Lakey acknowledges the challenge of comparison and notes that the Nordic way is not a panacea. Nevertheless, he believes that Americans have much to learn from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland. In particular, he argues that Americans can draw lessons from the success that Nordic citizens have had in bringing about economic and social change by making demands on their government through political protest. A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length, appears below.
Foran: What myths do you think Americans hold about the Nordic countries?
Lakey: A lot of people mistakenly believe that the countries with Viking ancestry—Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland—have always had the high standard of living that they do today. That’s not the case, and people don’t realize what it took to create the kind of society we see today in each of these countries.
A century ago, the economic elite ran each of those countries. There was the pretense of democracy, but it was always the decisions of economic elites that carried the day. There was poverty and a lack of empowerment of the people. The change that came about in the Nordic countries so that they eventually moved to an economic model where there was less of a wealth gap, and better quality of life, came about after everyday people made demands on their governments to change.
The 1 percent may occupy state power, but when the majority of the country stands up in opposition to the 1 percent, they can make the country ungovernable. That’s what happened in Nordic countries, and that’s what opened up the political space in which they could build an economic model that far outperforms the economic model of the United States.
Foran: Do you think it’s detrimental from an American perspective to be unaware of that history?
Lakey: Yes, absolutely. If we think that the Nordic model has always existed in the way we think of it today, then it starts to seem like something that’s totally unique to those countries that can’t be replicated in any way. That belief can become immobilizing.
Foran: You make a distinction between the power of voting and the power of protest and mass mobilization of people. Can you talk about the distinction?
Lakey: In the Nordic countries, people first created popular movements that used direct-action tactics like strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. They also built movement infrastructure, like co-ops and study circles. As these movements gained momentum, they led to the creation of political parties that were controlled by the movements and represented the movements in parliament. In that way, politicians were accountable to the people.
That’s entirely different from what we have in the U.S. with the Democratic Party, for example, where the party is not really accountable to anyone except the economic elite. Today, the U.S. also has low voter participation compared with the Nordics. The path they took—building powerful grassroots movements that then control the politicians who represent them, might help us achieve the degree of democracy that they enjoy.