In the September 11 Swedish parliamentary election, the far-right Sweden Democrats party sent shockwaves through the country and the world by receiving over 20 percent of the votes, becoming the country’s second-biggest party. The historic election resulted in the resignation of the Social Democratic government, ending its eight-year rule, and the appointment of a right-wing government led by the Moderate Party’s Ulf Kristersson as prime minister. This deepens Europe’s rightward slide, and enshrines a radical right-wing politics in a country that has long been admired for its progressive politics and strong social safety net.
The Sweden Democrats have a direct organizational lineage tracing back to World War II–era Nazism. After the war, militant fascists kept organizing on the fringes of Swedish politics in organizations such as the Nordic Realm Party, founded in 1956, and Keep Sweden Swedish, founded in 1979. In 1988 leading figures from these groups came together to form the Sweden Democrats. During the party’s most radical years, in the 1990s, it led by convicted former Nazi activist Anders Klarström and was infamous for skinhead street violence. Just ahead of the recent election, the party published a white paper establishing that one of its founders had been a Waffen-SS volunteer during World War II. This is the context in which the current party leader Jimmie Åkesson, along with much of the party leadership, joined the Sweden Democrats in the mid-1990s. In a very superficial sense, the Sweden Democrats have sought to distance themselves from their Nazi roots, and in this round of elections called themselves simply a socially conservative party with nationalist values. On the surface, then, the party is actually less radical than, for example, Alternative for Germany or the French National Rally. It has even, for now, set aside its Swexit demands, anti-NATO stance, and pro-Russian leanings. Nevertheless, the party’s raison d’être remains intact: to recreate the demographic homogeneity of Sweden by any means necessary.
In the new coalition government, the Sweden Democrats will act as a supporting government party without any minister posts. Nevertheless, they will arguably create the most conservative and right-wing administration Sweden has had in nearly a century, since the old Moderate Party government of 1928–30. Since World War II, the various Swedish right-wing parties have been more or less oriented toward classic liberalism. The 2022 election marks a stark end to that era. The Sweden Democrats have managed to radicalize the Moderate Party and other right-wing parties in a right-wing populist direction. In the recent election campaigns, almost all parties adopted a tough-on-crime rhetoric, echoing populist rallying cries and promising stricter immigration policies.
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Right-wing populist and far-right parties have been ascendant across Europe since Austria’s Freedom Party and Italy’s National Alliance electoral successes in 2000 and 2001. Since then, about a dozen European countries have elected right-wing populist and far-right parties to their governments, or as supporting parties, including Norway, Denmark, and Finland. In addition to Sweden, far-right parties now hold governmental power in Hungary, Poland, Switzerland and, most recently, Italy. Mere weeks after the Sweden Democrats’ electoral success, the Brothers of Italy won a landslide victory with 26 percent of the votes, and are expected to form Italy’s most far-right government since World War II. Similar parties have since made strides in Bulgaria and Germany. Commenting on this political development, and referring to the brown paramilitary uniforms of the German Nazis, French EU parliamentarian Stéphane Séjourné has described 2022 as Europe’s brown autumn.
The reasons for this calamitous rise have been widely discussed—if not always well understood—by the media and academics alike. All over Europe, there has been growing dissatisfaction among the white working class and lower middle class caused by deindustrialization, globalization, and the erosion of the welfare state. For these specific demographics, loyalties have shifted massively from leftist and social democratic parties to various right-wing populist and far-right parties.
In the case of the Swedish election, the Sweden Democrats had perhaps their greatest success by shifting the entire landscape of Swedish politics to the right. They have brought into the mainstream a specific Swedish longing for cultural and racial homogeneity that dates back to the 1900s, forcing other politicians to respond. For example, the Social Democrats have gradually restricted their formerly generous immigration politics in tandem with far-right electoral gains. Expressing worry over segregation and “ethnic clusters” in big cities, former Social Democratic prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, said, “We don’t want a Chinatown, Somalitown, or Little Italy,” in a flagrant ploy to reach voters who had deserted the Social Democrats for the Sweden Democrats. For their part, the Sweden Democrats far surpassed this, campaigning openly for the installation of a repatriation program with the explicit purpose of making non-Western immigrants move back to their countries of origin.
Many antiracists are understandably fearful that the Sweden Democrats will seek to leverage their newfound power to move the country in the direction of the Hungarian, and to some extent Polish, model of autocratic, single-party rule. However, it seems the Sweden Democrats are mainly inspired by their sibling party, the Danish People’s Party, which succeeded in acting as a supporting government party for two right-wing governments in a row. As a result of its influence, Denmark is now probably the most difficult European country to live in for non-Western immigrants and their descendants. In this scenario, the intention behind racist and xenophobic rhetoric is less about total control of the government and more about making the country as inhospitable as possible for non-whites, hopefully dissuading further immigration. Despite the Sweden Democrats’ aggressive rhetoric, reminiscent of Hungarian and Polish autocrats, they are more likely to emulate the Danish way of playing a supportive, and highly influential, role to more traditional right-wing parties.
The cultural longing many Swedes have for cultural and racial homogeneity embodies what some have called white melancholia. This longed-for homogeneity—explicit for the Sweden Democrats but implicit for other parties—is a sentiment with deep roots in modern Swedish history. While policies celebrating diversity and inclusion are widespread across many facets of society, Sweden is probably the most racially segmented, stratified, and segregated country the Western world. To understand why, we must explore the construction of the welfare state in the twentieth century, and the sudden demographic transformation of the past three decades.
