Via Reihan Salam, British writer Bagehot writes about the UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s fascination with the Nordic Countries, particularly Sweden. Conservatives in the United States normally think of Scandanavian nations as strongly socialist, but Sweden especially has started electing center-right candidates after decades of social democratic rule. Bagehot explains:
I have no doubt that Mr Cameron is a sincere admirer of the Swedish centre-right, led by his friend Fredrik Reinfeldt. After all, Mr Reinfeldt has twice won election in a country with a strong social democratic tradition by dragging his party to the centre-ground, vowing to overhaul the state rather than dismantle it, and convincing voters that his party is best-placed to preserve all those gleaming public services with a mix of fiscal discipline and market-based competition. That must fascinate a man like Mr Cameron, leading a party like the Conservatives in a Britain emerging from a decade-long boom in public spending.
But do the British really want to compete with the Swedes? Researching this week’s Bagehot column, I was talking to a senior Swedish official when the subject of the country’s heavily subsidised day care came up. The official told me—from personal experience—about an email sent to all parents at a Stockholm pre-school not long ago. We believe that some of the children have been watching superhero cartoons at home, the email began reproachfully. Some children have been running about in the playground pretending to be superheroes, and this is rather disruptive and could cause accidents. This email caused no offence, apparently. Had it been sent in Britain, I suspect, it would have caused (mild) parental outrage.
Something similar is at work when it comes to all those family-friendly policies. I have written already about the Icelandic prime minister, noting that a good father takes three months of parental leave. Indeed, other delegates at the London summit last week explicitly argued that one of the reasons to push fathers to take more leave after their children are born is to make men as troublesome to employ as women. As long as only mothers take long periods of parental leave, they said, it is clearly true that employers will be wary of taking on a women of childbearing age.
There is also a pretty direct clash between the Nordic vision of the family and more traditional family values. I interviewed Mr Reinfeldt in Stockholm on Tuesday for my column, and he had some interesting things to say about how women should enter the workforce for the sake of the national economy, but also to gain independence from men:
“My mother was one of those in the 70s to raise her hand and say, we want to have individual freedoms, we want to have the same rights to enter the labour market,” the prime minister said. “Both men and women need to be active in the labour market because at the end of the day, you don’t know how long your marriage will last, and whether you may need to be active in the labour market. So our day-care system, and our affordable system for employing home help, builds on that tradition of helping women and men enter the labour force.”
A lot of women had been held down in the past, he said, by men expecting them to raise children and look after elderly parents. The Swedish state, by providing high quality care for children and the old had created families built around “individuals who are free”. This had spared Sweden the usual trade-offs between helping women to have careers or to have children: the country had high employment rates and high fertility rates.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the five Nordic governments are to present a really interesting paper on “The Nordic Way”, which sets out to challenge what it calls the “half-truth” that Nordic voters are simply rather left-wing and wedded to a big, intrusive and conformist state. Nordic voters like the state but are also exceptionally individualistic, the paper asserts. The circle is squared because Nordic voters believe that the state (which usually works pretty well in countries like Sweden) is the best referee and guarantor of their individual freedoms.
Bagehot goes on to explain that while there is a concept of family in the Nordic countries, there is far more emphasis on individual autonomy than there is on a role within the family structure.
Bagehot then goes on to explain how three different societies, Sweden, Germany and the United States tend to view the roles of the state, the family and the individual:
Finally, “The Nordic Way” cites a paper that compares Sweden to Germany and the United States, when considering the triangle formed by reverence for the Family, the State and the Individual. Americans favour a Family-Individual axis, this suggests, suspecting the state as a threat to liberty. Germans revere an axis connecting the family and the state, with a smaller role for individual autonomy. In the Nordic countries, they argue, the state and the individual form the dominant alliance. The paper cited, by the way, is entitled: “Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State”. It hails Pippi (the strongest girl in the world and an anarchic individualist who lives without parents in her own house, with only a monkey, horse, a bag of gold and a strong moral compass for company) as a Nordic archetype.
(Hmmm…that might explain why I’ve always loved the Pippi Longstocking story.)
While Bagehot is focusing on UK Conservatives, there are some lessons for Republicans on how to best govern after November. In fact, this article flows nicely with a recent article by Henry Olson that challenges the “center-right nation” myth. Writing in National Affairs, Olson is able to show that the American electorate is more in the middle than they are on the right or the left. While there are many parts of the electorate that will vote for one party or the other regardless, Olson notes that white working class is up for grabs. Olson describes the group as such:
Why do these voters oscillate between the two parties? What do white working-class voters want? Patrick Muttart, a pollster and strategist who once served as Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, is perhaps the leading authority on working-class voters in the English-speaking world. He notes that America’s experience is not unique: Australia’s and Britain’s transformative conservative leaders — John Howard and Margaret Thatcher — also relied on the votes of working-class former Labor Party supporters for their historic majorities. And their experiences can teach us a lot about American working-class voters. Muttart’s research tells him that working-class voters do not fit neatly into the left-right divide that characterizes debates between party elites: These voters favor low taxes and balanced budgets, but support government welfare-state programs like public education and state-sponsored retirement benefits. They are economically populist, and suspicious of free trade and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, meaning that, while they often hold conservative views regarding social issues, they do not think that debates about social issues will affect their own lives very much. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but are as suspicious of “big military” as they are of “big government” and “big business.”
In essence, they would like a smaller government, but one that still provides some public services like Social Security and public schools.
So, what does this mean for the GOP? It means that it can’t simply cut government for the sake of cutting government. In some way, it needs to basically help people be Pippi Longstockings, being able to have some sense freedom and dignity.
Will it? The idea of the individual and family against the state has long been a part of American conservatism and as much as people revere Ronald Reagan’s conservative credentials, they aren’t that willing to do that balancing act he did to keep the welfare state intact, while trying to streamline government.
I think this is an idea to move the party forward and should be taken up by bloggers, pundits, politicians and think tankers and try to shape it to American tastes. That said, I think the Republican party will probably ignore such advice until it hits a wall after not listening to the needs of the working class and the wider American society.