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America’s Eternal Stockholm Syndrome

The right-wing fixation with Sweden’s coronavirus response is the latest example of the Nordic countries’ hold on our political imagination.

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
Teenagers hand out Covid-19 information flyers near Stockholm.

At some point during the pandemic (what is time anymore, anyway?), Sweden—a high-tax, welfare-loving country where citizens generally seem to like and listen to their government—found a surprising libertarian fan base in the United States. To marshal support for reopening the economy in the U.S., conservatives started touting Sweden’s coronavirus response, which has largely foregone the type of lockdown measures practiced in other countries and instead relies on people to practice social distancing measures on their own. Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson, and other talking heads on the right, who all seem to find mask orders more objectionable than widespread death, praised Sweden’s seemingly laissez-faire approach to virus containment. “Bottom line, Sweden accepts the concept of ‘trade-offs,’ something that many who attack President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus do not seem to understand,” went one typical Fox News analysis.

As it happens, the trade-off is dying. Currently, Sweden has a much higher coronavirus death rate than its Scandinavian neighbors and several other European countries that have adopted lockdown measures. What’s more, most of the claims about Sweden’s supposed miracle approach have been exaggerated or are false. Newt Gingrich’s insistence, for instance, that Sweden had “done a much better job with much less economic damage” isn’t true: Its economy is suffering. And as public health experts and Swedish officials have pointed out, Sweden’s entire approach, for better or for worse, was contingent on a level of public trust in the government that simply doesn’t exist in the U.S., and was further aided by the country’s robust public services, including universal health care, and its relatively healthy population. It should be underscored: Those on the right who have touted Sweden’s approach are not championing an increased trust in government or an enhanced social safety net.

In this way, the coronavirus lockdown battles are just the latest iteration of the curious way that Sweden and its Nordic neighbors continually figure in the American political imagination. The Nordic countries have been the object of a recurring tug-of-war between the left and the right in the U.S., which have, at various times, both seized upon the region’s unique style of governance and relatively high standard of living in order to prove a point about our own country. While the right’s invocation of Sweden generally relies on fantasies of cultural superiority, the left has its own version of Nordic mythology.

On the left, the Nordic countries are routinely held up as paragons of successful social democratic welfare states that afford their residents a wealth of high-quality, cradle-to-grave social services, including free childcare, health care, and education. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for instance, often praised Denmark and other Nordic countries on the stump, invoking their successes so frequently that his 2016 Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, eventually quipped, “I love Denmark, but we are not Denmark.” In the same vein, left-leaning publications like The Nation have run a number of popular explainers and essays on the differences in quality of life in the Nordic countries and the U.S., where our paper-thin social safety net repeatedly fails the most vulnerable.

In the face of growing evidence that the Nordic countries seem to be rather pleasant places to live—most of them consistently rank at the top of the World Happiness Scale and earn high ratings on the Global Peace Index; most score high on measures of gender equality and environmental friendliness; Sweden has a designated day of the week for candy-eating—conservatives have also increasingly championed the Nordic way of life, often with a kind of chauvinistic or elitist text or subtext. In February, New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the Scandinavian mindset regarding education, which, he wrote, entailed “the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person” and was the ultimate key to the Nordic good life. “The 19th-century Nordic elites did something we haven’t been able to do in this country recently,” he wrote. “They realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.”

Then there’s the far more grotesque preoccupation with Nordic tradition that surfaces on the extremist right in the U.S. The eugenicist fantasy of the Nordic countries as an ancestral land of a race of strapping, warrior Aryans was most notoriously propagated by the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler and has predictably traveled down to today’s neo-Nazis. Vegas Tenold, an investigative researcher at the ADL Center on Extremism who has logged years of researching white supremacist groups—and is incidentally himself a Norwegian immigrant—told me that in his time reporting on the far right, he encountered a perverse fascination with Norse mythology and Vikings among white supremacists.

At one skinhead gathering, said Tenold, one neo-Nazi leader drank beer out of a horn and proposed that the group start tying locks of their girlfriends’ hair around the barrels of their assault rifles to emulate the supposed battle rituals of the Vikings. But even as they were in thrall to the notion of Nordic superiority, Tenold said, they also harbored a number of misconceptions about what life in the Nordic countries was actually like. One pervasive myth among them was that a once-pristine and ethnically homogenous Scandinavia was being overrun by Muslims and “no-go” zones, or migrant neighborhoods rife with violent crime. (There are no such zones.) “I sent one of the neo-Nazis a card from one of the supposed ‘no-go’ zones in Oslo, just to show that they weren’t real, and that I hadn’t been beheaded,” Tenold said. “But they just didn’t believe me.”

This is all to say that at various points on the American political spectrum—ranging from the center to the fringe—the Nordic region functions as something of a cipher. “It’s like this distant little Smurf village that can be all things to all people,” Tenold joked. Still, he noted, “You can’t really compare the far right’s conception of the Nordic countries to the left’s, because the left is basing theirs on some sort of fact.”

When it comes to fact, Matt Bruenig, the founder of the think tank People’s Policy Project, or 3P, has studied the ins and outs of the Nordic welfare model for over a decade. (“If we want to achieve low levels of poverty, and we want to create equality, we should find the countries that have been the most successful,” he said in a recent talk for Jacobin magazine.) Currently, a number of the think tank’s policy recommendations are fashioned after the Nordic countries’ social supports. For instance, 3P’s Family Fun Pack proposal—which includes 36 weeks of paid parental leave, free childcare, free pre-K, and a monthly check for families with children, among other benefits—“was basically copied straight from Finland, with a few changes here and there to make more sense in the U.S. context,” Bruenig told me. Likewise, the organization’s Leisure Agenda, which advocates increased work-life balance through mandated vacation, mandated sick leave, and generous unemployment benefits, was drawn, in part, from the Nordic model.

In recent years, some commentators have disputed whether that particular model is a type of socialism, as Bernie Sanders has sometimes suggested. According to Bruenig, while conservatives used to argue that the Nordic states were socialist—and therefore much worse off than the U.S.—there’s since been a push instead to reclassify them as free-market success stories in light of those countries’ high rates of growth and employment. (“Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise” was the title of one popular New York Times op-ed last year.) “It is true that they’re less socialist than they used to be, especially in Sweden, but they’re still way, way beyond where we are,” Bruenig said. To emulate the so-called capitalist paradise of Finland, as he wrote in 2019, the U.S. “would need to not only build a social-democratic welfare state, but also socialize $35 trillion of assets, unionize 120 million workers, and move 25 million workers into the public sector.”

For the most part, while conservatives’ fantasies of Swedish libertarianism or a uniquely Scandinavian love of education—let alone far-right fever-dreams of a bygone Nordic purity—are forms of cultural fetishization, the left’s Nordic interest seems mostly inspired by the simple evidence that countries can create economies that don’t guarantee wide-scale misery. And while many still tend to overidealize the region—Scandinavia has its own problems with the far right and anti-immigrant policies—the welfare policy aspirations seem at least rooted in something like reality.

Unlike the much hazier notion of Nordic culture championed by the right, those policies would also go a long way in easing the lives of Americans if adopted in the U.S., particularly now as the pandemic has even more cruelly illuminated the paucity of this country’s public resources. It wouldn’t even be very hard to get there, financially speaking. As Tenold put it dryly, “You can be Norway when you’re the richest country in the world.”