unicameral parliament. The Sweden Democrats (SD), a right-wing populist and nationalist party founded in 1988, won 20.5 percent of the vote and gained eleven seats for a total of 73, making them for the first time the country's second-largest party. They trailed only the Social Democrats, who garnered 30.3 percent and 107 seats (a gain of seven). The Moderates, Sweden's center-right party, finished third with 19.1 percent and 68 seats (a loss of two).

These results represent a major shift in the Swedish political landscape. In every national election since 1979, the Moderates had been the second-largest party. The electoral rise by which the SD has displaced them has been remarkable: The SD has raised its vote share in every national election since it started vying for the Riksdag in 2002. That first attempt twenty years ago netted a meager 1.4 percent and zero seats, since Sweden has a 4 percent threshold. In 2006, the SD won 2.9 percent, making them eligible for public funding. In 2010, a 5.7 percent share brought them twenty Riksdag seats. In 2014, the figures were 12.9 percent and 49 seats, followed by 17.5 percent and 62 seats in 2018. For a political party in a democracy with proportional representation to add to its political support for five consecutive national elections is rare, maybe even unique. The SD's ascent puts Sweden in line with a general trend among Western democracies, where right-wing populist parties have become a strong political force.1

The 2022 success of the SD goes beyond numbers and adds a qualitative dimension to the party's standing in Sweden's politics. The SD is now a supporter—albeit one without a single cabinet seat—of the new governing coalition of Moderates, Christian Democrats, and Liberals [End Page 36] headed by Moderate Ulf Kristersson. Before this, all parties in the Riksdag had by informal agreement always treated the SD as a "party non grata" and thus effectively barred it from any role in government. Despite SD leaders' declaration of a zero-tolerance policy toward racism and efforts to "clean" the party of its original associations with fascist and neo-Nazi circles, the list of racist, antidemocratic, illiberal, anti-Muslim, and even anti-Semitic statements that SD activists and leading figures have made is very long and includes many recent examples.2

During the 2018 campaign, Kristersson publicly promised Heidi Fried, a well-known nonagenarian Holocaust survivor who had lived in Sweden since 1945, that he would never collaborate with the SD. After having failed to oust the Social Democrats from government in 2018, however, both the Moderates and the Christian Democrats began backing away from their policy against working with the growing party to their right. The clincher seems to have been the Christian Democrats' argument that without the SD's help, the center-right parties would never again be able to form a governing coalition.

The about-face by the Moderates was particularly striking. Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderate prime minister from 2006 to 2014, had been the architect of the comparatively very generous refugee policy that made Sweden the leading Western country by far when it came to numbers accepted (proportionate to population) during the 2013–16 refugee crises that peaked in 2015.

The 2022 campaign saw two distinct political blocs contending for power. The center-right trio of the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberals were joined de facto by the SD to form a right-wing, nationalist bloc. The center left consisted of the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left party, and also (surprisingly) the Center Party, which had been in coalition with the center right as recently as 2014. The impetus for the Center Party's pivot away from its old partners had been their willingness to work with the SD. Center Party leaders said that they not only would support the Social Democrats' campaign but would be open to collaborating with them following the election.

In 2022, the voters gave the right a very slender victory. The Moderates, Christian Democrats, and Liberals combined have 103 seats, while the "confidence and supply" of the SD give them another 73 votes. The coalition that the Social Democrats lead, meanwhile, trails by just three seats with 173. Kristersson is prime minister, and while the SD lacks cabinet seats, its support rests on a four-party pact (call the Tidö Agreement after the site of talks) specifying in detail the policies that the new government is to pursue.

