At first glance, Melissa1 seems to meet all the criteria of the “crunchy granola” type. She tracks ingredients on all the products she buys and uses apps to identify anything that isn’t “clean.” She says she considers herself vaccine-hesitant.
“I’m not against vaccines for everyone,” she wrote to me in a Facebook Messenger chat. “[But] I’m very distrustful of pharmaceutical companies and that is the main reason I am hesitant about vaccines for myself and my family.”
But she’s not exactly left-wing. A nurse-midwife student in Nebraska, Melissa said she’s libertarian, and while there are ideas on the left and right she agrees with, her main political position is that “the government shouldn’t be regulating things that don’t hurt others.”
The modern anti-vaccination movement in America has often been associated with a stereotype of left-wing, coastal, white, wealthy moms — those “crunchy granola” types. In recent years, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, spurred by low vaccination rates in children, emerged in wealthy, liberal places like Marin County, California, and Boulder, Colorado. But while the public narrative focused on these left-wing enclaves, they were far from the only regions affected by outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease: Conservative communities of Orthodox Jews, some of whom also reject vaccines, have also seen spikes in cases, for example.
How COVID-19 vaccines work
And polls over the past two decades have consistently found Republicans are just as likely as Democrats to hold vaccine-hesitant views. So while the right-wing resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines may feel like an about-face for who is anti-vax in America, both sides of the political divide were always there — but now one side’s fringe views have slipped into its mainstream.
“Vaccine refusal has always been a place where left meets right,” said Jennifer Reich, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado and the author of “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.”
Though anti-vaxxers have been around as long as vaccines, the modern anti-vaccination movement really emerged after the 1998 publication of an infamous and since-retracted study in The Lancet that falsely claimed the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. In the years that followed — spurred partly by support from celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy — a new era of vaccine fears began, with small but fierce cohorts of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. And polling has consistently shown those small cohorts included Americans on the left and the right.
Take a series of polls from Gallup, conducted in 2001, 2015 and 2019. Each time, Gallup asked respondents the same questions about vaccines, and while there was always anti-vaccine representation across the political spectrum, the most recent poll showed a spike in the adoption of anti-vaccine views among Republicans and independents.
When asked how important it is that parents vaccinate their children, very few or no respondents said it was “not very” or “not at all” important in earlier surveys. But in 2019, 8 percent of Republicans, 8 percent of independents and 2 percent of Democrats said it was “not very” or “not at all” important that parents vaccinate their kids.
Which side of the political aisle was more anti-vaccine really depends on the question and the poll. In a 2013 YouGov poll, 11 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans said they believe vaccines cause autism. But in a 2017 YouGov poll, 19 percent of Democrats, 31 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans said it was “definitely” or “probably” true that vaccines cause autism. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found 9 percent of Democrats, 10 percent of independents and 5 percent of Republicans thought the MMR vaccine was unsafe. And in a 2015 CBS poll, when asked whether parents should be required to vaccinate their kids or should be able to decide for themselves, 38 percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents and 23 percent of Democrats said parents should be able to make their own choice.
When asked about vaccine safety, Republicans and Democrats express vaccine-hesitant beliefs at roughly the same rate. But when asked about government mandates, Republicans are much more likely to take the vaccine-hesitant stance, according to Allan McCoy, a sociology professor at State University of New York. In a 2018 study published in Critical Public Health, McCoy compared two Pew Center surveys on vaccine beliefs. He found that the more ideologically extreme a respondent was — regardless of whether they’re on the left or right — the more likely they were to think that vaccines are unsafe. But when asked if vaccines should be compulsory or left up to parents, respondents who identified as “very conservative” were 136 percent more likely than “moderates” to think it should be a parent’s choice, while those who were “liberal” and “very liberal” were 44 percent and 13 percent less likely to think so, respectively. Democrats and Republicans are almost equally likely to hold anti-vaccine beliefs, but Republicans in particular also tend to be against vaccine mandates.
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But if vaccine hesitancy before the pandemic was relatively bipartisan, vaccine hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine has been anything but. Polls and vaccination rates have shown Republicans are less likely to be vaccinated, and more likely to say they don’t plan to get the shot than Democrats. Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, and her colleagues have been conducting a panel survey of 3,000 Americans for the past 18 months. Gadarian told me there has been a partisan split on all health behaviors (not only the vaccine but also mask wearing, hand washing, visiting one’s doctor) throughout the pandemic.
“Partisanship is not the sole determinant, but it is the strongest, most consistent determinant, even controlling for age, education, where people are living, how many COVID-19 cases are in the area,” Gadarian said.
This split over the COVID-19 vaccine reflects the politicization of the entire pandemic, but what does it mean for the demographics of the anti-vaxx movement beyond COVID-19? Experts I spoke to said it’s too early to tell, and so far there hasn’t been enough recent polling on non-COVID-19 vaccine beliefs to be definitive. In a July 2019 YouGov poll, for instance, 14 percent of Democrats, 21 percent of independents and 28 percent of Republicans said it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that vaccines have been shown to cause autism. When YouGov posed the same question this past July, 11 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of independents and 27 percent of Republicans said so.
There’s a chance some left-wing anti-vaxxers will second-guess their stance given the sudden embrace of anti-vaccine positions on the right. But Reich, who studied vaccine-hesitant parents for years, said they typically don’t identify as “anti-vaccine,” per se, and feel more strongly about their ideals — like that a parent is the best person to make decisions about their child’s health — than their identity. So having Republicans espousing similar beliefs won’t feel like a challenge for left-wing parents, necessarily.
Instead, it’s possible that Republican resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine could mutate into vaccine hesitancy more generally, if one’s political identity demands resistance.
“I’m worried that the politicization could threaten the social consensus [currently] in favor of vaccination,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “If we start to see attitudes towards vaccines become closely linked to partisanship and ideology, we could see a polarization over vaccination that would threaten herd immunity on a whole series of diseases over time.”
From her point of view, Melissa said the idea that Republicans may become more broadly vaccine hesitant isn’t just a hypothesis.
“I know for a fact, based on a group chat I am in, that some Republicans are reevaluating their stance on all vaccines,” she wrote.