Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
the national interest

How Vaccine Skeptics Took Over the Republican Party

A case study in the party’s dysfunction.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Healthy political subcultures have internal norms and protocols that permit open debate, allowing errors to be identified and corrected. Unhealthy political subcultures allow certain claims to be privileged so that falsehoods that uphold orthodoxy drive out truths that challenge it.

There are many examples of the sickness of the Republican Party’s internal culture — perhaps none more pure than its position on vaccines. In the last two and a half years, vaccine skepticism emerged as a marginal tendency on the right. But what the vaccine skeptics lacked in evidence, they more than made up for in fervor. Advocates of sanity proved unwilling or unable to push back, and now the party is turning so heavily against vaccines that soon it may be impossible for any Republican with national aspirations to say a good word about them.

Tuesday morning, a Fox News contributor tweeted a very short clip of a CDC meeting which purported to show that the agency had voted to require COVID vaccinations for schoolchildren. The alleged mandate was repeated by conservatives like Megyn Kelly and Tucker Carlson.

This was false. The CDC did not and cannot mandate this. The meeting in question was to add COVID vaccines to the Vaccines for Children program, which offers shots to kids whose parents can’t afford them. It is not a mandate. “This is an all new level of dangerous misinformation,” former Trump administration surgeon general Jerome M. Adams wrote to the Washington Post. “It could both harm kids (by derailing the VFC program, which helps disadvantaged children access vaccines) and endanger health officials (due to angry misinformed parents).”

And yet, the next day, Ron DeSantis gave a speech saying, “There’s been a lot of questions” about this and promising he would stop it in the “free state” of Florida. DeSantis was not directly calling the rumor true, but he was treating it as if it were — much the way he has treated the “questions” Republicans have about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Pro-vaccine conservatives have fervently defended DeSantis’s position on this issue by insisting that he merely opposes vaccination mandates, not the COVID vaccine itself. This defense is implausible on its face if you consider DeSantis’s general approach, which is hardly libertarian. DeSantis wants to put the government in the face of a long, long list of people and institutions — from colleges that wish to teach critical-race theory, to businesses that oppose his restrictions on gender instruction, to migrants fleeing left-wing tyranny in Venezuela.

Of course, it would be theoretically possible for DeSantis to take an idiosyncratically libertarian stance on this one issue. An opponent of vaccine mandates who didn’t necessarily oppose the vaccine itself would limit his criticism to the requirement that people take the shot.

But DeSantis has instead repeatedly taken steps to cast doubt on the efficacy of the COVID vaccine itself. He refused to say if he was getting a booster and stood next to vaccine skeptics who denounced the jab at a press conference. DeSantis recruited Joseph Ladapo, an idiosyncratic vaccine skeptic, and made Florida the only state not to recommend the COVID vaccine for children. That is not an expression of opposition to mandates. It is an expression of opposition to the vaccine. He officially declared that the state “recommends against males aged 18 to 39 receiving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines” on the grounds that it is allegedly unsafe. That is an anti-vaccine stance, not an anti-mandate stance.

It is a stance that runs contrary to the overwhelming consensus of experts in the field:

More than a dozen experts interviewed by The Washington Post — including specialists in vaccines, patient safety and study design — listed concerns with Florida’s analysis, saying it relies on information gleaned from frequently inaccurate death certificates rather than medical records, skews the results by trying to exclude anyone with COVID-19 or a COVID-related death, and draws conclusions from a total of 20 cardiac-related deaths in men 18 to 39 that occurred within four weeks of vaccination. Experts noted the deaths might have been caused by other factors, including underlying illnesses or undetected COVID.

More recently, Ladapo appeared on the QAnon-supporting program X22 Report, where he called the mRNA vaccines unsafe. “Basic questions about safety have either been spun, ignored, or suppressed,” he charged.

It is worth noting that DeSantis didn’t have a surgeon general on hand who happened to turn crazy on vaccines. He recruited him from out of state specifically because of his crank anti-vaccine beliefs.

DeSantis took these steps, because the anti-vaccine movement is a vocal constituency within his party. Promoting vaccine skepticism wins over support without alienating pro-vaccine conservatives, who continue to justify his position as merely anti-mandate. The asymmetry of willpower between the fanatics and people who are determined to remain their coalition partners has shifted the party’s center of gravity sharply rightward.

Not only have Republicans turned against the COVID vaccine, but they are turning against other vaccines. One survey finds only 22 percent of Republicans have gotten a regular flu shot this fall — as opposed to 49 percent of Democrats.

In a healthy party, pro-vaccine Republicans would be able to fight back. But on this issue, just as has happened with all the others, they have helplessly allowed the fanatics to win.

How Vaccine Skeptics Took Over the Republican Party