Hegemonic Strategies of the Sweden Democrats

The ambition to build cultural hegemony is central to the Sweden Democrats. Here is an overview of their strategies for doing so.

With their success in the most recent Swedish election, the far-right party the Sweden Democrats (SD) reached two important milestones: they became the largest party on the political right (surpassing the Moderates, who have held this place for decades) and they for the first time gained direct political power, as part of a ruling coalition where they now are operating in the role of close collaborator to the new right-wing government (itself a mixture of liberals and conservatives). However, despite them having reached these milestones, it would be a mistake to assume that the SD now feel that they have accomplished their political goals. On the contrary, as they have been very clear with, their ambition is to become the state bearing party in Swedish politics – which fully determines the cultural and political agenda in the country, by implementing their revolutionary conservative vision of a culturally and ethnically homogenous Sweden.

Judging by their continued successes in the general elections since they entered the Swedish parliament back in 2010 (5.7% of the votes in 2010, 12.86% in 2014, 17.53% in 2018, and 20.54% in 2022), it is clear that one should take this ambition very seriously. Indeed, the SD’s massive and rapid growth begs the question of how they have managed to accumulate such many votes over just a bit more than a decade – even though they remain a racist and authoritarian party with neo-Nazi roots, fuelled by simplistic and polarising political ambitions (just like the far right in general). This is certainly a complex question that requires careful analysis from many different perspectives, but here I would like to focus on the SD’s ambition to build cultural hegemony, as it is understood by the party leadership as the key instrument for providing the legitimising foundation for implementing their radical politics. Indeed, their struggle for cultural hegemony is crucial to look closer at because it is arguably what has set the stage both for their current position in Swedish politics and for possible better ones in the future.

The importance of cultural hegemony to the SD is encapsulated in one famous statement by their chief ideological strategist: ‘politics lies downstream from culture’. The latter is here not just understood as the cultural sector as such, but also more broadly – as the basic values of society, how we act against each other, what is considered good and bad, and so on. And redefining culture is seen as crucial by the party for the purpose of implementing a novel normative and cultural framework within which the SD’s extreme politics more easily will become accepted. In other words, for building a different social climate oriented around nationalist, conservative and authoritarian values.

General Strategies for Building Cultural Hegemony

I have divided the SD’s strategies for building cultural hegemony into general and particular categories. Beginning with the former, the first one – certainly to crucial to any hegemonic project – is the party’s political vision. One thing you have to give the SD is that they do have a clear vision of what kind of society they want – one that in many ways is very different from how things look now (although in other ways disappointingly similar). Even to someone like me, who obviously does not share this vision at all, it is understandable why a lot of people find it attractive, as it does stand for something different than our present social malaise.

Indeed, in our current ideological wasteland, even the most despicable visions of a different society can gain traction precisely insofar as they offer people something different. The SD vision thus stands in contrast not only to the neoliberal status quo of the traditional right-wing parties – but also to the left-oriented parties that either have taken up the disastrous idea of Third Way-politics, or simply lack ideological visions of their own that are similar in ambition to the SD’s (although obviously different in kind). On the contrary, what we have seen in Sweden is many of the other parties increasingly taking up a similar rhetoric as the SD and thus gradually accepting their problem formulations (of course, particularly with regards to immigration). At the same time, this has not prevented the SD from continuing to characterise all the other political parties as a corrupt political establishment, which only has started to recognise the mess they supposedly have put the country in now that the SD has gained increased political support.

The latter is how the second of the party’s overarching hegemonic strategies – constantly positioning themselves as outsiders – articulates itself. As a far-right, anti-establishment party, the SD naturally thrives on characterising itself as the true voice of the people in contrast to the corrupt left-liberal political establishment. Although now that the overwhelming majority of the political parties in Sweden have accepted the SD’s exclusionary politics of immigration – and sometimes the harsh rhetoric against immigrants as well – the party has more recently sought out other controversial areas where they may continue to position themselves against the so-called establishment. One of these is challenging the democratic premises of a free civil society, legal system, media and culture (also often seen as part of the establishment by the SD) – itself not exactly a novel ambition of the party, but one that seems to have intensified more recently (following their increased political power after the 2022 election).

This leads us to the third of the SD’s overarching hegemonic strategies: engaging in what is known as ‘metapolitics’. The term ‘metapolitics’ originates in the French, neofascist think thank GRECE (founded in 1968) and is, ironically, inspired by their reading of the communist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s idea of ‘cultural hegemony’. More specifically, as the reseacher Morgan Finnsiö has explained, they based their idea of metapolitics on the premise that one cannot simply introduce neofascist politics in the post-Nazi, democratised West and assume that it will be accepted by the broad masses. On the contrary, since traditional opinion-building is understood to be insufficient for controversial ideas, to do so one must first change the overarching sociocultural landscape by step-by-step challenging prevailing cultural norms through cultural confrontation. In other words, GRECE took it – as the SD do these days – that annexing the general cultural climate was the crucial stepping-stone for a revolutionary movement reaching actual political power.

