This post is in many ways a sequel to my last post, “Why Socialism Needs Christianity”, in which I discussed how Christianity helped make the welfare state function in Sweden.

I mentioned in my last post that the Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics – they held power from 1932 to 1976! That is, to my knowledge, a world record in a democracy.

This article, however, won’t focus on the 44-year reign itself. Rather, what I would like to discuss are the events that led up to the end of the Social Democrat time in government: The election of 1976.

First, let me provide you with a bit of background information:

Sweden has experienced three decades of (nearly uninterrupted) high growth. We and our welfare state has become the envy of the world. Our national self-esteem is naturally quite high – how could it not be? Everybody wants to be like us! That must mean we’re doing something right.

The social democrats have been in government since 1932. Like the Democrats, they came to power during the great depression – which was blamed unfairly on the conservative government at the time – but unlike the Democrats in the US, the Swedish Social Democrats managed to hang on to power for more than just a paltry 20 years. I should explain that Sweden is a parliamentary democracy without a constitutional court, which effectively means that the government can do whatever they want.

You may think that this would have turned Sweden into a  communist nightmare – 44 years of uninterrupted, un-restricted leftist government does sound like something out of a horror movie after all!

However, while Sweden took a decisive turn to the left, we never went communist. The Social Democrats was probably the only left-winged party in Europe that clearly, unapologetically and in no uncertain terms distanced itself from the Soviet Union.

During World War II, in the interest of national unity, the Social Democrats invited all the other parties represented in the Swedish parliament to join them in a coalition government for the duration of the war. Of course, the social democrats were still the biggest party in the parliament and so the other parties didn’t really have much influence, but it was a nice gesture. However, here’s the thing: The Social Democrats did not invite the Communist Party, even though they were represented in the parliament. They were willing to co-operate with the conservative party, but not the communists. In fact, during WWII, many communists in Sweden were imprisoned because they were seen as posing a threat to national security.

Also during WWII, in breaking with Sweden’s neutrality policy, we allowed 8000 soldiers (volunteers) to go to Finland and fight against the Soviet Union (Additionally, we also donated 131 000 rifles, 42 000 000 rounds of ammo, 8 airplanes,100 Anti-aircraft cannons,  132 anti-tank cannons with 256 000 grenades and 132 field guns to Finland).

Basically, while the Social Democrats were no fans of the US and American capitalism, they also made sure everyone knew that they hated communism at least as much.

The Social Democrats also for the most part believed in Christian values. To summarize, they were economically left-winged, socially moderate, foreign policy isolationists.

Then, starting in the mid-late 1960’s, things began to change. Here is a (incomplete) list of things the Social Democrats did in the 10 years that preceded the 1976 elections:

– They removed Christianity from the school curriculum. 2 million Swedes (out of 8 million in total) signed a petition to oppose this, but the Social Democrats refused to budge. Evangelical Christians at this point abandoned the Social Democrats and formed their own party, Christian Democratic Unity (now Christian Democrats). This party is today represented in the Swedish parliament.

– They legalized abortion up until 18 weeks (available until week 22 under certain circumstances).

– They destroyed our relationship with the United States. The Swedish Prime Minister at the time (Olof Palme, 1972) compared the bombing of Hanoi to famous war crimes such as Treblinka and Katyn. The US foreign department was outraged and broke off diplomatic relations with Sweden. Olof Palme was later assassinated, and to this day some Swedish leftists are convinced that the CIA did it.

– They legalized child pornography – yes, you read that right! Child pornography was legalized in 1971 (effective from ’72) and was traded openly.

– They began a process that, had it not been interrupted by the right-winged victory in ’76, would have led to the complete nationalization of the entire private sector. The plan was to establish “Employee funds”: Every year, every company with more than 50 employees would have to use a share of their profit to buy back shares in their company, shares that would be transferred to the labor union. After only a few years, the union would own a majority of the shares and be able to control the company. It should be managed that in Sweden, all labor unions are members of an umbrella organization known as Landsorganisationen, LO. Had this plan succeeded, LO would have owned almost every company in the country! In essence, this plan would have turned Sweden into a communist country.

There are many more examples of course, but you get the idea: The Social Democrat party had gone nuts! In particular the last point was very uncharacteristic of them – they had always distanced themselves from communism, and here they were, plotting to turn Sweden into a communist state!

What happened? How could they possibly go so wrong, so fast? Some may think that the Social Democrats had always been “closeted” communists, waiting for an opportunity to show their true colors. However, there is a much simpler explanation:

What happened in the late 1960’s is that the Social Democrats got their very own Tea Party movement. This movement was called “68-vänstern”, approximately translated to “the left 0f 68” in English. A radical grassroots movement, dominated (at least initially) by students and academicians, which promoted extreme egalitarian policies (such as the employee funds) as well as “free love” and radical social liberalism (which among other things led to the legalization of child pornography).

As you’ve probably noticed, their goals were not similar to the goals of the Tea Party movement in the US – but their methods were.

