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Geopolitics

Economics Of Populism: A Habsburgian Tale From Sweden

While the rise of European right-wing populism is becoming a pan-continental phenomenon, we seem determined to miss its one common driver.

Economics Of Populism: A Habsburgian Tale From Sweden

Right-wing activists march in Kiev, Ukraine in April 2021 to mark the birthday of the SS-led WWII Galician Division

Carl Karlsson

STOCKHOLM — I cast my first vote in a junior-high gym in southern Sweden. I was 13 and it wasn't a real election, but a mock civic exercise to prepare students for their coming life of suffrage. I have a clear memory, back 20 years ago now, that exactly two people in my class of 30 voted for the right-wing Sweden Democrats. They were twin brothers and perhaps best described as true locals in our small city. They were also of some true (or false) local repute, not so much for their political prowess as for their protruding Habsburgian jaws — a result, rumor had it, of family relations having become too intimate in the depths of the Swedish pine forest.

That was then, when far-right affiliation was so rare that it had to have some legend attached to it. But national support for the Sweden Democrats has since jumped to roughly 18%, as similar backing for right-wing parties grows all around Europe: those that have made worldwide headlines like AfD in Germany, Rassemblement National in France, the Lega in Italy, UKIP in the UK; but also similar formations with similar ideas in Austria, Estonia, Norway, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands too, as the political climate keeps trending far rightward.

Right-wing populism is of course not limited to Europe, but its reach across the virtual entirety of the continent, north to south, east to west, must prompt us to ask why.

In the European south, populism has often been framed as a desperate protest against corruption and kleptocracy — issues that are marginal at best in countries like Germany and Sweden. In those two countries, instead, migration has been singled out as the main issue after each received a large number of refugees during the 2015 Syria crisis. This, however, was not the case in eastern Europe, where right-wing parties made strides in countries where borders remained closed or migration was limited.

Populism always has its roots in a loss of public confidence in the ruling class

Indeed, in a place as politically and culturally diverse as Europe, it's probably not useful to view the rise of populism through either a lens of "geography" or "issues," like corruption, crime, migration. Likewise, while criticism of the many shortcomings of the Union itself is shared by European populists everywhere, that too does not actually get to the heart of people's concerns.

That leaves, if you'll pardon the very 20th-century term: economic ideology. What we have learned over the past few decades is that populism, on the left or right, always has its roots in a loss of public confidence in the ruling class that's driven by very close-to-home questions of social and economic fairness.

In my home country, that had already started in the 1980's — long before mass migration, before full European Union integration, and even before the founding of the Sweden Democrats — when economic inequality started to rise. Perhaps, for the rest of Europe too, ever since the old feudal ways of the Habsburg Empire crumbled, our societies have been fundamentally driven by economic tensions … and the politicians who know how to exploit them.

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