Olof Palme and Obamania: Swedes’ love-hate relationship with the US

Olof Palme and Obamania: Swedes' love-hate relationship with the US
Obama's oath; Ulf Lundel-Scanpix/Pontus Lundahl (File); Palme marches in '68
On the eve of the US mid-term elections, libertarian Swedish commentator and author Fredrik Segerfeldt takes a look at the evolution of Swedes' attitudes toward the United States – with some help from one of Sweden’s most revered singer-songwriters.

On November 4th, to the shock and despair of most Swedes, the US mid-term elections are expected to confirm the drastic fall in the approval ratings of President Obama and the Democratic Party.

Let us use this moment to reflect more thoroughly on longer-term Swedish sentiments towards the United States, mirroring the political developments of both countries.

As a prism, we will use the unchallenged champion of putting music and words to the Swedish zeitgeist, Ulf Lundell.

A self-absorbed, bestselling quality fiction author that has never really been accepted by the literary establishment, and a Dylanesque singer-songwriter turned Bruce Springsteen look-alike, he is a Michael Jackson-style celebrity in Sweden. Numerous voices have been raised for his 1982 song Öppna landskap (“Open landscapes”) to replace the current national anthem.

Lundell is Sweden. But he has a great interest in America, from the title of his 1976 breakthrough novel Jack (as in beat author Jack Kerouac) to the H. (as in Hemingway) of his 2010 book En öppen vinter (“An open winter”), his stories and lyrics are soaring with references to American culture.

Just like the average Swede, Lundell never stops dwelling upon his love-hate relationship with the US. Consider the lyrics of his 1976 song USA, freely translated:

I have seen your cowboys and heard your gunshots, fatal lead

I have read your books and drunk your Coke,

I have been attracted and I have wanted to escape

Yes, there was a time when I believed in what you did and what you said

But since I saw who you really are, I despise you

You are being destroyed, you’re falling apart

I’m not grieving you

Yet, here I am, wearing your blue jeans.

In the 1950s and the early 1960s, the United States represented most of what is good in life: peace, freedom, wealth and a thriving culture. America had saved Europe from Hitler and she was protecting us from the Russians.

Everything from rock & roll and the teenager to cars, televisions and refrigerators were imported from across the Atlantic. Many of the Swedes who had left the country for the US around the turn of the century were still alive. Many more wanted to go.

There was a time when I believed in what you said and what you did.

I have been attracted and I have wanted to escape

Then there was Vietnam.

I have seen your cowboys and heard your gunshots, fatal lead

In 1972, Prime Minister Olof Palme compared the Hanoi bombings to the Holocaust, having marched side by side with North Vietnam’s ambassador to Moscow through the streets of Stockholm a few years back. Diplomatically as well as socially, the bilateral relations were at their worst ever.

But since I saw who you really are, I despise you

You are being destroyed, you’re falling apart

It is wrong to assume that the radicalization of Sweden was caused only by the war in South-East Asia. In fact, it was part of the same wave that swept over most of the Western world in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, which, in a self-reinforcing two-way process, enhanced Swedish anti-Americanism.

As in most European countries, the US has always played in important role as a divide in Swedish domestic cultural and political life, the right being for and the left being “against”. As the saying goes: tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.

During the Cold War, Sweden, albeit a democratic market-based economy, was not part of the Western alliance. Neutrality, not choosing between the Russians and the Americans, called for a reserved attitude towards the US. Then, when the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Empire imploded, the blame-game equilibrium could stop, laying the ground for a more natural but not wholehearted embrace of America.

Swedish discussions about the United States are not limited to the realm of foreign policy. Economic and welfare policies in the two countries are also at the heart of the debate. For decades, Swedes jealously looked at American’s higher living standards, a gap that was exacerbated by the severe economic crisis that struck Sweden in the early 1990s.

But Swedes could always pride themselves with their welfare state. “You don’t want it to be like in the US” was, and is, a commonly heard phrase. Swedes have an inherently benevolent view of the government.

Furthermore, Sweden is the most secularized country in the Western world, most Swedes seeing lack of faith as an inevitable result of an ongoing modernization process. And Sweden, of course, is considered among the most modern countries in the world.

Against this background, it is not surprising that Obamania was even stronger here in Sweden than in the US. And it was not all post-Bush relief.

A Sveriges Television (SVT) poll ahead of the 2008 US presidential elections found that a mere three percent of Swedes would have voted for McCain, had they been given the opportunity to cast a ballot. The rise of the Tea Party, the revival of the GOP and Obama’s problems are therefore incomprehensible to Swedish observers.

But there is also a twist of schadenfreude at America’s current economic downturn. Whereas the US is struggling with slow growth, skyrocketing unemployment, and rising debt, Sweden is widely lauded as the best crisis manager in the rich world, with a post-recession economy in excellent shape.

The world is upside down, it seems, Stockholm pundits say with smug smirks on their faces.

They are right. But not the way they think. For the greatest changes have not taken place in the US, but in Sweden. In fact, these last two decades, the Scandinavian country has gone through a tacit free-market revolution, with school vouchers and partially privatized social security as the two most pertinent examples from an American perspective. The corporate tax level has been cut in steps and is now markedly lower than in the US.

This liberalization process has led conservative American commentators to celebrate the re-election of Sweden’s centre-right Alliance government in September. The first lines of a recent Wall Street Journal Europe editorial (September 23rd) ran:

We’ve been waiting to write this for about, oh, 70 years, but here goes: It’s time the world started imitating the Scandinavian—or at least the Swedish—economic model.

And Duncan Currie of the conservative National Review Online noted that “[w]ithout much fanfare, the Scandinavian country has been moving away from socialism”, and now “offers greater business freedom, trade freedom, monetary freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, freedom from corruption, and property-rights protection than does the United States.”

This development has not really sunk into the minds of the Swedish chattering class. There is always a time-lag between reality and perception. Thus, Sweden is still going to be disappointed at the US mid-term elections.

In the meantime, Ulf Lundell is slowly turning conservative.

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