Pascal Lauener / Reuters The Swedish flag is seen through a snow-covered window, Sweden February 4, 2007.

Scandinavia's Real Lessons

It's Not All Welfare and Social Justice

During this presidential campaign season, Scandinavia’s democratic socialism has had something of a starring role in Democratic discussions. In the debate on October 13, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders extolled the virtues of Europe’s north: “We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” he argued, “and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Sanders’ paean elicited a flat rebuke from Hillary Clinton: “We are not Denmark.” In truth, there are many things that the United States can learn from Scandinavia, but not what Sanders implies.

Scandinavian countries call themselves foregangslande, or pioneers, and they have much to show in terms of forward-looking and innovative policy. Most everyone is familiar with the progressive ideas—from gender equality, universal health care, and energy sustainability—that have turned the region into a model for Bernie Sanderses everywhere.

However, in recent years, Europe’s north has also been home to more controversial practices—namely, restrictive immigration measures and austerity policies. They have also been rocked by the rise of radical populism. Because of their wealth and relatively small size, countries in northern Europe have had to face economic and social issues before some of the other Western countries. And the results reveal that it is best to be careful what you wish for.

For the better part of the past century, Nordic countries seemed to provide a third way between East and West. At the height of the Cold War, this positioning was understood in diplomatic terms; some of the countries remained neutral. But before then and again more recently, it was a social-economic label. The region seemed to mix free markets and universal social protection better than anyone else.

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smile during the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015.
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smile during the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015.
Of the many books published on the subject, Sweden: The Middle Way, by the U.S. journalist Marquis Childs, most vividly captured the tradeoff. Published in 1936 in the aftermath of the Great Depression, this small book became an unlikely blockbuster. It was one of the first instances both of them making money,” as Roosevelt commented.

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