Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images
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Conservative Anger at Vaccine Mandates Was About Vaccines, Not Mandates

The right is anti-anything that makes vaccine skeptics feel bad.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

A few days ago, the White House infuriated conservatives by warning that unvaccinated Americans are “looking at a winter of severe illness and death.” The message appears to have been aimed not at persuading the unvaccinated but reassuring the vaccinated they can live without fear, and may or may not have been an effective tool. But the fact and the nature of the conservative backlash is revealing.

Most conservatives have been saying for the last year that they don’t object to vaccines per se. They merely oppose mandating the vaccine. To be sure, the right’s belief in the freedom to reject vaccines is a recent discovery. Institutions like schools and the military have imposed vaccine mandates for years without any serious conservative objection. Conservative opposition to vaccine mandates is one of those principles, like the right to forego health insurance until such time as you show up in an emergency room, that conservatives never showed the slightest interest in until Democrats restricted it, at which point it became the most important principle in the world. But it is, at least, a coherent principle.

It would seem to follow from this libertarian principle that, if a government-imposed requirement is too coercive, then persuasion is a superior alternative. And indeed, while harsh in tone, the White House’s message is an application of the old-fashioned, conservative idea of personal responsibility.

The administration was bluntly telling people that, if they make the bad choice to forego the vaccine, they are exposing themselves to potentially dire consequences. Again, you can question the practical efficacy of the administration’s pro-vaccine message. But one thing we can say about this message is that it’s obviously correct. Conservatives are supposed to be in favor of delivering blunt talk about personal responsibility. Instead, they are whining that the government is stigmatizing people by blaming them for their own terrible decisions.

So the conservative position turns out not to be anti–vaccine mandate, but anti-anything that makes unvaccinated people feel bad.

I have seen this position expressed by Ben Domenech, Tucker Carlson, and two columnists at The Federalist. As Carlson puts it, Biden is treating the unvaccinated as “a kulak class — a group of reviled subhumans that the rest of us are free to hate and mock, and whose deaths we’re allowed to root for.”

This bizarre fantasy in which Biden is mocking the unvaccinated and cheering on their deaths lacks any evidence at all. In fact, Biden is pleading for unvaccinated Americans to protect themselves from death.

These arguments all make sense if you conceive of unvaccinated Americans as people who are being denied a privilege their fellow citizens have been able to access. If the vaccine was available only to the rich or the well-connected, then discriminating against those denied its protection, or even warning them that they are endangering themselves and others, would be cruel.

And it is true that the American public is being segregated into two classes, one of which is protected against the virus, and the other of which is not:

But the only people actively working to maintain this class system is the ecosystem of vaccine skeptics that is dominated by the political right. Having seen that a large, vocal claque of Trump fans distrusts the vaccine, conservative personalities vying for their approval have gleefully promoted vaccine skepticism. Ben Shapiro says he’s “not particularly interested in getting the COVID booster.” Ron DeSantis, asked if he got a booster shot, refused to answer and changed the subject. Sarah Palin told a cheering crowd she will only take the vaccine “over her dead body,” a grimly apt formulation.

The people who are encouraging vaccine skeptics may not be cheering for their deaths, but they are working to increase them. The people who are trying to get them to vaccinate themselves, either through mandates or warnings, are the ones working to help them.

And the right is revealing once again that the abstract principle that is supposedly the bedrock of its position is not actually its main concern. The right’s anger with vaccine mandates wasn’t about the mandates. It was about the vaccines.

Conservative Anger at Vaccine Mandates Wasn’t About Mandates