AfD Strongholds, Hygiene Rallies, Tin-Foil Hats and Coronavirus Infections

Photograph Source: GoToVan – CC BY 2.0

We already know that many of Trump’s voters are reluctant to follow protective measures when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. In all likelihood, many will also reject vaccinations to a higher degree than the average American. But is there a link between voting for right-wing populism and the prevalence of coronavirus cases? A new study from Germany seeks to understand the link between right-wing voters and the coronavirus or COVID-19.

An analysis by German researchers suggests that in local counties with a large number of AfD voters, COVID-19 cases are high. During the last months, various German lockdowns had a mediating effect on the coronavirus until the second wave hit Germany. In many geographical areas, the coronavirus cases increased faster in recent weeks.

This increase fuels fear of a dramatic Christmas season – the cancellation of Christmas, and even more severe restrictions. In other words, no Glühwein parties. With even higher death tolls compared to last summer, there is now a somewhat frantic search for the causes of the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Germany.

Some of the questions plaguing many Germans are: Are our coronavirus prevention measure and rules too soft? Or are they simply ignored by too many? Again, and again, the question is: can something be said of specific groups like right-wing populist voters being linked to higher coronavirus infections? As we know, Germany’s right-wing populists are reluctant to comply with government restrictions.

A recent study found that wherever Germany’s most outspoken right-wing populist party, the AfD is strong, there are more new infections. It also found that there is a particularly strong link between the AfD and coronavirus infections. More specifically, the data shows that in those counties with high coronavirus incidences, the AfD had achieved a high proportion of votes during the 2017 federal election.

This applies in particular to former East-German districts such as those around the city of Bautzen and Hildburghausen in Thuringia, the home state of the AfD’s most outspoken right-winger Björn Höcke. In both counties, the number of coronavirus cases has exploded in recent weeks. These areas overlap with electorates in which the AfD had won a relatively large share of the vote in the last federal election.

This correlation – linking AfD voters and high coronavirus cases – also exists in some former West-German electorates with the exception of the northern port city of Bremen and Lower Saxony. Yet, these are not just a few individual cases. Obviously, this is also not the only possible explanation for high coronavirus cases in high AfD voting areas. The AfD-coronavirus link is not universal throughout Germany, and the AfD-coronavirus link was not found in all counties and local electorates.Beyond that, there are the usual fallacies of statistic. There still is Aaron Levenstein’s dictum – statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. Additionally, correlation does not automatically mean causality. In purely mathematical terms, the coronavirus-AfD link does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. In other words, if you vote AfD, you will not automatically get the coronavirus.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Education, Unemployment, Age and the AfD

To put it bluntly, just because there are many AfD supporters in a specific electorate does not necessarily mean that they are the ones who will get the virus. Furthermore, AfD voters should not be blamed for the high prevalence of the coronavirus. As far as we know, it might still be a pure coincidence even though this appears to be somewhat less likely. More likely might be the fact that geographical areas with high coronavirus cases might also have other common causes. For example, high AfD areas are often also areas with lower income, high unemployment, less education, and have an elderly population with more medical difficulties. These are all contributing factors for higher levels of coronavirus infections.

Despite these alternative explanations, the research has also shown that in former East-Germany, the number of coronavirus case and AfD voting patterns do indeed coincide. The connection between high coronavirus cases and AfD voters becomes even stronger when specific districts are distinguished by their location. Overall and despite thirty years of unification, former East-Germany still remains different from the western parts of Germany.

Notwithstanding, it remains striking that there is a strong AfD-coronavirus link exists only where the AfD has established a stronghold. No other political party in Germany shows this link. Might this indicate that there are two kinds of parties in Germany: democratic parties, on the one hand, and a right-wing populist party – the AfD – on the other hand. The AfD is, at least partially, filled with members and supporters who reject the government’s measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

When researchers repeated their analysis over a longer period of time, it still showed a strong correlation between voting AfD and the prevalence of the coronavirus in a particular geographical area. A second point to consider, statistically, is that AfD support in some regions may have changed over time. To see whether this had any influence on the data, researchers repeated their analysis by comparing results of the 2019 European elections and to the 2017 federal election. The calculation showed only a marginal, i.e., insignificant, difference. In other words, there are specific geographical areas inside Germany in which the AfD has established itself. These are also the areas in which the coronavirus is prevalent.

Overall, the analyses still show that there is a correlation between the AfD’s electoral successes and the numbers of coronavirus cases in both former East-Germany and former West-Germany. But it is equally clear that the link is more prevalent in those areas located in the former East-Germany. It is in former East-Germany where the AfD has been more prominent compared to the western parts of Germany.

