Nordic social democracy in US politics

Nordic social democracy in US politics

In recent years, social democracy has often been referred to in connection with the Nordic countries in US political debates. It tends to be divided into two ’camps’: those for and against. Usually to be found in the latter camp is the Trump administration and its supporters. In October 2018, the US Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President, wrote a damning report The Opportunity Costs of Socialism which highlighted the cost to society generally of policies like free healthcare setting out that ”Living standards in the Nordic countries are at least 15 percent lower than in the United States.”  On the other side, in the ’for’ camp, there are the followers of Bernie Sanders, namely, proponents of universal healthcare and a more equitable society. These types of policies and Sanders’ enthusiasm for the Nordic countries came across strongly as a part of his bid for the democratic presential candidancy in 2019.

Terms such as communism, socialism and social democracy are not always easy to define. It is necessary to differentiate between social democracy and the state socialism associated with the non-democratic regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before 1989. This is perhaps not surprising in a two-party democracy that tends to be divided between ’right’ and ’left’. This system has meant that it has long been the task of the political left in America to try to communicate the differences and nuances of varying policies on their side of the political spectrum.

On the other side, Republicans have repeatedly used the accusation of ’socialism’ as a political tool to damn the opposition – and with quite some success. In Spring 2019 the think tank the Pew Research Centre did a survey of over 10,000 Americans and asked their views on socialism; 55% had a negative view of it and 45% had a positive view. When asked why they had a negative view, respondents chose the answers that it undermines work ethic and democracy, it increases reliance on government, or that it has been an historical and comparative failure. One even answered ”I don’t want the American dream to die.”

These views and subsequent doubts over Bernie Sanders’ electability are likely to have been decisive for Joe Biden getting the democractic nomination – and possibly even his choice of Senator Kamala Harris for his running mate. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign continues to paint the democratic campaign as far too ’socialist’, even though increasing numbers of younger voters are perhaps less influenced by the shadow of the Cold War.

None of this is very surprising (there are many examples of this ping-pong in the US press on a daily basis) or new. Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy's article Imagining Nordicity in the American political discourse sets out examples of how the Nordics are referred to on all sides of the political spectrum in US commentary. This fear can be traced back to the nineteenth century and, throughout much of the twentieth century, the US was of course ideologically positioned firmly opposite what critics regarded as the historical disasters of socialism. One case in point is Eisenhower linking the increase in suicide rates in Scandinavia to ’socialistic philosophy’. In our article ‘Socialist’ suicide in Scandinavia: a historical view of a common myth it is discussed how, in the 1950s, the Scandinavian countries were characterised in the US and elsewhere as welfare states gone amok and ‘welfare criminality’ was criticised; the conformity and uniformity of the welfare state drove desperate citizens to acts of defiance: petty theft, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

Are the Nordic countries socialist?

The Nordic countries do not follow strict socialist principles, in the way that Americans often understand and discuss it. They have mixed economies and policies of successive governments have been strongly influenced by neoliberalism since the 1990s. In our article entitled the 'Nordic model' of capitalism Susanna Fellman sets out that:

”In the post-war decades, many sectors of the economy, such as the financial markets, were highly regulated in all the Nordic countries. Economic planning and steering were at the fore in order to modernise the economy and promote growth. This changed radically in the 1980s and 1990s when a paradigm shift occurred, affecting both economic policy and institutional models. Market-based solutions were adopted, and the emphasis in economic policy, which had primarily been based on aggregate demand and/or investments, was transferred to monetary stability.”

PICTURE: 'Landu på Cykelslangen' Photo: Ricky John Molloy, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In the 1990s, the Nordic countries had to reinvent themselves to a large extent. The portrayal of the region as a ‘middle way’ between capitalism and communism seemed no longer relevant after the fall of the Soviet Union. Prime Minister of Sweden from 1991 to 1994 Carl Bildt famously said: ”Who wants to be a compromise between a catasprophe and a successful system?” You can hear more about this and developments in politics and society in the Nordics since 1990 by watching a short interview with researcher Johan Strang from the Centre for Nordic Studies at Helsinki University.

Although social democratic parties were influential, especially in Sweden and Norway, they have always operated within a multi-party democratic system.