The culture wars of the far right of today must subsequently be understood along these lines. And metapolitics is the name of this central far-right strategy for building cultural hegemony by strategically making controversial and spectacular statements – that is, systematically attacking various norms of public discourse in an aggressive, shameless and sometimes humorous way – precisely to constantly push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in public conversation for the long-term purpose of bending cultural norms towards the nationalistic and conservative. The many far-right outbursts against so-called ‘radical woke culture’, feminism or environmental activists (sometimes referred to as ‘environmental muppets’ by the far right in Sweden) are indeed good examples of metapolitical strategies – and, as we shall see, the more specific hegemonic strategies of the SD are all similarly steeped in this kind of metapolitical ambition precisely for the purpose of bending the norms of the Swedish cultural landscape in ways that will set the stage for widespread acceptance of the extreme politics of the party.

Particular Strategies for Building Cultural Hegemony

1. Influencing Online. One thing that the SD has been very good at, much like the far right in general, is to mobilise support through various form of online activity. This seems to have been successful particularly among young voters prior to the 2022 election, on what may seem like somewhat of an unlikely issue: fuel prices. The background is that fuel prices in Sweden have increased significantly for a while now, partly because of the energy crisis and geopolitical tensions following the war in Ukraine – but also because of a massive increase in demand for fuel after the pandemic (when production had gone down), the taxation level on fuel, as well as the ‘reduction obligation’ climate measure (according to which a certain amount of biofuel must be mixed into both petrol and diesel, and which has pushed the prices up, since biofuel is more expensive than fossil fuel). Already in 2019 (i.e., before the price increases following the pandemic and the Ukraine war), the so-called ‘fuel uprising’ group against the high fuel prices started on Facebook and soon accumulated more than half a million members, which was followed by physical gatherings and demonstrations, as well as meetings between representatives of the group and politicians from all the major parties.

Fuel prices were thus recognised as an important issue for mobilising voters by the three right-wing parties the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Sweden Democrats during the 2022 election campaign. Indeed, they all ran campaigns in social media for drastically reducing fuel prices should they win the election. Central to why these parties found this issue particularly promising is that they are the least ambitious of the major parties when it comes to measures for mitigating climate change, which means that they do not have to concern themselves as much (or at all) with what has turned into a conflict of interest between committing to an ambitious level of reduction obligation – which means higher fuel prices and the risk of alienating people living in rural Sweden, who are much more dependent on cars due to the general lack of public transportation there – or lowering the reduction obligation to decrease fuel prices, but if so make it significantly harder for Sweden to fulfil its climate ambitions.

Unsurprisingly, the SD is the party who has shown the least interest in an ambitious reduction obligation (even arguing that it should be removed completely) – and they also ran the most expansive election campaign for lower fuel prices on social media, partly by hiring young female influencers (already active within the party) to produce cheeky TikTok-videos that used humour and sarcasm to comment on not just the usual things that the party thinks has gone massively wrong with immigration, but on the high fuel prices as well (targeting the Social Democrats and the Green Party in particular as responsible). It is unclear how much impact the TikTok-influencing had on SD-voters, although three things are worth noting here. Firstly, that the videos could accumulate anything from a couple of hundred thousand to more than one million views among the predominately young voters who get most or all their exposure to politics through social media (while the other political parties barely had any presence on TikTok at all). Secondly, that this election showed that the SD and the Moderates alone accumulated almost 50% of the youngest voters (between 18-21 years) – which stands in stark contrast to two decades ago, when the Social Democrats and the Left Party gathered around 50% from the same group. It thus seems like fuel-influencing was more effective to mobilise young Swedes than environmentalism in 2022 – despite the momentum from Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future-campaign a couple of years ago, which clearly does not entice the same kind of young enthusiasm today. Thirdly, by drawing a sharp distinction between the parties associated with a so-called ‘urban elite’ (e.g., the Green Party) and themselves, who are said to speak for the ordinary people in rural Sweden, the SD could mobilise voters through their usual anti-establishment rhetoric.

