The Nordic Theory of Everything: A Q&A with Anu Partanen

The Nordic Theory of Everything demonstrates how Nordic social policies benefit all while remaining true to the American dream.

By Ann Mayhew

Illustration by Grace Molteni

Headshot Photographed by Kristiina Wilson

Recently, as Americans become increasingly unhappy with the status quo (no matter their political leanings), they have been looking outward to other countries for inspiration on how to improve our lives here at home. Many (particularly left-leaning) Americans have been discovering and supporting the superiority of Nordic social and political policies, citing, for example, studies declaring Finnish schools as the best in the world, and Norwegians as the happiest (followed by all the other Nordic countries: in order, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland, with Sweden coming in at #10). Recently, this has led to an outpouring of books promoting the Nordic way of life, from Viking Economics by George Lakey to The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking. The popularity of The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth, which is a bit more skeptical of the Scandanavian utopia, further indicates national interest in the topic.

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist and naturalized American citizen, has taken a slightly different approach with her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, out in paperback June 27 (for newsletter readers–that’s today!). While touting the benefits of Nordic social policies, especially those of her mother country, Finland, she deftly argues the way these policies are not the unfairly feared “socialism,” but in fact promote quintessentially American values — individualism and the American Dream, i.e. class mobility. The book is thorough and convincing, and this premise makes the book more successful than others in arguing how the Nordic way of life could, indeed, become an American way of life.

Last fall, The Riveter’s books editor Ann Mayhew spoke with Partanen over the phone about the “Nordic Theory of Love” and how it could work in the United States. As Americans’ desire for significant social and political change increases, from the right’s election of outlier Donald Trump to the left’s support of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, The Nordic Theory of Everything could not feel more timely and urgent.

Ann Mayhew: At what point did you think to yourself that you needed to write and publish a book on the Nordic Theory of Love?

Anu Partanen: For a while I was working as a journalist, writing articles for Finland, and I was just observing American life. And having been a recent Nordic immigrant, I often thought that the American notions of Nordic countries were a little bit out of date, so I wanted to write a book that would talk about where we are now in Nordic countries, and where we are in the United States.

But mostly, when it came to the typical idea of the Nordic Theory of Love, I was just observing relationships that I saw around me in the United States and that I also, with my husband for example, started to experience. After I had moved here, I found that I was just looking at children and parents and men and women, and I found that some of those relationships in the United States seemed to be much more old-fashioned, to me, than in Nordic countries. I was surprised by how much I think children’s fate is tied to their parents’ wealth and education levels and abilities in the United States—much more than what I had been used to in Finland. That was somewhat surprising considering we always think that the United States is the place where anybody can be whatever they want to be, and we all have the chance of grasping the American dream. I think children are raised to be more independent more quickly [in Nordic countries and in Finland], so I was more used to the family dynamic being different and more independent between children and their parents.

It looked to me like American women… ended up being more dependent on their husbands than what I was also used to in Finland… because a lot of these American social structures are so far behind. If one of you want to stay home to take care of a child and you don’t have a paid parental leave, then you either have to live off of one person’s salary or one of you will have to quit your job completely, and more often than not, it’s the woman.

And of course I was seeing in my own relationship, with Trevor, which I talk about in the book too, was the fact that then I had to rely on him and his job for my health insurance. And I know that in America, people don’t necessarily stop to think about that—it’s normal, and if somebody has a good job, then why not? But for me, it was just really personally so difficult. There’s a power relationship that happens, and [power] dynamic in families, and it just seemed to me that it was when this was not part of the equation in a relationship.

AM: So, what about the Nordic countries do you think enabled them to develop these policies before all of these other developed countries in the world?

AP: Yeah, that’s a great question because of course, a lot of Americans are feeling defeated right now and feel like American politics are so hopeless, that it’s never going to happen. I think what Nordic countries do may be hopeful or discouraging, depending on your point of view. It didn’t happen overnight, of course. For example, the education system—the change in Finland towards a more inclusive and universal system that guarantees that every child gets a good education and it’s not dependent on parents’ wealth and college degree and no tuition—all this was debated for a couple of decades in Finland before people sort of came to an agreement that “Okay, this is what we need to do, and then we start implementing it.” So I think that one thing is, often when I follow the American debates around education, now I think that well, that may be similar to what the Finns were doing already in the 1950s and 1960s.

