Yet Germany, explored in the first part of this piece, is hardly an exceptional case. Take the United States. A recent study has shown that “rampant partisanship” has severely hampered measures to contain the spread of the virus, measures such as wearing masks and reduced social mobility. Republicans were considerably less likely than Democrats and independents to limit social activities, particularly given Trump’s opposition to state-imposed lockdowns. The same has been true with respect to wearing masks, which quickly turned into “the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.” In late July, more than 80 percent of Democrats claimed they were wearing a mask when in public, among Republicans, less than 50 percent.
In the – solidly Republican – American heartland, wearing a mask was largely seen as an attack on personal freedom. Having to wear a mask went against people’s “freedom of choice and personal liberty.” By late fall, Midwestern states, solidly on the side of Trump, were among the states most severely hit by the second wave of the pandemic. This lends strong support to findings of a recent study demonstrating that partisan differences in physical distancing resulted in higher instances of Covid-19 infection and fatality rates in pro-Trump counties. In short, in the United States, a person’s response to Covid-19 has largely been informed by partisanship – more often than not with disastrous consequences.
The findings of a comprehensive study from December last year suggest that in Europe too, political polarization, the level of distrust in political institutions and populism have a significant impact on corona-related mortality rates across Europe’s regions. Where during the first wave of the pandemic “the divide in political trust between supporters and opponents of incumbent governments within societies” was high, covid-related mortality rates were “consistently higher” than where this was not the case. In the absence of an effective vaccine, societal cooperation is crucial for the containment of the virus. Societal cooperation, in turn, depends on mutual trust and the belief that the authorities are doing the right thing. Political polarized societies, such as the eastern part of Germany, where distrust is high and restrictive measures are rejected by populist parties, the result is lethal, particularly if opposition to official policies, such as a lockdown, is informed by conspiracy thinking.
British studies suggest that the belief in conspiracy theories has had a major effect on people’s behavior during the pandemic. And for good reason. Conspiracy thinking reflects an attitude of profound suspicion and mistrust. Conspiracy thinking is closely linked to perceived threats caused by societal change; sentiments of powerlessness and a lack of socio-political and socio-economic control; and the perception to be part of a disadvantaged social group, stemming from lower levels of education and income and, as a result, a keen awareness of commanding a relatively low social status in society. Politically, empirical studies suggest, conspiracy thinking tends to be found on the right of the political spectrum, tends to be associated with distrust of public officials and with the rejection of the extant political system. In short, conspiracy thinking is a breeding ground for radical right-wing populist sentiments.
Recent studies on radical right-wing have stressed the importance of anxiety over social status decline, particularly, but hardly exclusively, among middle-class strata. As Thomas Edsall has recently put it in the pages of The New York Times, “in politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.”
Under the circumstances, narratives that blame the current misery on powerful forces and individuals (such as Bill Gates) that pursue a deleterious agenda, such as intentionally causing panic in order to assume dictatorial control of the masses and introduce “draconian population-control measures” prove particularly seductive – and disconcerting. As a recent British study shows, people who subscribe to conspiracy beliefs have been significantly less likely to follow health protective measures than people immune to conspiracy thinking. Interestingly enough, however, in the UK, polarization over Brexit has not been replicated with respect to Covid-19. With respect to wearing masks, for instance, Leavers have been “just as willing to wear masks” as Remainers, “although they may have slightly different motivations for doing so.” In general Leavers have been “significantly less likely to say that they wear masks to protect others” than Remainers – reflecting, perhaps, a more general notion of “our people first.” Or maybe it is just one more sign of the breakdown of solidarity and human decency characteristic of the post-Thatcherite neoliberal mindset.
With the growing availability of anti-Corona vaccines the deleterious impact of conspiracy thinking is going to assume even greater importance, particularly in conjunction with populist mobilization. Empirical evidence suggests that in Western Europe, populist sentiments are strongly correlated with reluctance to get vaccinated, for obvious reasons: Both are informed by a profound mistrust in elites, scientific experts and the political establishment. The Covid-19 pandemic has offered anti-vaccine activist a perfect opportunity to appeal to these sentiments.
A recent study by King’s College in London has found that about a third of the British population has already been exposed to messages discouraging the public to get vaccinated against the virus. And although agreement with conspiracy theories is not very widespread, a third of the population believed or said they were uncertain that the “real purpose” of mass vaccination against Covid-19 was simply ”to track and control the population;” about the same number had the same response to the statement that “ Bill Gates wants a mass vaccination programme against coronavirus so that he can implant microchips into people.”
