OP-ED: Live free and die: Inside the bizarre political philosophy of America’s unvaccinated

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Siaka Massaquoi, right, listed on IMDb as an actor, was one of the protesters at the vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Jan. 30, 2021. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A couple of weeks ago, I drove two hours north to the hillside town of Olyphant, Pennsylvania, just outside Scranton, to meet with a Donald Trump fan for a book project I’ve been working on. For 90 minutes, I listened to this 54-year-old laid-off factory worker and former Democrat who now says the more that liberal politicians and other elites voice their contempt for the ex-president, the more strongly he supports Trump. He was also candid about his recent health woes — including a heart attack and a stroke — so I asked if he’d received a COVID-19 shot.

“Absolutely not,” he responded quickly, “and I will not get it. Let me clarify ... not at this time, because it’s all pretty new.” He blamed not only the speed with which the vaccines gained federal approval but shifts in coronavirus guidance from top officials — but he was basically distrustful of anything around COVID-19, because he felt it has been politicized. “I just felt that the left was using it as an excuse to fire along their agenda, get rid of Trump,” he said.

Elsewhere across the U.S., some folks have not been as lucky with rolling the dice on COVID-19, during what should be the waning days of the pandemic but which — most frustratingly — are not. In and around Springfield, Missouri, on the edge of the Ozarks and in the heart of Trump country in a deep red state, case counts have been surging in recent days. Some 17 people — none of them fully vaccinated, like more than 60% for their fellow Missourians — died there from the virus from June 21 through July 4, and one of the city’s hospitals ran out of ventilators for a time. “Many people talk about this as if it’s a personal decision, but it’s a decision that absolutely affects the entire community, so we need more people to get vaccinated,” Aaron Schekorra, a county public health official, told the Kansas City Star. “The pandemic’s not over.”

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No, it’s not. Increasingly, we are moving toward two Americas — one mostly vaccinated and one mostly not, separate and at unequal risk of disease and death. And more and more, that divide is political. A striking map shows that almost all of the U.S. states that have vaccinated more than 70% of adults voted for the Democrat for president in 2016 and 2020 (the exception is here in Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016). Meanwhile, almost all of the states with the lowest vaccination rates (except for Nevada) went for Trump in at least one of the last two elections.

Incomprehensible: If you live in a heavily inoculated area like Philadelphia and its suburbs, where folks spent hours reloading webpages this past winter in their eagerness to get a jab, vaccine hesitancy — which for some people is morphing into defiant vaccine refusal — is very hard to understand. As the rate of new shots slows — the nation fell just short of President Joe Biden’s seemingly reachable goal of 70% adult vaccination by July 4 — and as dangerous mutations like the delta variant spread among the unjabbed, the dream of herd immunity is slipping away. Fully vaccinated since mid-April, I’ve resumed wearing a mask in stores, as America once again snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Why on earth is this happening?

Experts in psychology who’ve studied vaccine hesitancy for years — predating the COVID-19 pandemic — say that it’s not that the unvaccinated need more information, because the issues really center on people’s deeply held moral foundations. “People have a deep moral intuition that guides them,” Jeff Huntsinger, a social psychologist at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the philosophy of people who refuse vaccines, told me this week.

Huntsinger and other experts who’ve studied vaccine skeptics say they frequently espouse a couple of worldviews. One is around the concept of purity, which means that many express concerns about putting a seemingly unnatural foreign substance — like the new COVID-19 vaccines — into their bodies. The other — which we also began seeing last summer, in the strong reaction by some against wearing masks — centers on a powerful belief in personal freedom, which also correlates with a strong distrust of authority figures telling them what to do.

“Medical freedom is an individual right that should NEVER be infringed upon and any person who thinks otherwise has no place in our government,” the right-wing provocateur Candace Owens tweeted about her family’s vaccine refusal to her 2.7 million followers on Wednesday, joining a growing conservative chorus. Also Wednesday, a Texas GOP congressman, Chip Roy, tweeted an image of a needle with the taunt, “COME INJECT IT,” a twist on a long-standing don’t-mess-with-Texas independence meme.

To be fair, pro-Trump conservatives who flaunt their vaccine refusal aren’t the only reason that the United States is struggling to approach coronavirus herd immunity. Another hurdle is millions of Americans who are largely disconnected from civic life — young people prone to delusions of medical invincibility, or people living in poverty, or folks struggling with other physical or mental illnesses or addiction. Prior to COVID-19, anti-vax theories often circulated among affluent, liberal enclaves. And distrust of authority and government (for understandable reasons) also runs high in some Black and brown communities.

But experts like Huntsinger note that there’s a strong correlation between the philosophical traits of vaccine refusal — including the libertarian-flavored belief in “medical freedom” and distrust of authority figures like the nation’s infectious health leader Dr. Anthony Fauci — and modern conservatism. That would certainly go a long way toward explaining the growing red state/blue state dividing line.

Negative partisanship: Indeed, as the issue of getting a COVID-19 shot gets increasingly politicized, Huntsinger noted, refusal begins to be wrapped in the strong power of what experts call “negative partisanship” — voters forming opinions largely in opposition to the political party that they don’t like ... or hate. Ever since the coronavirus arrived on American shores in early 2020, it’s been people that conservatives tend to dislike — scientists, journalists and, into the Biden era, Democratic politicians — advocating stricter lockdowns, masks, and now vaccines, and that clearly causes some of them to get their backs up. Huntsinger said that when elite public officials issue stay-at-home orders, “people who score high on liberty are like, ‘(Bleep) you, I’m not doing that.’”

On Tuesday, amid concerns about the delta variant and again-rising caseloads, Biden said the government would step up voluntary efforts to encourage citizens to get vaccinated, including door-to-door campaigns in neighborhoods with low rates. “Do it now for yourself and the people you care about, for your neighborhood, for your country,” he said. “It sounds corny, but it’s a patriotic thing to do.”

But negative partisanship suggests that the problem isn’t so much the message as distrust or dislike of the messengers. As the political spin cycle intensifies, the sources that conservatives do trust — most notably the ratings-hungry Fox News Channel — are exploiting the crisis, and risking the lives of their own viewers in the process. On Wednesday night, under the banner, “LEFT INTENSIFIES COVID VACCINE PRESSURE CAMPAIGN,” Fox host Laura Ingraham welcomed a doctor who insisted that “unless we really have a compelling case, no one under age 30 should receive any one of these vaccines.”

That is bad information, and it is morally abhorrent that Fox News would share this with a couple million viewers. I actually hold a certain kind of empathy for everyday people who might get sick because they are so tangled up in their politics and their beliefs right now, who’ve convinced themselves that not wearing a mask or getting a vaccine says something to their friends and neighbors that they’re part of “the right crowd.” But there should be no mercy for the high-def hucksters in political office or the media so eager to exploit a crisis for personal gain, with no regard to who gets sick or dies.

Instead of political propaganda and promoting a way of life that rejects modern science, just imagine an America in which Fox News aired the testimonial of a Springfield, Missouri, COVID-19 patient, 42-year-old Russell Taylor.

“I was one of those Americans who was like, skeptical, not knowing who to trust,” he said in a video for Cox Health. “So I just kind of pulled back, that if God allows this, then it must be.” In June, he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and placed on a ventilator, with double pneumonia. He was still hospitalized after three weeks. “Somewhere in July,” he now said, “I think it would be wise to get the whole family vaccinated, because my stance on that is ... God made medicine, too.”

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.