The last year in Washington, D.C. has seen an extraordinary amount of interest in both Swedish policy and culture. From the lessons learned from the Swedish approach to the bank failures of the 1990s to ABBA being inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame, one thing is clear-the transatlantic relationship remains strong. As the new Democratic Congress and Executive Branch endeavor to provide Americans with just some of the most fundamental rights we as Europeans enjoy-and perhaps take for granted, deep-rooted cultural differences in the mentalities of the two countries become ever more apparent.
“Socialist” after “terrorist” is by far the most disparaging word in the American political language. Yet, what is it exactly that Americans collectively fear with a system that has seen popular and populist success on every continent, other than North America? We must not confuse American fear of totalitarian and centralized forms of governments with an aversion to principles of equality and a just society. Indeed, the American republic is not a republic at all but rather a union of states that share fundamental ideals embodied by the Constitution. The American is American not by blood, a unified history, or cultural background, but by legislation.
Ironically, for a country that is often seen as a bastion of Socialism there seems to be nothing more American than the Swedish American experience. When the Swedes came to the New World, both to shores of the Delaware as colonist-entrepreneurs and later to the Midwest as pioneers they were no longer Swedish, not yet American but rugged individualists, whose pragmatism and determination saw the establishment of Swedish communities in some of the most harsh (yet familiar) environments in the United States.
It is this lingering Emersonian mentality of “do-it-yourself” that hinders many contemporary Americans from fully understanding and appreciating European political systems, under which citizens are entitled to welfare services.
It is plausible to conclude that many conservative Americans shun healthcare because it is, in fact, not an enumerated fundamental right. In the first article of the Constitution, the Congress is granted the responsibility to oversee trade between the States and establish a standing army, but not care for the health specifically of its citizens. Nota bene: transportation projects and the armed forces both provided by the federal government are seldom objected to by anyone on either end of the American political spectrum.
Social responsibility is thus an individualized mandate that operates in a private-public partnership that can at times be the hallmark of innovation, as seen in America’s research and medical schools, and at other times as dysfunctional as seen in the inequality of the healthcare system.
The key lies in that decentralized, union of States that embody that spirit of American individualism on a political scale. What is perhaps hard for many Europeans to grasp is just how much power State capitals wield and how much influence just a few elected officials can have on the national debate. Unlike the parliaments of Europe, whose parties establish representation, it is each Congressional district that chooses its lawmaker. This means at times that the American elected official is afforded the right to be provincial in the name of his/her constituents’ interest. In today’s America the real change will not come from the Beltway but from the very grassroots movements in local communities that elected our current President, Barack H. Obama.
Yet what could be more Swedish than communal participation? Whatever movement of change must take place, Sweden must become more engaged on the State level to ensure that the ties between the United States and the Kingdom of Sweden remain strong and mutually beneficial. After the tireless work of Ambassador Jan Eliasson and Kate Novak, the House of Sweden in Washington, D.C. today serves as a starting point for this political and cultural dialogue. However, it is not enough. In my own life as an utlandssvensk I have seen the great work done by the Swedish Women’s Educational Association in protecting and encouraging interest in the Swedish language, culture, and tradition. We as Swedes, Utlandssvenskar, and Swedish Americans must now more than ever act to support our Swedish American institutions to dispel the simplification of our rich culture and help bring positive and pragmatic change to the country we love with the experience of the country we left. Over the next months I hope to write on various topics and give a Swedish American perspective to the changing political nature of Washington and how we as an immigrant community should engage.