Less than a month after assuming office, President Donald Trump sparked one of his first “international incidents” when he falsely asserted that immigrants had just committed a terrorist attack in Sweden.
“What has he been smoking?” former conservative Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, in reference to the new American president.
Trump later explained through Twitter that he had merely passed on what he’d heard on Fox News. Whether he was aware of it or not, that Fox story was part of an international fearmongering campaign to upset the political balance of power in a country known for egalitarianism and tolerance.
With elections coming up on September 9, Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic party has been trying hard to focus national attention on their core issue: inequality. Their web site’s top headline: “Do you also want a stronger society with better welfare and more jobs instead of big tax cuts for the richest? Vote for Social Democrats!”
But a hardline anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats, are surging in popularity. Polls suggest the Sweden Democrats will garner about 20 percent of votes, up from less than 13 percent in the last election in 2014. The Social Democrats, the country’s most popular party for the past century, are expected to have their worst showing ever — about 25 percent, down from 31 percent four years ago.
All the mainstream parties have vowed not to ally with the Sweden Democrats to gain a majority. And so the country is expected to continue to have a minority coalition government — most likely either a continuation of the Red-Greens (the Social Democrats and the Green Party, with support from the Left Party) or one made up of four traditional conservative parties.
Whatever the election outcome, the rise of anti-immigrant forces is rattling for many Swedes who’ve prided themselves on a reputation of generosity and economic fairness. In 2015 alone, Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers, most of them from the war-torn countries of Syria and Afghanistan. If the United States, which is actually engaged in these wars, had taken in the same share of its much larger population, it would’ve been the equivalent of 5.2 million people. Instead the United States accepted just 69,933 refugees that year.
Protest at Sweden Democrats' event, August 14, 2018, in Umeå. Shutterstock.
The Sweden Democrats are calling for a complete halt to immigration, claiming the recent influx has led to “galloping migration expenses” that have wrecked the country’s social welfare state. In reality, Swedes continue to enjoy one of the most generous support systems in the world, including universal health care, free college, and more than a year of paid parental leave.
And with steady growth and budget surpluses, there’s no rational reason to fear that Sweden’s generous welfare system will crumble any time soon.
Some of the Social Democrats’ campaign pledges show just how far ahead the Swedes are in meeting the basic needs of their population. Take childcare, for example. I live in a city (Washington, D.C.) where average monthly childcare costs run $1,186. So it’s kind of shocking to learn that the Swedish government, on top of 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted, provides an additional monthly child allowance until a child reaches the age of 16. For most parents, this totally covers the cost of sending kids to a government-run childcare service.
To improve the Swedish system for the many blue collar women who work evening or weekend shifts when most childcare centers are closed, the Social Democrats are vowing to expand hours of service throughout the country.
To ensure dignified lives for their elderly population, Social Democrats are proposing to raise taxes on capital to expand pension benefits for ordinary wage earners to the equivalent of 70 percent of their final salary. An average Swedish earner can already expect to receive about 55 percent of their salary in pension benefits when they retire. In the United States, Social Security payments are typically about 40 percent of average earnings. This is on top of a housing benefit that covers up to 95 percent of housing costs for Swedish pensioners.
Sweden has a progressive method of paying for pension benefits. They set a ceiling on benefits for the wealthy, but they have no cap on contributions. By contrast, Americans stop paying into the Social Security fund after their annual income exceeds $128,400.
The Swedish Model is of course not perfect. And by scapegoating foreigners, the anti-immigrant forces have been able to inflame public concerns over problems like maternity ward overcrowding and longer waiting periods to see medical specialists.
These are among the popular themes of a Twitter Bot surge aimed at boosting the Sweden Democrats. A Swedish government study found that the number of such fake Twitter accounts with automated activity nearly doubled from July to August. The tweets from these accounts were 40 percent more likely to support the Sweden Democrats than other political tweets.
Breitbart News, the far-right site formerly run by ousted Trump advisor Steve Bannon, is also running a stream of “country in chaos” stories about Sweden, as is the Russian government-funded RT news service.
Let’s hope the U.S. president can refrain from adding his own fake news to the chorus.