So it’s finally happened. During my partial hiatus from this blog last week, President Biden laid out his plans going forward to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Prominent in his six-pronged plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic is a federal vaccine mandate. Specifically, President. Biden is mandating either vaccination against COVID-19 or weekly testing for all federal workers and workers for companies on federal government contracts, as well as all employees of hospitals and other health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement for their services. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will issue a rule using emergency authority requiring employers with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly. In addition, OSHA’s new Emergency Temporary Standard will also “apply to public sector state and local government workers, including educators and school staff, in the 26 states and two territories with a state OSHA plan.” This is a long-overdue federal response to the pandemic, and, predictably, the Republican Party is losing its mind over it.
As Amber Ruffin’s regular segment on her weekly show asks, “How did we get here?” Given that I’ve been explaining for several years now how Republicans have been increasingly embracing not just opposition to vaccine mandates, but actual antivaccine misinformation as no longer fringe but part of the mainstream of the party, I thought that Joe Biden’s recent announcement and the Republican Party’s reaction to it provided a perfect excuse to review some history, given that it’s been two years since I last addressed this specific question. Unfortunately, that history shows that the Republican Party is no longer just flirting with the antivaccine movement, as was true six years ago; rather, the Republican Party has become the antivaccine party.
So…how did we get here? Of necessity, a lot of this story will be a rehash, but it’s a timely one given President Biden’s executive order. Also, given that I haven’t put this story together in a coherent fashion in at least a couple of years I think it’s worthwhile to risk this post being a rehash if it saves my readers from having to click on too many links. (Not that I don’t encourage you to click on the links, I hasten to add. It’s just that I’ve tried to structure this post so that you don’t have to click on them unless you’re interested in more information.)
There was a time not so long ago (perhaps a decade, but certainly no longer than 20 years ago), when there was a widely held stereotype that antivaxxers were generally hippy-dippy, granola-crunching lefties. Indeed, given the association between conservatives and right wing populists and antivaccine activism today, it’s definitely a stereotype that has persisted long past any resemblance to reality. Be that as it may, back in Jenny McCarthy‘s heyday as the celebrity face of the antivaccine movement around 13 years ago, contributing to that perception were prominent left-wing antivaxxers, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (still an antivax leader, and now, predictably, an antimask COVID-19 conspiracy theorist) and a number of Hollywood celebrities like Rob Schneider (admittedly, I’m being generous in my definition of “celebrity”), Mayim Bialik, and Robert De Niro. It’s also true that areas with a lot of affluent people on the coasts whose politics tend to lean heavily liberal, have been focuses of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses over the years.
In actuality, this perception of a strong leftward political bias in the antivaccine movement was never really accurate. It’s long been known that antivaccine views tended to be the pseudoscience that crossed political boundaries. Indeed, there has always been a libertarian and right wing component to the antivaccine movement, with a very strong strain of antivaccine views on the right as well. Examples included General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who distrust the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules, an observation that led me once to ask in 2013 why the antivaccine movement seemed so at home among libertarians. Indeed, at the right-wing Libertarian FreedomFest in 2012, I was privileged to watch a debate between Julian Whitaker and Steve Novella about vaccines. At the debate, vaccine pseudoscience flowed freely from Whitaker in a most embarrassing fashion, and I couldn’t help but note that FreedomFest that year featured two screenings of Leslie Manookian’s antivaccine propaganda piece, The Greater Good and had featured antivaccine talks in previous years. Ironically, at one point, one of the antivaccine bloggers at the crank blog Age of Autism blamed “progressivism” for failing to “get” autism. (Translation: From his perspective, his fellow progressives don’t accept the vaccine-autism link the way he would like, while conservatives apparently did.)
