NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching among Norway’s political leaders as they ponder the nagging question: Could an election uproar like the one that stunned the US and the rest of world last week happen here? While local election campaigns remain civilized affairs, with none of the bullying and brutality that disgusted so many, career politicians are learning to not take anything for granted.
Among them is Hadia Tajik, a deputy leader of the Norwegian Labour Party who shared some of her thoughts over the weekend. She wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Sunday that she encountered a moment of truth just days after TV showman and real estate tycoon Donald J Trump became the US President-Elect.
She’d been asked to take part in a meeting at the end of another long day, and found herself speaking on what she herself called “auto-pilot,” using words and terms that she realized mid-sentence had nothing to do with the real lives of those in the audience. “I tried to come in for landing with unaffected body language, so they wouldn’t notice that I saw the disappointment in their eyes,” Tajik wrote. “They thought I’d move them, but all I did was lecture to them.”
Tajik related that her audience applauded politely, but she was struck by the prospect that voters may not always be so polite, or loyal, or vote as the pollsters suggest. In addition to actual political issues that need to be acted upon, culture and values are at stake.
“We’re so used to identifying social and economic differences,” Tajik wrote. She defended that, because it’s important: “If voters don’t manage to see opportunities in the future, the past becomes so much more important.” But she noted that Trump honed in on feelings, that America used to be great and no longer was, for example, and that its cultural diversity was a problem instead of a strength. Trump no longer wants to take in the “huddled masses” glorified on the Statue of Liberty, and seems to think that trade barriers and new regulations will be better than free trade and markets. Coal should also still be mined and gas-guzzlers built, he’s suggested, even though the market doesn’t want them. There also are those invisible aspects that don’t show up in all the economic statistics, Tajik noted, that give people a feeling of community and being part of a nation, like the flag, the national anthem, love of country and the various things deemed as threatening it.
For Tajik, there are lessons to be learned from Trump’s victory and the vacant eyes of her recent audience, “if we (the politicians) bother to pay attention, and to listen.” More politicians need to let people complete their sentences, she wrote, and politicians need to follow up provocative reactions by asking those uttering them, “what do you mean by that?” Politicians, Tajik admitted, are often much more comfortable meeting with professional audiences, those who also are armed with statistics and business cards. “We can become blind to what’s happening among the folks we are elected to represent,” Tajik said.
At the other end of the politial spectrum, among politicians from the the country’s most conservative party in Parliament, Progress Party officials have also been digesting Trump’s victory and what it may mean. They’ve been predictably more amenable to Trump, with Norway’s government minister in favor of restrictive immigration, Sylvi Listhaug, commenting that “it’s not like there’s been a coup d’etat in the US.” Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen said there were “many exciting elements” in Trump’s tax and economic policy, “that can be good for the world economy.”
Ulf Leirstein, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party, was one of the few MPs to openly support Trump. He hails attempts to have better relations with neighbouring Russia and “talk with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” while Leirstein also favours Trump’s skepticism towards free trade, even though his own Progress Party traditionally favours free markets and liberalization. Center Party politicians, meanwhile, don’t seem to want to be associated with Trump but fight for the same sort of protectionism for their farming constituents in Norway. “Norway can no longer uncritically make free trade the basis for what’s most sensible,” Geir Pollestad, an MP for the Center Party who heads the Parliament’s committee on business and trade, told newspaper Dagsavisen last week. “The parties that have a blind faith in market liberalism should have a new round with themselves.”
Listhaug told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that she thinks it’s “clear that folks (in the US) stood up against the elite, they felt forgotten. The elite speaks a language they don’t understand, and Trump captured that.” Listhaug claims she tries not to attack her opponents or use strong expressions, “on the contrary, I carry on professional discussion,” she claimed. On immigration issues, she said it’s “important to understand what concerns normal folks.”
Appealing to most folks
It is, perhaps, that quest to appeal to what the Progress Party calls folk flest (roughly translated, “most ordinary folks”) that now appears paramount. While politicians wonder whether a Trump-like election can occur in Norway, some argue it already has. More than 40 years before Trump called his victory part of “a great movement” that occurred largely outside the grip of the US conservative Republican Party, Norway’s Progress Party itself made the earth move under Norway when it first won seats in the social welfare state’s Parliament in 1973, and again when it finally won government power in 2013. Many thought that would never happen. Norwegians also defied most of their political parties’ positions and their leaders when they rejected EU membership not once but twice, albeit by slim margins. Both Labour and the Conservatives favoured joining the EU, but in two of the country’s few referenda in history, voters rejected their advice.
Now the former, long-time head of the Progress Party, Carl I Hagen, claims his old party simply must learn from Trump. He told DN that he thinks the party has become too much like the Conservatives and even “boring.” He urges party leaders, not least Jensen, to pay attention to the “undercurrents” in the population. He wonders whether Trump will now manage to carry out what he promised or be tamed and roped in by the system. That’s what he thinks has happened with his own party since it joined government and suddenly had to cooperate with others.
The rise of the disenfranchised
As for the prospect of an uprising among Norwegians feeling angry and disenfranchised, it may well be rising despite the country’s vast social security nets. Two years of economic downturn have left thousands of people chronically unemployed, especially those over 50 who have been unable to find new jobs.
One 54-year-old engineer who lost his job in the oil industry told newspaper Aftenposten that after hundreds of job rejections, he wondered whether “no one has use for me any longer.” DN also ran a story last week about a 30-year-old, college-educated woman who has never managed to get a full-time job in Norway. Like many others like her, she’s been a victim of employers who only want short-term “consultants” to cut labour costs.
The threat of a backlash in Norway remains small, because of its retraining and welfare systems, but it’s no guarantee that laid-off oil workers in Norway can become like laid-off coal miners in West Virginia, and get angry at the ballot box.