Moreover, the Sweden Democrats may hold no portfolio, but they have been allowed to name political appointees as "special advisors" to various central-government ministries. Whatever a ministry may plan, the SD will receive early word of it. Such an arrangement—a party with [End Page 37] no formal role in government nonetheless exerting direct influence over it—is highly unusual. It has already led to a tightening of Sweden's policy on accepting refugees. The willingness of the Liberals to take part in what is in fact an SD-inclusive government has been a surprise. Historically, the Swedish Liberal Party has stood firmly by liberal principles and favored supporting refugees and immigrants. Two former Liberal leaders warned that the pact would mean they could no longer vote Liberal, but the party went ahead regardless.

A Paradigm Shift?

The new right-wing nationalist government presents the sixty closely typed pages of the four-party accord as adding up to a "paradigm shift" for several central policy areas. The three most important have to do with crime, immigration, and climate change. The police will have wider leeway to use secret methods, implying that safeguards for citizens' rights will be weakened. The accord opens the possibility of deporting gang criminals who lack Swedish citizenship even if they have not been convicted of a crime. Other measures include double sentences for gang criminals and establishing "visitation zones" where the police will have increased search powers. The police, correctional services, and other judicial authorities will be greatly expanded.

Immigration policy will become severely restricted. The number of refugees from the UN quota system is to drop from six thousand to nine hundred per year. Overall, Swedish immigration policies will be adjusted to the lowest level that EU law allows. Possibilities for internal controls of aliens and measures for making immigrants return to their "home country" will intensify. Labor immigration will be tightened as will immigration for family members and requirements for citizenship. Possibilities for revocation of residence permits will increase, and the government will investigate whether immigrants can be deported due to various forms of "asocial behavior" even if no law has been broken. Sweden's ambitious policies regarding climate change are also to shift. Fossil fuels are due for huge subsidies. To augment electricity generation, the two recently shut down nuclear reactors at the Ringhals power plant on the west coast across from Denmark will be restarted, while the country's other six reactors will be kept running as plans are made to build more.

The accord also calls for reducing the economic support given to immigrants, but says little about any actual cutbacks, or even limits on immigrants' access to Sweden's extensive social services. The SD largely backs Sweden's universal model for social protection, which has long been popular, and likely does not want to be linked too closely to any concrete proposals for curtailing it, even if these cutbacks would be focused on immigrants. The SD even forced the Moderates to drop a [End Page 38] favorite policy idea, that of tightening the limits of unemployment insurance.

Students of comparative politics have long seen Sweden as dominated by a strong labor movement. Unionization remains high. Democracy came a century ago, when Liberal prime minister Nils Edén sidelined the king as the Riksdag established universal suffrage. Since Hjalmar Branting became the first Social Democratic premier in 1920, the Social Democrats have governed Sweden about 75 percent of the time. The system for social protection is generous, public services such as health care, care for the elderly, and education are universal and of comparatively high quality. Policies promoting gender equality are pronounced, with generous support for parental leave and highly subsidized preschools. Sweden is a world leader in extending international aid and took in exceptionally large numbers of refugees during the crisis of the mid-2010s.

In international rankings of factors such as "happiness," social trust, population health, economic competitiveness, quality of democracy, gender equality, economic prosperity, low poverty and corruption, and the like, Sweden and its Nordic neighbors consistently rate among the world's most successful societies. Given such achievements, why would a large slice of the electorate vote for a populist, right-wing, and illiberal nationalist party that loves to thumb its nose at the establishment?

Survey data show that SD voters are more likely to be blue-collar men living in small towns or rural areas. They are also more likely to be unemployed or on long-term disability pensions. In Stockholm, the capital and largest city in this country of 10.5 million, the Sweden Democrats barely exceeded a tenth of the 2022 vote. In rural northeastern Scania, five-hundred kilometers down the east coast from Stockholm in the far south of the country, they got close to a third. Compared to other voters, Sweden Democrats care a lot about law and order, immigration, and energy prices, and little about climate change and gender equality. Furthermore, it is well known that SD voters give the Social Democratic government poor grades on its handling of the economy and the covid-19 pandemic, and their trust in politicians is very low as well. To this should be added that while social trust (defined as trust in "other people") is by global standards very high in Sweden, SD voters stand out by expressing significantly lower social trust than do supporters of any of the other seven parties in the Riksdag.3

