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Elitism is not the answer to populism: On 'anti-vaxxers' and mistrust in government

A health worker draws a dose of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine into a syringe at a vaccination centre n Ankara, Turkey on 28 June 2021 [Erçin Ertürk/Anadolu Agency]
A health worker draws a dose of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine into a syringe at a vaccination centre n Ankara, Turkey on 28 June 2021 [Erçin Ertürk/Anadolu Agency]

While "anti-vaxxers" continue to clash with police in various European cities, a whole media discourse has been formulated around the political leanings of these angry crowds, describing them in matter-of-fact terms as conspiracy theorists, populists and right-wing fanatics.

While it is true that populist, right-wing movements throughout Europe and elsewhere have actively exploited the anger, confusion and lack of trust in governments for years, it is still necessary to understand the roots of the mistrust, as opposed to readily contributing to the stifling division.

A Gallup poll published in 2013 revealed the extent of mistrust that Americans, for example, have in their own government, and the decline of that trust when compared to the previous year. According to the poll, only ten per cent of Americans trusted their elected Congress, only 19 per cent trusted the country's health system, 22 per cent had trust in big business and 23 per cent in news media.

This crisis in democracy took place years before Donald Trump even considered running for presidency, years before the violent storming of the US Congress, and long before the COVID pandemic inspired resentment and conspiracies.

The trend of lack of trust in government continues unabated to this day, though Trump is no longer the president. In fact, it is a phenomenon that has afflicted most Western societies, though to varying degrees.

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It may seem irrational that millions of people refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine, a potentially life-saving medicine required in order for collective immunity to be achieved. But the problem exceeds that of seemingly 'crazy', 'fanatic', 'conspiracy theorist' and, for good measure, also 'racist' multitudes, simply refusing to save their own lives or the lives of loved ones, out of sheer ignorance and mere stupidity.

There are other issues that deserve to be considered, too. Lack of trust in government is an accumulative process, resulting from long experience and a prevailing conclusion that governments represent the interests of the rich and powerful, not the poor and vulnerable. That cannot be wished away as a result of a supposedly scathing editorial written by establishment newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post.

The inequality gap in the United States, for example, has been constantly widening in recent years. A 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group concluded that, by 2021, nearly 70 per cent of the US' wealth would be concentrated in the hands of millionaires and billionaires. Can we truly blame a poor, working-class American for mistrusting a government that has engendered this kind of inequality?

Liberal political parties, whether the Democrats in the US, or the Parti Socialiste in France, or the Partito Democratico in Italy have, in fact, orchestrated much of this inequality and the subsequent mistrust and resentment harboured by millions of their citizens. Their politicians and news media insist on a reductionist reading of the rise of populism in their societies, simply because they want to maintain the self-serving status quo.

The so-called 'moderates' are the ones who are mostly articulating the political discourse of the time, simply because an authentic, grassroots-propelled political left is almost completely absent from the scene. The resultant vacuum has rendered entire communities, people with real grievances, vulnerable to far-right opportunists, the likes of Marine Le Pen in France, Trump in the US and Matteo Salvini in Italy.

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The above are self-serving politicians with disturbing political ideas, often chauvinistic ideologies and, of course, personal ambitions. With no one else challenging mainstream politicians and corporate media, they are often welcomed as liberators, 'draining the swamps' of Washington and wherever else political elitism exists.

Some of us may avoid this uncomfortable discussion altogether, probably out of fear of being branded as belonging to the wrong crowd or, possibly, as a result of our insistence on understanding the world from our own limited political and ideological vantage points. But, by doing so, we are failing at truly analysing the roots of the current political mayhem.

True, there have been attempts in mainstream media to offer a third way of thinking on the subject, but most of these ideas remain limited in their scope and context, and often bashful in their language. For example, a recent New York Times article linked the anti-vaccination movement to the 'COVID cultural war' in Europe, but hardly delved deep enough into the economic and class component of that division.

While the "vaxxers" and the "anti-vaxxers" may carry on to mobilise around whatever system of beliefs they hold dear, it is not the responsibility of the intellectual to follow the diktats of superficial identity politics. What is required is a true understanding of the roots behind these cultural and political phenomena, with the hope of engaging and fixing as opposed to simply condemning the 'other side'.

The late Italian anti-fascist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, had written about the "intellectual's error" of judging without truly understanding, feeling and "being impassioned". According to him, no knowledge is possible "without feeling the elementary passions of the people, understanding them and therefore explaining and justifying them in the particular historical situation".

There are hundreds of millions of people with real grievances, justifiable fears and understandable confusion. If we do not engage with all people on an equal footing for the betterment of humankind, they are left to seek answers from the 'prophets of doom' – far-right chauvinists and conspiracy theorists. This cannot possibly be the only option.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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