More than a decade ago, a group of political scientists tried to come up with a better way to measure and rank the world’s democracies.
“We were frustrated with existing measures of democracy, with their flaws and inadequacies, with existing indices,” said Staffan I. Lindberg, director of the V-Dem Institute in Stockholm. “So we came up with better measures. But after we did, the world turned around and headed toward autocratization.”
When Mr. Lindberg and his colleagues were first testing their methodology in 2009 and 2010, democracy worldwide was already starting to falter.
By 2021, the number of liberal democracies was at a 10-year-low of 34, representing just 13 percent of the world’s population, according to V-Dem’s 2022 report. The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen was down to 1989 levels, before new democracies sprang up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the report said.
Throughout this period, one group of countries has consistently scored high on all of the indicators, offering what could be a road map for other countries looking to improve their democracies.
The four Scandinavian countries — Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark — have been a consistent model of democratic stability, even as other mature democracies in Europe and North America have been slipping backward, battered by populism and polarization.
Year after year, indicators measuring representative government, fundamental rights and freedoms, civic engagement, pluralism and other factors show the four countries at the top of numerous charts.
These countries often trade places. Thus Denmark topped the list in the 2020 Democracy Matrix ranking, Norway came out on top in the 2021 Economist Democracy index, while Sweden took first place on the V-Dem Institute’s 2022 Democracy Report.
There are institutional, cultural and historical reasons behind this success, many of them peculiar to the Scandinavian countries, where the populations are relatively small and, until recently, mostly culturally homogeneous. These particularities also help explain why the Scandinavian model has in fact been difficult to export.
“It is dangerous to think we have a model, like a car, that we can export,” Mr. Lindberg said. “There is no template we can impose.”
This month, the Swedish version of the model took a hit when a right-wing bloc won a narrow victory in national elections, dislodging the Social Democratic Party and threatening its social legacy, which has offered a middle way between socialism and capitalism.
So far, however, the rise of Sweden’s right wing, which has fed off anger over an increase in immigration and crime, has not seriously affected the country’s democracy ratings.
Mr. Lindberg and other scholars credit this to the quality of Scandinavian institutions, such as autonomous electoral bodies, an independent media and judiciary, a strong civil society and freely formed associations. “We have institutions that are strong and well developed,” he said.
This legacy is, in large part, because of a high level of social trust, a precious commodity. “Interpersonal trust is among the highest in the world in Scandinavia,” wrote Soren Holmberg, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of a paper in 2020 on social trust. “Since everything in a society functions better if high trust reduces all transaction costs, Scandinavian trustfulness is truly a Nordic gold.”
In an interview, Mr. Holmberg listed the historical reasons for Sweden’s durable democracy: the absence of a feudal system and serfdom and a political role for farmers; an impartial public service dating to the 1800s; a 250-year-old tradition of political parties; an electoral system based on proportional representation; Protestantism that avoided Catholicism’s hierarchy; an egalitarian tradition, supported by a generous welfare state; strides toward gender equality; a successful market economy; and a history of widespread literacy.
“In the 1700s, almost 70 percent were literate, before compulsory education,” Mr. Holmberg said. “Even poor Scandinavians were very literate, which means they could take part in public life.”
Jorgen Elklit, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Aarhus University in Denmark, stressed the importance of elections based on proportional representation, as opposed to the first-past-the-post system used in the United States and many other countries.
“Proportional representation makes most voters feel their votes are counted,” he said. In a so-called ‘majority’ system, candidates who get the most votes win, leaving citizens who voted for the losers without a voice. In a proportional representation system, the number of seats in Parliament allotted to a party or a group is proportionate to the number of votes it received.
It is a system that often leads to minority and coalition governments — like the one taking charge now in Sweden — which can be complicated and fraught, but, Mr. Elklit said, history has proved that they can deliver. “The Scandinavian countries have some of the best welfare systems in the world, and I think voters appreciate that,” he said.
The Scandinavian success story is not limited to democracy. Finland and Denmark ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Ranking of World Happiness in 2019-21 (Sweden was No. 7 and Norway No. 8). A 2019 ranking listed Sweden, Denmark and Norway as the best countries for women. The region’s generous welfare system has been supported by high income taxes and steep sales taxes but also by broad popular consensus.
Mr. Elklit said the prevailing consensus culture emerged from a long history of popular movements — farmers’ organizations, trade unions, production cooperatives, which have had to compromise and cooperate to succeed. “It has created a mindset that says we have to work together,” he said.
Scandinavia’s social trust — and the institutions that it supports — has been tested in the last 20 years by a steep rise in immigration, particularly in Sweden, where in 2021 some 20 percent of the population is foreign born, a percentage greater than in the United States. In 2015, when more than a million Syrian refugees poured into Europe, Sweden accepted the most per capita of any country in the European Union.
Efforts to integrate these new arrivals — many from the Middle East and Africa — have not always been successful, and immigration has helped fuel the rise of Sweden’s far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, which scored 20.6 percent in last month’s elections, giving it a crucial role in the new minority right-wing government.
The issue is less acute in Denmark, where foreign-born citizens are about 8 to 10 percent of the population but, according to Mr. Elklit, political parties across the spectrum there too are promising to limit immigration.
This has taken a toll on the region’s consensus-driven politics. “The relative steep increase in foreign born in Sweden and Denmark — to a much lesser extent in Norway and Finland — has led to a lower level of trust,” Mr. Lindberg said.
Still, Mr. Holmberg argues that Sweden’s increasingly diverse population has not had a significant impact on social trust, although he noted that supporters of the far-right Sweden Democrats tend to be less trusting of others and of institutions. “So there is some reason for worrying,” he said.
Like the rest of the world, Scandinavia has also seen a rise in the spread of disinformation, both home grown and imported, which represents a “huge challenge,” Mr. Lindberg said. “But the resilience is good up to this point, and we are happy about that.”
Mr. Elklit has had firsthand experience trying to export Scandinavia’s democratic models. As a consultant to the Danish government, he traveled to Africa and Asia to offer advice on election procedures. Not many efforts were successful, he said.
“The Danish electoral system might be useful, but it was developed over many years, roughly from 1850 to 1920,” he said. “But in developing countries, they don’t want to wait 70 years, they want it overnight, but that’s not possible. You need to develop a political culture.”
When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, there were hopes that it would use its new membership to promote its social welfare model across Europe. “So far, we have not been successful,” Mr. Holmberg said.
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