The Social Democrats used to command the loyalty of a clear majority of blue-collar workers, but in 2022 this group split its votes about evenly between the Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats. In a longer perspective, we can speak about a party split in the sense that half the working-class citizens who used to vote for the Social Democrats have left for the Sweden Democrats. This is in line with what has been happening to other social-democratic parties in Europe. [End Page 39]

The difference in voting behavior between men and women was at a record level in this election. Every fourth Swedish man voted for the SD but the share of women voters who did so was only 16 percent. Voters in the youngest cohort, between the ages of eighteen and thirty, displayed this difference to an especially marked degree. Supporters of the SD were 11 percent of young women, but 26 percent of young men. By large majorities, Swedish women voted for the left, and men for the nationalist right.

The geographical or spatial split in voting patterns is noteworthy as well. Most immigrants live in the larger cities; small towns and rural areas, where SD voters tend to live, have far fewer immigrants. Thus, the closer a Swedish voter lives to immigrants and refugees, the less likely is that person to vote for an anti-immigrant party. There are many explanations for this voting pattern. For a young working-class male, a wave of immigrants and refugees who are also often young men (as Sweden's have been) means stiffer competition for jobs, housing, and female partners. If you are a middle-class person in a large city, however, more immigrants mean more cheap labor for the service sector. They put money in your pocket by holding down the cost of the services you consume, or the wages you must pay to run your business. Moreover, housing segregation is a marked feature of all larger cities in Sweden: Middle-class urban voters may live closer than do rural folk to the immigrant populations who supply the urban middle class with low-cost labor, but not so close as to have recent immigrants as actual neighbors.

Labor and Other Structural Factors

The dramatic political change in Sweden cannot be understood without reference to structural changes in the economy and society. Consider the labor market. As in many other Western countries and perhaps even more so in Sweden, the demand for traditional low-skilled working-class jobs has gone down. The demand for tech-savvy labor is now turning up even in less-expected places. You cannot drive a Swedish cab, for instance, unless you can speak English and use the computer that controls passenger pickups and deliveries. Changes such as this have made life harder for many low-educated men. Young women, including those from immigrant backgrounds, are now doing much better in the educational system than are young men.4

The top structural factor behind the Sweden Democrats' success is the issue of refugees. During 2015, the peak year of the refugee crisis, Sweden was far and away the leader (relative to population size) among OECD countries in accepting refugees. The roughly ten-million Swedes took in 163,000 asylum seekers. If the United States had done the same in proportion to its population, it would have admitted about 5.4 million people. In fact, it took in that year just under 70,000 refugees and [End Page 40] just over 26,000 asylum seekers (these are different categories under U.S. law).5 The United Kingdom, which is more than six times Sweden's size, would have had to have taken in close to a million people to have matched Sweden in per capita terms. In fact, Britain took in about 40,000. As for the other Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, and Nor-way—each agreed to take in about 30,000 refugees in 2015, which is less than a fifth of the number that Sweden accepted. During the last ten years, moreover, Sweden has taken in more than 1.2 million immigrants. Most observers would deem that the integration of this huge number of refugees has for the most part not worked well. Given widespread residential segregation, many immigrants now live in areas where there is simply nothing "Swedish" for them to integrate into.

Figure. S A T A F R Source: Johan Martinsson and Ulrika Andersson, eds., Swedish Trends 1986–2021 (Gothenburg: SOM-Institute, 2022). Notes: Respondents answered the question "What is your opinion on the following proposal? Accept fewer refugees." Possible responses were: "very good," "fairly good," "neither good, nor bad," "fairly bad," and "very bad." The top line in the figure depicts the share answering either "very good" or "fairly good"; the bottom line depicts the share answering "very bad" or "fairly bad."
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Swedish Attitudes Toward Accepting Fewer Refugees

Source: Johan Martinsson and Ulrika Andersson, eds., Swedish Trends 1986–2021 (Gothenburg: SOM-Institute, 2022).

