Vanishing Scandinavian "socialism" in the 2020 US election

Scandinavian “socialism” has been oddly absent from the final stages of the recent US election. It is possible to trace the arguments for and against ‘Scandinavian’ policies of different kinds in the American left and right from the 2016 election campaign until recently. However, the “socialism” that both the American right and left previously thought they saw in Scandinavia is no longer as unequivocal after the challenges of the coronavirus and the new fault lines of a meandering election campaign.

The front of the New York Times with Biden with a face mask on.
Biden needed to distance himself from Bernie Sanders's references to Scandinavian democratic socialism. Photo: Markus Spiske on unsplash.

During the tumultuous four years of President Donald Trump’s term in office, Scandinavia and Sweden frequently took center stage in American public debate. Indeed, over the course of the 2020 general election, candidates raised many of the themes traditionally associated with Scandinavian progressivism. Economic policy and steering; reforms to the social security net, particularly in healthcare; and the perceptions around an ongoing culture war all came up for discussion in debates and campaign speeches. Yet, in the most recent months, Scandinavia has barely registered during the electioneering of President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joseph Biden. Now that the election has come and gone, it is appropriate to ask: where was Scandinavia?

Scandinavia’s relative absence during this election is particularly notable given the “outsized" role played by Scandinavia, or rather images of Scandinavian progressivism, in the rhetoric of the previous two election cycles in 2016 and 2018. Until recently, the increasing salience of Scandinavian socialism in America has produced a kind of narrative loop where talking points of both the left and right have converged around the defining of Scandinavian socialism in order to demonstrate the fallacies of the other side’s political vocabulary.

Scandinavia’s paradoxical socialism

Senator Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign in the 2016 Democratic primary as a “democratic socialist” inspired enthusiastic, even flattering portrayals of Scandinavian society from media on the left. Between political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s longtime call for “getting to Denmark” as a litmus test of “stable societies” and outgoing President Barack Obama’s praise of the Scandinavian societies, Sanders’s competitor Hillary Clinton felt compelled to declare that “We are not Denmark” on the debate stage. Nonetheless, Sanders’s ability to push the Democratic party to the left encouraged a raft of young progressives to enter Congress in 2018, many pushing for a universal welfare state, increased efforts to combat climate change, and promotion of anti-discrimination and multiculturalist objectives within government. Subsequently, congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’ support for a Green New Deal has frequently been illustrated with reference to Scandinavian policies.

In response to the groundswell of support for “democratic socialism” amongst Democrats, conservative media observers variously trotted out Scandinavian examples to decry Sanders and his allies and deny their use of a Scandinavian role model. Conservative commentators quickly fell into a paradoxical application of the “socialism” trope. On the one hand, conservative press and organizations disparaged Scandinavian socialism as an economic and social failure. In 2018, Fox News anchor Trish Reagan famously linked Denmark with Venezuela indicating that socialist systems destroy individual incentive, a notion echoed in the White House report on the “Opportunity Costs of Socialism.”

On the other hand, conservative observers have simultaneously pointed out that the Scandinavian countries were not actually socialist in any traditional sense, but were rather made up of market-liberal economies that were, in some ways, far more lenient on wealthy citizens than the USA. In this two-pronged, if ungainly, attack, conservatives hoped to embarrass Sanders in his persistent alignment with Scandinavian goals and policies, while at the same time pointing out the impossibility of his platform. Progressives responded with their own arguments about the meaning of Scandinavian socialism and its relevance for American politics.

Partisan salvos further contributed to cementing a picture of Scandinavia, and particularly Sweden, as a showroom for how vaguely progressive values and “political correctness” were in fact corrosive to the integrity of the welfare state. Here, Sweden becomes an example of a progressive worldview and the accompanying social problems of multiculturalism, with an emphasis on rising criminality in Malmö and no-go zones in Stockholm. Visions of multiculturalism and feminism fused into an unholy hybrid that even allowed rape and violence against women. Donald Trump and his right-wing interlocutors have demonstrated the appeal of such rhetoric for conservative voters, as captured in his comments about refugee violence “last night in Sweden” in early 2017. In a strange reversal from their support for its market-liberal economy, the criticism charged Sweden with failing to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens in its ambition to accept and endorse other cultures.

Meme with a picture of Trump saying look what is happening in Sweden, the media saying nothing is happening there, and the third picture of riots.

PICTURE: An example of a meme circulating where the political right potrays Sweden in a certain light.

These depictions of Scandinavia were circulated in conventional media, but also in other formats more likely to be accessed and created by younger Americans, including as popular memes depicting both progressive and conservative talking points. The widespread circulation of such images in 2016 should have increased the likelihood that both they and the ideas they represented would be carried into subsequent election cycles. Yet, American interest in Scandinavian progressivism seemed to evaporate around the middle of 2020, during the peak of presidential campaigning.

Where was Scandinavia in the 2020 US election?

