Ethics & Public Policy Center

Why Sweden’s Election Matters for American Conservatives

Published in National Review Online on September 15, 2014



Sweden yesterday elected the biggest center-right majority in its history. Its problem is that it doesn’t know it.

While the three main left-wing parties won more votes than the four main center-right parties, they also received their lowest share of the vote in Swedish history. Even if you add in the very left-wing Feminist Initiative, which did not win enough votes to get into their Parliament, the Swedish Left still got only 46.8 percent. That means the Left failed to get a majority of the vote for the third straight election, the first time that has happened since universal suffrage was introduced.

The center-right won’t form the new government, however, because the anti-immigration, working-class populist party, the Sweden Democrats, more than doubled their share of the vote to 12.9 percent. The traditional center-right parties, whose bases come from the educated and rural farming classes, have refused to deal with the SDs, thereby depriving themselves of a potential majority.

This matters for America because the rise of working-class populism is the defining feature of politics worldwide. Working-class populist parties or movements draw votes away from center-left parties and align them in nationalist, pro-market parties that also support social-safety-net programs and oppose immigration. Center-right parties that are, like Sweden’s, unwilling to work with this new force either find themselves out of power or forced into left-right alliances that favor “grand bargains” over real reform. Neither option should appeal to American conservatives.

American conservatives would recognize a lot in their European working-class kin. Working-class populist party voters typically distrust government and established leaders a lot. In yesterday’s election, 64 percent of Swedes said they trusted politicians “very much” or “a lot.” But only 26 percent of Sweden Democrat voters said that. Polls in Britain show that people who support that nation’s working-class populist party, UKIP, have similar disdain for the political class.

Working-class populist party voters are also not leftist. According to Sweden’s exit poll, 83 percent of Sweden Democrat voters place themselves either in the center (39 percent) or right (44 percent) of the political spectrum. Analysis of Swedish election returns going back to the last election won by the Left before the Sweden Democrats existed, 2002, show that the shares of the vote for both the Left and the center-right blocs have declined by roughly equal amounts. Disaffected working-class centrists have abandoned the center-left to join with more right-wing cousins, thereby depriving the Left of their ability to win elections.

Polls and electoral analysis in Britain show the same trends at work. UKIP voters tend to have voted for the Conservatives in 2010 after the financial crash but voted for the center-left Labour party in the three prior elections. UKIP, a pro-defense, free-market, anti-immigration party has largely taken voters uncomfortable with the traditional center-right away from the center-left.

A careful analysis of American voting patterns finds the same patterns at work. The 2010 GOP landslide was largely fueled by massive gains among working-class whites who had previously largely voted for Democrats, especially non-Evangelical voters in the Midwest and Northeast. In 2012, however, they either returned reluctantly to the Democratic fold or did not vote. This year, polls show them largely opposed to President Obama but unsure if they will vote to reelect Republican governors facing strong Democratic opposition.

The American working-class swing voters shares a center-right, but not hard-right, inclination with their European cousins. They are economically hard pressed, often unemployed or employed in low-wage jobs. They want to work and they don’t like it when elites seem to favor foreigners over them for those jobs that do exist. They care much more about jobs than they do about budget deficits or budget cutting. They don’t want a hand out, but they do want a hand up.

The challenge for American conservatives is to see the opportunity they have to form a center-right majority and seize it while they can. Establishment Republicans ignore this group in favor of chasing more statist and liberal voters among immigrants and educated urbanites. Conservatives can find new allies among these voters, much as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, if conservatives recognize that both groups share a common belief in freedom even while having some different beliefs and priorities from each other.

America has the opportunity to elect one of the biggest center-right majorities in its history in 2016. Our problem is that we might not know how to do it.

— Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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