Don’t Blame The Tea-Bagger 13% On Me

The Sweden Democrats (SD) is a racist populist party that got 13% of the vote in the recent Swedish parliamentary election. They got into Parliament four years ago at the expense of the Labour Party. This time around they more than doubled their support at the expense of the Conservative Party, who lost a precarious hold on government to Labour and the Greens.

The 87% of the country who didn’t vote for the racists are asking how the fuck this could happen. A common and, to my mind, convincing explanation starts from the demography of the SD voters. Sweden has low unemployment, high general education and a largely urban or suburban settlement pattern. (A large-scale movement of people from the countryside to the cities has been going on for two centuries.) Yet SD voters display high unemployment, low education and a rural settlement pattern. In US terms, they’re Tea-baggers. They’re voting for SD not because they’re necessarily all that hostile to foreigners, but because they are marginalised and don’t feel that the mainstream parties are paying enough attention to their needs. The SD offers to solve their problems by keeping the foreigners out, and SD voters aren’t well-educated enough to understand that immigration reform wouldn’t actually make any practical difference to their particular problems. They’d still be unemployed, uneducated and rural, but the village kebab place would close.

The established political parties clearly haven’t successfully manipulated the SD voter demographic. Ahem, I mean, “catered to”. But the thing is, 87% of Swedish voters, the people who have all the social and economic clout outside the polling station, voted for explicitly multiculturalist parties. All across Parliament, from the Former Commies all the way over to the Christian Democrats. Courting the racist vote would lose you the country’s majority demographic along with the support of the moneyed and educated power structure. The electoral districts in Stockholm where SD got the least votes are also the ones where Leftie parties got the least votes: solidly Conservative neighbourhoods with old money.

In the Swedish media, there’s this idea that employed educated urban Swedes are somehow to blame for the marginalisation that led to the SD’s success, simply by being privileged. I don’t agree. It’s true that we don’t pay any mind to the characteristic SD voter demographic. But why should we? It’s a mutual subcultural lack of interest and proximity.

My own tribe, the Nerds, probably has an even higher voter turnout than the already respectable national average of 86%. And we don’t vote SD. Just look at this past Saturday’s game night at my place. There was the maths professor, the philosophy lecturer and the PhD candidate in informatics. We’ve been brainy since Kindergarten and see no reason to apologise for ourselves. Elitist? No, this is just the way we turned out. One of the guys has an immigrant dad, another has just moved to Sweden with his wife and started a family here. We had tea that came here in my brother-in-law’s suitcase from China, while my Chinese wife pottered about with her second degree or maybe it was the novel she’s translating into Swedish.

I’d be happy to invite a friendly SD voter to game night, and I’m sure he’d refrain politely from racist pronouncements. But I honestly don’t know where to find one. And I’m afraid he’d find my tribe frighteningly alien.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

17 thoughts on “Don’t Blame The Tea-Bagger 13% On Me”

  1. It would be intereting to compare SD with the Norwegian demographics of Fremskrittspartiet (the Norwegian Tea Baggers). Norway has better policies for the smaller, more rural communities than Sweden.
    On the other hand Norway does not have Sweden’s experience of immigration during the economic boom 50 years ago so they are still quite a bit xenophobic.
    Back then, mmigrants from the Nordic countries were not enough to keep the industry going, so we “imported” immigrants from Greece, Italy and just about everywhere.
    Later the immigrants in Sweden have often suffered social problems like unemployment, but since the “ethnic” Swedes have had time to come to terms with immigrant neighbors they do not tend to see immigrants as a threat the way they do in Norway.
    Now, if we only had Norway’s benefical policies for the populations living outside the big cities, maybe there would be no place for a populist party at all.


  2. It’s noteworthy that the most vocally anti-immigrant faction in Sweden, as in the US, draws heavily from regions where immigrants are least likely to settle. I presume that in Sweden immigrants are mainly found (to a greater extent than native Swedes) in big cities and university towns. Many US tea partiers are in places like the rural South and the Great Plains, which are not the places the immigrants go. It’s not uniformly thus: there are places in the US which despite being rural and of Tea Party disposition have many immigrants. These places are primarily in the states bordering Mexico: Texas, Arizona, and the Central Valley of California.

    I think Birger is on to something in saying that being accustomed to living among immigrants helps. You don’t find much Tea Party support in my town, with ~15K people and a university that enrolls enough foreign-born students to support a local Asian grocery store. (That’s in addition to the Asian grocery store in another town about 20 minutes drive from here, which primarily serves immigrants not affiliated with the university.) The Republican Party has never, in the years I have lived here, run a full slate of candidates for state legislature from this district. The towns where the Tea Party gets its support in this state are generally the ones that are at least 98% non-Hispanic white (and in some of those towns it’s the Democrats who have never run a full slate for the state legislature).

    Some in the Tea Party understand that they have to reach out to people who are other than white non-Hispanic. Their candidate for one of New Hampshire’s US House seats (not the district I live in) is a Hispanic who won the nomination after being endorsed by Don Rafael from Calgary (AKA Sen. Ted Cruz). That’s one of the House districts that Republicans are hoping will flip in this election (the incumbent is a Democrat).


