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Schier: As America deserts the center, Sweden embraces it

Steven Schier//February 28, 2014

Schier: As America deserts the center, Sweden embraces it

Steven Schier//February 28, 2014

Much ink has been spilled in recent years examining and evaluating polarization in American — and Minnesota — politics. William Galston of the Brookings Institution, for example, argues that in Congress, at least, the political center has “disappeared.”

Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have vanished in Congress and are shrinking as components of the nation’s electorate. Minnesota’s Democrats rank among the most liberal and Minnesota’s GOP among the most conservative state parties. Why have American parties become more uniformly conservative and liberal?

The short answer lies with America’s active partisans, those who contribute money, vote in primaries and attend party caucuses. These individuals choose the party’s candidates and write the party platforms. Over the past 40 years, activist Democrats have become more liberal and activist Republicans more conservative.

The candidates they have nominated have consequently been more uniformly liberal Democrats and more uniformly conservative Republicans in recent years. This has been the case both in the nation and in Minnesota.

Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have become scarce in the halls of government. So party unity in legislative voting is more common, leading to polarized partisan results in Congress as well as the Minnesota Legislature.

I am currently teaching and researching in Sweden, where a precisely opposite trend has developed — a “move to the center” by the largest Swedish parties. Why is this happening in Sweden and not in the U.S.?

Note that Sweden is a small and homogeneous country with fewer disputes over cultural and religious issues. It is a heavily secular country that endorses liberal positions on abortion and gay marriage. These issues, which greatly polarize the two major parties in America, are not a source of controversy or potential partisan division in Sweden.

The Swedish move to the center began with the election of a coalition of four right-of-center parties to govern the country. Known as the Alliance, the government since 2006 has been headed by the Moderate, Liberal, Center and Christian Democratic parties. By far the largest of the four is the Moderate party, and its leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, is currently prime minister.

It is the Moderates who began the “move to the center” under Reinfeldt. Upon gaining election as party leader in 2002 at a national party conference, Reinfeldt abandoned his party’s previous agenda calling for dramatic tax cuts and a drastic shrinkage of government.

Swedes are proud of their welfare state, one of the world’s most expansive. Reinfeldt’s approach was to accept the welfare state’s existence but to alter it with several conservative reforms. It was a more incremental and limited approach than his party had previously advocated.

Since 2006, the Alliance has moved many reforms into law. All of Sweden’s mass transit is now in private hands. Private medical care is now an option for Swedes. Parents now receive vouchers for sending their children to public or private schools. As a result, one-quarter of Swedish children now attend private schools. Supplemental 401K-type individual retirement accounts are now available. Taxes have been cut five times.

The Alliance’s main rival, the Social Democrats, long a party of the left, has responded by moving toward the center as well. The party has vowed not to raise taxes if it wins office in this year’s elections. This year the Social Democrats have also advocated work requirements for welfare recipients and larger cuts in national welfare programs.

Recently the parliamentary leader of the Moderate party decried the Social Democrats for advocating heatless spending cuts. Clearly, the old left-right differences between the Social Democrats and Moderates are much smaller than in decades past.

Sweden has a crowded center in contrast to America’s vacant center.

Sweden’s new centrism, like America’s polarization, results from the distribution of power within their political parties. In contrast to the U.S., national party leaders in Sweden, once elected, have much more power to shape and direct their parties than does any American politician.

In Sweden, the party organization, not the party in the electorate, nominates candidates for office. No primaries exist for ideological activists to dominate. The national party leadership has considerable sway in those nomination choices.

It’s as if Barack Obama or Mark Dayton could shape the nomination choices of his party for his legislature. Neither can do that. Instead, it’s up to  party activists, who dominate primaries and caucuses.

In America, party organizations have little authority over candidate selection — that remains instead with active partisans. In Sweden, party organizations have total control over candidate selection.

Also in the U.S., interest groups spend much time and money influencing party nominations, often in ways that fulfill the party activists’ agendas. In Sweden, interest groups have a very limited role in candidate selection.

So if a Swedish party leader wins an election, he has great ability to shape his party’s agenda and push it through the Riksdag, the national legislature. Sweden has a one-chamber legislature and a parliamentary system, with the national executive branch dominated by the majority coalition in the legislature. The ruling parties usually can work their will in lawmaking.

In the U.S. or Minnesota, no party leader or elected official has comparable control over a party’s agenda or the government’s direction.

When Barack Obama visited Sweden last year and met with Reinfeldt, he may well have been envious of the Swedish Prime Minister’s power. It has brought a new centrism to Sweden. Obama, should he desire to create a new American center, will discover he lacks the power to do so.

America will rediscover the political center only if active partisans become more centrist. Within the GOP there is a move afoot to boost centrist candidates. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC is backing a new group, the Conservative Victory Project, which will spend in support of establishment candidates challenged from the right by Tea Party candidates. The ability of the GOP to “move to the center” will be tested by the Rove effort in 2014.

Moving to the center in U.S. politics will not be easy. America’s partisan activists got into politics in order to impose their ideological visions upon others — the center be damned. It will be difficult to reduce the influence of partisan extremes fueling our state and national political debates and campaigns.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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