Researchers consider Norden's place in US politics

The American election is on everyone’s lips this week, and ReNEW academics and researchers are no different.

The Nordics as a 'dream' or a 'nightmare'

The Nordics are often referred to as a ’dream’ or a ’nightmare’ in the US in order to fit in with the polarised messages of its binary left/right political divide. Professor Haldor Byrkjeflot from Oslo University recently examined this in an article for Norway’s Aftenposten where he refers to both a special meeting with Nordic prime ministers at the White House where Obama said the Nordics ”punches above their weight”, as well as to the economic report during the current Trump-era likening the Nordics to Venezuela and China.

Similarly, the title of last Tuesday’s event in Litteraturhuset i Oslo by UiO:Nordic at the Oslo University, ’Dream or nightmare? – Norden in American Politics’ (Draum eller mareritt? - Norden i amerikansk politikk) speaks for itself, as does the podcast entitled ’The Nordic Model: Heaven or Hell?

The Nordics as a projection for US politics 

Trying to make sense of why these two opposing images are used to describe something that should be similar, researchers talk about the Nordics being a ’floating signifier’ or a ’blank screen’ upon which US politicians and commentators can project what they want for their own political ends. (See for example the article Imagining Nordicity in the American political discourse by Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy).

And, whether you wish to look at the pervading legacy of social democracy on today’s welfare state, or more neoliberal reforms, the Nordics do indeed offer a smorgasbord of different policies from both left and right. (See theme page Nordic Social Democracy in US Politics for links to articles on different policies).

Nordic self-understanding informed by the US image of the region

However, with a nod to anti-exceptionalism, researchers on the Nordics are at pains to point out that the US is discussed in the Nordic countries as well – and far more than the other way around; the US has of course been extremely influential in the Nordics as in the rest of the world in all sorts of ways.

At the UiO:Nordic event, Professor Emeritus Kalle Moene pointed to the process of trial and error of welfare and economic policies during the social democratic heyday of the 20th century as being at least partly inspired by the US. And, importantly, the perception of the ’Nordic Model’ (or models) was perhaps only recognised by the Nordic countries themselves due to outsiders looking in. Haldor Byrkjeflot reflects in his article for Aftensposten: Nordic self-understanding has historically developed to a much greater extent as a reaction to the United States' image of the Nordic region and the Nordic model than vice versa.

No doubt, ReNEW scholars, like many others all over the world, will be waiting with baited breath to see the results of the American election – and to see if Biden and/or Trump will refer to the Nordics in their first 100 days in office and in what context(s).

Links to the material mentioned here: