How the COVID-19 Pandemic Gave Rise to Right-Wing Populism

protestors canada
Anti-COVID-19 lockdown protestors in Toronto, Canada (DSC_7992/Flickr).

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

It’s no secret that right-wing populism made a resurgence globally as the world came out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Italy has elected its first female prime minister, who CNN complains pushes policy “further to the right than any mainstream political movement Italy has seen since the days of its former fascist leader.” These “far-right” ideas include: questioning abortion rights, managing immigration, and a general distaste for globalism.

Sweden—a historically socially liberal country—has seen an immigration-control league of Democrats gain enormous favor in the country’s parliament. This is likely due to an increase in gang violence and general violent crime, especially in immigrant-heavy areas of the country.

France has seen constant protests over totalitarian moves made by President Emmanuel Macron in recent months. The most recent rise was due to Macron using executive power to push massively unpopular pension revisions past the legislature.

Most importantly for Americans, President Joe Biden, who is as much of an establishment politician as anyone, has seen some of the highest disapproval rates of any U.S. president in recent history. Currently, 54% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s actions and performance as president. 

How did we get here?

Obviously, these massive shifts in public opinion didn’t come from the ether. There’s a very clear catalyst that brought the people to despise the control of the “powers that be.” COVID-19 was used as an excuse by political establishments to demonstrate and enforce their power. 

Through the crackdowns, most citizens stayed quiet and obeyed the orders of the government. However, during the last few months of the pandemic and long after, people started waking up to what was going on behind the scenes.

The rich got richer. The middle class shrunk further.

Between 2020 and 2021, the 400 richest people in the world, the elite of the elite, added $4.5 trillion to their net worths in the middle of a global pandemic. That amounts to an additional 40% compared to what they owned only a year prior. The working class? Between the same two years, 97 million people joined the “extreme poverty” level, making less than $1.90 per day. Projections before the global government crackdown forecasted a decrease of 20-30 million people in extreme poverty.

The conditions of the lockdowns served no purpose in protecting the wealth of the average person and instead inflated that of the elite.

Education was hampered.

Despite the numerous “experts” on the news and on social media that tried to insist that online learning was just as good or better than in-person instruction, students learned less. In June 2020, Christine Greenhow, a Michigan State University associate professor of education technology said that “Online learning can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning. Research has shown that students in online learning performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction…”

But this simply was not the case. Not being in the classroom and instead the distracting home environment, students across the United States lost a lot of educational time. According to Thomas Kaine, a researcher with NWEA (a non-profit standardized testing organization), American students lost between 13 and 22 weeks worth of learning by the time they came back to school in the fall of 2021.

Much like the upwards transfer of wealth that occurred during the pandemic, it hurt the working class the most. The deciding factor on where any given school fell in that 13-22 week range was the wealth of the school’s students. The least fortunate lost almost six entire months of educational time. The elite, who opt their children out of public schools entirely for private schools or homeschooling at a much higher rate than middle and lower-income families, dodged this loss as both of their preferred institutions experienced much less or no learning loss.

The pandemic significantly exacerbated mental health issues in children and adults.

The mental health of children, teenagers, and adults across the world was utterly wrecked by lockdowns.

An article on COVID-19’s impact on mental health published in FACETS, the official journal of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science puts it succinctly: “Children and youth flourish in environments that are predictable, safe, and structured.” The panic and lockdowns set in by big government acted as the antithesis of what makes for a good environment for youths.

It should be noted that mental health issues were on the rise in the U.S. (and globally) before the pandemic. From 2016 to 2020, there was a rise in anxiety and depression in adolescents from 14 to 16 percent, according to an analysis by KFF. However, that step of 2% in four years is nothing compared to the damage the pandemic did.

In 2022, when KFF asked U.S. parents what effect the pandemic had on their children’s mental health, 55% answered that their children’s mental health was negatively impacted. Only 9% said that their children were positively impacted.

The U.S. is not an outlier here though. Britain’s “Prince’s Trust” program publishes a report on the mental well-being of young adults between 16 and 25 every year. 56% of respondents identified in the 2021 paper reported feeling “always” or “often” anxious. Exactly 50% reported that their mental health had gotten “worse” since the start of the pandemic.