2. Making Metapolitical Outbursts. Yet the SD is also using online influencing in far more distasteful manners than for fuel prices. One of them is metapolitical outbursts. More specifically, representatives of the SD have made it a habit of regularly posting various controversial statements of the metapolitical kind on social media. And in 2020, they also started their own conservative news channel on YouTube, which regularly posts clips where they insult and make fun of centre/left politicians and journalists in terms of what they refer to as ‘satire’. Although it is clear that what they are doing is not satire, but rather initiating or fuelling hate campaigns against who they consider their political adversaries, as well as mocking cultural icons and norms that represent things they dislike. For example, last year one of the main profiles of SD’s YouTube channel had started to read Anne Frank’s diary and posted on Twitter that she came off as ‘immoral’ and as ‘horniness itself’. And in the months leading up to the election, one of the up-and-coming young SD-politicians posted a Tweet (related to an SD election-campaign in the Swedish metro, which had a whole train covered in the party logo) that said: ‘Welcome to the re-immigration train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul!’

Of course, one can go on and on with examples like these – although the important thing for us critics is to not simply view them through the narrow culture-war lens but look beyond and recognise them for what they really are: metapolitical strategies for changing cultural norms to lay the foundation for a conservative and nationalist hegemony.

3. Attempting to Silence Critical Voices Through Harassment Campaigns. Social media influencing and metapolitical outbursts are not the only activities that representatives and supporters of the SD are engaging in online. Another thing is harassment campaigns against rival politicians (particularly from left and progressive liberal parties), as well as both opinion and public service journalists (the latter are regularly being accused of not actually being objective, but rather furthering a left-liberal political agenda whose primary target is the conservatism as represented by the SD). It is indeed well-known by now that any politician or journalist who is critical of the SD in public (women and people of minorities in particular) sooner or later will be met with a storm of hatred mostly online, but sometimes also through other channels.

The leadership of the SD has, in response, made it a habit of constantly arguing that all parties have a small tail of online haters, and that theirs is not any worse than any other. Although anyone who has spent just a little time in the social media sphere of Swedish politics knows how much the SD-tail stands out in this regard. And during the 2022 election campaign, the left-leaning newspaper ETC made two hugely important revelations. The first is that the SD itself has secret, organised troll armies populated by online warriors on salaried, full-time positions that take orders directly from the leadership of the party. Inspired by the online activity of the Trump-campaign, the troll armies run anonymous Facebook-groups where they regularly post one-sided and sometimes manipulated information that supports their main political message (that immigration is pushing Sweden to the breaking-point), as well as orchestrate attacks against journalists and progressive politicians. The online warriors are scanning news sites, and jump on any current event that is seen as having potential for being tweaked in such a way as to furthering the party agenda – and sometimes they receive orders from the party leadership to start a hate campaign against specific targets, all of which is done through Facebook-pages, in comment sections on social media, as well as through the ecology of alternative news media run by the party.

The second revelation by ETC is that the troll armies, this time run by the same up-and-coming SD-politician who posted the (in)famous re-immigration Tweet, also infiltrated demonstrations for climate action, for the purpose of targeting and ridiculing young climate activists. Disguised in clothes that made them fit into the crowd of about 60,000 climate activists (one instruction that went out to the participants of the infiltration was to avoid being dressed in suits), their objective was to infiltrate in order to provoke angry reactions from the activists – which then would be published on various far-right online platforms for the purpose of belittling and ridiculing people from the climate movement. And in one particularly noticed video, a young female climate activist is interviewed by one of the SD-trolls (obviously ‘in disguise’) – although once the interview appeared online, it had been edited and soundtracked in such a way to make her appear silly and ignorant (which fits into the SD’s general ambition to belittle climate activists and people associated with the Swedish Green Party). It eventually accumulated more than 2,000 comments, with an overall ridiculing and hateful tone.

4. Interfering in the Legal System, the Media, Civil Society, Cultural Life, and so on. In Sweden, like in any solid democracy, it has been taken as a given that there are certain social spheres that politicians should not be involved in – including, for example, the legal system, the media, civil society and culture. The principle of what often is referred to as ‘an arm-length’s distance’ is seen as crucial for maintaining Sweden as a free and democratic society with distributed centres of power. Although it has by now become blatantly obvious that this is not something that the SD respects, as members of the party (including the leadership itself) constantly keep disregarding the principle of an arm-length’s distance, by trying to intervene into all the above areas and more. Just a few recent examples illustrate this clearly:

