Updated (see below)
What does the American right believe in? Keeping out immigrants and cutting government welfare. What does the Scandinavian right believe in? Keeping out immigrants and...increasing government welfare?
The pitch to voters was summed up by Åkesson in the runup to last autumn’s poll, when he tweeted: “The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose.”Yes, the platform of the ultra-right wing Sweden Democrats' in the 2015 elections was pro-welfare. This is the same right wing party that had to withdraw a candidate when it came to light she was a somewhat open Nazi sympathizer.
It turns out that the welfare state in Scandinavia is so popular that even the Scandinavian right loves welfare. As one writer remarked, "In Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, the populist right is on the march – and it is wearing the traditional battle armour of the Nordic left."
Perhaps this is an anomaly; maybe a party that has crazy views on racism and xenophobia also has crazy views on welfare. Yet welfare is popular across the political spectrum, not just the wings. Even the market-oriented, center-right parties (typified by the Swedish Moderate Party) love the welfare state:
The fact that voters discarded the Social Democrats for the Center-Right in 2006 and then re-elected them again in 2010, however, does not mean that the voters had become more conservative. Ironically, the Center-Right victory reflects the hegemony of social democracy in Sweden. For in order to win the elections, the conservative Moderate Party had to shed its free-market ideology and reframe itself as a supporter of the welfare state. After a disastrous showing in the 2002 elections, the free-market wing of the party stepped down and a new centrist generation took over. Copying New Labour in the UK they called themselves the "New Moderates" and claimed to be the "true" working class party...the New Moderates concluded they had to give up the idea of a "system shift" and admit that after decades of social democratic dominance and hegemony, they could never convince the electorate to give up the welfare state...
What is important for our present analysis is that none of the main reasons for the defeat of the Social Democrats indicate that support for the country’s generous welfare policies was declining. In fact, a recent survey shows that 80 percent of the population thinks the municipal and regional governments should increase the quality of childcare, while only 15 percent think that taxes should be lowered instead. Furthermore, 93 percent believe that the local governments should increase care for the elderly, while only 5 percent favor lowering taxes. Similarly, 91 percent prefer increasing the quality of healthcare rather than lowering taxes...
[Sweden] still has one of the world’s most generous welfare states and support for it is so great that the Center-Right has only been able to rule by becoming semi-social democrats. So the Social Democrats’ loss of political power has been accompanied by a complete hegemonic ideological victory for the basic Social Democratic welfare tenets. It is far from utopia, but also far from the damage done in the United States by Reagan and the Bushes or in the UK by Thatcher and New Labour.If this seems strange, it's not. This is exactly what happens in the United States.
Something magical happens when welfare programs become universal. Suddenly, even conservatives love welfare (update: this idea is taken up further here). Because the entire welfare state in the social democracies is universal, the entire welfare system is wildly popular and (as we've seen above) extremely resistant to cuts. Politicians don't cut popular programs.
The opposite of this, of course, is the bulk of the welfare state of the United States. For the most part, only poor people are eligible for American social welfare programs; thus, the vast majority of voters have no interest in maintaining funding for these programs. Obviously, such programs become very unpopular. Food Stamps is a perfect example; only poor people are eligible, and earlier this year, the Republicans and Democrats debated over how many billions of dollars should be cut from the program. It's no surprise that the Republican Party wanted to cut Food Stamps, but the Democratic Party, which is supposedly the pro-welfare party in this country, also wanted to cut Food Stamps. The only disagreement was over how much to cut; the Democrats wanted to cut it by $4 billion over 10 years, but the Republicans wanted $20 billion, so they compromised at $8 billion. This is what happens when Republicans and Democrats cooperate; we should be glad it happens so infrequently.
