There are few signs indicating that Sweden is experiencing a level of polarization threatening to paralyze democratic conversations or processes. The Swedish party system has always been heavily polarized, and the existing ideological polarization based on a left–right dimension is more characterized by stability than by change. This is shown by four researchers in a new report released by SNS Friday 26 March: “Democracy Council Report 2021: Polarization in Sweden.”
It is often said in the public debate that we are experiencing a particularly polarized era. Unlike many other observers, however, the authors of this report show that Swedish society is not remarkably ideologically polarized, at least not from a historical perspective.
Headed by political science professor Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson, the researchers in the SNS Democracy Council 2021 have studied the extent of ideological polarization in Sweden. Based on some thirty indicators, the authors analyze the level of ideological polarization over time and in comparison with other countries. The study focuses on political polarization among the most important stakeholders in a democracy: citizens, parties, elected representatives, and the media.
Some results from the report include:
High and unchanged level of polarization along the left–right dimension
> The Swedish party system has always been heavily polarized in terms of left–right issues, such as the distribution of income and wealth.
> We now see an increased level of conflict in the Swedish parliament in the form of objections being raised in the committees, more parliamentary resolutions that go against the government and a more negative tone in parliamentary debates. However, this may be the result of a new parliamentary situation rather than increasing ideological distances between parties and elected representatives.
> Polarization among citzens regarding political opinions is at a high level, but this level has remained more or less constant as far back as the researchers can measure.
An emerging cultural values dimension has changed the political playing field
On the basis of a cultural values dimension, the level of polarization in the Swedish party system was still the lowest in Western Europe up until 2010. However, the researchers now see signs of increased ideological distances when it comes to issues related to multiculturalism, identity, globalization and migration. In relation to refugee policies, for instance, some parties have become more generous (the Left Party, the Green Party and the Center Party) whereas other parties have become more restrictive (the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals). The increased significance of the cultural values dimension may explain developments such as the electoral successes of the Sweden Democrats, the end of the collaboration between the parties making up the former center-right Alliance and the persistent difficulties in terms of forming governments.
“We may be experiencing the beginning of a trend toward increased ideological polarization, even if the levels we currently measure are similar to the ones we have seen on several occasions during the twentieth century,” according to Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson, professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg and chair of the Democracy Council.
Ideological distances in news media are not greater than before
Ideological distances between news rooms are not greater than previously. In fact, the researchers conclude media ownership has become more concentrated and the political content across news outlets more homogenous. Even though there has been a rise in the number of “alternative” news sources established news media still play a clearly dominant role:
“Even though we can see a trend toward increased ideological pluralism between established and so-called alternative news sources, we do not see any signs that the public’s news consumption has changed in a way that signals polarization,” says Annika Bergström, professor of journalism, media and communication at the University of Gothenburg.
The authors emphasize that ideological polarization is essential for a vibrant democracy. However, it should not become so significant that it threatens to paralyze democratic conversations or processes:
“Even though the level of emotional, or affective, polarization is somewhat higher in Sweden, we lack several factors needed for a negative spiral leading to systemic polarization, similar to the one we are currently seeing in the United States. We have a consensus-based political culture, a multi-party system with proportional elections and citizens consuming a broad range of news. Interpreting developments in Sweden on the basis of what is happening in the United States leads to the wrong conclusions,” says Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson.
The SNS Democracy Council 2021 consists of:
Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson (chair), Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, firstname.lastname@example.org, +46 70 889 99 43
Torbjörn Bergman, Professor of Political Science at Umeå University, email@example.com, +46 70 575 73 00
Annika Bergström, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg, firstname.lastname@example.org, +46 70 923 37 61
Johan Hellström, Associate Professor of Political Science at Umeå University, email@example.com, +46 70 636 96 99
Download the research report summary SNS Democracy Council Report 2021: Polarization in Sweden.