Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Vaccine Hesitancy Isn’t Just about Misinformation
2. Putin Criminalizes Opposition as Navalny’s Appeal is Denied
3. Retired French Generals Hint at Coup in Open Letter
Vaccine Hesitancy Isn’t Just about Misinformation
Credit: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
“If I have to choose the vaccine or chip I'm gonna choose death.”
British rapper M.I.A., singer of the 2009 hit “Paper Planes,” shocked fans with this statement, which sounded more like a derisive parody of anti-vaxxers than a bona fide expression of skepticism. Except… she wasn’t joking. How many others feel the same way?
Thankfully, the numbers are on a downward trend. Indeed, the Kaiser Family Foundation quantifies that the share of people who have already gotten a vaccine or want one without hesitation has increased from 34% in December to 62% today.
Worryingly, however, many “hard no’s” remain. Polling consistently indicates that around one in four Americans still refuses to be inoculated. This is especially concerning because variants have prompted researchers to estimate that herd immunity will require at least 80% of the population to be vaccinated, which will be impossible if this level of vaccine refusal persists. The stakes are high: without herd immunity, COVID could become a recurring fact of life that seasonally hospitalizes and kills, much like the flu.
It’s also important to note that these “hard no’s” are not a homogenous group. Though often in vastly different proportions, they come from many different parts of society:
“Hard no’s,” who won’t get the vaccine unless it’s required or say they never would, are in green and mint. Credit: Excerpted from Kaiser Family Foundation Vaccine Monitor, March 15-22.
What is the root cause of vaccine hesitancy?
The popular narrative, at least among the mainstream media, faults irresponsible sources of information. Lies and propaganda from the Trump White House, Fox News, and other such media outlets questioning the severity of the virus—and the effectiveness of the cure. There is much truth to this. While America has suffered from the COVID pandemic, we’ve also suffered from an epidemic of misinformation. Indeed, data suggests that around 30% of conservatives say they are “hard no’s,” in contrast to just 5-10% of liberals.
But although these factors have surely played a big role in vaccine hesitancy, there are also other issues at play.
What else is going on here?
First things first, vaccine hesitancy, stems, at least in part, from the mixed messaging from our elected officials, the CDC, and even the scientific community. Vaccines are a huge boon that will enable us to go back to normal, to send our children to school, and to socialize with our friends without practicing social distancing or wearing masks. Yet, some of the rhetoric that we hear dramatically overestimates the risks of returning to normal for those who have been vaccinated. This messaging blunder has taken a toll and convinced some people not to prioritize getting a vaccine.
Second, misinformation, while predominantly a problem for the Right, has also affected communities largely on the Left, particularly the Hispanic and African-American communities. Furthermore, the anti-vax movement, which obviously preceded COVID-19, was a phenomenon across the political spectrum and one entertained by many prominent individuals in Hollywood and other liberal spaces.
Third, many conservatives and evangelicals are hesitant to get the vaccine not because of their politics or misinformation but because of certain fundamental values that predispose them to apprehension. A landmark study published in the top journal Nature found those who care more about the purity of their bodies and minds, and who value individual liberty over governmental authority, are twice as likely to be vaccine-hesitant. These beliefs, in turn, are often deeply embedded in conservative and religious worldviews (see also). As Yale’s Dr. Saad Omer (who authored the study) explains, the striking implication is that education is unlikely to solve this issue because it’s rooted not in ignorance, but in our underlying values.
Fourth, for minority communities, vaccine hesitancy may be partially rooted in a history of medical racism. In the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, four hundred African-Americans were lied to and denied treatment for their STD so scientists could observe its natural progression. This shameful incident, as well as persistent racial disparities, have catalyzed mistrust. Latinos have also been victimized by medical racism, including thousands of forced sterilizations. Thankfully, however, racial gaps in vaccination rates have narrowed dramatically in recent months—a profoundly positive sign (furthermore, access may have been a greater issue than skepticism in the first place).
So how should we go about addressing this hesitancy?
A few strategies seem promising.
First, use the right message. As of three weeks ago, a remarkable 99.992% of fully vaccinated Americans remained COVID-free. Rather than focusing on vague concepts like “herd immunity,” or constantly lowering expectations for what people can do once they’ve been vaccinated “out of an abundance of caution,” we should talk about how vaccines essentially free people from the risk of COVID.
Second, use the right messenger. Family, friends, neighbors, and community leaders can help normalize the act of being vaccinated and exert a stronger influence than distant experts. For instance, a case study out of Israel demonstrated that a particularly influential Imam was key to reducing hesitancy in his Bedouin community.
Finally, policymakers should lower logistical barriers to getting vaccines.
Fighting misinformation and obstinance will surely prove difficult. But by replacing reflexive “debunking” with targeted empathy, more people may become open to changing their minds. That’s no small feat.
Putin Criminalizes Opposition as Navalny’s Appeal is Denied
Alexei Navalny appears on screen in a Moscow courtroom on Thursday, broadcasting via videolink from his prison. Credit: CNN
Head shaven and prison attire hanging loosely from his skeletal body, Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, appeared in court last week to appeal his conviction, wasting no time before rebuking Putin and his hold on power. "Your naked, thieving king wants to continue to rule until the end,” he declared through a blurry prison broadcast.
