America may be “the city on a hill,” but that has not stopped American politicians and pundits from drawing on the examples of other countries in domestic political debates. Two of the most animating figures of the American Left in the past decade — Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — frequently point to the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland) as successful models of their policy proposals in action. On the American Right, Hungary has emerged as a favorite in recent years. Star Fox News host Tucker Carlson has taken opportunities to boost the conservative government of the central European country, broadcasting from Budapest and sitting down for an interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2021. Conservative writer Rod Dreher wrote last month that “the intellectual right in the West is discovering that all roads lead to Budapest.”
While Hungary and the Nordic countries undoubtedly differ in many respects, they share some striking political resemblances that may come as a surprise to the casual American observer. The following five issues are illustrative.
During Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, Hungary earned a reputation as a hardliner on immigration. It built a fence on its southern border and refused to allow a mass flow of migrants into the country. The strategy was widely criticized by fellow EU members.
The fall of 2022 featured some interesting developments in the atmosphere surrounding immigration in Scandinavia. In Sweden’s election in September, the populist migrant-skeptic Sweden Democrats had their best showing ever, finishing in second place with 20 percent of the vote and leading the right-wing coalition to a narrow victory. Sweden opened its doors wide to immigration in the 2010s, taking in more immigrants per capita than any EU nation. There is a sense, though, that the public is souring on the approach, especially as violence has increased in migrant neighborhoods.
“We had this change in the rhetoric in 2015,” says Arvid Hallén, program director for Oikos, a Swedish conservative think tank, of the immigration debate in Sweden. “Until then, basically, if you had argued that immigration can in any way be a problem, you were branded as a reactionary and as a racist, actually. And since then, the debate has shifted entirely.”
He notes that this rightward shift on the immigration issue has taken place even among party leaders on the Left. He points to former center-left Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s endorsement of the new right-wing government’s plans as clear evidence.
The story is similar in Denmark, where migration policies are not expected to tilt left despite the national election victory of the center-left Social Democrats and their coalition of parties from the political center. Even though Denmark’s populist parties did not have the same strong result as the Sweden Democrats — the Danish People’s Party, in fact, lost seats in both 2019 and 2022 — stricter stances on immigration have become mainstream and have been adopted even by the center-left.
In Finland, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born is comparable to Hungary’s (7 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively) and is much lower than Sweden’s (19.5 percent). The United States, meanwhile, stands at 13.6 percent. Until 2019, Finland had a highly restrictive annual asylum quota of 750 refugees. Norway also had fairly conservative policies under a right-wing coalition from 2013–2021.
Perhaps the controversy for which Hungary has drawn the most blowback has been its stance on gender issues. Its 2021 decision to ban the teaching of LGBT ideology in schools led center-right Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to declare his intent to “bring Hungary to its knees on this issue.”
Scandinavian societies, though often among the most progressive in the world on questions of sexuality, have recently shown signs of a willingness to depart from left-wing consensus. Over the last couple of years in Sweden — which in 1972 became the first country to allow people to legally declare a change in gender — the government’s National Board of Health and Welfare has moved to update its guidelines on the treatment of children with gender dysphoria, discouraging the use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and some surgeries. It is a reversal from a previously “strong recommendation” to use hormones on children as young as 8 and is partially due to concern over the sharp increase in children seeking transition and the prevalence of transition regret. Finland has taken similar steps, citing a lack of evidence for the benefits of medical intervention. Surgeries are not part of Finland’s medical guidelines and puberty blockers are strongly discouraged.
Hallén acknowledges that Sweden is far from socially conservative, but believes that the country “reached peak wokeness in 2015.”
“I think the big catalyst for this is actually the immigration issue,” he says. “If the powers that be were wrong about this big issue, what about other issues?”
He argues that transgenderism is a far less sensitive subject in Sweden than in the U.S., pointing to the recent uproar against Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s views on the issue. “It’s pretty hard to comprehend that’s actually happening because it seems so absurd,” he says.
In Hungary, the conservative Fidesz party’s 12-plus years of leadership have been marked by regular tussles with the European Union. On immigration, LGBT ideology, economic sanctions against Russia, and other issues, Hungary has chosen to forge its own path. It has even led some western European leaders to call for its removal from the Union. Situated at the crossroads of competing empires for over a thousand years, Hungarians have developed a fierce independent streak. Viktor Orbán regularly portrays himself as a defender of Hungarian interests against outside forces.
The Nordic countries have also shown a strong regard for their national sovereignty and a certain degree of skepticism toward supernational organizations. Sweden and Denmark, for example, are the largest economies in the European Union that have chosen not to adopt the Euro despite meeting the criteria required to do so. Norway and Iceland, both of which rank in the top three on the Human Development Index, have declined EU membership altogether. Finland and Sweden are not NATO members and their accession was not seriously considered until the escalation of war in Ukraine last year. Similarly, Denmark had opted out of the EU’s defense pact until a referendum this past summer. A 2015 survey showed Swedes and Finns are the Europeans most likely to say that they would be willing to fight to protect their country.
