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Nationalism vs. Nationalism: The Challenge of the Sweden Democrats in the Swedish Public Debate

  • Anders Hellström, Tom Nilsson and Pauline Stoltz

In the 2010 Swedish general elections the nationalist party Sverigedemokraterna (SD) crossed the threshold and entered parliament. The other parties in parliament reacted with strong antagonism; the mainstreaming of the ‘radical right’ had finally come to Sweden. This article analyses the media coverage of the SD following the 2006 elections, when it emerged as a high-profile party in the public arena. The presence of the SD in Swedish politics encourages both SD allies and opponents to emphasize their views on what constitutes social cohesion in Sweden. We see the public debate surrounding the SD as a rhetorical struggle between different nationalist claims.

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1 The authors appreciate the valuable comments by Maja Povrzanovic Frykman, Ulf Mörkenstam, Scott McIver, Sue Glover, Raymond Taras, Christian Fernández and two anonymous referees.

2 In an estimate, seven relevant radical right parties (defined as parties with more than 3 per cent of the overall vote) nearly tripled their electoral support from below 5 per cent in 1980 to more than 14 per cent in 2004; P. Norris, Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

3 A. E. Ellinas, The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe: Playing the Nationalist Card, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 15.

4 Hellström, A. and Nilsson, T., ‘ “We Are the Good Guys”: Ideological Positioning of the Nationalist Party Sverigedemokraterna in Contemporary Swedish Politics’, Ethnicities, 10: 1 (2010), pp. 5576 .

5 Ellinas, The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe. See also e.g. E. Declair, Politics on the Fringe: The People, Policies, and Organization of the French National Front, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1999; Rydgren, J., ‘The Sociology of the Radical Right’, Annual Review of Sociology, 33 (2007), pp. 241–62; S. Saveljeff, ‘New Questions and New Answers: Strategies Towards Parties with Radical Right-Wing Profiles’, Current Themes 11, Malmö, IMER/MIM, 2011.

6 Hellström and Nilsson, ‘ “We Are the Good Guys” ’, p. 74.

7 A study of nationalist claims around the period of the 2010 elections would preferably differentiate between the framing of these claims as expressed by different political and media actors on different arenas. The SD certainly played a bigger role in the public debate in the 2010 election campaigns, compared to the debates preceding the 2006 elections – this makes it possible to scrutinize the role of journalists and the media in the framing of issues in 2010. Also, after the 2010 elections it is feasible to investigate parliamentary debates which now include SD representatives. These differentiations are not possible for 2006–7. These observations place a limitation on the scope of this particular study.

8 A. Hellström, Vi är de Goda: Den Offentliga Debatten om Sverigedemokraterna och Deras Politik, Hägersten, Tankekraft, 2010.

9 C. Mudde, Populist Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ch. 5.

10 Ellinas, The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe, p. 26.

11 Rydgren, ‘The Sociology of the Radical Right’, p. 253.

12 Rydgren, J., ‘Radical Right-Wing Populism in Denmark and Sweden: Explaining Party System Change and Stability’, SAIS Review, 30: 1 (2010), pp. 5771 ; see also H. Kitschelt, The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1995.

13 P. Mair, ‘Populist Democracy vs Party Democracy’, in Y. Mény (ed.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge, Gordonsville, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

14 Žižek, S., ‘Why We All Love to Hate Haider’, New Left Review, 2 (2000), pp. 3745 ; see also Arter, D., ‘The Breakthrough of Another West European Populist Radical Right Party? The Case of the True Finns’, Government and Opposition, 45: 4 (2010), pp. 484504 .

15 C. Mouffe, On the Political, London, Routledge, 2005, p. 75.

16 See e.g. C. Ruzza and S. Fella, Re-Inventing the Italian Right: Populism, Post-Fascism and Territorial Identity, London, Routledge, 2009; Paul Taggart, Populism, Buckingham, Open University Press, 2000.

17 M. Canovan discusses various populist appeals to ‘the people’ such as ‘the united people’, ‘our people’ and also ‘the common people’ that have different implications and oppose ‘elites’ of various kinds, such as ‘political’, ‘cultural’, or ‘economic’ elites; Canovan, M., ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies, 47 (1999), pp. 216 .

18 See e.g. A. Gingrich and M. Banks, ‘Introduction’, in Andre Gingrich and Marcus Banks (eds), Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology, New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2006.

19 At the SD Party Congress in Gothenburg in November 2011, the SD decided on a new party programme to define its ideology as based on ‘social conservatism’ as well as ‘nationalism’. According to the party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, this was not to orient the party to ‘the right’– conversely he maintains that the idea of the people's home is rooted in social conservatism. This rhetorical shift arguably provides a means to broaden the SD agenda to include more political issues and thus attract more potential voters (see interview with Jimmie Åkesson in Dagens Nyheter, 24 November 2011).

20 M. Billig, Banal Nationalism, London, Sage, 1995, p. 6.

21 Ibid., p. 17.

22 P. Hall, The Social Construction of Nationalism: Sweden as an Example, Lund, Lund University Press, 1998; H. Berggren and L. Trägårdh, Är Svensken Människa? Gemenskap och Oberoende i det Moderna Sverige, Stockholm, Norstedts, 2006.