They never had support from a majority of the Swedish population, but they were louder and more obnoxious than all their opponents combined, and therefore, their ideas were given more space than they deserved. They had catchy slogans and one-liners, but really no well-thought out arguments. They made the establishment in the Social Democrats nervous – the truth is, the establishment in the party never really liked the Employee funds, but they were forced to agree to them because they feared that these extreme leftists may otherwise stay home or vote communist. Basically, the Social Democrats’ left turn was caused not by a change in national sentiment or a change in the attitude of the leadership, but by an extreme grassroots movement which held that purity was more important than winning elections.

In the months before the 1976 election, polls showed that more than 60 % of Swedish voters thought that the Social Democrats were too far to the left. The Social Democrats refused to take this seriously; after all, they had won every election in the last 44 years – how could they lose this one?

And as for the grassroots movement within the party, they were quite clear that they would rather lose than compromise on their purity. Sounds kind of like another movement you may have heard of, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the aisle, the right-winged parties saw an opportunity arise: They had been out of power for almost half a century, but now, with the extreme left-turn of the Social Democrat Party, they realized that the election of 1976 meant they finally had a realistic chance of ending their losing streak.

And they were NOT going to let this opportunity slip out of their hands. If you’re a conservative in Sweden, you only get so many chances to win an election in your life (on average about 1 every 20 years or so). So while the Social Democrats were busy fighting amongst themselves, the right-winged parties – there were three of them – united. They would still be three separate parties (they still are to this day), but they began to co-operate and find common ground. This made a lot of sense: One of the reasons why the political right in Sweden had such a hard time winning elections was because they were divided, while the left was united. Voters knew what they would get when they voted Social Democrat – they were a safe, proven option. The right-winged parties, because they never agreed on anything before the election and typically campaigned just as much against each other as they campaigned against the Social Democrats, seemed like a much riskier bet.

In the election campaign of 1976, the right-winged parties largely refrained from attacking one another, instead presenting a united front against socialism. They agreed before the election that if they won, the leader of the Farmer’s league (one of the three parties) would become Prime Minister. In previous elections, the three right-winged parties had never been able to agree on which one of the three party leaders would become Prime Minister if they won the election. The man they chose as their PM candidate was named Thorbjörn Fälldin (try and pronounce that!). Fälldin came from a simple, working class background: He grew up on a farm in northern Sweden (the same area where I grew up), and he himself was a farmer before entering politics in his 30’s. His background combined with his humble personality made it impossible for Social Democrats to convince voters that he was an evil aristocrat who would turn Sweden into a capitalist’s paradise (I wish…).

Suddenly, the roles were reversed: The right-winged parties were talking about issues that mattered to average people, while the Social Democrats were busy addressing issues no-one but the hardcore left cared about. While the Social Democrats were trying to convince Swedish voters about the benefits of nationalizing the private sector, Thorbjörn Fälldin and his Centre Party campaigned against nuclear energy (something a majority of Swedes had opposed since the Three Mile Island accident). The right-winged parties had, after over 40 years in opposition, realized that the key to winning elections is to talk about the subjects that people want to talk about – sure, as a right-winged politician you may like to talk about tax cuts and deregulation, but if the voters would rather that the conversation be centered around nuclear energy and childcare, then that’s what you should talk about.

Another contributing factor was the weakening economy. When this election rolled around, it was becoming increasingly clear that the post-war boom was finally over. While the right-winged parties acknowledged the challenges that laid ahead, the Social Democrats really only had one solution, which was to hand over ownership of the private companies (the ones who hadn’t already gone bust!) to the labor union. A labor union which polls showed most Swedes agreed already had too much power.

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A Social Democrat demonstration in 2010

Conclusion

The right-winged coalition government remained in power until 1982. The Social Democrats were back in power, but the leftist grassroots movement – the “left of 68” – was no longer a major force in the party and hasn’t been since. The party today is more moderate than it was in the 1970’s – they no longer support employee funds (and the fact that they once legalized child pornography is not something they like to be reminded about). You could say that they learned their lesson, but in many ways they didn’t: To this day, the Social Democrats reject Christianity and Christian values – they are in complete denial about the importance that Christian ethics played in making their policies work during the four decades they spent in power. While the Fälldin government was able to stop the employee funds and ban child pornography, the secularization process started by the Social Democrats went on largely uninterrupted. While the left of 68 never regained power over the Social Democratic Party, to this day they retain massive influence in the media. Today more than 85 % of Swedes identify as atheist, and less than 5 % attend church regularly.

What lesson can we learn from this then? The Social Democrats were the most powerful party in the democratic world. They had won every election 44 years in a row – half the Swedish population hadn’t even been born when Sweden last had had a non-social democrat government. Yet, they were destroyed from the inside by a radical purist movement which was out of touch with the mainstream. If not even the most powerful party in the world could withstand a movement similar in attitude to the Tea Party movement, what chance does the Republican Party have?

If the GOP is to ever win an election again, it must learn from history. No party that allows a fringe movement of extremists to write its platform can ever win an election. Not even one that has governed for 44 years straight, and certainly not one that hasn’t been in government for 8 years (in 2016) and that doesn’t even have a fraction of the political capital that the Swedish Social Democrats had in 1976.

I’ll stop here. Thank you for reading – I’ll write more about the history of Sweden and the Swedish welfare state if anyone is interested. Also if you’re on twitter you can follow me at @nationstatist.

Photo credit: Claes Krantz via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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