“Sweden is the most successful society the world has ever known.” — The Guardian (10/25/05)
Next week I will begin a three-week tour of the Nordic countries: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. They all have parliamentary systems of government, and I have always wondered how that would work in the U.S.
The advantage, I believe, would be the break-up of the entrenched two-party system and an opening for clearer ideological voices. The provision for no confidence votes would also make our leaders more accountable.
In mid-2016 the Economist magazine set up an American parliamentary election. Bernie Sanders was the leader of the Social Democrats; Hillary Clinton, the Liberals; John Kasich, the Conservatives; Ted Cruz, the Christian Democrats; and Donald Trump, the anti-immigrant People’s Party.
Based on averages across all polls before the final nominees were chosen, Clinton would have drawn a 28 percent vote; Sanders, 26 percent; Trump 26 percent; Cruz, 11 percent; and Kasich, 8 percent. The Green Party at 1 percent would not have made the 5 percent threshold necessary for seats in a U.S. parliament.
Clinton and Sanders would have formed a strong center-left coalition with a total of 237 seats. Clinton would have become Prime Minister and Sanders would have been her deputy. Obama would have been appointed Secretary of State, and Jill Stein would have become head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
For 73 of the last 87 years Sweden’s Social Democrats have ruled, but after last year’s election everything has changed. In the September 9, 2018 election, the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats (some of them neo-Nazis) received 17.5 percent (up from 6 percent in 2014), which gave them 62 seats in the 349-seat parliament.
After years of freely accepting refugees, a growing number of Swedes are now convinced that enough is enough. In 2015 the country admitted 160,000 refugees, in stark contrast to the U.S. which allowed, with over 30 times the population, only 75,000 during the same year.
During the Iraq War, which we of course initiated, compassionate Swedes welcomed almost 30,000 Iraqis, many of them Christians fleeing the conflict. We should be ashamed that we accepted only 85,000.
The center-right parties and the Social Democrats and their allies could not form a working majority without the Swedish Democrats, and both sides refused to accept their support. The two voting blocs attempted to form a grand coalition, such as the one in Germany, but these efforts failed.
Finally, in January of this year the Parliament held a vote that allowed the Social Democrats to form a coalition with the Green Party, which is still far short of a majority. The Left Party, composed of former communists and democratic socialists, declined to joined them but have agreed to support the Social Democrat’s legislation.
The Centre and Liberal (actually conservative) parties, normally part of previous center-right governments, have also promised their votes to the center-left minority. In order to gain their support, the Social Democrats have reluctantly agreed to a language test for citizenship, lowering taxes, and opening up the labor market, which will be resisted by Sweden’s strong unions.
Sweden has had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, putting the lie to the conservative view that high taxes (a 60 percent marginal rate), large public spending, and comprehensive social programs kill economic growth. From 1994 to the present the Swedish economy has grown on average 2.6 percent, as opposed to our 2.2 percent during the same period.
At 6.8 percent the Swedish unemployment rate is almost twice as high as Denmark and Norway, and the conservative parties believe that a freer labor market will bring that number down. Over 70 percent of Swedes belong to unions, but 90 percent of the economy is in private hands, the typical result of social democratic policy.
Since the financial crisis, most European countries, even Greece, have brought their annual budget deficits down to nearly zero (Sweden and some others actually sit on small surpluses). Under Trump, the U.S. deficit has grown to 4.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product, after Obama brought it down to 3.4 percent.
In a previous column I have written about Sweden’s generous social programs. A study done by the Nation magazine has shown that if tax breaks are included in the calculation, America’s social programs actually cost more per capita, but are far less effective.
The same result is found for medical care: Sweden and all other industrialized countries spend less (generally half per capita) but obtain much better health results.