If asked about the comparative political cultures of Europe and the United States, the ordinary European or American, regardless of political persuasion, would be likely to affirm that European—particularly Northern European—societies are essentially socially progressive, in contrast to the United States, which is profoundly “conservative.”

In Sweden, everyone from the radical left to the most extreme right claims that our nation (along with our Nordic neighbors) is at the forefront of “progress.” All sides benefit from this perception. The right can pretend to be busy fighting the most insane leftism humanity has ever seen, and the left can in turn brag about the achievements that supposedly make our countries unique. For their part, many Americans accept the idea that the Nordics are far more progressive than the United States.

Like many stories countries tell themselves, this one bears almost no resemblance to the truth. Scandinavians look at the United States and behold some sort of Bible-thumping theocracy; Americans look at the Nordic nations and see a progressive utopia. Consider, however, that in the far-fetched scenario that Sweden were to be incorporated into the United States, the 51st state would boast one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the Union, limiting the procedure to the first 18 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of severe risk to the mother.

In recent years, I have written for American audiences about Sweden, and for Swedish audiences about America. The second task is far more difficult. My Swedish readers often refuse to believe what they are reading. The radical feminist who thinks she represents the vanguard of human progress by advocating for free abortion up to the 18th week of pregnancy may be shocked to hear that some American states allow abortion throughout the entire second trimester with no restrictions. Similarly, the way the family-court system in the United States tends to disfavor the father in determining custody is met with disbelief in countries where the presumption is automatic shared custody.

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