Right-Wing Backlash Against COVID-19 Mitigation Measures

Over the past two months, mobilization against public-health measures meant to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has swelled to levels that exceed the wave of protests against business closures and stay-at-home orders around the start of the pandemic in 2020, Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) data show. And, so far, the current surge shows no signs of abating.

The figure immediately below charts daily counts of protest events in the CCC dataset that had the COVID-19 pandemic as a major theme and were labeled as right-wing. In the CCC data, events related to COVID are generally labeled “right-wing” when they oppose public-health measures such as mask or vaccination requirements, whether or not the protesters explicitly identify themselves in a partisan fashion. So, for all practical purposes, these are events at which participants were protesting against those kinds of mandates, usually on grounds that those mandates infringe upon their personal liberty, parental prerogatives, or “medical freedom.” (Consistent with CCC’s general practices, this set of events does not include protests voiced during comment sessions at meetings of bodies such as school boards or county councils, unless those protests deliberately and successfully disrupted or derailed the larger meeting.)

As the figure shows, the ongoing wave has already exceeded the one seen in spring 2020 in both intensity and duration, and it may not even have peaked yet. The single day with the most protest actions in the current wave happened just a few days ago, on August 28, with more than 60 events nationwide, many of them backed by the Tea Party Patriots.

The next figure plots daily sums of participants in those protest events, splitting the difference between the high and low crowd estimates recorded by CCC coders for each action. This chart suggests that the recent protests are not drawing larger crowds than the ones in 2020, even as there are more of them. (Note: estimates of crowd size are unavailable for roughly 40 percent of the events in the CCC data set, so these sums almost certainly underestimate the scale of participation in these events. That’s true for 2020 and 2021, however, so it probably doesn’t affect comparisons across the two waves.) 

The scale of the ongoing wave has varied widely across states. As shown in the bar chart below, the state with the most of these protests in the past two months by far is California, where opposition to COVID-19 public-health measures is thematically and organizationally intertwined with the effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. Washington ranks second, due mostly to a statewide, single-day mobilization led by the group Unmask Our Kids Washington on Wednesday, August 18. Despite its liberal reputation, New York ranks third, and New Mexico and Florida follow close behind. Only Wyoming and Puerto Rico have yet to see any events in the current wave, or at least any that CCC was able to spot.

In per capita terms, however, California does not look so exceptional. As the next chart shows, relative to their population size, it’s New Mexico, New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”), and Hawaii that have contributed proportionately the most to the current wave. Washington state still lands in the top five, but Idaho, the Dakotas, Montana, Oregon, Maine, and Alaska now show near the top of the list as well. (James C. Scott’s work on resistance to government from afar among hill peoples in Southeast Asia comes to mind…)

So, why is this happening now? As the person who’s been reading the news stories and social-media posts and watching the TV-news videos to code events during this period, I’d say it’s pretty clear that the current wave has two main catalysts.

  • The approach of the new school year, and the imposition of mask mandates in many districts where students will at least start the year attending school in person; and
  • COVID-19 vaccination requirements announced by many hospitals and other employers in the healthcare industry—and, in places like New York and Oregon, by city and state governments as well.

Mask mandates in schools were more often the focal point through much of July, but the wave really swelled in August as deadlines for vaccinations as a condition of employment at many healthcare facilities began to loom. In California, a group calling itself America’s Healthcare Workers for Medical Freedom has promoted dozens of demonstrations against COVID-19 vaccination requirements for healthcare workers on social media in recent weeks, most of them outside area hospitals. But similar demonstrations have occurred across the country in places like Staten Island, New York; Miami, Florida; and Memphis, Tennessee.

A crucial question we can’t answer clearly with our data is the extent to which the impetus for the current wave is coming from national conservative groups with broader goals, as opposed to local activists motivated specifically by frustrations over these public-health measures. The frequent appearance of groups like the Tea Party, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and the Proud Boys in the lists of organizations involved with these events suggests that right-wing movements are looking to use frustrations over COVID public-health measures to boost recruitment and mobilize voters for upcoming elections to everything from local school boards to federal office. So, too, does the appearance of GOP office-holders and candidates at some of these events, including one this past Sunday on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one earlier in the month in Lansing, Michigan. Long-time observers of the anti-vaccine movement have also described how its leaders are exploiting public frustration over COVID mandates to push the Republican Party toward a broader anti-vaccination agenda. For now, though, we’ll have to leave more confident answers to the “grassroots vs. astroturf” question to the investigative reporters, who, as far as I can tell, are still digging.

Published by Jay Ulfelder

Jay Ulfelder has worked for more than two decades at the intersection of social science and data science, with particular interests in contentious politics, democracy, and forecasting.

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