Notes: Respondents answered the question "What is your opinion on the following proposal? Accept fewer refugees."

Possible responses were: "very good," "fairly good," "neither good, nor bad," "fairly bad," and "very bad." The top line in the figure depicts the share answering either "very good" or "fairly good"; the bottom line depicts the share answering "very bad" or "fairly bad."

Some claim that the surge in votes for the Sweden Democrats bespeaks an increase in racist attitudes, but there is no reliable survey evidence for this. When asked if they think that their country has improved due to immigration, a larger share of people in Sweden agree that this is the case than in other European countries.6 The picture is complicated, however. Every year since 1990, the SOM Institute (the University of Gothenburg's survey-research arm) has asked respondents whether the idea of accepting fewer refugees is good or bad. A plurality each year [End Page 41] has responded that taking in fewer refugees would be a "good proposal." The Figure charts these responses beginning with 2006. Just before the refugee crisis, those surveyed split about evenly, with 40 percent wanting fewer refugees and 37 not wanting fewer (whether they wanted the same number or more cannot be determined as they simply answered that taking in fewer would be a "bad proposal"). Then came the 2015 refugee surge. From 2016 until now, more than 50 percent have said each year that taking fewer refugees is the better idea. As of 2020, the split had reached yawning proportions, with 59 percent wanting fewer refugees and only 19 percent wanting the same number or more.

From these data, one might conclude that Sweden's generous refugee policy has been a project of the political elite, carried on without the support of most Swedes. With the refugee crisis of 2015, the bottom dropped out in terms of public opinion. During the two election cycles immediately prior to that year, all the established political parties had stood united behind a generous refugee policy. A voter for whom refugee policy was highly salient and who wanted a policy similar to Denmark's or Norway's (each country is roughly half Sweden's size, and each took in fewer than a fifth of the refugees that Sweden accepted in 2015), or even three or four times more generous than the Danish or Norwegian approaches, had no party to vote for other than the Sweden Democrats. Electoral democracy is supposed to present alternative policy choices to the electorate, but the established parties had conspicuously failed to do this. They left a yawning space for the Sweden Democrats to fill. In sum, there is little evidence that increasing racism and xenophobia can explain the surge of the Sweden Democrats. Instead, it could simply be that "numbers count"—enough of the voters came to disagree sharply with the political elites' "open-door" policy during the recent refugee crisis, and the election results reflect this.

Cultural Values and Social Norms

There is no understanding the surge of votes for an anti-immigrant, nationalistic party in Sweden without taking cultural issues and social norms into account. The well-known "World Cultural Map" that Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel created by plotting where countries are located in terms of "secular-rational" and "self-expression" values versus "traditional" and "survival" values rests on decades of data from the World Values Survey.7 Traditional values emphasize religion, deference to authority, and the importance of family ties. Secular values are the opposite and include support for abortion, divorce, and the rights of sexual minorities. Survival values emphasize the importance of material and physical security while self-expression emphasizes subjective well-being and personal autonomy, and includes support for environmental causes, gender equality, and tolerance of "the other." [End Page 42]

Sweden occupies a far corner of this map. Its people subscribe to secular-rational and self-expressive values more than any other national public in the world. The huge numbers of "new Swedes" (as they are sometimes called) have created tensions because many of them come from countries where secular-rational and expressive values are, to put it mildly, not the norm. In world terms, these countries may be more typical than is Sweden, but in the Swedish context their value preferences are highly atypical.

