In the US we are concerned about our government being corrupt. It helps to examine corruption abroad as well, like in Sweden.
Sweden becomes a juvenile cooptocracy
Today, Sweden has about ten million inhabitants. The public financial aid handed out to the political parties by the central government amounts to about 466 million kronor ($54 million). This money is given to the political parties centrally, and is in practice at the disposal of the respective party leaders. The money from the counties amounted to 336 million kronor in 2007 ($39 million), and that of the municipalities to 450-500 million kronor ($52 to $58 million). The youth organisations of the parties receive a further close to $2 million. 84 percent of the expenses of the municipal party organisations are covered by this support. At the county level, they finance 87 percent of the expenses. Thus, all in all, each year our rulers effectively steal 1,250-1,300 million kronor ($145 – $151 million), from us, their subjects.
An honest alternative could be that one million loyal party members each pay a yearly 1,250 kronor membership fee. But as it is, membership fees constitute only between 0 and 3.3 percent of the income of the various political parties, and the number of party members has fallen dramatically. Between 1962 and 2014/2015 the total membership of the parties shrunk by 80 percent, from 1.346 million to 274,000, all while the population increased from about 7.5 million to 10 million. Another option for financing party activities are voluntary contributions. In 1949, between half and 90 percent of the funding of the various parties consisted of donations. Today, that figure is only between 0 and 4.3 percent.
The result of the culture that proportional representation brought, combined with the Swedish national character on the one hand, and the fact that each political party today is largely financially independent of public opinion and of their members on the other, is the juvenile cooptocracy we see today. The end result of over 50 years of such a system is the appallingly low intellectual and personal qualities amongst the politicians that we are faced with today.
Only juveniles need apply
In 2014, the political youth organisations had 29,000 members (if “Young Pirate” are excluded), spread over what are today the eight parties that are represented in the Riksdag. These members probably constitute about five percent of the relevant age cohorts, depending on for how many years on average people stay members. But if we assume that only one in ten reaches a position of influence, this means that they constitute only about half a percent of the relevant age cohorts, or about 2,900 people. Even this low number appears to be too large for the discussion that follows.
Regardless, the numbers are likely to shrink. Soon the youth organisation will hardly need to have any members at all, apart from a more or less designated set of political broilers. In some municipalities, grants are paid out to the youth organisation based on how many mandates the mother parties have on the municipal council. As is the case for the national elections, the parties receive the same proportion of representatives on the council as the proportion of votes obtained in the municipal elections. In theory, therefore, such a youth organisation hardly needs any members at all.
It is from this highly restricted and peculiarly chosen collection of individuals that future party leaders, ministers, junior ministers, and other leading representatives of the parties are then co-opted by the parties. You join the youth organisation of a party in your early teens, you are active for some years, maybe for a bit more than a decade. If you have behaved well, if you have toed the party line, if you have been loyal to the party in all your dealings with the outside world, and if you have not been the looser in an internal power struggle, you might one day become an influential politician on the national scene.
Others need not bother, apart from instances such as the one related above, when, due to a lack of suitable candidates in the Riksdag, a new party leader is chosen from outside of parliament, and for the same reasons, sometimes also from outside of the clique of former teenage politicians. Sometimes instead, the party leader is chosen from such former teenage politicians, who, for reasons to be discussed shortly, have decided not to sit in parliament.
It does happen that some well-known individuals are elected to the Riksdag as part of an effort to attract goodwill. Included on the lists of candidates are also some who are representative, but who commonly are people who few voters would select as their representatives. Only very rarely do members of either category of these outsiders gain any real power or influence.
The party leader or leadership controls virtually all of the resources of their party, including such things as committee assignments in parliament. Those who go against the party line lose their assignments. They commonly also lose the possibility of re-election to the Riksdag. If some plan not to vote as instructed by the party leadership, first pressure is brought on them in private. If this does not suffice, the whole parliamentary group may be assembled for an hours long bullying session to bring the lost sheep into line. As a result, backbench revolts within parties are commonly limited to at most a few people, every one or two years.