Take the case of Austria. In the summer, 50 percent of respondents in a representative survey agreed with the statement that “secrete societies were using the crisis to establish an authoritarian global order; around 50 percent agreed that the crisis was used to permanently curtail people’s liberties; and more than 60 percent thought that Covid-19 was developed as a biological weapon. Somewhat surprising, “only” around 40 percent agreed with the statement that Bill Gates was using vaccinations to implant micro chips so he could control people. As late as December, 25 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll agreed with the notion that “a foreign power” had intentionally caused the spread of the Corona virus.
Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that in early December, a mere 30 percent of the Austrian population declared they were willing to get vaccinated. Almost the same percentage “absolutely” refused. A survey from late May – when the willingness to get vaccinated was significantly higher than in December – provides evidence that in Austria too, party allegiance is a significant factor. At the time, 25 percent of respondents refused to get vaccinated; among supporters of the radical right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), opposition amounted to more than 50 percent. Hardly surprising, the FPÖ has promoted itself as the advocate of ordinary citizens against the Austrian government’s Corona austerity measures. And as with the AfD in Germany, one reason is to appeal to lost voters, disgusted with the “Ibiza affair,” a corruption scandal involving the party’s strongman, Hans-Christian Strache.
In the parliamentary election of 2017, the party had garnered 26 percent of the vote. The “Ibiza affair” of mid-2019 led to the collapse of the center-right People’s Party-Freedom Party (ÖVP-FPÖ) coalition government and the resignation of Heinz-Christian Strache as party leader. In its wake, the FPÖ collapsed in the polls. In recent polls, it stands at around 16 percent of the vote, a far cry from the days when the FPÖ was a pivotal force in Austrian politics. With Covid-19, the party has been trying to regain lost terrain and reestablish itself as the advocate of ordinary people.
In mid-December, the Austrian government – a coalition between the People’s Party and Greens – decreed a third lockdown, to go into effect one day after Christmas and to last until late January. The FPÖ greeted the announcement with outrage and indignation. Its leader openly characterized the new measures as “Corona harassment” – an act of revenge on the part of the government against a “rebellious people” which had shown little interest in the government’s mass testing campaign launched in early December. The lockdown decision showed that the government lacked trust in the people. The new restrictive measures disregarded personal liberty, trampled upon human dignity, destroyed jobs and ruined the economy. Obviously, the coalition government had no idea what this meant for millions of Austrians. In short, the FPÖ was the only party that cared about the wellbeing of the average Austrian citizen.
The FPÖ’s response to the lockdown clearly was an act of posturing designed to gain attention and become once again relevant as a political force. Curiously enough, the ploy largely misfired. In a survey from late December, more than 75 percent of respondents thought that the FPÖ today was in a worse position than it had been a year or so earlier. Only 10 percent thought the party was in a better position. Apparently, Austria’s once powerful radical populist right had largely failed to reap benefits from the pandemic. At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the party’s more than skeptical positions on the question of how best to confront the pandemic might have had a deleterious impact on its supporters. In May, a sociological study from the University of Vienna found that FPÖ supporters showed the most reluctance with regard to Covid-19 vaccination among the supporters of Austria’s relevant parties. At the same time, FPÖ supporters were significantly more prepared to believe that Bill Gates planned to force everybody to get vaccinated so he could increase his wealth. Roughly 30 percent believed that this was true; almost 30 percent said they were not sure whether it was true or false.
Dutch data point in a similar direction. In May, IPSOS conducted a survey on the prevalence of conspiracy thinking in the Dutch population. At the time, the general public’s agreement with major conspiracy “theories” was quite low. Only 15 percent of respondents said they believed that the virus was a biological weapon fabricated in a lab; 4 percent came out in support of the 5G theory; and 5 percent believed Bill Gates had been involved in the development of the virus. Support for all three items, however, was significantly higher among the supporters of what at the time was Holland’s largest radical right-wing populist party – Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie (FvD). Among its supporters, almost twice as many believed in the first and third theory. Only on the 5G item, its supporters were not any different from the general public.
It stands to reason that FvD supporters got their cue directly from Baudet. I consulted Sarah de Lange, a leading expert on Dutch politics and European populism at the University of Amsterdam on this question. In her email response, she noted that as the pandemic progressed in the spring, the FvD “started to promote conspiracy theories, claiming that the virus was just a flu, contesting the government data on excess mortality, contesting the effectiveness of measures like facemasks and social distancing. Its leader, Thierry Baudet, increasingly espoused conspiracy theories and also repeatedly met with anti-lockdown activists in front of parliament.” This was a fundamental reversal of the party’s initial response to the pandemic, which consisted in demands for a lockdown.
