The success of the xenophobic far right party, Sweden Democrats (SD), has brought international attention to Sweden’s latest general election. As The Guardian noted: “far right gains threaten Europe’s most stable political order”. Sweden is, what’s more, one of Europe’s most stable economies. Unemployment is below the EU average, GDP growth has outpaced almost all other OECD countries and public debt has fallen sharply to levels well below comparable countries. So, why?
SD’s success has been closely associated with the fact that men both represent and vote for the party. Of course, one can speculate that men have values that are more attracted to, for example, SD’s second in command Mattias Karlsson’s violent rhetoric of “winning or dying”. Some men can certainly also be attracted to the nostalgia the party represents in terms of traditional gender values or xenophobia.
All this might be true but values are relatively stable over time and, in addition, traditional gender and nationalistic values have been declining for decades in Sweden. Thus, this cannot explain SD’s success from the mid-2000s. The relevant question is instead: What social changes have made these values a likely and, indeed, actual source of political success?
Newly published research by Dal Bó et al. (see here) gives a partial answer. They established that the common denominator for both SD representatives and voters is that they were losers of the conservatives´ policies during 2006-2014, which substantially increased income inequality. They, however, find no connection between contact with immigrants and SD’s successes.
The conclusion is that SD’s successes are based primarily on the voter’s own experience of getting economically worse off and not from being in contact with immigrants and accumulated negative sentiments. However, they blame their worse-off status on immigrants.
The logic is the usual: immigrants are “costing” the treasury so much that this spells deteriorating conditions for “Swedes”, that is, the losers of the economic policy pursued. In a survey, almost all SD voters (98%) responded that immigration cost the state too much.
Arena Idé has already shown that this is wrong in the long run, but even those economists in Sweden who claim that it is a fiscal burden estimate it to be no more than around 1 percent of GDP. This contrasts with the fact that Sweden has reduced taxes by about 6.5 percent of GDP since the year 2000.
The state’s reduced capacity to support its citizens economically has therefore very little to do with immigration, no matter how you calculate its cost. Especially since the ratio of public debt to GDP has also declined – even with these dramatic tax cuts.
The reason behind the cuts in social security was, however, never to improve the fiscal balance (nor did it lead to this). Taxes were simultaneously reduced correspondingly or indeed even more. The reason that public debt also was reduced was simply that growth outperformed new debt. The changes were instead motivated by a belief that they would increase employment by increasing the income gap between being employed and not being employed: the traditional conservative policy of increased incentives. Whatever the facts, however, all SD voters believe that the deterioration is due to the cost of immigration and that this alone led to savings.
Dal Bó et al.’s economic explanation for SD success is a plausible and is certainly a part of the answer, but maybe not the whole answer. There findings are counter-intuitive when it comes to SD’s 2018 gains, since the group of economic losers did not grow between 2014-2018 under the red-green government.
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Average white male
And it can´t explain why it is above all men who are behind SD’s success. One could argue that Swedish women have a marginally lower rate of unemployment (less affected by cuts in social security) but, on the other hand, women are over-represented in sick-leave and often have a lower pension (more affected). Women should, therefore, be at least as vulnerable to the decline in the social security system as men.
However, it is uncontroversial to say that a social insurance policy that provides security if you become sick or unemployed also has value for the employed. In a newly published report for Arena Idé, researchers Anna Baranowska-Rataj and Björn Högberg have studied how unemployment insurance affects well-being in Europe.
For men, there is a clear connection between weaker unemployment insurance and a significant deterioration in sense of well-being. This applies regardless of whether they are unemployed or employed. Of the employed, those with fixed-term employment and/or in involuntary part-time work are worse off than those with more secure employment, which is logical. What is remarkable, however, is that this relationship between unemployment insurance and well-being does not apply to women. Especially as women have both higher levels of insecure employment and involuntary part-time work and should therefore be more affected.
The report points out that this could be due to the fact that jobs are evaluated differently, which is in line with previous EU-wide research which shows that men experience unemployment and insecure employment as a greater failure than women do. This is attributed to conservative beliefs among men about the male breadwinner. Men with such values feel therefore worse off when protection against the consequences of unemployment is weakened. They are also likely to be more susceptible to nationalistic and conservative politics that put the blame on women and/or immigrants.
The whole picture
SD’s election success in 2018 might be surprising if one focuses only on economic “losers”, when employment in Sweden recently has risen and unemployment fallen. However, when the analysis extends to the consequences for well-being of both unemployed and employed, the success of SD and the dominant role of men within that become more logical. The future potential for SD is also significantly greater, in line with the 2018 election or above.
What then has spurred SD voters is increased economic insecurity – both for unemployed and employed. This has, above all, decreased the well-being of men, whether in or out of work, with traditional gender and nationalistic values and they have therefore turned their back on ruling parties with more progressive and so-called secular-rational values. The combination of increased economic insecurity and strong traditional values among large groups in society is a perfect storm for populism.
Prolonging a conservative agenda with continued tax cuts, weaker labor laws and further shrinking of social security buffers will hardly make this wider circle of losers feel like winners.
Even though Sweden remains without a government, SD is contributing to this evolution through its obvious support for a conservative government. If the conservative parties do form the government this would paradoxically increase support for SD – as long as its voters continue to believe that the deterioration in welfare is due to immigration. The fact that a populist party can win electoral support by disadvantaging its own core voters shows the complexity of handling parties built on popular dissatisfaction.
Sandro Scocco is Chief Economist at the Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé and has a background as the Chief Economist of the governmental research institute ITPS. He is also a former Director at the Labour Market Board and served during the 1990s as an adviser to several Swedish social democratic ministers.