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Thank Goodness for Phony Passion
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Thank Goodness for Phony Passion

How many conservative opponents of vaccines and mandates are really just addicted to negative partisanship?

Is the anti-vaccine, anti-government alarmist bent on the American right here to stay? And if so, at what magnitude?

Certainly cafeteria libertarianism is nothing new. It’s been a dozen years since members of the Tea Party movement expressed revolutionary zeal in opposing Obamacare but bitterly rejected even modest changes to shore up Medicare. It’s been 20 years that situational defenders of liberty have railed against the invasiveness of the TSA but supported policing initiatives like “stop and frisk.” 

So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that many of the same people who are now the most intensely opposed to vaccines and vaccine mandates come from the same nationalist wing of the right that wants to use government compulsion for its own causes. Whether it’s banning pornography, controlling online speech, or centrally planning an economy oriented toward manufacturing, the subscript on the Gadsden flags of the anti-vaxx protests should say “but maybe tread on thee.”

But hypocrisy is always closely correlated to proximity. Ganders don’t want what the geese got, fair or not. 

We’re not talking about ideological inconsistency there at the pointy end of things, though. The question at hand is whether the attitude of opposition to public-health regulations, including vaccine requirements, will long outlast the close-at-hand conclusion of the coronavirus pandemic. Will the humbuggery and angry rejection of authority that have seemed to dominate the American right through the pandemic continue to play a leading role?

We’ve all seen oceans of statistics on coronavirus vaccine refusal and partisanship. But this one sums it up pretty well: The Kaiser Family Foundation found that in April of last year, unvaccinated America was pretty evenly split between Republicans (42 percent) and Democrats (36 percent). This was when only a little more than half of all adults were vaccinated, and there was still considerable resistance among people of low incomes and limited education. But as poor people came on board, a political schism was revealed. By the fall of last year, when only about a quarter of adults were still holding out, 60 percent of the unvaccinated were self-identified Republicans, almost four times as many as Democrats.

One big reason to believe this kind of thinking will endure is that it has ridden shotgun with another kind of kookism: the widely held belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen. There are the real dingbats who still believe in mass fraud executed by government officials across the country, but there is an adjacent category that believes increased turnout from pandemic convenience voting tipped the race toward President Biden. Together, it adds up to a panic.

A recent Suffolk University poll says 61 percent of GOPers were “very worried” about the “future of Democracy” compared to 47 percent of Democrats. White voters were far more worried than black voters: 54 percent to 40 percent. Voters aged 50 and over clocked in more than 10 points higher for “very worried” than those under 50. Old, white, Republican, and very afraid.

But it’s hard to imagine that kind of claptrap would survive the expected Republican gains of this November if they materialize. These anxious Republicans are presumably following the same iron-clad reasoning of former President Donald Trump that a Republican loss is prima facie evidence of fraud, but a Republican win would have to mean legitimacy has been restored. But what about the health part?

While it is certainly true that the anti-vaccine movement has moved from the left to the right, it’s worth noting that this is partially a function of volume. Even before the pandemic, there was already an increasingly large number of people questioning the idea of mass inoculations against infectious disease, the great public health triumph of the previous century. 

Rates for early childhood vaccinations against illnesses like polio peaked about 20 years ago, then plateaued. It’s true nationally that only about one in 10 children under age 2 don’t get their shots for measles, mumps, and rubella. But there are several states where progress is being reversed. And it’s not in the places you might expect, where decades ago it was a struggle to get young children vaccinated, like Appalachia and the deep South. In 2017, the three worst states for the MMR shot were Missouri, Indiana, and Colorado.

When anti-vaxxing was mostly the province of the hippy-dippy left, the American right was still strongly of the rule-following “we say grace and we say ma’am” kind. People who thought their children should be exempt from vaccine mandates for school would not have been welcome in most corners of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The thousands of very angry-seeming folks who gathered Sunday in 30-degree weather on the National Mall to protest vaccine mandates would not have been part of the old right for sure. But surely there were many conservatives listening to speakers like Rizza Islam, of the Nation of Islam’s paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam, and acts like Brad Skistimas, the musician who wrote a song about Dr. Anthony Fauci: “Sad little man gonna trap you like a dog / Put your head in a net while they eat you raw.”

The Washington Post saw in the chilled clot on the Mall a harbinger of a frightening anti-vaccine future: “an ideology whose most notable adherents were once religious fundamentalists and minor celebrities is now firmly entrenched among tens of millions of Americans.”

Ehhhhhhh …

There is a lot wrong with the American right these days, the level of anger and tolerance of cruelty perhaps most of all. But how many of those “tens of millions” of opponents of coronavirus vaccines and vaccine mandates are really just Biden opponents and addicts of negative partisanship? How might vaccine resistance have broken differently on political lines had Trump won a second term?

It is certainly bad news that so many Americans are so deeply besotted by partisanship that they would risk their health for their political hatreds. It’s a serious problem and indicative of both a dangerous gullibility in our electorate and a warning about the lengths to which this mass hysteria could still reach. But that’s different from the idea that these right-wing anti-vaxxers are new devotees to a cause.

Some are probably lost down Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s rathole, sure. But it seems likely that just like with the election conspiracy theories, it is a self-serving, partisan endeavor for most. We will have to watch childhood vaccination rates this year and beyond, but I bet you that most of the anti-vaccine stuff will recede along with the pandemic itself.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.