Yet the United States' two universal, social democratic programs--Social Security and Medicare--are phenomenally popular across the political spectrum. Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular with the ultra conservative Tea Party (emphasis added):
The “revolutionary” rhetoric of the Tea Party has led some commentators to pigeonhole it as reflexively anti-government, but the concerns of grassroots Tea Partiers about representation should not be confused with blanket opposition to all federal social programs. Tea Party activists hold positive views about the government entitlement programs from which they personally benefit—including Social Security and Medicare, and also other entitlement programs they have used...Others referred to having relied on unemployment insurance after losing their jobs, or expecting to rely on Social Security in the future. These results are in accordance with the CBS News/New York Times poll of Tea Party activists, which found that about half of Tea Partiers say someone in their household receives Medicare or Social Security benefits, and that most Tea Party supporters believe these programs are “worth the costs . . . for taxpayers.” (45) As Massachusetts respondent Nancy puts it: “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, and I do feel like I should some day reap the benefit [of Social Security Retirement benefits]. I’m not looking for a handout, I’m looking for a pay out for what I’ve paid into."[Social Security includes several programs. The most frequently overlooked is Unemployment Insurance, wherein people who lose their job are able to temporarily collect cash benefits. This is designed to help people make ends meet until they can find their next job. This is a universal, social democratic program.]
That CBS News/New York Times poll found of active Tea Party activists:
And while the vast majority opposes the health care reform bill, 62 percent say programs like Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs to taxpayers. (The figure is even higher among Americans overall, at 76 percent.)A 2011 poll found that a whopping 76% of Tea Partiers opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The survey data are clear: American Tea Partiers love social democracy.
So the characteristics that make welfare so popular in Scandinavia are the same characteristics that make Social Security and Medicare so popular in the United States. Universal, social democratic programs are beloved by conservatives, whether they're in the United States or Scandinavia.
That is how to make the welfare state popular and resistant to budget cuts: make it universal. Even Tea Partiers love social democracy. So you're a liberal who doesn't like it when antipoverty programs get cut? As long as these programs remain non-universal, they will always be politicians' favorite targets for budget cuts. Universal social welfare programs are so popular they practically defend themselves.
Paul Rosenberg makes a similar case from a different angle using survey data on the general American population:
Combining GSS data from 2000 to 2012, and asking about Social Security and spending on “improving and protecting the nation’s health” (GSS’s closest match with Medicare), liberal Democrats thought we were spending “too little” rather than “too much” on one or both by a margin of 87.1 percent to 2.4 percent — a ratio of over 36-to-1. But all other groups of Americans held the same view, even conservative Republicans — just not by the same overwhelming amount. They “only” thought we were spending “too little” rather than “too much” by a margin of 59.2 percent to 13.1 percent— a ratio of 4.5-to-1.Yes, conservative Republicans want to expand Social Security and Medicare by a 4.5-to-1 margin. Think about how amazing this is. As Rosenberg points out, the position on entitlements of the typical "conservative Republican" is well to the left of the vast majority of Congressional Democrats, as well as President Obama, who has proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security.
Rosenberg's article is well worth reading in full. A few other points:
On the revenue side, the public increased taxes by an average of $292 billion—roughly triple the amount proposed by President Obama. Majorities increased taxes on incomes over $100,000 by 5 percent or more, and by 10 percent or more for incomes over $500,000. Majorities also increased corporate taxes and other excise taxes. Overwhelming majorities also favored raising estate taxes: 77 percent favored reverting at least to the 2009 levels, with estates over $3.5 million taxed at a 45 percent rate. These positions are generally so far left, they don’t even appear on the spectrum of discussion in Washington...the position of Republican respondents overall was still dramatically to the left of the political conservation in Washington...[Tea Partiers] were more conservative than Republicans overall, but they still come across as wild-eyed socialists compared to their D.C. representatives...
The far-right, vehemently anti-immigrant Danish People's Party has risen rapidly based on an embrace of the welfare state:
However, the Danish People’s Party is more than a successor; is also represents a metamorphosis of the new right. With the formation of a new party came the opportunity to get rid of the legacy of neoliberalism. Some elements were formally maintained in party documents such as the working programme of 1998, but in practice, the new party abandoned criticism of the welfare state and taxes, and increasingly argued in favour of improved conditions for pensioners...At the same time, it has been approached on several occasions by the trade unions lobbying for the party’s support, and it has increasingly achieved an image as a pro-welfare party usually aiming to get concessions on welfare issues, in particular for pensioners, from the Liberal-Conservative government.