  • After the district court had acquitted eleven people who were prosecuted for having participated in a series of riots that took place in Sweden last year – because of lack of evidence – one of the top people of the SD, who also happens to be the new chairman of the Justice Committee, raged against the sentence publicly on social media, referring to it as ‘madness’ and the acquitting judges as a ‘fucking joke’.
  • When the Jewish President of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism was invited to Sweden’s main evening news show after the election (as participant of a debate with a right-wing journalist who disagreed with him) and expressed concerns that the political power that the SD now will have could risk that ethnic and cultural minorities will face increased harassment, one of the leading people of the SD (who also has argued that Jews and Sámi (an indigenous people who live in the north of Sweden) cannot be Swedish) angrily tweeted that public service is a propaganda machine and should be thoroughly reformed.
  • When the human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders questioned certain elements, from a human rights perspective, of the political plan that the SD had formulated with the other three parties in the right-wing coalition after its victory in the 2022 election, one of the leading people of the SD (in fact, the same person as in the example above) lashed out at Civil Rights Defenders for being politically biased and threatened to remove their government grants.
  • Last year, local SD-politicians also attempted to cancel events where drag queens were supposed to read children’s books to young kids in libraries across Sweden – based on the argument that these events would sexualise and confuse children at a very early age, and thus were inappropriate. It should also be noted that many of the libraries that had planned these events were met with massive backlash in the form of threats and harassment – sometimes to the point of the events having to be cancelled for security reasons. Of course, it is not certain that the people who issued these threats are supporters of the SD (although taking a wild guess does not seem inappropriate) – yet it is at least fair to say that politicians interfering in events like these, as the SD-politicians did, sends signals to harassers that it is totally fine to attack them.
  • Similarly, local SD-politicians also attempted to stop a traditional Lucia procession because the Lucia identified as third gender (as opposed to the traditional female) and thus were referred to by SD-representatives as too woke and a disrespectful choice to the (alleged) majority of Swedes who wanted a traditional Lucia procession with a female Lucia.

These are just a few of numerous examples of representatives of the SD not respecting the independence of the legal system, the media, civil society and culture. Instead, they keep attacking everything that belongs to a free and democratic society that they do not like, often by arguing that it is politically biased towards the left (e.g., by trying to politicise basic humanism, such as rights in an asylum process, as the reporter Erik Glaad has pointed out). Although here it is once again important to not get too hung up on specific culture wars of these kinds, but rather recognise the bigger picture that they are part of: one that is both metapolitical and authoritarian.

5. Running an Alternative Media Ecology. The SD also runs an ecology of so-called ‘alternative media’ (blogs, websites, newspapers, Facebook pages, etc.), which constantly ridicules and makes fun of journalists and political opponents (particularly feminists, anti-racists and, more recently, environmentalists), makes metapolitical outbursts and circulates various fake news and disinformation. The party leadership constantly denies any direct connections with this alternative media sphere, but, as the journalist Gellert Tamas has argued, this is simply part of an ‘institutionalised double-cross’, where the party keeps denying being directly involved in the alternative media ecology – yet eventually is shown to be running basically all of it (as we saw an example of above, with the troll armies). Indeed, as Tamas puts it, large parts of the populist xenophobic movement that the SD thrives on – and that have the same roots in the far-right echo chambers of the 1990s – have in fact been run by the party itself through its alternative media sphere. And it should not be underestimated how important this has been to where the SD is today.

A more recent addition to this alternative media ecology is the SD’s previously mentioned YouTube-channel – although it was once again not stated (and still is not mentioned in the channel description) that it actually is run directly by the SD, as part of their communications department. In other words, unlike traditional opinion journalism, which operates independently from political parties even though it associates itself with specific parties or ideologies, the SD YouTube-channel is simply a part of the SD – and thus at the end of the day nothing but a propaganda machine for SD-politics. This is indeed one of the key functions of all media outlets in the SD’s alternative media sphere: party propaganda.

6. Networking Internationally. There is undoubtedly somewhat of an irony that parties whose members are major advocates of nationalism have such expansive international networks – although this is certainly true of the far right of today, including the SD. What motivates this slightly odd internationalism are shared commitments to conservative and nationalist values (e.g., the nuclear family and the majority population), as well as struggles against ‘left-liberal extremism’ (e.g., woke, feminism and multiculturalism) whose negative impact is seen as stretching beyond individual nation states. Similarly, the far-right struggle for cultural and political hegemony is taken as a common cause that goes beyond particular nation states – to the entire Western world and beyond.

It does accordingly not come as a surprise that ETC least year revealed connections between the SD and American conservatives associated with Donald Trump – including representatives of the SD visiting conservative election events, think thanks, organisations, and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (obviously when Trump was president) for networking and inspiration. One of these organisations was the Leadership Institute, whose mission is to spread ‘conservative forces in governments, politics and the media’. They have educated many well-known conservative US-politicians (e.g., Mike Pence) and are collaborating with several other far-right parties in Europe (including providing them with financial support).