It is no coincidence that the most powerful antivaccine legislator in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s was Representative Dan Burton (R-Indiana), who for many years was the foremost promoter of the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism. His activities in support of antivaccine views as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform were legion while he was in Congress and Republicans controlled the House. For instance, Burton held showboating, Kangaroo court-style hearings about thimerosal and autism back in 2002 that now remind me, more than anything else, of the hearings about Stanislaw Burzynski by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) back in the 1990s. Burton also was known for harassing FDA officials over thimerosal in vaccines, and at one point tried to insert himself into the Autism Omnibus hearings by writing a letter to the Special Masters asking them to consider crappy scientific papers (e.g., a this paper, which was pure crap) allegedly supporting a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.
Rep. Burton wasn’t the only antivaccine Republican, even back in the day before Donald Trump and long before the pandemic. For example, his successor as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), flirted with the antivaccine Canary Party, although in fairness it wasn’t always clear whether Issa was a true believer or just opportunistically took a large donation from a prominent wealthy antivaxxer named Jennifer Larson and then gave her a hearing on vaccines and autism to make it look as though she’d gotten something for her money. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing in 2012 was a bust. Before that elsewhere in California, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California.
Moving away from California, Michelle Bachman was also known to drop the occasional antivaccine bon mot as well. Meanwhile, the Texas Republican Party famously included a “vaccine choice” plank in its 2012 party platform. Also on the right-wing antivaccine political crew back in those days was Rep. Bill Posey (R-Florida), who has in the past introduced dubious legislation demanding the Holy Grail for antivaccinationists, a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study. True, Posey did co-sponsored that bill with Carol Maloney (D-New York), but she’s the only Democrat holding federal office in the last decade whom I’ve ever been able to find willing to go on record supporting a piece of legislation giving the antivaccine movement something it desperately wanted. More recently (as in six years ago), Rep. Posey was promoting the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory that ended up forming the basis of Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield‘s 2016 antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary VAXXED.
It hasn’t been just right wing politicians pandering to antivaxxers, either. Fox News, for instance, has long played footsies with antivaxxers. Prepandemic examples abound, such as when the Fox and Friends crew did sympathetic pieces about Andrew Wakefield, interviews with Dr. Bob Sears, SafeMinds’ anti-vaccine PSA campaign, Louise Kuo Habakus (who is virulently anti-vaccine herself and has long been politically active in New Jersey pushing for transparent “philosophical exemption” laws). During the previous pandemic (you know, the H1N1 pandemic that everyone’s forgotten about now), FOX News fell for the story of a young woman claiming dystonia from a vaccine. Of course, today Fox News feeds its viewers a steady diet of antivaccine propaganda from its star pundits Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and others, to the point where it’s been speculated that Fox News could be sued if anyone dies because of acting on its antivaccine rhetoric.
By 2015, the rightward shift of the antivaccine movement was undeniable, to the point where the national media started noticing. What really fueled this shift was the political reaction to SB 277, the law passed in 2015 in California in response to the Disneyland measles outbreak of December 2014. In brief, SB 277 eliminated nonmedical “personal belief” exemptions to school vaccine mandates, including religious exemptions. After SB 277, only valid medical exemptions could be used to excuse a child from school vaccine requirements. Long before SB 277, antivaxxers had discovered that appealing to right wing political messages, such as “freedom,” “parental rights,” and opposition to government mandates, was a powerful message that drew in conservatives and libertarians who might not have been antivaccine. While this appeal had been going on years before SB 277, in 2015 it was turbocharged, and the question of school vaccine mandates began its unfortunate road to being far more politicized than mandates had ever been before. Groups like Texans for Vaccine Choice, Michigan for Vaccine Choice, and all the other statewide grassroots groups for “vaccine choice” became forces to be reckoned with, with antivaxxers joining the 2016 Presidential campaign to raise money and lobby to oppose vaccine mandates and demand “investigations” of links between vaccines and autism.
