I recently read an article from NPR called “Inside the growing alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans,” and I want to talk to you about it because I think it echoes a common misconception amongst critical thinkers, and I am frankly very tired of it and would like to do away with it entirely. The misconception is this: anti-vaccine sentiment is an essentially “liberal” form of pseudoscience that has only recently won over conservatives thanks to Donald Trump and COVID-19. It isn’t true. There is no “growing alliance” between these two groups because they are not and have never been two distinct groups – in fact, they are a Venn diagram that looks less like boobies and more like, I don’t know, a solar eclipse?
The NPR article is built upon this false premise, mentioning early on the fact that one prominent anti-vaccine guy is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who has “championed other liberal causes in the past.” True! It also highlights the WACKY TALE of anti-vaccine propagandist Del Bigtree, who admits that he is “still a registered Democrat” and was a “lifelong liberal progressive” despite speaking at a conservative women’s group in Texas. Fun fact, Bigtree was a producer for Dr. Phil, and later for The Doctors and that’s how he met Andrew Wakefield and ended up promoting his discredited views that vaccines cause autism (which they do not).
Anyway, that’s two men who are nominally “liberal” and yet who are prominent anti-vaxxers! And that makes it completely unprecedented that these liberal anti-vaxxers would join forces with Trump’s MAGAts, right? “It’s the synergy between real politics and imagined dangers that is bringing the pro-Trump movement and anti-vaccine activists together.”
Except. While you can name as many “liberal” anti-vaxxers as you’d like, the fact of the matter is that opposition to vaccines has always been either apolitical or leaning towards conservatives, and we have decades of research to prove it.
In 2014, a YouGov survey of 1,000 Americans found that “The probability of believing in a link between vaccines and autism is much higher among conservatives than liberals.” Interestingly, they also found that “Ideology is not the only factor associated with beliefs about vaccines. Trust in government also plays a key role. The less people trusted the government, the more likely they were to believe in a link between vaccinations and autism.” Remember that, it’s important.
In 2016, researchers found that in a survey of 367 Americans, “liberals were significantly more likely to endorse pro-vaccination statements and to regard them as “facts” (rather than “beliefs”), in comparison with moderates and conservatives…Conservative and moderate parents in this sample were less likely than liberals to report having fully vaccinated their children prior to the age of two.”
That same year, a Pew research poll found that while most parents were pro-vaccine, “Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) hold roughly the same views as Democrats (including leaning Democrats) about the benefits and risks of the MMR vaccine, consistent with a 2015 Pew Research Center survey on this topic. Republicans and Democrats (including those who lean to either party) are about equally likely to support a school-based vaccine requirement. However, political conservatives are slightly more likely than either moderates or liberals to say that parents should be able to decide not to have their children vaccinated.”
In 2017, political scientists surveyed 1,000 Americans and found that “(political) ideology has a direct effect on vaccine attitudes. In particular, conservative respondents are less likely to express pro-vaccination beliefs than other individuals. Furthermore, ideology also has an indirect effect on immunization propensity. The ideology variable predicts an indicator capturing trust in government medical experts, which in turn helps to explain individual-level variation with regards to attitudes about vaccine choice.”
See a pattern emerging? Not only have conservatives been more likely than liberals to be anti-vaccine since before Donald Trump was elected, but there has always been a strong link between antivaccine sentiments and distrust in government and science. If ever there was an inherent political component to vaccines, that was it: does the government have a right to tell us what medications to take? The Republican platform has historically been built upon the idea of “small and weak government,” aside from outlying issues like what women can do with their bodies. Any “liberal” connection has always been secondhand: libs may be slightly more likely to try alternative medicine, and quacks who push alternative medicine are also more likely to be anti-vaccine because it’s from “Big Pharma.”
But no, it was always the “medical freedom” bullshit that was going to be our downfall, and the research was very clear on this.
So please, save the fake shock that conservatives are “suddenly” anti-vaccine. They always have been, you just haven’t been paying attention.