AM: Do you think the U.S. would or will have unique challenges introducing such policies because of its much bigger size and diversity?

AP: So, when it comes to size, like I said, a lot of them are handled by states and cities, so it can certainly be done within a smaller region. And of course in the United States, for example, New York and California have already taken steps towards, for example, more paid parental leave, or New York City just instituted public pre-K for all four-year-olds—they started it a few years ago, and it seems to be up and running and pretty quickly, working pretty well. So I think you can do it in smaller areas, you don’t have to immediately think that all this has to be for all 350 million people or whatnot.

And then diversity. I think Nordic countries today are partly more diverse than Americans think, especially, for example, Sweden; these days it is a very diverse country with, in relation to population, more foreign-born residents than the United States. And they still like their system, and they’d like to hold on to it, so it’s not that they’re immediately deciding to get rid of it because there’s more diversity. And there are many countries like Canada that are bigger, or the Netherlands, that are bigger than Nordic countries that are very diverse, and yet still have more Nordic-style policies. And, again, to go to California and New York, these are very diverse states, and still they’ve decided to start changing things, changing policies where it’s needed in the United States.

The policies I talk about and that Nordic countries have instituted are pretty much always universal, so it’s for everyone, for the middle class and for the poor and for the wealthy. They’re not programs that support the weakest among us. They’re meant to be programs that work for everyone and make everyone’s lives easier, like paid parental leave or affordable daycare.

AM: You talk about how the Finns in particular tend to be more pessimistic while Americans are more optimistic. Do you think Americans are perhaps more pessimistic in this particular regard you’re talking about, the perception Americans have of implementing or creating these policies? Are we just being pessimists?

AP: Yeah, this, I think, is an intriguing paradox. Because Americans, in pretty much all other areas in life, I find they are such “can do” people, always like “Yes, of course, we can go to the moon, and our companies can do anything,” in technology and science and business, and people in their individual lives set goals and believe that they can do anything. That’s what parents tell their children. And that’s a very admirable quality. But then, when it comes to government, anything done by government, I think Americans often just give up all hope: “Oh no, nothing can be done, never can be done.”

I was hoping maybe we can, in the U.S., think about the ways we talk about government, the ways we see impact. Especially in the book, I talk a lot about freedom and independence of the individual, and in the U.S. of course, usually the idea is the government will take away your freedom, that whatever government does, it limits your choices and freedom… and of course Americans are smart to be skeptical of government—government can do that, we see that everywhere in the world. But with the book, I wanted to contribute to the discussion that we could certainly also consider the ways that government can give their citizens freedom and help them live saner and more… live lives with more opportunities.

AM: For the Americans who agree with you and who want to see American policy change, what can they do? What do you recommend?

AP: That’s always a tough question because Americans have this very strong culture of “I just want to go home, and do it!” like they’re very much about individual action. And, of course, the things I talk about are not really things you can go home and do on your own. The whole point is that it would have to be a more systemic change. So, I think a lot of it is about grassroots organization, about writing and talking to your friends about issues. I think a lot of it is about attitudes and how people see these policies and how they see the possibilities. And of course, just plain old…pressuring your own representatives when you’re voting, or sending them emails, letting them know that this is something that you want.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ann Mayhew is a book reviewer and editor living in Minneapolis. She works for both the Minnesota Historical Society at two of their sites, the historic James J. Hill House and Historic Fort Snelling, and as the production coordinator for Band of Weirdos/Moss Love, and somehow still finds time to occasionally volunteer for Planned Parenthood. (Coffee helps.) Her book reviews have appeared in BUST, Bitch, Publishers Weekly, the Star Tribune, the Rumpus, and, of course, The Riveter.  

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.