Yet, it is fascinating to note that it looked the other way around at the beginning of the pandemic. For months, the number of new coronavirus cases in former East-Germany – officially known as the New Bundesländer – tended to be lower compared to the western part of Germany. Under the Soviet system, the former East-Germany did not have Länder or states. Today, these former East-Germany Länder are strongholds of the AfD.

The statistical analysis also looked at the average number of new infections per 100,000 people. The figures for Länder such as Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Thuringia indicate what was happening in the East. Significantly, the AfD-coronavirus connection in these East-Germany states only emerged during the second wave, in fall 2020.

It did not emerge during the first wave of coronavirus infections during the spring and summer period. Yet, it remains interesting to note that many of the former East-Germany counties that now have very high numbers of coronavirus infections had – rather interestingly – only very few cases in Germany’s first coronavirus wave.

The coronavirus may spread into these areas later in 2020. It might also be possible and indeed likely that the acceptance of the government’s anti-coronavirus measures decreased later in the year.

The AfD Discovers the Tin-Foil Hat

In this context, the AfD has only recently discovered Germany’s coronavirus sceptics as a target group. In the course of the pandemic and failing with its nightmare scenario – an impending refugee crisis followed by a civil war – the AfD was looking for a new issue. First, the AfD’s new theme became l’idée fixe that global warming is a myth. Sadly, it did not gain much traction. As a consequence, the AfD became increasingly convinced that joining the anti-coronavirus bandwagon would be a rather useful strategy.

Historically, conspiracy theories on the coronavirus pandemic did not come from within the AfD. It came from a peculiar mixture of ageing hippies from Germany’s hard left and overwhelmingly and somewhat contradictory hard right. Almost instantaneously, the AfD discovered these conspiracy theorists, their tin-foil hat wearing nutcases, and their so-called hygiene rallies that are anti-government rallies as a potential recruiting ground. The AfD figured that these groups of people are a potential flock who would be able to revert the party’s failing political appeal.

Today, we know that AfD voters are highly receptive to conspiracy theories. In other words, conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic became highly useful to the AfD. Yet, the tin-foil hat people and adjacent sympathisers are very different from the AfD with very different backers and very different political interests.

The tin-foil hat people reject authority, for example, while the AfD thrives on authority, seeking to establish some kind of authoritarian and anti-democratic regime. While the tin-foil hat people express a rejection of the government’s anti-coronavirus measures, the AfD wants to destroy democracy from within democracy. Just as the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once said, “will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.”

Yet there are commonalities. Both – the tin-foil hat wearing hygiene protesters and the AfD supporter – feel that the government’s anti-coronavirus measures severely constrain them. Both are also overwhelmingly opposed to the current coronavirus protection measures. There is lateral thinking in both camps.

Furthermore, many AfD voters and supporters attend the hygiene rallies organise by the tin-foil hat people. Yet, there also is a correlation between the rejection of the government’s anti-coronavirus measures and voting for the AfD. Meanwhile, there is also a strong tendency towards coronavirus conspiracy theories among AfD voters. Finally, there is a suggestion that many AfD voters tend to underestimate the danger of the coronavirus pandemic with some believing the coronavirus pandemic does not exist at all.

Worse, much of this also means that the AfD’s recruitment pattern has recently shifted to include those who show non-compliance to the government’s measures. In turn, this might also cause the number of coronavirus infections to soar. This links the areas with high coronavirus infections to areas in which the AfD is strongest. Today, we know that those who believe in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic are also those who are more likely to reject the government’s anti-coronavirus measures.

The Usual Suspects

What remains significant is that the relationship between coronavirus cases and AfD voters is much stronger than other variables. In order to examine this further, researchers calculated coronavirus infections geographically by county and set these against other factors – for example, the proportion of receiving social welfare per county. The result showed only a very weak correlation. Population density of various counties also showed little correlation when calculated against coronavirus infections. In other words, among the many, the coronavirus-AfD link showed to be the most significant.

There is strong evidence pointing into the direction of the coronavirus-AfD link. This is entirely plausible when one sees how AfD politicians deal with the mask obligation, i.e., blatant violations. Nevertheless, in many regions, particularly in the global economy, the tin-foil hat people and the AfD have established a local culture that is far removed from democracy. In many AfD strongholds, there is active resistance against government measures, and there is a greater willingness to support illiberal ideologies.

In sum, in those geographical areas in which we see a lot of right-wing supports, local culture has formed which sees itself as the resistance against Merkel’s government, against the media, and of course against the always elusive elite. In turn, much of this favours the AfD. This links to those who disregard the coronavirus rules.

In other words, Germany’s right-wing populists have managed to ride the anti-coronavirus bandwagon of the tin-foil hat wearing hygiene rally protestors. This, in turn, links geographical areas in which coronavirus infections are high to areas in which the AfD most active.