Antivaccine views even infected the 2016 Presidential campaign, and it wasn’t just because Donald Trump, with his antivaccine statements dating as far back as 2007 blaming vaccines for autism, was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Would that it were just him! Unfortunately, several of the GOP candidates, including Ben Carson, Rand Paul (who really is antivaccine), Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina (remember her?) pandering to antivaxxers. Sadly, several of the GOP candidates from 2016, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who did at the time speak up and strongly support school vaccine mandates have since—shall we say?—adjusted their views to oppose vaccine mandates of any kind. In my own state in 2018, a Michigan Republican candidate for Congress in my own district held an antivaccine “roundtable” during the primary season, which included my outgoing antivaccine state Senator Patrick Colbeck (who was running for governor) and my state Representative Jeff Noble, who, if not antivaccine himself, clearly was antivaccine-adjacent. This not-so-dynamic duo had cosponsored a bill not just once, but twice, (both sets of bills fortunately never making it out of committee) that would have stripped the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of the power to require parents requesting religious and philosophical exemptions to school vaccine mandates to travel to their county health office for an educational program about vaccines. They also co-sponsored a dubious “informed consent” (actually, fear mongering misinformed consent) about “fetal cells” in vaccines. By then, I was wondering whether the GOP had become the party of antivaxxers.
By 2019, the year before the pandemic, the situation had gotten even worse. With appeals to “freedom” and “parental rights” serving as a “gateway drug,” if you will, to antivaccine conspiracy theories, the Republican Party had not aligned itself decisively with antivaxxers. Examples abounded even prepandemic, with the Ohio Statehouse having become a hotbed of antivaccine Republican legislators, Oregon Republicans refusing to work until a provaccine bill was shelved, and multiple openly antivaccine Republican candidates running for office. Going beyond even that, antivaxxers have even attracted far right wing militia groups to their cause, a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic, with such groups contributing to the harassment of health care workers and even cancer patients at hospitals with vaccine mandates and, more recently, violent confrontations. As journalist Tara Haelle recently put it, the pandemic is the moment antivaxxers have been waiting for.
Given this history, the reaction of Republican Party luminaries to President Biden’s vaccine mandate was, sadly, predictable:
Resistance to vaccine mandates was once a fringe position in both parties, more the realm of misinformed celebrities than mainstream political thought. But the fury over Mr. Biden’s mandates shows how a once-extreme stance has moved to the center of the Republican Party. The governors’ opposition reflects the anger and fear about the vaccine among constituents now central to their base, while ignoring longstanding policy and legal precedent in favor of similar vaccination requirements.
“Republicans care about getting beyond this pandemic every bit as much as Democrats do,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. But, he added, “politicians are certainly happy to exploit this issue for political gain, which is why I think the Republican governors are up in arms.”
Dr. Jha is far too kind. Although I once believed this, it’s now been a long time since I could believe that Republicans “care about getting beyond this pandemic every bit as much as Democrats do.” Their actions demonstrate clearly that they do not, unless you count their wishful thinking that everything will be hunky dory if we just appeal to individual responsibility and put no restrictions with actual teeth on anyone or any business, as “caring.” Given the extreme resistance of nearly the entire Republican Party to very basic public health interventions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the death and damage caused by the pandemic, I can no longer hold this “both sides” position that characterizes Republican resistance to vaccine and mask mandates as an honest disagreement on the best strategy to slow the pandemic.
Let’s consider the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) as an example of what I’m talking about. You will recall that this was a declaration sponsored by the right-wing think tank the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) and spearheaded by three scientists, Dr. Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, who called on countries to end “lockdowns” and advocated “focused protection” of the vulnerable, ignoring the simple fact that it is impossible to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 when the coronavirus is spreading more or less unchecked through the “healthy” population responsible for the care of the vulnerable. You’d think that GBD signatories, opposing “lockdowns” and mask mandates, would be all for mass COVID-19 vaccination as the single most powerful remaining tool for “focused protection.” You’d be wrong:
You’d think that she’d appreciate that, at the very least, it’s advantageous to protect frontline workers against serious illness from COVID-19, and, of course, the vaccine does prevent forward transmission. It just isn’t 100% effective in doing so, but even if it’s only 50% effective it would still be worthwhile. Basically, the GBD signatories are going antivaccine, with, for instance, another applauding a bad study because it concludes that vaccinating children is likely more harmful than just letting them get COVID-19:
You might recall that in March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hosted a video roundtable with the GBD signatories in which they expressed opposition to masks, testing and tracing, physical distancing, and mass vaccination. More recently, Bhattacharya testified in support of DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates for Florida public schools. Now consider that AIER is a right wing, science denying think tank, and a perusal of its website will reveal a variety of antivaccine posts, including references to vaccine mandates as “totalitarian.”
