Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Opinion | From the ‘Silent Majority’ to the Unvaxxed Minority

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By Ivan Krastev

Mr. Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author, most recently, of “Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic.”

I recently found myself in a conversation with a libertarian journalist who was visiting Vienna. “Should we be surprised that Austria decided to lock down the unvaccinated and that the government is pushing for mandatory vaccination?” he bellowed at me. “Was it not the Austrians and the Germans who were first to lock down their minorities in the 1930s?” It’s the kind of mind-blowing exaggeration that is so typical these days of vaccine skeptics and the anti-lockdown right.

The specter of fascism is never far away in European politics, and accusing your enemies of being the heirs to Hitler has been popular since the end of World War II. But something truly surreal is underway: Traditionally, it was the parties of the far right, some of them with roots in the Nazi past, that were accused of fascist tendencies. Now they are the accusers. I’ve even heard some vaccine skeptics and anti-lockdown activists call for a Nuremberg trial for anyone who advocates mandatory vaccination.

Will these attempts to impugn the overweening state and accuse mainstream politicians of medical fascism work? Maybe. A recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations indicates that although most West Europeans support the restrictive policies their governments have put in place to fight the coronavirus, many also have mixed feelings. Almost half of Austrians and Germans, the poll found, experience the Covid pandemic as a loss of freedom. Populists are eager to weaponize this.

For the moment, they are failing. Recent elections in Germany, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria indicate that voters are less ready to follow populist leaders than they were just a few years ago. A YouGov-Cambridge Globalism study found in November that populist beliefs had “broadly declined” in 10 European countries over the past three years but that at the same time, conspiratorial beliefs are on the rise. I worry that the longer the pandemic restrictions continue and the harsher the economic effects are felt, the more likely populists’ arguments will resonate with the public.

The populist right has in recent months undergone an identity shift. It used to be that these parties claimed, with their positions on immigration and cultural change, to speak for “the people,” a silent majority. That doesn’t work anymore. Austria’s Freedom Party, for example, has adopted a hard-line anti-vaccination stance. But holding this position means that it can no longer claim to be the champion of the majority; most Austrians have chosen to get vaccinated. At least in Western Europe, the vaccinated are the majority. Not surprisingly, when populists are in power — as they are in Hungary and Poland — they adopt vaccine and lockdown policies similar to those introduced by mainstream parties elsewhere.

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