23 Hall, The Social Construction of Nationalism, p. 135.

24 U. Özkirimli, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 206–9.

25 Freeden, M., ‘Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?’, Political Studies, 46 (1998), pp. 751–2.

26 Mudde, Populist Radical Right in Western Europe, p. 22; Arter, ‘The Breakthrough of Another West European Populist Radical Right Party?’, p. 492.

27 Recent research on journalism demonstrates how opinionated material tends to intertwine with the daily news reporting, see further K. Horsti, ‘Polarized Views on Migration: Impact of the Changing Journalistic Field on Immigration Debate in the Nordic Countries’, paper presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of IMISCOE, Liège, 2010.

28 Entman, R. M., ‘Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm’, Journal of Communication, 43: 4 (1993), pp. 51–8.

29 Ibid., p. 52.

30 Mediearkivet, ‘News Material from Swedish Newspapers’, 1 September 2006 to 30 May 2007,, accessed January 2011.

31 The theme of welfare covers 182 articles. In the analysis, we explicitly refer to a sample of 63 articles that also include the search word ‘Social Democrat’.

32 The theme of culture covers in total 190 articles. In the analysis, we explicitly refer to a sample of 66 articles that also include the search word ‘Swedish’.

33 The theme of democracy covers in total 332 articles. In the analysis, we explicitly refer to a sample of 85 articles that also include the search word ‘people’.

34 G. Esping-Anderson, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990.

35 See further Å. Linderborg, Socialdemokraterna Skriver Historia: Historieskrivning som Ideologisk Maktresurs, Stockholm, Atlas Akademi, 2001.

36 Interview in Göteborgs-Posten, 22 May 2007.

37 Dagen, 20 May 2007.

38 Interview in Göteborgs-Posten, 5 November 2006.

39 See further Hellström, Vi är de Goda.

40 Taggart, Populism.

41 Interview in Expressen, 20 April 2007.

42 Quoted in Göteborgs-Posten, 5 November 2006.

43 Dagens Nyheter, 17 October 2006.

44 See further N. Orrenius, Jag är inte Rabiat. Jag äter Pizza: En Bok om Sverigedemokraterna, Stockholm, Månpocket, 2010.

45 Sverigedemokraterna, ‘Invandringspolitiskt program: Antaget vid riksårsmötet den 19 maj 2007’,, accessed August 2010.

46 Cited in Sydsvenskan, 22 April 2007.

47 Cited in Göteborgs-Posten, 5 November 2006.

48 Cited in Kvällsposten, 8 March 2007. Karlsson has collected a series of quotations to demonstrate that his view was widely shared by leading sports journalists: M. Karlsson, ‘Svenskheten och hycklarnas Parad’, Karlsson Blogg 10 March 2010, at, accessed August 2010.

49 See e.g. J. Niessen, T. Huddleston and L. Citron, ‘Migrant Integration Policy Index’, British Council and Migration Policy Group, 2007,

50 See further Hellström, Vi är de Goda.

51 Quote from Mora Tidning, 26 January 2007.

52 See further Hellström, Vi är de Goda, p. 146; and Stoltz, P., ‘Canons and Communities. Children and Social Cohesion in Sweden and the Netherlands’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 6: 1 (2011), pp. 3952 .

53 See e.g. interview with Erik Almqvist in Sydsvenskan, 10 April 2007.

54 See e.g. ibid.

55 See e.g. the editorial writer J. Fredriksson in Göteborgs-tidningen, 30 November 2006, who talks about the ‘Duckberg mentality’ of the SD. J. Jakobsson, ‘Sverigedemokraterna i Kommunerna’, in H. Arvidsson (ed.), Högerpopulismen: En Antologi om Sverigedemokraterna, Stockholm, Premiss förlag, 2009.

56 See e.g. debate article by the former parliamentary speaker, Thage G. Petersson, in Sydsvenskan, 25 February 2007.

57 S. Saveljeff suggests that the alternative, to adopt SD views, would cause a severe loss of credibility and was thus not regarded as an attractive option. After the 2006 elections, the mainstream parties relied on either an open adversarial strategy towards the SD or as strategy of silence, but never with agreement; K. Boréus, ‘Including or Excluding Immigrants? The Impact of Right-Wing Populism in Denmark and Sweden’, in A. B. Bay, B. Bengtsson and P. Strömblad (eds), Diversity, Inclusion and Citizenship in Scandinavia, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars, 2010.

58 See e.g. S. Holmberg, ‘Sverigedemokraterna: Vilka är Dom och Vad Vill Dom?’, in S. Holmberg and L. Weibull, Det Nya Sverige, SOM-rapport, 41, Gothenburg, 2007.

59 Orrenius, Jag är Inte Rabiat. Jag äter Pizza.

60 See e.g. S. B. Ljunggren and J. Nordlund, Sverigedemokraterna och Medierna, Stockholm, Timbro, 2010.

61 Rydgren, ‘Radical Right-Wing Populism in Denmark and Sweden’.

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Government and Opposition
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