  3. I’m hopefully going to write a real post about this soonish, but I think you are perhaps both too quick to pidgeon-hole people, and a little too cavalier about exonerating your own in-group. The world, even the local Swedish one, is not nearly as black and white as you portrait here.


  4. As long as the urban educated voter’s attitude towards the working-class rural voter’s interests is “why should we [pay any mind to them?]”, the latter group will gravitate towards politicians who pretend to care, even if those politicians are actually working against their long-term interests. Clearly Swedes are more polite than Americans; you frame the problem as a matter of lack of proximity and interest, whereas here both sides of the putative binary cultural divide openly express the opinion that the “other” side are scum who don’t deserve to have their needs met. It’s still worrisome to me that Sweden is developing that level of division. The American imperial “homeland” is large and heterogeneous enough that many of our cultural conflicts might ultimately be reduced, if not pleasantly, by splitting into multiple nations. You really don’t have that option, so keeping all major subgroups onboard the ship of state and pulling in the same direction is critical.


  5. “What should we have done?”

    What we “should have done” is irrelevant. You know, the world doesn’t revolve around people like us, much as we would like it to.


  6. We white collar Swedes are afraid of outspoken controversies. It is rare that immigration is a subject at a dinner among friends because the subject is so infected. Quite accurate questions of how to handle the integration part of immigration can be perceived as racist.


  7. To make things clear. I am not a SD voter but I think that politicians need to explain how to solve issues with with accomodation, and education in the integration procesess.


  8. Jane-with-one-N (#7), I’m certainly not saying that the rural uneducated unemployed are scum. I’m saying that they are quite rare in Sweden, and completely absent from Greater Stockholm. I know lots of recent immigrants. I don’t know any rural uneducated unemployed people. Sweden isn’t developing that division. The division is gradually disappearing as country folks (particularly the women) move to the cities and get education and jobs. Being rural and uneducated, after all, causes unemployment.

    Janne-with-2-Ns (#8), you commented that my in-group couldn’t quite be exonerated as the headline of my blog entry suggests. This suggests that we have been lax in some moral duty. I was wondering what that was, concretely.


  9. No, you certainly aren’t saying anything like that, which was my point. You can find a fellow who says it relatively often about conservative rural Americans elsewhere here on Scienceblogs, and you can find a virtually infinite number of conservative rural Americans who say it, with poorer spelling and grammar, about liberal atheist urbanites. We are a mean, mean culture. Sweden may be stultifying in some ways, but at least you’re not all at each others’ throats. I wish you luck in keeping it that way!

    I only said rural working-class, not uneducated or unemployed, but your original post does say that your SD voters are disproportionately uneducated and unemployed, which in your comment above you say is “quite rare”. 13% of the vote is a sizeable chunk, either way.


  10. OK, briefly (since I don’t seem to have too much time to write nowadays):

    * Rural, poor and uneducated are only proxy predictors, not the actual reason for voting SD. Notably, Stockholm still had more than 6% voters supporting SD; and Lund in Skåne, and Uppsala – bastions of higher learning and high technology – had 9% and 8% support respectively. And they got many of their new voters from the center right Moderates.

    Rather than “dumb hick”, the core reason seems more likely to be future insecurity. As you say, it’s probably not the racist message that attracts most of their voters (they were never close to geting in when that was their main message) but a promise of turning back the clock.

    They idolize a time when you could get a job after school, then reasonably expect to earn a living wage doing it, and keep it until retirement. A time when you were not constantly one false move away from financial disaster. A time of political, economic and societal stability. Of course, that time ever really existed, especially for those at the bottom of the ladder, but many people do feel they’ve become more vulnerable and less secure nowadays, and they do have some reason for that. This fits with the loss of Moderate voters to the party; societal conservatives that feel their old party no longer tries to preserve society as it was.

    A major problem going forward is that we’re going to see more societal and economic upheaval, not less, in the future. Work automation has still only barely begun; if we collectively don’t adress this insecurity we risk heading for a future where the likes of SD might become several times bigger.

    As for our tribe – and yes, it’s my tribe too – I’m worried when people seem to believe we’re special. We’re not. One recent data point is the conclusion that a majority of female scientists are sexually harrassed by their male colleagues during field work. And as Pharyngula pointed out, the astoniching thing about it is that people are surprised. They found the same rate of harrassment as in society at large. Another is the continuing violent bullying and harrassment within the gamer communities, and atheist/freethinker communities.

    Again, reflecting misogynic, homophobic and racist attitudes within society, but with the added self-delusional “oh, it’s not really harrassment; it can’t be since we’re too smart and educated to do that sort of thing”. Which all too easily spills over into “We don’t do bad things; therefore there must be valid reasons to behave like that toward those people”. We – we scientists, we gamers, we nerds – are unfortunately completely unexceptional in this regard. As a group we’re just as hateful, and bigoted, and ignorant as everybody else. Trying to pretend we are not only serves to hide real problems we should be solving.


  11. True, insecurity is the key to the emergence of populist movements.
    I know people in California who are very considerate people but still buy into the Mexican immigrant scare (having Murdoch-owned Fox News shaping the view of reality does not help).


  12. Janne, you may very well be correct in your analysis. But I don’t see how that translates into “urban educated employed people are to blame for the SD’s success”.


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