Sanders and some of his Democratic competitors are clear about what they want to change in the United States. They call for the building of a robust social democratic state, including programs such as universal healthcare, funded in large part by new taxation on the ultrarich and Wall Street. In an age defined by widening social inequity and fatigue with the status quo, a younger generation has helped catapult his brand of “democratic socialism” into the mainstream.
Sanders is particularly fond of the “Nordic model” — the social plans that exist in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, which deploy higher taxation to provide quality public services and keep inequality at rates lower than the United States. It’s an analogy Sanders often invokes, not least to defuse the polemics from opponents to the right that he’s akin to a Latin American demagogue-in-waiting.
Across the Atlantic, at least one leading proponent of the Nordic model welcomed its embrace by U.S. politicians. “We feel that the Nordic Model is a success story,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in an interview with The Washington Post last month on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Marin said she recognizes that “every country’s situation is different, every country’s political atmosphere is different,” but that Finland’s system could set an example for the United States nonetheless.
“I feel that the American Dream can be achieved best in the Nordic countries, where every child no matter their background or the background of their families can become anything, because we have a very good education system,” she said. “We have a good health-care and social welfare system that allows anybody to become anything. This is probably one of the reasons why Finland gets ranked the happiest country in the world.”
That’s precisely the argument those on the American left are trying to make. Sanders has long hailed Finland’s social policies. In 2008, before a standing-room-only crowd in the city hall of Burlington, Vt., Sanders welcomed the Finnish ambassador to his state and urged his compatriots to study “one of the best economic and social models in the world.”
“In Finland, a high-quality national health-care program exists which provides almost-free health care for all — and ends up costing about half as much per capita as our system,” Sanders said at the time. “In Finland, when students become doctors and nurses, they leave school debt-free — because there are no costs in going to school. Is there something we can learn from that model?”
In that same conversation, Sanders brushed aside the suggestion that Finland’s small population — barely 1/60th of that of the United States — should complicate the picture. “As we acknowledge the difference, we should also acknowledge that we are all human beings with very much the same DNA, the same kind of intelligence and the same human needs,” he said.
Sanders’s ascent in the past five years has spurred considerable debate over what lessons should be learned from the Nordic countries he celebrates. A cast of centrist and conservative critics note, first, that these Nordic countries are more capitalist than Sanders concedes, with generous pro-business policies and their own crop of billionaires; and, second, that the welfare states in Nordic countries are largely financed by extensive taxes on middle-class wages and consumption, not the wealth taxes both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have pledged to levy on America’s top 1 percent.
Experts and commentators on the left point to the vastly stronger unions that exist in Nordic countries, which serve as the bedrock for these nations’ societies. “The Nordic nations are capitalist social democracies, but the reason they are capitalist is that their Social Democratic parties created unprecedented levels of worker power, social welfare and income equality as far back as the 1930s, and had the power to maintain those levels to this very day,” Harold Meyerson wrote in the American Prospect last year.
Marin, who at 34 is the world’s youngest female leader, is looking to the future. She said her government’s “new task is to make the Nordic model part of an environmentally sustainable future,” one where the struggle to fight climate change offers “a chance to create new jobs, new technologies, new opportunities for everyone in our country.”
Unsurprisingly, Marin expressed disappointment in Trump’s seeming indifference to the urgency of climate action. “We don’t have the luxury of time. We need ambitious targets and actions, and we need to implement the policies now,” she said.
As a social democrat, she’s aware of the rising challenge on the right throughout Nordic nations, where nativist, far-right movements have gained traction in recent years. “Populist movements are trying to present simple answers to complex questions and a complex world,” Marin said.
That includes the thorny question of immigration, which Marin welcomes. “We have an aging population, and we need people to come to Finland, to work there and to raise their children and take part in making our society better,” she said.
Call it, perhaps, the Finnish Dream.
Heather Long contributed to this report.