But, even before the neoliberal shift in the 1980s and 1990s, economic and social policies in the Nordic countries were shaped by pragmatism and compromise, rather than by a rigid adherence to socialist ideology. Although social democratic parties were influential, especially in Sweden and Norway, they have always operated within a multi-party democratic system. In our article on The Golden Age of social democracy in Norway, Even Lange writes:

”Both in terms of social reforms, economic governance and industrial modernisation, the Labour Party was the driving force. The party’s long-term vision aimed at establishing a socialist society, but people had very different notions of the meaning of that term. A revision of the party programme in 1949 made the Norwegian Labour Party one of the least dogmatic among the European social democratic parties. Designing policy and developing concrete solutions had to be a practical question of how to obtain the desired results; economic governance should be based on sound and rational considerations. The process of changes to society required involvement and support from the affected parties. In this way, socialism in fact became the policy of continuous reforms.”

But surely they are more socialist than other countries, like the US?

It could be argued that the Nordic countries are more ’socialist’ than the US, but it is a matter of opinion. It could be claimed that the Scandinavian countries and the US actually represented fairly parallel developments in social policy into the 1950s and even 1960s, when their respective welfare systems became firmly established. Contemporary discourse around the world would have it, though, that the Nordics are often perceived as being synonymous with the welfare state to a greater extent than many other states. Bureaucratic, tax-financed, large welfare states are often considered to be synonymous with heavy-handed socialist systems where there is little individual freedom and enterprise is suffocated. While the Nordic countries do tend to have extensive welfare states, relatively high taxes and large public sectors, these have to a lesser or greater extent embraced free market capitalism. Public spending on universal social, educational and health services in most of western Europe are no higher that public and private spending in ‘low-tax’ countries such as the USA. This mix has come to characterise the social and economic policies associated with the region: the combination of capitalist economies with generous, comprehensive, tax-financed and universal welfare states. You can watch Professor Mary Hilson explain this in a short film on the Nordic Model.

Unlike the two-party system of the US, proportional representation in the Nordic countries allows for more genuinely “socialist” parties to gain 5-15% of the vote/seats, which of course fluctuate in popularity like any other political party. For example, there was a the short-lived revival of the New Left between 1967 and 1990. 

Another seemingly socialist aspect of the Nordic countries are workers and their rights. The strong labour labour movement goes back over 100 years. The legacy of this is the still relatively high levels of trade union membership today compared to other countries around the world. Trade unions, along with their employer counterparts, are key actors in policymaking as well as in collective bargaining in the Nordic countries. This means that the state can afford to be - if anything - less heavy-handed and leave it to the labour market organisations themselves to get on with it. As set out in our article labour markets in the Nordics, unemployment compensation and active labour market policies (frequently referred to as 'flexicurity') can actually allow for a more flexible system with respect to hiring and firing that is business-friendly. These types of issues have of course meant that the Nordics are sometimes held up as ’models’ by politicians and commentators outside the region, but in a different way then being stamped with the socialist label.

In the film about developments in politics and society in the Nordics since 1990, Johan Strang tries to explain why the popular, traditional image of the Nordic countries as egalitarian and social democratic lingers; it is a comfortable narrative that is difficult to erase – and of course the Nordic countries continue in fact to do well in indexes of, for example, political trust and participation, as well as the more popular happiness and transparency indices.

It is worth being careful with rhetoric! What is ’The Nordic Model’?

The term the Nordic Model – or variants of it (Danish/Swedish/Norwegian/Finnish Model) – has been used in many different contexts, but with widely varying meanings. You can watch Mary Hilson explain the key tenets of the Nordic Model in a short film, but she also points out the slipperiness of the term, as does Byron Rom-Jensen in a film entitled ’The Nordic Model: A Complex Concept’.

So, while it is arguable that the Nordics are ’more’ socialist then other countries, it really depends on many things, like who the viewer is and their political leanings, and what aspect of society that is under scrutiny, and of course in which of the Nordic countries, at which particular time.

Further reading

  • Byron Rom-Jensen, ‘A model of social security? The political usage of Scandinavia in Roosevelt’s New Deal’, Scandinavian Journal of History 42, 4 (2017), 3636-388.
  • Carl Marklund and Klaus Petersen, ‘Return to sender – American images of the Nordic welfare states and Nordic welfare state branding’, European Journal of Scandinavian Studies 43, 2 (2013), 245-257.
  • Cathie Jo Martin and Duane Swank. 2012: The Political Construction of Business Interests: Coordination, Growth and Equality (Cambridge University Press).
  • Frederick Hale, 'Challenging the Swedish Social Welfare State: The Case of Dwight David Eisenhower', Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2003).
  • Klaus Petersen and Pauli Kettunen, eds., Beyond Welfare States: Transnational Historical Perspectives on Social Policy, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2011).
  • Mary Hilson, The Nordic Model. Scandinavia since 1945 (London: Reaktion Books, 2008).
  • Francis Sejersted, The Age of Social Democracy: Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg, Dag Einar Thorsen, The Nordic Model of Social Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).