🔮 The Sweden Democrats: no longer outsiders, but still stigmatised

Many right-wing populists are no longer considered outsiders, and are increasingly participating in, or supporting, governments. Yet many voters still perceive right-wing populists as fundamentally different from other parties. Niklas Bolin examines the enduring impact of stigmatisation, and considers in particular how it affects the populist right-wing Sweden Democrats

Collapse of the cordon sanitaire

Right-wing populist parties fascinate and intrigue researchers and the general public, who often consider them fundamentally different from other parties. Their political agenda differs. They do not adhere to established political norms. And they are against the establishment.

This distinctiveness has also manifested in the actions of other mainstream parties, who may isolate entirely the right-wing populist opposition, establishing so-called cordons sanitaires.

Right-wing populist parties have thus long been considered outsiders, hindered by voter stigmatisation. And while voters may sympathise with populist parties' policies, they consider it socially unacceptable to vote for them.

Nowadays, however, many of those cordons sanitaires are being dismantled. As Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti point out in their inaugural post in this series, the myth that populist parties are outsiders forever consigned to the political margins does not hold up well when faced with empirical reality. All over the world, populist forces have entered governments. Indeed, until not long ago, populist actors controlled three of the world’s biggest democracies. And although Trump and Bolsonaro (unlike Modi) are no longer part of the executive, there remain plenty of examples of right-wing populists now sharing the spoils of office.

In recent years, the Sweden Democrats have transitioned from the political margins to the mainstream. Why, then, do voters still tend to stigmatise them?

But what happens to stigmatisation when these parties are no longer outsiders? Given that party cues influence voters, increased acceptance from mainstream parties should lead to a decrease in stigmatisation. Based on this expectation, I conducted two survey experiments with Stefan Dahlberg and Sofie Blombäck. Our research examined whether Swedish voters' attitudes were influenced by knowing which specific party was presenting a particular policy proposal. We discovered that voters still tend to stigmatise the Sweden Democrats, despite the party having transitioned from the political margins to the mainstream.

The Sweden Democrats: no longer outsiders

For a considerable period, the success of right-wing populists in Sweden stood out as an exceptional case. The Sweden Democrats first entered parliament as late as 2010. However, given the party's origins in overtly racist movements, at that time it faced complete isolation from other political parties. For Sweden's mainstream parties, collaboration with the Sweden Democrats was unthinkable. The Sweden Democrats' isolation reached a peak with the 2014 December Agreement, which constructed a cartel explicitly excluding them from any influence.

The 2015 refugee crisis, however, prompted many parties to tighten up their immigration policies. This policy shift weakened one of the main arguments for maintaining the cordon sanitaire around the Sweden Democrats. It also became increasingly evident that centre-right parties might need the Sweden Democrats' support to form a coalition government. In early 2017, the leader of Sweden's largest centre-right party announced it would be willing to collaborate with the Sweden Democrats. This marked a significant step toward acceptance of right-wing populists.

Recent years have seen a gradual relaxation in the attitudes of Sweden's centre-right parties. This growing acceptance also applies to voters; indeed, the Sweden Democrats have enjoyed improved ratings among centre-right voters. Swedish media, too, has helped normalise and legitimise the Sweden Democrats' political views and language.

Ongoing stigmatisation effect

Given mainstream parties' increased acceptance of the Sweden Democrats, and the party's improved ratings among voters, you might expect the stigmatisation to decrease. To find out whether this is the case, Dahlberg, Blombäck and I conducted two independent survey experiments.

The first, in 2011, we carried out shortly after the Sweden Democrats first entered parliament, when a cordon sanitaire was still in place throughout Sweden's political system. The second experiment, in 2018, coincided with the Sweden Democrats becoming the country's third-largest party. At that time, Sweden's centre-right parties had begun to soften their stance towards the Sweden Democrats.

We presented our respondents with a number of fictional political proposals.

The 2011 experiment asked participants about a proposal to ban Muslim headscarves in schools. Some respondents were told that the proposal came from either a Sweden Democrat or a Liberal. Some received no information about the sender of the proposal.

Alongside a control group receiving a proposal without a specified sender, the 2018 experiment participants were cued by the Sweden Democrats, the Social Democrats, or the Moderates. In this second experiment, our proposals were to ban street begging and to lower taxes on pensioners.

Respondents to our survey consistently gave proposals a lower rating if they thought the Sweden Democrats had come up with them

The seven-year gap between these two experiments was significant. During this time, the Sweden Democrats transitioned from being a small outsider party to a substantial party more accepted by the political mainstream. Despite this, we found that stigmatisation persisted. Regardless of whether the proposals concerned headscarves, begging, or lowering taxes, respondents consistently gave a proposal a lower rating if it had been made by the Sweden Democrats.

Why a little stigmatisation may be desirable

This persistent stigmatisation suggests that the Sweden Democrats have not yet reached their full voter potential. Voters who sympathise with the party's policies still aren't voting for it. The outcomes of the 2022 election and the subsequent government formation allow us to investigate whether this is a temporary or longer-term problem for the party. The Sweden Democrats have an extensive cooperation agreement with the new centre-right administration. Finally, they have one foot in and one foot out of government.

Voters who sympathise with the Sweden Democrats' policies still aren't voting for the party

At the same time, we cannot overlook the fact that diminishing stigmatisation may bring other challenges. When a party becomes part of the establishment, elite criticism appears less credible and, consequently, is less effective. It is likely that a certain degree of stigmatisation is desirable for right-wing populist parties to maintain their unique selling points.

From other parties' perspective, there is a delicate balancing act to sustain. Excluding right-wing populists outright risks portraying them as victims – and thus plays into their hands. A welcoming approach, however, risks normalising discourse and policies that were once considered beyond the pale. Sweden, clearly, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

No.61 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Niklas Bolin
Niklas Bolin
Associate Professor in Political Science, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mid Sweden University

Niklas' research focuses on elections, political parties, and political behaviour.

Among other topics, it has addressed right-wing populist parties, party organisation, intra-party democracy, party leader selection, and youth wings.

His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Common Market Studies, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Party Politics, Scandinavian Political Studies and West European Politics.


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