A recent study by three Swedish sociologists gives some surprising results. They have followed more than five-thousand young people in Sweden who are immigrants or the Swedish-born children of immigrants. Most were born in 1996, and took part voluntarily in the study from ages 14 through 23. Four times during this period, the study gathered data from the young people themselves, their parents, and their teachers. This is by far the most comprehensive study of integration carried out in Sweden.8 In some areas, integration has worked well. Young people from immigrant backgrounds earn college degrees at about the same rate as ethnic Swedes of the same age, and register similar scores when it comes to health and subjective well-being. Because immigrants have, on average, faced worse socioeconomic conditions growing up, these results are unexpected and heartening.

Not all the findings are encouraging, however. There are the college graduates, yes, but at the same time about a third of the immigrant young people have not graduated from secondary school, and half of these nongraduates have come out of compulsory middle school with grades too low for entry into secondary school (which in Sweden is selective rather than compulsory and typically begins when one is sixteen years old). The study described above also has data on subjects who are around age thirty, and regarding them too we see the same divided pattern. Young people from immigrant backgrounds are found as often as ethnic Swedes at the top of the income distribution, but are overrepresented in the lowest-income groups as well.

The study of the 1996 generation shows that integration has been far less successful when it comes to cultural values and social norms. Girls whose families hail from Africa and the Middle East are often isolated from Swedish society by those families. Oppression related to "family honor" is prevalent in these groups, and "honor killings" of young immigrant women by their relatives have received much media attention.9 Religion is an area of sharp difference as well. Only 14 percent of young ethnic Swedes say that religion is important to them; for young people from immigrant backgrounds, that figure is 70 percent. Young immigrants have a much more negative view of abortion, divorce, and LGBTQ rights and are less positive toward gender equality than young Swedes.

These differences remain considerable even when one limits the comparison to people who have all been born and grown up in Sweden—that [End Page 43] is, when one compares ethnic-Swedish native Swedes to people of the same age bracket who have also spent their whole lives in Sweden but who come from immigrant backgrounds. The immigrant-background group is more traditional and less likely to favor secular-rational and expressive values than the ethnic-Swedish group. This strong persistence of differences in social norms and cultural values helps to explain why support for multiculturalism has declined in public-opinion polls since 2015. Among SD voters, support for multiculturalism is near zero.10

To underline how the 2022 election represents a break with the past, we can also consider the prominent role that questions of "law and order" played in it. Crime had never been high on the agenda in Swedish election campaigns, long dominated as they were by debates about social services, health care, the environment, taxes, and so on. The reason for the novel focus on law and order cannot be related to a general rise in crime: According to the Swedish National Board for Health and Welfare, the number of persons hospitalized due to being targeted for violence by another person dropped by almost 40 percent between 2001 and 2021.

Instead, there has been a qualitative shift in types of crime. According to a December 2021 report from the Flemish Peace Institute, outside Cyprus and the Balkans, no European country aside from Latvia has a firearms-homicide rate as bad as Sweden's.11 While this type of criminality is going down in the rest of Europe, there has been a considerable increase in Sweden. Most of this is related to conflicts among criminal gangs that consist heavily of young men from immigrant backgrounds.12 Swedish public housing is generally well kept physically, but some of these residential areas are under the domination of gangs or family-based criminal "clans."13 Survey data suggest that at the local (voting-district) level, there is a strong correlation between worrying about crime and voting for the SD.14 The strong focus on this new type of criminality in the election campaign worked to the Sweden Democrats' advantage by showing that their critique of immigration and integration policy is valid.

The Left's Weakness

The available data show that the Sweden Democrats owe their success to former Social Democratic voters switching to them. We must therefore look not only at what made the populists' message attractive to many working-class voters, but why the left has not been able to respond to this challenge. As shown above, many who voted for the Sweden Democrats are on the losing side when it comes to education and jobs. There has been a considerable rise in economic inequality in Sweden during the last two decades, also if compared to other OECD countries.15 Along with this, the left has ignored increasing economic inequalities between cities and rural areas. Greater Stockholm (which holds about a quarter of Sweden's total populace) and Gothenburg (home to another [End Page 44] million) have experienced huge growth even as many rural regions have been left behind. Good data are hard to come by, but there is a general feeling that social services and public infrastructure in rural areas and small towns have been neglected.

