We must fix our immigration debate

20th September 2018

Last week, Swedes made the same trip to the polls that they do during every election cycle. They cast their ballots freely, and with confidence that their votes would be counted fairly. But there was something fundamentally different about this election. People knew it going in. They just didn’t know exactly how different it would be in the end. After all the votes were in the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party founded by neo-Nazis, had managed to acquire 17.6 percent of the total.

Despite these gains being less significant than those anticipated in many pre-election polls, they still mark an unprecedented level of success for the party. And, despite a result that many political pundits are now characterizing as a dodged bullet, this outcome still provides serious reason for concern. Not just because a party with neo-Nazi roots – they have since distanced themselves from their former overt support of this ideology – has now become the third-largest in the Swedish parliament, but because of the factors that motivated their gain in popularity, and how this motivation and its vociferous expression has arisen to a degree in virtually every other Western democracy.

First, some relevant facts. Sweden ranks 6th overall on the Social Progress Index, which measures a combination of key factors such as basic human needs, the foundations of well-being, and level of opportunity to gauge the prosperity of countries in terms outside of traditional GDP. It also ranks 7th on the Human Development Index scale, and 12th in average household income.

By most measures, Swedes should be more than happy with their government’s ability to handle the task. As President Bill Clinton’s lead strategist James Carville once quipped in reference to the subject that voters cared most about, “It’s the economy stupid.” So this begs the question: what explains the resurgence of right-wing populism in such a prosperous nation?

Like many other European countries, Sweden has taken in vast numbers of immigrants over a period of more than three decades. The highest influx took place during the bloodiest part of the Syrian civil war just a few years ago. This policy, while undeniably well-intentioned and not without its benefits, has created some deep-seated issues within the country.

The expansion of Sweden’s extensive social safety net to include the vast numbers of migrants has taken a toll on its still-thriving economy. Also, unpleasantly, there is an observable rise in crime that correlates with the timeline of migrants being accepted into the country. And some of the crimes on the rise are specifically heinous: rape and anti-semitic hate crimes being the most shocking and painful.

The Sweden Democrats present themselves as the sole solution to these problems. They are essentially a one-issue, tailor-made party for the current political climate. Of course, the party has economic and social policies, and most of those are relatively mainstream. But the promise that is cornerstone to their popularity is to cut immigration to 10 percent of current levels.

Such a reform would be significant, and would drastically alter the lives of thousands of refugees and economic migrants. For this reason, there should be strong and robust debate on the topic before moving forward with any plan of action. But this is not what other elected officials in Sweden have in mind. Apparently they feel they know better than nearly 18% of its citizens, and have refused to work with the Sweden Democrats despite their earning a level of public confidence that rightfully should give them a hearing. It is shocking that these politicians fail to recognize that this course of action amounts to playing with fire. These voters already feel that their preferences have been ignored for years now. History teaches us that people will only accept marginalization of this kind for so long before taking matters into their own hands.

Posturing like this is just par-for-the-course in today’s politics. It eats away at the very institutions and liberal democratic processes that those who engage in it are trying to protect.

When the Swedish government accepts an extra 2-3% percent of its population in migrants in a single year, while calling any citizen who voices concern over this policy intolerant or worse, it makes sense that Swedes would become more open to supporting someone who speaks directly about the problems this has created. They are more likely to ignore the other, major, flaws that such a political party may have.

In the United States context, when reasonable policy suggestions like interning families together who cross the U.S-Mexico border illegally while they await their asylum hearings are equated by opponents with advocacy for “family gulags,” it is unsurprising that those who take the issue seriously will feel they aren’t getting a fair hearing. They might even be persuaded that the only solution to the problem is to spend trillions of public money on putting up a border wall.

When the British police appear to systematically cover up the rapes of underage white girls by Asian Muslim immigrants for fears of feeding harmful stereotypes, and those who do bring attention to the issue are labeled as racist, it is no wonder groups like Britain First and the EDL are able to win support for their radical and oftentimes overtly xenophobic immigration propositions.

When the facts behind these issues are ignored by elected officials in favor of buzzwords and moral posturing, people will come up with their own, often ill-advised and misguided solutions. The purpose of this article is not to advocate a pro or anti immigration position. It is to show that what is needed now more than ever is a greater empathy on both sides of the debate. A common understanding that – by-and-large – everybody has their nation’s best interests at heart: even when taking account of the inevitably contentious matters that comes baked into the cake with all immigration issues. By making this common understanding a priority, it will help us to police the borders of discourse, and to fairly determine which ideas are reasonable, and which can be relegated to the political fringes.

These past few years have shown that disagreements over immigration threaten the very foundations of the Western world, as we know it. It would be wise for us to recognize these concerns and to engage in the difficult but necessary conversations that will mend these divisions. By doing so, Western countries can continue to embody an example of liberal democracy that others will want to follow.