The title of a recent book on the matter may be translated as “The Button Pusher Brigade” (“Knapptryckarkompaniet”), since most of what is required of the vast majority of parliamentarians is to simply push the button they have been instructed to push at each vote. For this reason, many of the most ambitious young politicians instead choose to work directly for the party leadership, without being elected to parliament.
As citizens of Sweden today, we may choose from eight pre-packaged political alternatives, consisting of people who often have never worked a day in their lives, only ever “worked” politically, on the dime of the taxpayer, possibly from the first moment they joined the youth organisation of a party in their early teens. These politicians have virtually no outside work experience, no outside life-achievements, no outside leadership experiences, and in general very little and very peculiar knowledge of the workings of the world outside of politics. At the same time, as they have an almost complete lock on the political system, they are the only ones to possess political experience; they know how to present political façades around what is today some very anaemic content. Politics, like all professions, is a craft that requires experience, and as few others can gain it, starting a new party with some prospect of electoral success is all the more difficult.
The Swedish cooptocracy resembles the “democratic centralism” of the former Leninist Eastern bloc. In that bloc, there was only one party to vote for; in Sweden, there are eight. But these parties form a cartel. They share a common interest in seeing to that the current system of financing continues and that no other parties manage to reach the Riksdag.
The system is not completely static. For many decades, there were only five parties in the Riksdag. Through incredible tenacity, support from independent Churches and the charisma of the party leader, Alf Svensson, KDS (now KD, the Christian Democrats) managed to enter the Riksdag. The Green party has the support of about 40 percent of newspaper journalists and just over half of the journalists of state radio and television. The Sweden Democrats managed to enter the Riksdag when the gap between the official rhetoric regarding immigration, and the reality of it became too large for many to ignore.
Thus, by Popper’s definition, Sweden is still to a degree a democracy, but the selection of political parties and of politicians is severely restricted. We can rarely vote for someone who has the prospect of becoming influential unless this person joined a party in his or her early teens. And if a Swede at age 25, 40 or 60 decides to embrace the ambition of becoming a politician, it is already far too late.
What should be done?
The question is whether anything can be done. The quality of the political class has become so abysmally low that many despair at the thought of voting for any party. Such despair will spread, in part because it is unlikely that the process outlined above has completely run its course; therefore, the quality will likely continue to fall even further. It is said that if something cannot go on forever, it won’t, so maybe there is a way out. The present essay is my own modest attempt at a contribution to finding some kind of solution.
To fix the system, those who hold power would need to remove much of the foundation they base it on. Very few of the politicians currently elected to the Riksdag could expect to be re-elected if they had to fight for individual seats. They commonly lack charisma, they are not decent public speakers, and they lack compelling life stories and accomplishments to attract voters. Some would survive of course, due to their talent and passion for politics. But they would have to express these traits somewhat differently, and most would probably have to wait until they become quite a bit older before they can aspire to elected office.
Although reform might be impossible, something along the following lines is roughly what ought to be done.
Abolish all public contributions to political parties. Abolishing the salaries for elected politicians is likely a dream too far.
Put no limits on private contributions. Money will allow a politician to gain exposure, but, no matter how counterintuitive it may sound, research from the US demonstrates that the amounts spent then hardly matter at all in deciding who gets elected.
Introduce majority voting for individual seats. Either first passed the post as in Britain, or in two rounds as in France. This should be the sole way to gain a seat in parliament. Thus, there should exist no additional seats attributed through some form of proportional representation.
And, a bit outside of this, limit the number of parliamentarians to at most 149. Dunbar’s number, 150, is the largest number of people an individual can keep tabs on. And as voters, we should be able to keep tabs on our politicians. A country with only 10 million inhabitants certainly does not need 349 parliamentarians.
To make Sweden more democratic, one could also imagine adding the possibility of referendums by popular initiative, as in Switzerland and in many areas of the US. But I would argue that the most important step is to implement Popper’s definition of democracy, the possibility to remove those who rule us by peaceful means. Referendums might later become an added bonus.
None of these measures will suddenly turn Swedish politicians into unselfish men and women, imbued with knowledge, wisdom and leadership skills. None of them will guarantee that the best possible decisions are taken, something that is anyhow impossible to determine. But with their warts and all, the politicians we would have would at least be far better than today’s selection, and if we still do not like them, they would be far easier to remove.