The NYT article that I cited points out that there is an element of hypocrisy among some of the Republican governors attacking Biden’s vaccine mandate, for example:
There is a deep inconsistency in that argument. Mississippi has some of the strictest vaccine mandates in the nation, which have not drawn opposition from most of its elected officials. Not only does it require children to be vaccinated against measles, mumps and seven other diseases to attend school, but it goes a step further than most states by barring parents from claiming “religious, philosophical or conscientious” exemptions.
Mississippi, which has one of the lowest coronavirus vaccination rates in the nation, has consistently led the United States in childhood vaccinations — a point of pride for its health officials and many of its lawmakers. Alabama, similar to Mississippi, also refuses to acknowledge “philosophical, moral or ethical” exemptions to mandatory childhood vaccinations.
Sure, there’s plenty of hypocrisy among these Republican governors. But ask yourself: Why do Republican governors (and, in fact, Republicans at all levels of government) feel the need to attack President Biden for his decision, regardless of their state’s own vaccination policies? The reason is simple. The COVID-19 pandemic has completed the turn of the Republican Party to the dark side, which began at least a decade ago. The Republican Party is now fully the antivaccine party, and it doesn’t even really pretend any more. Some members might convince themselves that they are really “anti-mandate” and “pro-freedom” rather than antivaccine and perhaps some of them really are. However, appeals to “freedom” were the gateway through which antivaccine conspiracy theories and pseudoscience passed to infect the GOP base to the point where politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rep. Mo Brookes, and a depressing number of other Republican pols pushing antivaccine antivaccine disinformation that wouldn’t be out of place on RFK Jr.’s website. Meanwhile, GOP politicians cynically pander to antivaxxers in the Republican base and gin up their resistance to vaccine mandates, all to increase enthusiasm for opposing other Democratic policies as well. There are a exceptions, such a Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio, but they are becoming increasingly uncommon. The rest of the Republican Party seems to have degenerated into a death cult, in which the eugenics of letting the virus rip through the population in order to achieve “natural” herd immunity (plus those who voluntarily get the vaccine) is the order of the day, the cost in suffering and death be damned.
Even formerly rational Republican politicians now express provaccine views at their electoral peril, leading to:
In 2019, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) fought an effort from some state legislative Republicans to make it easier to get exemptions for other vaccine mandates. “I think it’s important for people to know that we are pro-vaccination in the state of Arizona,” Ducey said at the time. “Vaccinations are good for our kids and helpful for public health.”
Ducey last month banned local governments from requiring coronavirus vaccinations for their employees, and on Thursday he decried Biden’s “dictatorial approach,” saying, “The vaccine is and should be a choice.”
Of course, the descent of the Republican Party into antivax conspiracy theories and mindless resistance to anything perceived as a “vaccine mandate” or government action to promote public health is a bit of a “chicken or the egg?” question. Did this unfortunate turn of events come about because the base pushed Republican politicians towards resistance to vaccine mandates or because Republican politicians, seeing a potential source of activism and support, encouraged antivaccine views? (Why not both?) In any event, the outreach by antivaxxers to right wing groups, both real grassroots and astroturf (and, make no mistake, there is a big astroturf component to the anti-public health movement), has been wildly successful. President Biden’s decision to impose vaccine mandates, as justifiable as it is from a scientific and policy viewpoint, will unfortunately only fan the flames of antivaccinationism in the Republican Party even more, even if he had little choice but to act.