Three developments in particular seem to have reduced the resonance of Scandinavian progressivism throughout much of 2020:

Distancing Bernie

First, while the 2020 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders renewed interest in the meaning of Scandinavian “socialism,” the eventual victory of moderate candidate Joe Biden put an abrupt halt to this dialogue. Sanders’s campaign material pointed to, for example, family policy and education in Finland as a model. While Biden has played a tenuous game of both connecting with and distancing himself from Sanders’s policies such as this, Biden has generally declared his opposition to universal social programs in order to avoid being depicting as a socialist.

Images of the “Radical Left” abound at home

Second, and on the other hand, the Trump campaign had an interest in connecting Biden with a “Radical Left,” in particular on issues of state intervention and multiculturalism. The outlandish coupling of Scandinavia with “socialism” as expressed by Trump campaigners resonated with anti-socialist sentiments of influential Cuban and Venezuelan communities, especially in Florida. However, internal disturbances in the United States, including widespread civil demonstrations and unrest following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, provided a close-to-home and therefore more poignant example of the dangers of progressive ideas around race and culture. Conservative Americans searching for cautionary tales linked to progressive governance needed no longer to look very far afield. The resulting polarization around issues like law enforcement, racial discrimination, and cultural sensitivity reduced the relevance of looking elsewhere for policy models in order to link Biden with disorder and violence when American cities could in fact be used.

Woman with raised arm and placard saying Stop Killing Black People

PICTURE: A demonstration in May 2020 Uptown Charlotte following George Floyd's murder. Photo: Clay Banks on unsplash.

Mixed messages from Scandinavia under Corona

The third development was the only one where Scandinavia and above all Sweden actually played a repeated role as an international model in 2020, and that was as an approach to the corona virus pandemic. In this area, however, a split between Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia loosened the salience and impact of Scandinavian progressivism as an exportable idea. While Denmark and Norway were relatively quick to implement nationwide lockdowns of businesses, public offices and schools, Sweden largely remained open and instead relied on relatively restrained recommendations instead of enforcing a lock-down.

The diverging, if not altogether incompatible, approaches undermined notions of a united Scandinavian progressive ideology, while also eliciting wide-ranging reactions from American commentators that upset the traditional left-right balance. Progressive commentators reacted strongly against Sweden’s less restrictive approach, especially as Swedish infection and mortality rates began to spike in April, often comparing the country unfavorably to its Nordic fellows.

Conservatives took the opposite position. Between libertarian Senator Rand Paul’s frequent references to Sweden on the Senate floor, Fox News host Tucker Carlson – usually a Sweden-basher of note – defended the Swedish “model” against the power-hungry WHO, and with conservative lock-down protesters chanting and holding up signs to “Be Like Sweden,” it was easy to feel transported to an alternate reality. Sweden suddenly had new friends who were “unsavory” from progressive quarters.

It is difficult to interpret the meaning of these new alliances. The New York Times has reported that Sweden’s corona strategy followed a course set by neoliberal deregulation in the health care sector rather than a progressive, left-wing ideology, while Swedish Foreign minister Ann Linde assured the press that the far-right support for Sweden in the USA “doesn’t mean much.” This new turn drastically broke traditional views and challenged the established narratives to do with Scandinavia in previous elections.

Complicating the narrative was Trump’s own mercurial response to Scandinavia under the pandemic, which, in contrast to his allies, fluctuated between disparaging Swedish policy and using it as evidence that individual US states needed to open up and pursue herd immunity. As Trump has shaped the Republicans into a party that derives its legitimacy from its proximity to and support for Trump himself, the president’s mixed signals may have further encouraged conservative politicians to forego traditional attacks on Scandinavia.

The future of Scandinavian progressivism in the United States?

What remains then was an election where depictions of Scandinavia played new and unconventional roles, when they appeared at all in the increasing chaos of American daily politics.  Whether the culture wars in the United States continue their downward spiral of mistrust, conflict and violence under Biden remains to be seen. However, it seems likely that the relevance of Sweden and Scandinavia will be overshadowed by the new dividing lines within American society.

US police on bicycles with helmets and cameras in greyisg uniforms.

PICTURE: US police in May 2020 Uptown Charlotte during demonstrations following George Floyd's murder. Photo: Clay Banks on unsplash.

For conservatives, the United States and particularly Democratically-controlled cities provide a thorough showcase of the allegedly negative effects of progressivism that were previously projected onto Scandinavia and Sweden. The “socialism” that both the American right and left previously thought they saw in Scandinavia is no longer as unequivocal after the challenges of the coronavirus and the new fault lines of a meandering election campaign.

Still, it is perhaps too early to write the obituary for Scandinavian progressivism in United States politics. Both in its long-standing reputation and above all in its comparatively good track record in securing economic and social stability despite global challenges and growing inequality, Scandinavia will likely retain its relevance in polarized US politics – either as a bastion of progressive inspiration and justification for the incoming Biden administration or as  a warning to erstwhile Trump supporters.

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