There is good reason to suggest that the party’s and Baudet’s propagation of conspiracy thinking has had an impact on behavior. In a poll on the question of vaccination from mid-November, 60 percent of the general population expressed their willingness to get vaccinated, down from 72 percent in June. Among FvD supporters, a mere quarter did, down from 65 percent in June. Since June, conspiracy thinking has made considerable headway in Western Europe. Whether or not this has had an impact on FvD supporters Is impossible to say, given the lack of data. It seems, however, that Baudet was hardly a stranger to conspiracy theories. In fact, fellow party leaders recently accused him of blaming George Soros for propagating the pandemic. A recent poll suggests that FvD supporters might have also subscribed to the notion that Covid-19 was not more harmful than the common flu. In October, almost 50 percent of FvD supporters said that the government’s anticorona measures had gone too far. The supporters of all other partiies – including Geert Wilder’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) – said the opposite.
In the meantime, the FvD has imploded, the result of party-internal outrage over blatantly anti-Semitic statements by the party’s youth organization. Many of the FvD’s supporters appear to wander over to the PVV which has been surging in the polls, ahead of this year’s parliamentary election in March. Time will tell to what degree this will nudge Wilder and his party towards accommodating conspiracy thinking and an anti-vaccination position.
Covid-19 has done much to expose the “true nature” of radical right-wing populism. It has been a decisive factor in Donald Trump’s failure to secure a second term. In Western Europe, it has contributed to the temporary decline or at least stagnation of support for radical right-wing populist parties. And this in large parts as a result of the fact that more often than not, the radical populist right has been short on providing a constructive response to the pandemic. It would be wrong, however, to generalize. In fact, not all parties have responded in the same fashion.
In France, for instance, the radical populist right has played a, albeit limited, constructive role. Take, for instance, the question of protective masks. Like elsewhere in Western Europe, it provoked significant resistance from “anti-maskers.” Unlike elsewhere, however, the French radical populist right did not side with the “resistance.” In fact, already in early May, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement national (RN, formerly Front national) publicly asked that everybody wear a mask in public spaces as a “minimum protective measure.” And with the rise of anti-mask protests in early fall, she demanded that the protesters respect the protective measure, noting that “in the absence of other measures, such as a vaccine, wearing a mask is one of the only elements which allows to avoid an augmentation of the contamination.”
Surveys suggest that Marine Le Pen’s advice was largely shared by her supporters. In August, about two thirds of them agreed with the notion that it should be mandatory for everybody to wear a mask in open public spaces. This was exactly the same as the public in general.
Things are quite different with respect to the anti-Covid-19 vaccine. The Front National had a history of raising doubts about the necessity of certain vaccinations and the balance between benefits and risks. This has posed a serious problem for Marine Le Pen. On the one hand she has stated on a number of occasions that a vaccine against the corona virus would be an important asset in the fight against the virus; on the other hand, she has been fully aware of the vaccine hesitancy of many of her supporters. As a result she has been forced to tread a fine line; this means acting reassuringly given her prominent stature in French politics while keeping doubts alive. As a result, her public statements on the question of whether she would get vaccinated have been rather vague and contradictory, wavering between the two positions, along the lines of “in principle, yes, but…” Or as she put it, given the relative short time it took to develop a vaccine, she would rather wait for a “traditional vaccine” – one that has proved to be safe. At the same time, she rejected any notion that the vaccine should be mandatory. In fact, when the government, in late December, came up with a draft law that provides that anyone who refuses to get vaccinated could be banned from using public transport in France, Marine Le Pen branded the measure “essentially totalitarian.” Her spokesman, in turn, referred to it as the beginning of a “health dictatorship,” another top RN functionary noted that with this law the government had finally moved from “the absurd to the totalitarian.”
With these statements, the RN has scored points not only among its supporters but among the French public in general. In the most recent poll from late November, almost 60 percent of respondents said they had no intention to get vaccinated. Among RN supporters, more than 70 percent expressed their reluctance to get vaccinated. In early December, in a new poll, that number had risen to 80 percent.
It is quite likely that these results are linked to conspiracy thinking. Unfortunately, we do not yet have published data for the past twelve months; the findings of the most recent report on conspiracy beliefs in France from early 2019, however, are quite suggestive. They provide strong indications that RN supporters are highly susceptible to conspiracy thinking, more than the supporters of any other relevant French party.
Two statements illustrate the point. On the statement that the ministry of health is “in cahoots with the pharma industry to hide how harmful vaccines really are” around 43 percent of respondents were in agreement; among RN supporters, 61 percent. And 57 percent of RB supporters – compared to 25 percent of all respondents — agreed with the statement that “immigration is deliberately organized by our political, intellectual and media elites in order the achieve the replacement of the European population by an immigrant population.” Hardly surprising, RN supporters displayed also extreme low trust in major institutions, such as the justice system and particularly the media (18 percent compared to 25 percent of all respondents).
Under the circumstances, Marine Le Pen’s rather subdued position on the corona vaccine might appear surprising, were it not for the fact that in early 2022, France will elect its next president – an election Marine Le Pen would like to win. This means behaving in a “stateswomanly” fashion, rather than peddling conspiracy theories.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).