Then there is the Social Democrats' curious change regarding the topic of social classes and what it means to be a working-class party. Until the 1990s, the party's main goal, broadly speaking, was to improve the socioeconomic situation of blue-collar Swedes through a two-pronged policy. One prong was a program of social reforms, virtually universal in their coverage, that were teamed with progressive taxes and generous allowances and welfare services to form an engine of wealth redistribution that favored low-income Swedes while also gaining middle-class support through high-grade public services.16 The other prong was a focus on promoting employment and strong unions.17

Around 2010, however, this changed. In 2006 and again in 2010, the Social Democrats lost the parliamentary elections to a center-right coalition. The party then pivoted from seeking to elevate the working class to trying to help as many people as possible leave the working class. Mona Sahlin, who became the Social Democrats' leader after the 2006 loss, stated over and over again that Sweden had to become a country of upward social mobility.18

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to help young people enter professions—even professions seen as socially "higher up"—to which they think themselves suited. But for a party that had long called itself the working-class party to make its main message a call for shrinking that class was—and is—strange. Many workers who had routinely voted Social Democrat must have felt put off by this rhetoric, in which one could sense a certain contempt for those who had not (like so many Social Democratic party leaders themselves) succeeded in leaving the working class. It is no surprise that a party running on a message such as this will lose many working-class voters. It should be added that this was not only a change in rhetoric: Looking through Social Democratic campaigns going back to 2010, one seeks in vain for a proposal of a major social reform, or for anything that comes close to democratization of work.19

Is Swedish Democracy Under Threat?

The continuous electoral success of the Sweden Democrats together with their alliance with the three established right-wing parties certainly marks a major change for Sweden. The SD's nationalist and anti-immigrant policies together with its marked illiberalism have made some commentators fear for the future of Swedish democracy. Serious threats to democracies, it is said, come no longer as coups or sudden upheavals but instead take the form of gradual "autocratizations" overseen by democratically elected but antidemocratic leaders.20 [End Page 45]

Sweden, so far at least, shows no sign of such a process. All four Nordic countries survived the 1930s—when European fascism was at its height—with their democracies intact. Sweden is a member of the European Union, which enshrines democracy as an essential condition for belonging and increasingly takes action against antidemocratic developments in member countries. Swedish membership is firm—there is no "Swexit" movement, and the Sweden Democrats, like the Green Party and the Left Party, have dropped opposition to the EU. The legitimacy and reliability of elections are not in doubt. Neither the Sweden Democrats nor any other party doubts or denies the validity of election results. If the Sweden Democrats try to politicize the civil service, they are likely to fail.21 With a few exceptions, meritocracy will continue to be the main principle for hiring and promoting civil servants.

The judiciary remains nonpartisan and removed from politics, with judges often priding themselves on having no discernible party ties. The high courts (there are two, one for civil cases and one for conflicts to which the national government is a party) do have constitutional authority to disapprove laws enacted by the Riksdag, but they hardly ever use it. The courts generally are not arenas for political battles. Judicial review is not in the "DNA" of the Swedish legal profession, and the Sweden Democrats will not be able (if they try) to politicize the courts. Instead, the "unpoliticized" Nordic type of "rule of law" will likely continue to prevail as a safeguard of democracy. Finally, Sweden has a vital civil society with many strong organizations that will do whatever they can to hinder any advance by authoritarianism. The same can be said for most of the mass media and the academy.

That said, members of the Sweden Democrats have expressed strong sympathy with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's version of what he calls "illiberal democracy." Since they, like Orbán, see democracy as a matter of unfettered majority will, their dominance of a government would mean saying goodbye to a free cultural life, independent courts and public broadcasting, and the principle of free research at autonomous universities. This list of what would be lost reminds us that liberal democracy consists of both respect for the decisions made by the democratically elected majority and severe limits on the scope of that majority's right to rule. There are spheres in a society, to put it bluntly, where liberal democrats do not want the majority in parliament or city councils to tread.

