Will Vaccination Become Partisan?

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 5 2015 @ 3:44pm

According to a recently released survey from the Pew Research Center, the public opinion on vaccine requirements, for example, divides much more by age than by political affiliation. This may be a function of the fact that younger people are less likely to have seen the diseases the vaccines are designed to protect against. (In other words, vaccines are victims of their own success.) However, the poll was worrying in one political respect: In 2009, there was no partisan difference in attitudes toward these requirements. The latest study did find some small differences along party lines. According to Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor who has done research on effective communication around vaccines, injecting partisan politics into individual decisions about whether to vaccinate could have unintended consequences. He argued in the New York Times recently that making the decision to vaccinate one of partisan allegiance could potentially push some individuals who might otherwise have vaccinated their children to forgo the process.

Seth Masket warns that “if enough Republican leaders or conservative cultural figures publicly question the importance of immunizations, and if such messages go unchallenged or even embraced by commentators on Fox and other conservative media outlets, that message could soon be adopted by conservative parents with only modest attachments to politics”:

And in some ways, this argument meshes very well with the American conservative world view. The idea that I can make better judgments about my kids than the government can, that I should be concerned about me and my own rather than the larger social network, that I shouldn’t have to make sacrifices or face risks on behalf of strangers — it wouldn’t take much to fold that into the definition of modern conservatism. Resistance to vaccinations doesn’t have to mean embracing organic food or breastfeeding toddlers; that’s simply a liberal interpretation of it.

But we’re not quite there yet. The main cultural elites advocating avoiding or at least questioning vaccinations, from doctors with celebrity pretensions to celebrities with medical pretensions, are mostly on the left right now. Chris Christie has limited appeal, and Rand Paul has not quite yet demonstrated an ability to reach those outside his libertarian circles. But if we’re going to see the anti-vaxxer belief system mutate and spread to the right, this will be how it happens.