The left-leaning Social Democrats came to power in the 1930s and, with the exception of nine years, governed the country through most of the rest of the entire century. Under their rule, Sweden became a beacon of progressivism. Boasting the most advanced social welfare system in the world, the country made real strides toward class and gender equality, while at the same time becoming the biggest donor per capita of foreign aid to the Global South. Once one of the poorest countries in Europe, plagued by mass emigration that almost halved its population, almost half a century of uninterrupted Social Democratic rule yielded an astounding transformation. Sometimes winning over 50 percent of votes in elections, the might of the party would be difficult to overstate. Tage Erlander, party leader and prime minister from 1946 to 1969, remains one of the longest ruling democratically elected head of government in history.
What is less known about this remarkable development is its demographic setting. In 1960 only .06 percent of the Swedish population was non-white. By 1980 it was still only .71 percent. This racial makeup was the legacy of a long Swedish tradition of racial thinking, dating back to the founding father of scientific racism, eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné. Claiming to be the most racially pure of all Europeans, Swedish intellectuals and scholars insisted that they belonged to a so-called Nordic subgroup of the white race, supreme in both aesthetic appeal and genetic value. This ideology went unquestioned far into the twentieth century. In 1914 Sweden’s first modern immigration law was promulgated, with explicit racial motivations. Intending to preserve the perceived white purity, the law practically stopped all immigration of Roma people until the mid-1950s. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, “The World of Tomorrow,” Sweden boasted about its racial homogeneity. During the unrest of the U.S. civil rights movement, Prime Minister Erlander commented in 1965: “How infinitely more fortunate our situation is in Sweden. Our country is homogenous, not only racially, but in so many other aspects.” This proclamation sums up the premise of the Social Democratic project: its collective “fortune” stood on a foundation of demographic homogeneity. The party’s ability to implement sweeping political reforms, and maintain influence over the country for so many years, was contingent on this homogenous racial makeup.
In the 1960s there raged a fierce debate, at the time referred to by some as a “race war,” of whether Sweden would allow adoptions of non-white children from the Global South. Several government bodies cautioned against these adoptions, arguing that mixing races would adversely affect the white majority. Others argued that Sweden’s racial homogeneity ought to be disrupted, and that an influx of non-white adopted children might help the isolated country to develop an “international mindset.” The latter camp won the debate. As a result, Swedes came to adopt more non-white children from the Global South per capita than any other country in the world. In 1980 almost a third of the (admittedly very small number of) non-white inhabitants were adoptees.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the racial makeup of Sweden changed dramatically. Relative to its population size, the country became the biggest receiver of refugee immigrants from the Global South. After three decades of comparatively generous asylum politics, Sweden is now second only to the United States when it comes to racial diversity, with about 20 percent non-white inhabitants. This is an astonishing rate of change, from less than 1 percent to around 20 percent in 40 years. The majority of Sweden’s immigrants come from the Middle East and Africa, and today’s political stigmatization of immigrants, central to the rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats, is steeped in Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. Many non-white Swedes hailing from the Middle East and Africa face severe political, economic, and social marginalization. Thousands of racist and xenophobic hate crimes are reported to the police every year, and many more likely go unreported.
Sweden’s sudden demographic transformation took place within a sole generation. The majority of the white population still remembers a country that, as late as the 1980s, was 99 percent racially homogenous. It is this living memory that the Sweden Democrats have capitalized on ever since their first electoral success in 2010. With its promise of resurrecting a homogenous collective—halting non-Western immigration and even repatriating people—the party has struck a chord in the Swedish national psyche.
In the coming four years, the Sweden Democrats will have more influence over the nation’s governance than ever before. The party will do its utmost to evoke an image of a lost nation, and in turn provide consolation for its mourners. While it is rarely expressed openly, this sentiment seems to be shared by many white Swedes across the political spectrum. The Sweden Democrats will strive to further radicalize the three traditional right-wing parties at the threat of continuing to pinch their voters. At the same time, they will continue to petition white working-class and lower-middle-class voters to further abandon the Social Democrats. After the game-changing September 11 election, the Sweden Democrats have proclaimed their goal of becoming the single biggest party, possibly as soon as the 2026 election.
How can this nightmare scenario be avoided?
Today, only slivers remain of the internationally and historically unique Swedish welfare system of the twentieth century. The country is on track to lose its last vestiges of progressivism within a few short years. As has been illustrated in the work of a number of social scientists, social welfare programs only enjoy high levels of support in racially homogenous societies. We remain tragically prone to tribalism: people do not like the idea that resources are being given to people who do not look like them.
It is paramount that antiracists and leftists formulate, and gain popular support for, a vision powerful enough to counter this and other base tendencies that the Sweden Democrats are expert at stoking. With dwindling support for left-wing parties in the recent election, there is much work to be done. This vision must include real left-wing economic policies, offering to remedy the past three decades of devastating neoliberal deregulation, marketization, and privatization. These austerity measures have created the preconditions for the Sweden Democrats’ massive electoral support. The left needs to find an alternative way to respond to widespread feelings of loss caused by the erosion of the welfare state. While the Sweden Democrats promise the stability of the past by conjuring racial nostalgia, the left needs to offer a vision of a strong welfare state that can encompass all people living in Sweden. This will almost certainly necessitate offering a more capacious sense of what it means to be Swedish that does not derive its meaning from race or country of origin.