Say “Nordic model” to most Americans, and they’ll perhaps think of sexy Swedes. The more policy wonkish among us also will focus on how Scandinavia features superb social services, high taxes, affluence and five of the ten happiest countries in the world.

Two things Americans don’t associate with Scandinavia, though, are robust capitalism and selfishness. This recent Atlantic Monthly piece, by a Finnish expatriate residing in the United States, makes a convincing case for why Bernie Sanders has been correct in pushing that model – and for why Hillary Clinton is mistaken in dismissing it when she asserts that “We are not Denmark.”


As article author Anu Partanen argues, there is a common but incorrect caricature of Nordic nations as business-unfriendly nanny states that coddle homogeneous, altruistic populations.  She instead emphasizes that Scandinavia’s cozy social safety net is popular not due to some sense of selflessness. Instead:

My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me

[H]ere are some of the things I personally got in return for my taxes: nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child (plus a smaller monthly payment for an additional two years, were I or the father of my child to choose to stay at home with our child longer), affordable high-quality day care for my kids, one of the world’s best public K-12 education systems, free college, free graduate school, nearly free world-class health care delivered through a pretty decent universal network, and a full year of partially paid disability leave.

Partanen then illustrates how Scandinavian societies are quite entrepreneurial, thank you, and more diverse than stereotypes make them seem. She implies that, far from exemplifying the dreaded “S” word (socialist), they represent mixed economies that blend strong government and private sector roles – as does the United States, though the nature of our mix does tilt more toward corporate control.


How in the world does The Donald fit into this analysis? Once you get past the racist, xenophobic bases of some of his support, you reach lots of folks genuinely scarred or scared by the “creative destruction” churned out by capitalism, as well as the economic dislocation and powerlessness it imposes. According to a summary of a recent study by the RAND Corporation, a top policy research institute:

[T]he strongest indicator of support for Trump — stronger than gender, age, race/ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, household income, attitudes toward Muslims, attitudes toward illegal immigrants or attitudes toward Hispanics — was a feeling of voicelessness; according to RAND, Republicans were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer the Manhattan mogul if they “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”

“Trump supporters form a powerful populist coalition uniting concerns about immigrants and other groups with support for economically progressive policies,” the RAND study concluded.


On a policy level, the increasingly creative, destructive, globalized churn of twenty-first capitalism requires a strong safety net – to encourage people to take entrepreneurial risks or switch jobs, to provide educational and retraining opportunities, to help folks who lose out along the way to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

On a political level, one of the forces feeding Trump’s fire is that many supporters have lost their jobs, savings, health or hope.  They feel out of the loop, both economically and politically.  Today they may be swayed by the Donald’s demagoguery. But, especially in view of the overlapping appeal of Trump and Sanders, writing them all off as ignorant racists is unfair and counterproductive. There’s fertile ground for progressive appeals, including those that incorporate other countries’ success stories.


Now, it would be naïve to simply say that if America adopted the Nordic model we’d all live happily ever after. One lesson of international development is that you can’t plop down one country’s policies in another and expect them to flourish.

Furthermore, Partanen leaves a lot of potential questions unanswered. Could our civil services carry out Scandinavia’s social policies in a relatively effective, efficient way? Does the very size of the United States mitigate against doing so? Are we Americans more likely to cheat the system than Swedes or Danes do? Could we afford the Nordic model alongside our massive defense expenditures? And not least, is the model viable in a political culture conditioned to believe that government can do nothing right and that higher taxes are always wrong?


Those questions are the dawn of a discussion, not the end. Make no mistake, the issues of exclusion that Sanders and Trump are raising represent the opening salvo in debates that will rage for years. The people that the two candidates appeal to are not going away.

In addition, Bernie’s progressive young supporters could be the equivalent of a prior generation’s McGovernites who went on to champion progressive causes – cutting their teeth on politics for the first time even as they lose this time around.

So we’re at the start of a long-term struggle.

Furthermore, it begs the big question of this country’s future to declare we can’t afford Swedish-style safety nets or it’s not the American way.

We need such social services not despite that fact that we’re a capitalistic society, but precisely because we are such capitalists. If the United States doesn’t do more for those shut out and shut down by our economic order, our economic, social and moral fabric may fray.


The failure to expand the safety net will harm even the relatively well-off. For one thing, the Nordic model would benefit many of us who are not marginalized.

But there is yet another, perhaps more powerful reason to be selfish. In the absence of some Scandinavian-style reforms, there will be more fuel for the fear and anger that Trump expands and exploits. That could come back to haunt even the relatively affluent.

No, we won’t be Denmark. But we can do better by learning and adapting some of its lessons. Because we certainly don’t want to be The Donald’s demagogic dystopia.

Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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