Like every part of the pandemic, this affected people with less power and money at a larger scale than it did the elite. In the same KFF paper, it was revealed that people with a household income of less than $40,000 a year were 8% more likely to have been mentally affected by the pandemic than those with a household income of $90,000 or more.

Why does that matter?

According to most figures, low and middle-income Americans make up approximately 80% of the population. In most European countries, around 85% of the population is low or middle-income. This means that in an unfettered democracy, the government must cater to this majority or risk expulsion from their seats of power.

Now, more than any time in recent memory, the majority of citizens feel as if the elite (one percenters, deep state, choose your name) have been prioritized at the expense of the average citizen. This is the core of what populism seeks to cure.

As to why specifically right-wing populism is making a splash: Left-wing populism is rare, and it is often a thin veil to cover real intentions and consequences. Most democrats will point at Senator Bernie Sanders as a perfect example of left-wing populism. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable claim. “Most Americans have very little understanding of the degree to which media ownership in America—what we see, hear, and read—is concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations.” Though this sounds like Donald Trump’s brand of populism, it’s actually a quote from Sanders’ book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In

But while Sanders’ tirades about universal healthcare and free college give off a populist aura, he nevertheless embodies a broader progressive agenda that has taken very kindly to globalization, usually at the expense of middle-class Americans and to the benefit of transnational corporations, as well as a naive idealism that borders on utopian fantasy. Many of his most famous policies, such as universal healthcare, for example, would clumsily federalize the nation’s healthcare system, making the already pressing problems of bureaucratic bloat and burnout rates among doctors even worse than they already are, leading to systemwide detriment, and even a possible collapse. 

Needless to say, this would cause large amounts of grief to the average citizen. To deem these policies sufficiently “populist” simply because they appeal to the idealist sentiment of “healthcare for all” doesn’t work when the end result would most assuredly exacerbate the current systemic challenges the healthcare system currently faces. 

A few more examples include S.938, S.1963, and S.393. Each of these acts proposes to expand a service to Americans such as water, college, or more social security. The problem with all of these programs is the same. The money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is taxes. The end result is more money being taken from the average American and given away. If the average American isn’t helped—and in fact hurt—by these actions, they cannot be defined as populist.

The only other cohorts of the left put up the cheap facade of being “for the people,” which was torn down by their actions during the pandemic, bailing out big corporations and shutting down small businesses.

If left-wing populists are virtually nonexistent, the elitist left leaves a vacuum for the right. The right-wing populist “for-the-people” approach becomes the only reasonable choice to “fix things” as fast as possible.

So why is the time ripe for right-wing populism? The pandemic exposed unimaginable corruption around the world. It showed that the incumbent left did nothing but conspire with the elite despite their promises of being the servants of the people. In contrast, right-wing populism’s current brand pledges to focus on improving the life of the average citizen, starting with preserving the nuclear family, reducing crime, and the promise to “drain the swamp.”  In the aftermath of the pandemic, the right has juxtaposed itself as the harbinger of the defiant masses going against the establishment that sent a wrenching ball through civil society.

I, myself, am a skeptic of the populist politician’s claim that they can make such overarching, systemic changes without having the government reach their hands even more into the daily lives of civilians. I’d imagine it’s near impossible to remold society itself at such a high speed without at least partially oppressing law-abiding citizens.

In 2001, during the days following 9/11, Congress and President Bush signed off on the USA PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act promised to protect all American citizens from terrorists using the full force of the federal government. To do this, the PATRIOT Act provided the federal government with the unprecedented ability to surveil all citizens at all times. The PATRIOT Act was a populist piece of legislation, as the argument to approve it was that it would improve the safety of Americans and stop further terrorist attacks. The PATRIOT Act did its job, as the U.S. never experienced a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 ever again, but it came with incredible damage to liberty, the foundation that the United States sits on. Populism has pitfalls, and it isn’t the answer to everything.

Whether or not the current generation of populist politicians will fulfill their lofty promises without nasty drawbacks is up in the air, but one thing is certain: populism only seems to gain speed in a snowball effect as it becomes more and more popular, and it isn’t leaving any time soon.


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