Navalny’s appeal was expectedly denied, but his accusation—that Putin will do anything to enshrine his power—has proven all too true.
In another Moscow court last week, a judge granted the Russian government’s request to suspend the activities of Navalny’s entire political organization, including his anti-corruption network that has exposed instances of theft and money-laundering by Putin and his regime. Shortly thereafter, the government added Navalny’s movement to a list of extremist organizations, putting them in the same category as groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
These rulings will shut down nearly 40 regional offices, as well as all social media sites belonging to the opposition. By declaring his movement “extremist,” the government now has the power to arrest and jail Navalny’s entire staff, and to punish all shows of support for Navalny’s movement. Everything from donating money, to retweeting a link to Navalny’s website, to just wearing a t-shirt with Navalny’s slogan, could now land his supporters in jail, charged with inciting or abetting extremism.
Recognizing that merely jailing Navalny is not enough to stop his movement, the regime has imposed the kind of repressive measures not seen since the darkest days of the Soviet Union.
What does Russia’s extremism law mean for democracy?
Authoritarian governments the world over follow the same playbook in criminalizing opposition under the guise of “national security” or “combatting hate.” Under a veneer of democracy and good intentions, dictators create vaguely-worded laws that can be weaponized to imprison anyone they please. There is always the shield of plausible deniability; that wasn’t a human rights defender I just jailed, they argue, but rather a terrorist. (Notably, in America, such ambiguous laws would likely be unconstitutional under the vagueness doctrine. The Due Process clauses of the US Constitution require that people have notice of “what is punishable and what is not.”)
In Venezuela, a writer that dared post an image criticizing the Venezuelan Attorney General was accused of “inciting hatred” and swiftly imprisoned. In Hong Kong, peaceful young protesters were arrested on charges of “terrorism” for challenging the Chinese regime.
In Russia, it may not be long before ordinary people must look behind their shoulder every time they speak, for fear that their comments may be perceived as “extremist.” Already, the Kremlin has used the same extremism law to criminalize people’s sincerely-held beliefs. Since 2017, more than 400 Jehova’s Witnesses have been charged with “extremism,” and dozens of them are serving long sentences.
Years ago, in the Soviet Union, the KGB would arrest and jail anyone found to be committing “ideological subversion”: their term for ideas that challenged communist dogma. After the establishment of a Russian democracy, many Russians believed the days of secret police were finally behind them. Now, Putin is using the exact same tactics as his authoritarian peers to maintain his iron grip on power, while the light of freedom in Russia grows dimmer by the day.
Retired French Generals Hint at Coup in Open Letter
Late last month, a group of 20 retired French generals and 1,000 active and retired servicemen warned in an open letter to President Macron that the country was headed towards civil war. In particular, the ex-military members highlighted Islam, anti-racist ideology, and economic stagnation.
The letter denounces “Islamism and the hordes [of Muslims] in France’s ghettos,” and critiques the pervasive influence of ‘woke’ ideology in French universities, which the French right sees as an undesirable American export. Finally, the letter rebukes President Macron’s response to the gilet-jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. Since 2018, the Yellow Vests have rallied against rising consumer prices, stagnant working-class wages, and economic inequality.
The generals concluded the letter by calling for the direct intervention of armed forces in French society if the elected government could not protect France’s “civilizational values.”
Alarmingly, the generals’ message, which arguably hinted at a coup, has received some public support. The right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles found that 64% of 1,600 survey respondents had heard of the generals’ manifesto; 58% approved. A subsequent study published by La Chaîne Info found that 45% of the French public sees an imminent civil war, 49% approve of the army intervening to maintain order even in the absence of authorization, and 73% think French society is falling apart. For her part, Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right party, Front National, expressed support for the generals’ manifesto.
How did France get here?
In recent years, a combination of factors has elevated and legitimized certain right-wing fears in French society.
Starting with the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in January 2015, France has been under constant attack by reactionary Islamist terrorists. In the years since, ISIS and al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for attacks ranging from mass bombings of Paris night life to the Bastille Day Massacre to the murder of an 84-year old priest during a church service. These attacks recently culminated in a horrific incident when a young Islamist terrorist beheaded a French schoolteacher in the middle of Paris.
This terrorism coincides with increasing economic insecurity over wage stagnation; notably, the economically populist Yellow Vest movement has at least 66% approval among the public. The French far-right has been able to capitalize on these forces and trends. Marine le Pen is now polling above the highly unpopular President Macron, although it is still likely that le Pen will lose in a second-round vote.
What lessons can we learn from what’s happening in France?
The recent events underscore the allure of using extra-constitutional means to protect values that a society holds dear, even in well-established democracies like France. And the generals’ letter isn’t the only instance of this troubling trend recently. Back in February, Macron signed a law that restricted freedom of religion in the name of protecting laïcité, or the French ideal of secularism. Before that, in 2004, hijabs, crucifixes, yarmulkes, and other religious symbols were banned from public schools.
What’s happening in France serves as a stark reminder that even though the problems and dangers facing French society are very real, we must resist the temptation to undermine the rule of law and governmental checks and balances in our attempts to address them.