What Do Sweden, Socialism and Bernie Sanders Have in Common?


As I cleared customs at Arlanda airport in Stockholm, Sweden on my way to post-graduate studies at the University of Stockholm, I glanced over to the news kiosk where a screaming headline caught my eye. “Skandal I Tunnalbannan.” Simply translated, “Scandal in the Subway” which I immediately surmised to be a report on garden-variety urban graft, theft or bribery. Amazingly, the story detailed how a subway extension in suburban Stockholm had been built, yet they had neglected to build a handicap ramp! This was publicly decried as intolerable; the disadvantaged had been shortchanged!

What kind of country has this level of scrutiny regarding the basic rights of every citizen?

When Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, and now, Democratic presidential candidate appears on camera, one of the first, and most common question he faces is, “Are you really a socialist?” With the same ruthless efficiency and branding brilliance that for a time vilified “liberals” and turned that term into an insult, conservatives have managed to do the same to socialism. This in spite of the fact that all Nordic and most European nations have embraced Democratic Socialism since World War II, and in fact have developed very agreeable societies, nations where the rights of the handicapped are important enough to make headlines.

From Germany, the economic powerhouse of the European Union where it is legally mandated for workers and management to share decision-making authority on corporate boards, to Norway where there are gender quotas for women who hold elective office, to Sweden, where couples having children can take one paid year off each, to care for their newborn, with no loss of seniority. Family values anyone?

Following my graduate studies, I was invited to return to Sweden as a partner in a consulting business and spent five noteworthy years living in Stockholm. I came to know, respect and admire this most unique country that 85% of Americans cannot even identify on a map, let alone offer a cogent definition of “socialism.” 

Most political scientists agree that Sweden was indeed the “precursor” nation for most of the social welfare policies now the norm in Western European democracies, such as universal healthcare, free education through university levels, comprehensive care for the elderly and the disabled, paid parental leave following childbirth, and extensive employment and pension benefits. Compassion and care for the well-being of all citizens, diligently managed and woven into the DNA of the citizenry, while building wealth, successful global commerce, and a modern technological society are not mutually exclusive. This marriage, a genuine “capitalism with a human face” is the essence of social democracy.

With a population under 10 million, dwelling in a beautiful, pristine nation the size of California with abundant natural resources, Sweden is in many respects a “Lost Kingdom,” with few actually traveling there, as it lies at the northern tip of Europe. Exotic and unreachable to most Americans who routinely make the rounds to Italy, France, Germany, Spain and England, its policies, lifestyle and general welfare are actually quite relevant. Yet most conservatives are unequivocal in asserting that “socialist states” are a complete failure, with miserable citizens suffering under the yoke of oppressive governments intruding into their lives. Conservatives see socialism as a system that “takes everything from the rich and gives it to the undeserving poor,” a compelling talking point but totally wrong especially when seen in the context of a nation like Sweden and the actual practice of Democratic Socialism.

In fact, Sweden is not a socialist country in the classical sense at all. Marx and Engels would be very disappointed with Sweden where 90% of industry is privately owned. Genuine “socialism,” in principle, is where the people own the means of production, and profit is meant for the public good, not an elite, capitalist class. Sweden is a modern social democratic nation, as are most European countries where, the Middle Way between collectivism and individualism has been carefully crafted. Virtually unfettered, capitalist free-market economies have meticulously endeavored to achieve harmony with welfare policies that at the end of the day have created very decent societies. Taking a short hop across the North Sea it might surprise most Americans that the recently re-elected Conservative Prime Minister of England, David Cameron, vigorously defends the National Health Service, emphatically supports a national minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and action to counteract climate change. It is a very different landscape in Europe where those pesky socialists have a hand in more than conservatives in America could even imagine.

While the burden of excessive taxation was the hot topic in Sweden during the '70s and '80s, tax rates have been lowered considerably. Their capital markets and banking system diligently avoided the precarious financial speculation that nearly derailed the world economy in 2008 by demonstrating exemplary fiscal discipline, and Sweden’s economy today is strong, stable and resilient. Its Nordic neighbor, Iceland, which rushed headlong into the American model of deregulated banking, stared into the abyss of national bankruptcy, but now has recovered, with the trial, conviction and imprisonment of the bankers who created the mess. Equanimity for all citizens, and exemplary Nordic justice! Mr. Holder did not get this memo.

If per-capita income, quality universal healthcare, happiness index variables, life expectancy, economic stability, and environmental sustainability are measures of success, Sweden is certainly one of the most successful countries in the world. All of the Northern European countries score at the very top of the best nations to live in on earth, in an annual study conducted by the United Nations. With Sweden and other social democracies so routinely vilified, the rhetoric emanating from conservatives raising the specter of “failed socialist principles” that would undermine our safety, security and way of life rings not only hollow, but intellectually dishonest. Make no mistake, while Sweden thrives and prospers, it is not a utopia and is never represented as such with common problems ranging from global market challenges, immigration controversies, racial tensions, rising drug use and other modern ills.

Sen. Sanders is a longtime advocate of a national minimum wage, a single-payer national insurance plan, rigorous regulation of Wall Street and financial institutions, as well as taking serious steps to end economic inequality, positions favored by a majority of Americans in virtually every poll on these issues. Good policy always reflects the will and sentiment of the people, and it is safe to say that the good senator is more in touch with the true sentiment of Americans than perhaps any other candidate in the race. He has, throughout his long and storied career, continued to articulate and advance policies that look and sound very much like democratic socialism; policies more of us are coming to understand and believe in, and hopefully, urge our elected representatives to enact.

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