Why I cannot bring myself to support Bernie Sanders – by a Scandinavian-American
As Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly successful presidential campaign marches on, the Scandinavian press sighs with affection every time the grizzled Vermont senator mentions the countries that he looks up to: Denmark, Norway, Sweden – the Scandinavian nations. He points to these countries as examples that America should look though. He does not want to turn America into Scandinavia, as many Republicans want you to believe. That would both be a fruitless and frankly insane idea. But he does think America should look at what Scandinavia has done right, and see if there is anything to be learned from it.
I am the son of an American mother and a Norwegian father. I was born and raised in Norway, but I have strong ties to the United States. In addition, I am a political science major. Obviously, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has received a great deal of interest from me. There is a certain amount of Berniemania going on in Norway as well. To me, it seems even stronger than the interest surrounding Obama’s campaign in 2008. “Feel the Bern” has become a household expression here in a matter of weeks. Many of my friends support Bernie Sanders, and I understand their logic. Who wouldn’t want to support a candidate who wants to bring America closer to the most successful countries on the planet today? My only problem is, I don’t.
My problem with Bernie Sanders is not his policies in itself (though I do think he’s overly obsessed with economics as the root of and solution to all problems), so much as the fact that he wants to make America better by making one of the world’s most unique nations more like the others.
Like all Western countries, the United States will face structural issues over the next several decades. An aging population, climate change and crumbling infrastructure will force the next presidents, like their colleagues in Europe, Canada and Australasia, to make tough decisions. Believe it or not, I have more faith in American politicians getting those decisions right than Scandinavian politicians. Congress – one of the three legs supporting America’s government – has been paralyzed for the better part of a decade. Yet even so, the nation has undergone major reforms and is stronger than before. The gloomy picture that so many Americans (and foreigners) paint of the future of the United States is extremely simplified at best. For all the complaints of a lagging economy, unemployment is lower than in almost all of Europe. Obamacare – both the biggest and the most daring reform in years – has not been implemented perfectly, but far more smoothly than most on both sides of the aisle had dared to predict. Across America, and particularly in regions like Silicon Valley, the spirit of enterprise that built this country is being put to good use again, to create companies that will serve as the rudder and propellers for the ship that is the American economy, in the decades to come. Most importantly, events like Ferguson and Baltimore are being put to positive use – Americans are discussing the nation’s social problems, and even if they rarely agree on the solutions (or the cause of the problems), at least the politicians also have issues like police brutality on the agenda.
What have Scandinavian politicians done in the same period? They have been content to tweak at the welfare state, making minor cosmetic changes to give the appearance that they are being useful. They bicker endlessly over issues like immigration, discussing what to do with the refugee crisis, even as it is happening right in front of them. Most importantly, they seem to be quite happy to leave the major decisions to the next generation of leaders. The Scandinavian countries, with their generous pension systems and subsidies for many different sectors of the economy, face even tougher decisions than America. Yet, the need for these decisions is hardly mentioned in the public discourse. Norwegian politicians speak of the need for a “robust” economy, and of “the post-oil era”, but have little to show for it besides rhetoric. Even more importantly, social issues related to integration and marginalization appear to be taboo. Granted, the countries have taken completely different approaches. In a very oversimplified sense, the general trend has been this: Swedish politicians have refused to discuss problems with immigration and integration (out of a fear of being called racists), Danish politicians have been quite happy to vilify all immigrants as criminals and outcasts, while Norwegian politicians are somewhere in between. Still, real discussion has been lacking. I think part of the reason for this lies in the Scandinavian tradition of harking for conformity and calm: if the issue lies farther down the road, we would prefer nobody stick their head out and discuss it, so that we can all remain calm and reasoned.
That conformity, calm and reasoning is also the keystone that makes the Scandinavian welfare states possible. Together with a relatively homogenous population and a strong industrial base, it is the unique blend that gives us a welfare system, quality of life and happiness that is second to none on Earth. That is also why many of our politicians fear immigration: we fear it will upset the cocktail that makes it all possible. We are also extremely wary of looking to outsiders for ideas. And this is where the key to my argument lies: we live in a globalized world, where we borrow ideas from one another all the time and have a greater cultural understanding of each other than ever before. At the same time, both Scandinavia and America will do better if change comes from within.
While it may be tempting to look at European solutions and ask, “why can’t we have this in America?” The answer is usually quite simple: because you can’t put a square block in a circle hole. Don’t get me wrong – there are problems in America that are quite foreign to me as a European. But it is a sign of self-loathing by Americans and arrogance by Europeans when we don’t take other factors into account. We all have things to learn from one another, but our hearts and minds need to be in it too. I may have seen early on, why some guys got all the attention from the girls in high school, but it took quite a lot of soul-searching and thinking before I got around to changing myself. Most importantly, I had to find my own way of doing things. Just as I wasn’t making headway staying on the same course, I wouldn’t make much headway copying the course of others. Just as America is not making headway in solving its social problems on its current course, it won’t make much headway by shouting, “look to Europe!” and calling it a quick fix.
If anything, America with its federal structure is ideally suited for this. Most great reforms in American domestic policy have originated with a few brave states taking the lead. Think of the Progressive movement in the 1900s – did it begin with the Federal government, and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt? Certainly not! It began with the daring experiments of people farther down the chain of command – people like Governor Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, journalist Jacob Riis (a Danish-American!), or lawyer Louis Brandeis. Change in America will come, as it has to, from the bottom up, not from the top down. Bernie Sanders’ home state of Vermont could serve as an excellent laboratory for more left-wing ideas to solve America’s problems.
I admire Bernie Sanders as a person and as a politician. His presidential campaign’s financial independence is desperately needed in the Super PAC era. And don’t get me wrong, I think the Scandinavian countries will still be among the world’s happiest and most prosperous, thirty years down the line. But as countries, Norway and America have to take different paths to that continued prosperity, something many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and maybe even the candidate himself, have failed to recognize.