Why Won’t They Take the Vaccine?

Sunday November 28, 2021

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What Happens Next is a podcast where an expert is given just SIX minutes to present his argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

Today’s topic is Why Won’t Working Class People Take that Damn Vaccine?

Our speaker is Chris Arnade.

I met Chris 25 years ago when we were both trading Emerging Market bonds at Salomon Brothers.

When Chris retired from Salomon/Citigroup, he took up photography. And he took pictures of working-class people and others who were troubled like drug addicts and prostitutes. And he took his work on the road, all over the US and then around the world.

Chris started blogging and then wrote a book entitled Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.

The people who listen to this program are for the most part living in the front row. Our listeners have done very well in life, they’ve graduated from college, got a job, been promoted and have had successful careers.

The back row is the opposite. They did poorly in school, they work from time to time and their careers go up and down, often at risk to the economic cycle and Chinese exports. Most back row people think of themselves as losers.

I want to learn from Chris, why doesn’t this community of working-class Americans want to get vaccinated? And what can we do to persuade them to change their minds?

Does this rejection of vaccines reflect an anti-elitism attitude, and why is there such anger and frustration with our leaders and institutions?

With that I turn to Chris Arnade, please begin your Six Minute Presentation.


Chris Arnade

Topic: Back Row Won’t Take the Vaccine
Bio: Photographer and Writer who Previously Traded Emerging Markets Bonds at Salomon/Citi.
Reading: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is here


I’m Chris Arnade. I used to be a bond trader, and for the last 10 years I’ve been hanging out with normies, doing what is basically ethnography light, spending time in back row communities, which are people without high school degrees.

I’ve been Walking America. I walk sometimes 20 miles across a city, and the during the process I often hang out at McDonald’s, Hardees, Walmarts, in bars, Applebee’s, and I talk to people.
It’s taking me into a lot of communities with high unvaccination rates. People tell me they’re unvaccinated. I don’t ask. They tell it to me almost as seamlessly and as quickly as they tell me their name or their occupation.

It’s become part of their identity, being unvaccinated is very core to a lot of people. I’m talking about people over 50. Being unvaccinated is not a light decision. It’s a decision they’ve come to and they’re sticking with; its very core to their identity in a way that perhaps you might think about someone’s religion. They’re very, very proud of it.

Who are these people? The demographics of the unvaccinated I’ve met, it’s very similar to the non-voters: Minorities are overrepresented. Everybody in this demographic is basically somebody who I think you could describe as a loser, somebody who’s had a rough life, things haven’t gone their way, and they don’t see themselves as having had an easy life.

Why are they unvaccinated? I try to let them tell me. I don’t probe them. There’s a massive mistrust in the system, elites or experts, in particular there’s a justified cynicism of the system as a whole, and they view this as a way to push back and make their mark, and this is their hill they’re going to die on, and they’re going to define themselves by it.

Certainly, the kind of early COVID policy in particular, the whipsaw nature of it has contributed to their views. I’d say the anvil that broke the camel’s back was probably when the public health officials said after three months of intense lockdowns that it was okay to protest, that in fact it was justified to protest.

The inability early on to talk about the origins of COVID. They’re like, “Hey, there’s a COVID lab in the city that it came from. Why can’t we talk about this?” So, there was a lot of cynicism built around the policy.

The elites say to do this, they’re going to do the opposite.

People under the age of 50, their risk profile is different, is what I would call weightlifting bros. These are back row people, who spend their life in the gym, on Reddit chat rooms, who have a very healthy mistrust of the nutritional system.

I think the consequences of this is that there’s going to be 20% of the population roughly, mostly lower income, mostly poor, who are not going to change their mind about vaccination. No amount of carrot or stick is going to get them to change, so I think policy needs to address this.

There is absolutely no way that someone like me, an elite, is going to get them to change their mind. It’s going to actually do what I call pushing them into a corner and doing what I call owning the stigma. It’s something you see in addiction.

When people embrace being deplorables, losers embrace being losers, the unvaccinated are going to embrace their positions, dig their heels in, and actually probably make even more reckless choices, so the only way it can come from it is it has to come from people like them, and that’s a big public policy outreach. That’s going to require a lot of money.
That means going into communities, basically finding the equivalent of the alpha male in a bar, getting them to change their mind through very systematic conversations, dispelling rumors that are out there, and topple one domino at a time. You’re not going to get a whole chain of these to topple.

Chris Arnade QA

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