The paradox of liberal democracy is that in a number of realms the [End Page 46] principle of "less is more" should hold sway. In many areas, the less the majority rules, the better those of us who emphasize the liberal aspect of liberal democracy perceive it to be working. Liberal democrats such as myself have become used to the idea that the political majority should not decide the gender of the person whom we want to marry. We have abandoned the idea that teaching about religion in compulsory school should be dominated by the religion that the majority professes. We no longer have majority-appointed committees deciding which movies we can watch, which authors should receive state support, or which plays should be performed in publicly funded theaters. We also do not believe that the majority's political views should influence which individual researchers receive research grants or services. Public-sector jobs must go to applicants who objectively have the most merit rather than be doled out on political grounds such as membership in the ruling party.

The central political idea of liberalism is to put permanent limits on the decisionmaking rights of the majority.22 The strong populist parties that now exist in many democracies generally do not recognize these limits. On the contrary, these parties see themselves as representing the people against unjust professional elites who rule the public sphere. Now that the Sweden Democrats are de facto in government, this is something to watch for. The four-party accord, as noted, holds many proposals for decreasing the social and political rights of immigrants.

Proposals are one thing, however. Making them real is another. It remains to be seen how much of the SD's desired "paradigm shift" will occur. The new health minister has already abandoned a plan to reduce access to interpreters, in dealings with public authorities and services, for persons who do not speak Swedish. The idea went against other laws such as the one that protects the rights of medical patients. We should be aware, however, that the SD may be able to draw electoral advantage from policy setbacks such as this: It is not hard to imagine the party campaigning in the next election on the complaint that unelected, unaccountable professional elites in the courts and civil service are blocking the implementation of popular and much-needed measures.23

The rise of populist parties in Western liberal democracies suggests that after more than 150 years, the alliance between the industrial working class and what one might call the intellectual-cultural left is over. The surge of parties such as the Sweden Democrats in many Western democracies, Trumpism in the United States, and the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom suggest that these two sectors of society now have almost completely different views on key social and political issues. In general, the traditional working class favors protectionism, the return of types of work whose scope advancing technology has inexorably diminished, and production over environmental concerns. Support from the traditional working class for strengthening the rights of ethnic or sexual minorities is also low. [End Page 47]

The intellectual-cultural left, meanwhile, is the exact opposite: internationalist, environmentalist, in favor of free trade as well as immigration and multiculturalism, and strongly focused on supporting various minority groups' rights via identity politics. It is now hard to imagine the industrial masses taking inspiration from a leftist intellectual such as Olof Palme, who led Sweden as Social Democratic prime minister for most of the time between 1969 and his assassination on a Stockholm street in 1986. Instead, it is nationalistic and xenophobic messages from Donald Trump, Italy's Matteo Salvini, France's Marine Le Pen, and the SD's Jimmie Åkesson that are gaining a hearing. If liberals and the social-democratic left want to regain electoral support, some serious rethinking of possible political alliances and visions for the future seems necessary. [End Page 48]

Bo Rothstein

Bo Rothstein is August Röhss Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg. He is the author of Controlling Corruption: The Social Contract Approach (2021).


1. Sheri Berman, "The Causes of Populism in the West," Annual Review of Political Science 24 (2021): 71–88, and Sanna Salo and Jens Rydgren, The Battle Over Working-Class Voters: How Social Democracy Has Responded to the Radical Right in the Nordic Countries (London: Routledge 2021).

2. For SD members' disturbing statements, see the roster of these (with links) at As late as February 2022, on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, longtime SD leader Jimmie Åkesson could not say whether he preferred Joseph Biden to Vladimir Putin.

