A negative attitude toward immigration, the parliament and societal change, unite those who vore for the Sweden Democrats

During the last couple of decades, Europe has experienced significant political change as a result of new political parties that have emerged in many countries. We can see this development also in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats have grown from having only a marginalized position to being one of the biggest parties in the parliament.

To understand these political changes, one must look closer at the current social, political and economic context. But to understand why a large number of voters, in a short period of time, have chosen to vote for a new and different party, one also needs knowledge about sociological and psychological mechanisms. In the report Sverigedemokraternas väljare: Vilka är de, var kommer de ifrån och vart är de på väg? (The Sweden Democrats’ voters: Who are they, where do they come from and where are they headed?) I, together with Jens Rydgren and Pontus Strimling, seek to answer a number of questions about those who vote for the Sweden Democrats in order to get an insight in the growing support for the party. The report is based on a survey with almost 3 500 participants who have said that if the election were held today, they would vote for the Sweden Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Moderate Party, or not vote at all.

Who are the people who vote for the Sweden Democrats?

In the report we conclude that there are primarily four traits that unite those who vote for the Sweden Democrats. First, almost all have a negative attitude towards immigration, meaning that they want to decrease immigration to Sweden and that they see immigration as an economic and cultural threat to society. Second, it is very common that they have a low level of trust in public institutions, mainly in the parliament and politicians. Third, these voters tend to lean to the right. In socioeconomic issues (for example taxes) they are to the right of the Social Democrats and slightly left of the Moderate Party, but in sociocultural issues (for example their view of feminism) they are to the right of both the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party. Lastly, it is relatively common amongst those who vote for the Sweden Democrats to believe that Swedish society has worsened and to feel alienated in society – even if most of them have good lives and cannot be described as marginalized.

It is important to note that this group of voters is not homogenous. Despite seeing clear differences between those who vote for the Sweden Democrats and those who vote for the Social Democrats or the Moderate Party, there are also great differences within the group regarding several issues. Despite a large group having negative attitudes towards immigrants, only half of the participants can be described as xenophobic. To better understand what motives lie behind the decision to vote for a party that is explicitly critical of immigration, we have looked closer at the differences between these two groups of SD-voters. We have found that those SD-voters that can be described as xenophobic also tend to be more conservative, authoritarian and ethno-nationalist (e.g. to believe that ethnicity is important in determining who is Swedish) than those SD-voters who are not xenophobic. Additionally, they also express more trust in the party.

Where do those who vote for the Sweden Democrats come from?

Those who vote for the Sweden Democrats come both from the center-right alliance and from the red-green alliance, primarily from the Moderate Party and the Social Democrats. This is especially interesting since the right-left dimension is traditionally very important in Swedish politics. How come both right-wing and left-wing voters have started voting for the Sweden Democrats?

It can be difficult to gain meaningful results if one uses the same explanations used to explain support for more well-established parties. Traditional political issues often have to do with socioeconomic issues such as taxation or the size of the public sector. Political parties and their voters obviously often have opinions about sociocultural issues as well, amongst others immigration, but these issues often play a less central role in politics. New parties are however less engaged in socioeconomic issues and often emphasize more specific sociocultural issues, for example parties that are a part of the green party family. This is also true for the Sweden Democrats, who claim that they are neither a right- nor left-wing party and have a primary focus on immigration. This is however not a complete explanation of the success of the Sweden Democrats or other relatively new parties. There are critical voices towards immigration also in other groups of voters, and one can wonder why such a large amount of voters have started to regard it as such an important issue that it determines where they place their vote in the general election.

A different way to view voter behavior
To better understand this voter behavior, one can use theories from political psychology and sociology. Who votes for what party is not completely random and this is true also for those who vote for the Sweden Democrats. The party is usually classified as belonging to the new group of radical right parties that have emerged over the last couple of decades in western Europe. These new parties are characterized primarily by their ethnonationalist position, their nostalgic view of the country’s past and a populist rhetoric about cultural and political elites that are estranged from the people, especially when it comes to issues regarding immigration and multiculturalism. Radical right parties are defined as radical because of their will to radically change society, which they hope to do with legal and democratic means, in contrast with parties who are described as right-wing extremists. These parties do however have a populist view of democracy that implies that they believe that modern democracy works badly, and that they themselves represent true democracy.

As we have seen, many of those who vote for the Sweden Democrats share these characteristics. Almost all voters share the party’s negative attitude toward immigration (but do not necessarily dislike immigrants) and Swedish politics. Many also share the nostalgic view of Sweden’s past and believe that society has worsened. This belief does not seem to be caused by a worsening of their own living situation, but since these voters have relatively low hopes for the future they may be anxious over the societal changes they are observing eventually having a negative effect on their own lives.

Where are those who vote for the Sweden Democrats headed?

To all intents and purposes, those who vote for the Sweden Democrats seem to have settled – at least temporarily. We could not find any support pointing towards them changing to a different party. Our results indicate that any potential for future movement is greater between the Moderate Party and the Sweden Democrats than between the Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats. This conclusion is drawn from questions that measure second ranked choices and the respondents’ view of Sweden’s future if various parties would form a government. Voters of the Social Democrats and of the Sweden Democrats (despite earlier party affiliation) also tend to differ significantly in most issues analyzed in this report. There were however significant differences between the Moderates and the Sweden Democrats, for example the view of immigrants, conservative values and the relationship to society.

Unseen voters a challenge for future elections

Most voters who participated in the study say that they are doing well, despite what group of voters they belong to, and that they do not feel that their situation has worsened during the last five years. However, only a minority of the respondents feel that they are seen by society, and most of them chose distant decades when asked what period of time in Swedish history was the best. Amongst those who vote for the Sweden Democrats it was common to have a negative view of one’s relationship to society in other aspects as well. They have a low level of trust in public institutions, do not perceive themselves to be part of society, and have low hopes for the future. These are important insights for all political parties; why is it so common to believe that things used to be so much better in Sweden, and how can one strengthen the feeling of being seen in society? How parties are able to address these issues can determine where voters cast their ballots in the future.

Kirsti Jylhä
Translation from Swedish to English: Clara Wikforss