Similar exchanges between the SD and other European far-right parties (e.g., the Polish party Law and Justice) have also been documented – although there is one country with whom the SD’s political ties are particularly disturbing: Russia. Even though the leadership of the party keeps denying that there are any contacts of this kind, there is at this point no secret that a thread of admiration for Russia runs through the SD and its surrounding ecosystem of alternative media (also after February 24, 2022). The most well-known example of this is the SD’s leader initially being unable to choose which leader he preferred between Biden and Putin (he eventually chose Biden, but only after some odd rambling that it ‘depends on the context’) – but it also includes representatives of the SD and its alternative media having contacts with the Russian intelligence service, working for and appearing on the Russian propaganda channel Russia Today (RT), acting as election observers during the fake referendums after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea (and supporting them), arguing that perhaps Sweden should bring in election observers from Russia, as well as spreading Russian disinformation on the war in Ukraine.

Again, the extent of these contacts is currently unknown – although the SD is certainly not the only far-right party with connections to Russia, as we have seen with parties such as the Italian Lega and the French National Rally. Needless to say, just like with the Republicans in the US, there are natural alliances to be built between these parties around conservative and nationalist values – but they are obviously particularly problematic when it comes to Russia given that they in this case also may constitute a security risk (which most likely is a major reason as to why Russia keeps investing in European far-right parties, sometimes with actual cash). This is something that both liberal and socialist voices in Sweden have emphasised on many occasions, and which obviously has been even more concerning following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s application to NATO.

The Long March Towards Authoritarianism

I would like to end with bringing up another overarching hegemonic strategy of the SD: the long march through the institutions. According to the SD’s chief ideological strategist, the left has over the past decades (i.e., at least since the 1968-revolution) very consciously built hegemony not just in the cultural sector, but also in the academy, in civil society, and in the church – in the form of a long-term, reformist (multi)cultural revolution that has targeted the four major pillars of society: the family, customs, traditions and religion, which has compelled the Swedish majority population to feel ashamed, rather than proud, of all that which has built our present society.

Since the traditional conservative right, in his view, has been unable to put a stop to this lamentable trajectory, he sees it as the task of the SD to defend and rehabilitate the nationalist and conservative values that the left is threatening to obliterate. This nationalist and conservative, counterhegemonic trajectory is formulated through a slogan that in fact originates in the (German socialist) left: the political activist Rudi Dutschke’s idea of ‘the long march through the institutions’ (also inspired by Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony), which may be summarised as an expansive and long-term project of working against established social institutions from within, for the purpose of building counter institutions and in this way create the necessary preconditions for revolution against the existing order of domination (for the socialist left, this was obviously capitalist domination). From the SD perspective, the cultural hegemony of the progressive left was made possible through a long march through the institutions, which the conservative right now must embark on to tilt things the other way. The strategies outlined above may accordingly be understood as instruments to utilise during the long march towards the sort of conservative national state that progressive left-liberalism threatens to annihilate.

Although here it is important to be very clear: what the SD is seeking is not a society where progressive and conservative values somehow may exist alongside each other (certainly not an unreasonable vision), but rather to remove as much of progressivism, socialism and liberalism as is possible from the public sphere. To put it differently, their politics is certainly about building cultural hegemony – but it is about more than that, as it has become blatantly clear that what also fuels the SD is authoritarianism, or a basic lack of respect for democratic rules and norms. This should be evident from the list of hegemonic strategies outlined above, as well as by how representatives of the party and its surrounding sphere of alternative media clearly have a deep admiration for non-democratic, nationalist countries such as Russia and Hungary (e.g., Victor Orbán’s idea of the ‘illiberal state’). As one of the SD’s top people has put it on Twitter: ‘Since Sweden is not Hungary, since we are not in government (yet), and since the media in Sweden does not work like the media in Hungary, we are forced to adapt to the prevailing reality here. This means not least that we must adapt our rhetoric to the prevailing situation.’

The SD’s long march through the institutions should thus not simply be understood as a march towards a more nationalist and conservative society, but also as a march towards an authoritarianism that aims to obliterate Sweden as an open and democratic state. Although not through violent revolution, but rather by slowly but steadily, and very strategically, working towards undermining the independence and general confidence in the multiplicity of centres of power that is crucial to a democratic society. In other words, here the construction of cultural hegemony is a strategy for normalising not just extreme but also authoritarian politics that, in the end, targets democracy itself. Along with their racism, this authoritarian mindset forms the rotten core of the party – which all of us who oppose such anti-democratic politics should be acutely aware of.

Featured Image: (Pixabay)