3. Sören Holmberg and Bo Rothstein, "High Interpersonal Trust in Sweden But Not Among Everyone," SOM Institute, University of Gothenburg, 2015,; see also Sören Holmberg and Bo Rothstein, "Trusting Other People," Journal of Public Affairs 17 (February–May 2017): 18–28. See also Gabriella Elgenius and Jens Rydgren, "Frames of Nostalgia and Belonging: The Resurgence of Ethno-Nationalism in Sweden," European Societies 21, issue 4 (2019): 583–602.

4. Fredrik Nejman, "Girls Have Been Above Boys in All Subjects" [in Swedish], Läraren, 2 December 2020,

5. See the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's report,

6. Alicia Heimersson, "Is Racism Really Increasing in Sweden?" [in Swedish], Dagensarena (Stockholm), 16 November 2018,

8. Jan O. Jonsson, Carina Mood, and Georg Treuter, Integration bland unga—en mångkulturell generation växer upp [Integration among the young—A multicultural generation grows up] (Stockholm: Makadam, 2022),

9. Sara Abed Ali (age 15) was murdered in 1996, but the cases that first drew heavy coverage were the murders of Pela Atroshi (age 19) and Fadime Şahindal (age 26) in 1999 and 2002, respectively. The former was killed by her uncle and the latter by her father. Şahindal, whose relatives were ethnic Kurds from Turkey, had spoken to the media about the threats and abuse that she had received from male family members for falling in love with an ethnic-Swedish man. Her funeral at Uppsala Cathedral was a national event. More recently, Swedish radio reported in 2021 that the police had received reports of more than 4,500 honor crimes since 2019. "Over 4500 Honor Crimes Reported in Two Years" [in Swedish], Sverige Radio, 31 October 2021,

10. Marie Demker, "Vilka var det som ändrade sig om flyktingpolitiken efter 2015?" [What about refugee policy changed after 2015?], SOM Institute, University of Gothenburg, 2021,

11. See the map on page 31 of Nils Duquet and Dennis Vanden Auwelle, "Project Target: Targeting Gun Violence in Europe," Flemish Peace Institute, 13 December 2021, Figure 1.3 on page 33 of this report states that the firearms-homicide rate in Sweden more than doubled between 2000 and 2019, going from 0.2 per 100,000 residents in the former year to 0.44 per 100,000 in the latter. The only other countries on this 32-country chart of Europe that show a worsening gun-homicide rate are Cyprus and Austria (whose rate ticked up very slightly from 0.15 to 0.18 between 2002 and 2016).

12. "The Facts of the Matter: Who Are the Shooters?" [in Swedish], Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm), 6 December 2021,

13. Amir Rostami and Jerzy Sarnecki, eds., Det svenska tillståndet: En antologi om brottsutvecklingen i Sverige [The Swedish situation: An anthology on the development of crime in Sweden] (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2022).

14. Thanks to Jerzy Sarnecki for this information. The survey data come from a poll of voters by Sveriges Television, the public broadcaster.

15. Jonas Pontusson and David Weisstanner, "Macroeconomic Conditions, Inequality Shocks and the Politics of Redistribution, 1990–2013," Journal of European Public Policy 25, issue 1 (2018): 31–58.

16. Bo Rothstein, "The Moral, Economic, and Political Logic of the Swedish Welfare State," in Jon Pierre, ed., Oxford Handbook of Swedish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

17. Bo Rothstein, The Social Democratic State: The Swedish Model and the Bureaucratic Problem of Social Reforms. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).

18. Bo Rothstein, "The Social Democrats: From Class Party to Travel Agency" [in Swedish], Aftonbladet (Stockholm), 13 October 2022.

19. Bo Rothstein, "Why No Economic Democracy in Sweden? A Counterfactual Approach," Social Europe Research Essay 12, February 2021,

20. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).

21. Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

22. Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).

23. Thanks to Stefan Svallfors for this important insight.