“Norwegians have their oil, they are very rich, they can do whatever they feel like,” says Hallén. “Swedes, I think, feel that they’ve found the sweet spot, not having to be in a monetary union with countries like Germany and Greece, but [they] can still be in the free trade zone.”
Perhaps the clearest example of a Nordic country charting its own path was the Swedish approach to COVID, which largely eschewed lockdowns, masking, and vaccine mandates. According to Hallén, it came from a uniquely Swedish form of national exceptionalism.
“This idea that our politicians and experts say that something is right and the rest of the entire world says that it’s wrong and the Swedish public unquestioningly [accepted] this says something about our country.”
For the American Left, support for parents and children in countries like Sweden and Denmark is seen as laudable benefits of a generous social safety net. They offer substantial paid parental leave — up to 16 months in Sweden — and subsidize childcare, as in Denmark where cost is reduced by 75 percent. In Finland, families receive a maternity package, or “baby box,” filled with clothing and other supplies with the birth of each child. In Norway, families receive roughly $160 a month for each child under the age of 6 in the household. All but Iceland ranked in the top ten best places to raise a kid in 2022, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Measures like these also animate some of Hungary’s biggest American proponents, suggesting that this is a policy area on which the Left and Right may find common ground. The Fidesz government has offered significant tax reductions, loan opportunities, and cash payments for families with children.
Hungary’s efforts are aimed at boosting its lackluster birthrate and stagnating population. Attitudes in the Nordic countries are mixed. While Denmark ran a pro-natalist ad campaign in the mid-2010s, Annika Strandhäll of Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats party compared Hungary’s pro-natalist family policy to Nazi Germany in 2019. Whatever the rationale, both are faring relatively well from a fertility standpoint. Hungary has experienced an incline in its birthrate under Fidesz and the Nordic countries have remained more fertile than much of the rest of Europe.
The Nordic countries are well known for their commitment to environmentalism. Danes ranked climate as the most important issue in the 2022 election and Copenhagen aims to become the first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025. Sweden has set a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045. Finland wants to do so by 2030. Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark all rank in the top ten countries for green living, according to U.S. News & World Report, and the top five in the 2021 Europe Sustainable Development Report. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland make up the top four for the highest percentage of energy from renewables in Europe. In the Swedish political conversation, says Hallén, the issue of climate is second only to immigration.
Hungary’s conservative government’s approach to climate change does not line up neatly with the American political spectrum. In 2020, Orbán announced the Climate Protection Plan, which, among other goals, aims to reach 90 percent carbon-free energy production by 2030, support electric vehicles, and significantly increase solar power. In a 2020 article, Minister of Justice Judit Varga notes that the topic “has so far been largely monopolized by the liberal left” and calls for a conservative prioritization of environment rooted in “Christian and patriotic duty.” A 2019 Pew Research survey showed that the portion of Hungarians who consider climate change a “major threat” (66 percent) is roughly equal to that of Sweden (69 percent), the home of Greta Thunberg.
Hungary and Sweden share an openness to nuclear power. “For the first time since the ‘60s we have a government which is fully pro-nuclear power,” says Hallén, adding that they have put it front and center in the climate discussion. They make the argument, he says, that “if you don’t want to [use nuclear], you actually hurt the climate.”
The green approaches of the Norwegians and the Hungarians are both comfortable with the use of oil. Norway is Europe’s largest oil producer outside of Russia. The Orbán government has opposed EU attempts to cut off the flow of Russian oil, arguing that, at this point, providing sufficient energy without it is not feasible.
The list could go on. These opposing poles of the European political spectrum are both, for example, fairly low in metrics of religiosity but have governments that give financial support to churches. The Nordics are the quintessential social welfare states and Hungary, with its single-payer healthcare system, is by American standards quite economically left-leaning as well. When it comes to COVID policy, countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Hungary were among the first to reopen their borders in 2022. Bucking assumptions, Hungary’s policy was generally to the left of Sweden’s, employing curfews, business closures, and vaccine passes.
These parallels offer some lessons for both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Despite the common trope that the Democrats would be on the right of the European political spectrum, the Nordic countries — supposedly Europe’s most progressive nations — are more moderate than the American Left on key issues like immigration, transgenderism among minors, COVID, and abortion. The Nordics, it seems, have applied the brakes. Will the American Left follow suit? It should also encourage American liberals to take on a more nuanced view of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which is often lambasted in U.S. media for stances that nowadays resemble those of the Nordics. Perhaps Hungary is not the dramatic outlier it is often made out to be.
For the American Right, it may be cause to consider reevaluating their political horizons, taking environmental issues more seriously and opening up to politically successful “big government” solutions on healthcare and family policy. Hungary and the United States are massively different countries, of course, but the Fidesz party’s success in building a solid conservative coalition capable of winning four consecutive elections with wide margins should, if nothing else, catch American conservatives’ attention. It may also represent a sort of global conservative “moment” for Republicans to capitalize on. Hallén argues that Sweden is moving to the right “in pretty much every single area” and there’s some evidence it’s happening in other Nordic countries, Europe, and beyond.
Hungary and Scandinavia are far from being ideological soulmates, but perhaps the European political spectrum is a little narrower than the common assumptions would have it.
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