Jimmie Åkesson – the “cool” new face of right wing Swedish politics

In case you hadn’t heard, the Sverigedemokraterna, a right wing anti-immigration party, won a great enough share of votes (5%) in the latest elections to take up residency in the Swedish Parliament. It’s come as a shock to many here. It shouldn’t have. The left wing parties suffer from a lack of identity and focus at the moment, while the moderately right (by Swedish standards) parties have been too occupied with protecting their narrow majorities.

It will be interesting to see how the political establishment face up to the challenge posed by this confident new entrant in their midst. One issue for concern is how relatively media savvy the leader of the Sverigedemokraterna, Jimmie Åkesson, appears to be. He is young (31), well-spoken, and presents a very relaxed figure under the intense gaze of the media that he has faced in recent months. Åkesson is a far cry from the bumbling types seen in the semi-equivalent UKIP and BNP parties in the UK. He doesn’t flap about when provoked in interviews, instead projecting a relatively calm and collected persona, answering questions in a fairly composed fashion. It is also a pretty far cry from the mad-as-hell-and-we’re-not-going-to-take-it-any-more style approach that has (for the moment anyway) achieved results for the Tea Party in the US. But it seems to nevertheless have an effectiveness all of its own. Indeed, it is currently provoking a lot of flapping about from the leaders of the left wing parties, who tend to let themselves down with their weak efforts to build themselves into enraged fits while ignoring the inadequacies of their own approaches in recent years. I am in no way an expert in Swedish politics though, so take my criticisms with a grain of salt. They are initial impressions from one year of living here.

What prompted this post is that Jimmie Åkesson makes for a rather unique and interesting example of a “cool” media persona, as Marshall McLuhan describes it. I taught a class on McLuhan’s book Understanding Media just the other week. In it we looked at the example McLuhan gives of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates. In a chapter analysing the medium of television, McLuhan presents his classic suggestion that the reason listeners on the radio thought Nixon had performed better in the debate was that he was a “hot” personality and thus worked well on the “hot” medium of the radio. Kennedy for his part was thought by viewers of television to have outperformed Nixon in the same debate, and McLuhan similarly suggests that this was because his “cool” persona was ideally suited to the “cool” medium of television. In McLuhan’s words, “TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness […] which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign.” If you aren’t familiar with McLuhan’s formulations of hot and cool media, you might get a somewhat better idea in this excerpt from slides done for the class.

McLuhan – Nixon Kennedy slides

In the class we moved from the Nixon-Kennedy analysis to trying to apply a similar one on Barack Obama. It works fairly well in Obama’s case. After all he does seem to mostly fit McLuhan’s description of a “hot” persona, which is backed up by evidence that Obama generally performs much more effectively in more hot, linear forms such as the lecture podium or radio address, while being a fair bit less convincing in the cool forum of television debates. And now we have Mr. Åkesson, the man who is able to mask the very sharply defined policies of his party under the guise of a cool and open persona. He certainly seems able to work the medium of television at least as well as many of his more seasoned rivals here.

There wasn’t time to question the class on the suggestive notion of whether or not a “revolution can be televised,” but as the slide on this hints at, the answer would seem to be no, not normally. All along we’ve had examples of tub-thumping far right leaders who fan the flames effectively in hotter media. Hitler was indeed ideally suited to the radio address, the book (Mein Kampf), and even film (The Triumph of the Will). But could he have really cast such a strong spell in the decidedly cool medium of television? McLuhan would probably also happily point out the way in which the right wing currently rule the political radio waves in the US. However, in the case of Mr. Åkesson, there does seem to be a subversive indication of how a revolutionary politics (in the sense of being very different to the norm of the last few decades in Swedish politics – the politics themselves are of course age old and oft-repeated) might well do so, at least to the degree that it has managed up to now. McLuhan’s medium-centric analysis is of course a very specific and potentially narrow way to cast a political example like this one. But it does have its uses as a way of focusing the mind on the subversive and extensive power of media and its expert manipulators to enchant and deceive us.

One seemingly minor but notable part of Åkesson’s persona is the chant of his name sung by his supporters. It is a chant taken from the footballing terraces, but the tune itself is an old Caribbean children’s song, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring,’ made popular by the Boney M. cover of it. One might choose to snicker at the irony of a Swedish anti-immigration party using a Caribbean song to serenade their leader with. I thought as much when I first heard it. But then I was in a local pub last night,  just days after the election, when the karaoke evening started up in the main room next to ours. And what was the first request of the night? ‘Brown Girl in the Ring.’ I couldn’t see the singer, and for that matter couldn’t really make out their voice either (was anyone even on the mike?). But never have the sinisterly sweet elements common to so many a children’s song taken on quite such a palpably disturbing cast. I looked out at a sea of white faces, not a single person singing along, everyone focusing very hard on trying to continue on with their conversation and no one daring to look up and risk their eyes giving them away. But everyone heard and felt it. The chill of a different kind of revolutionary breeze sweeping out from the speakers, permeating an icy spell of complicity on its knowing recipients. Be cool, stay cool. A childlike feeling in the air of the guilty thrill of getting away with it. “Tra-la-la-la-la.” The heart skipping scarily along.

Eventually the song reached its end. The next one began. Some standard karaoke fair. And then the room came back to life, and people started to sing. But Jimmie’s song lingered on. In i kylan.

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