But imagine what would happen if that were to change. We already have the blueprint readily available from other science based issues that have become substantially partisan, namely, embryonic stem cell research, global climate change, and the teaching of evolution.
In each of these cases, we see that people seize on facts (and behaviors) that align with their political and religious identities and belief systems. Partisanship leads people to divide over scientific fact itself, and then creates policy dysfunction, gridlock, and quite a lot of divisiveness.
A version of this happens, too, with vaccine deniers as they argue back against the medical establishment. But that’s still a fringe battle that doesn’t map easily onto U.S. political divides.
The potential consequences of any party adopting antivax conspiracies into their platform are bad regardless of which party does it. But I’ll argue here that antivaxxer nonsense has the potential to fit more snuggly into right-wing ideology than it would among progressives for a number of well established reasons.
For starters, it’s a healthcare issue and we all know how many conservatives feel about that. And it’s not just any healthcare issue, it’s a public welfare healthcare issue. Remember the insidious communist plot to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids? If the fringe right was against fluoridated water you can imagine how they might feel about the government mandating or, goddess forbid, requiring vaccination. Vaccines are effective, they work, and if the government makes people get them or gives them away to people who want then, then government wouldn’t be the problem, it would be part of the solution. That’s a direct threat to hard-right conservative orthodoxy.
A government that requires and/or provides vaccination is at odds with the libertarian wing of the GOP. Which often holds that our sacred freedom to choose poorly is being denied. It happens in this case that too many people making the wrong choice is precisely the problem. Choosing not to vaccinate isn’t like the choice to wear seatbelts or race motorcycles without a helmet, it puts everyone else at risk. Herd immunity only works to protect those who can’t get vaccinated for medical or age related reasons if big chunks of the entire herd are immunized. Recent news stories suggest that up to a quarter to a half of some US populations are skeptical or refuse to do so — presumably many of them have been influenced by the antivaxxer spiel — which would give highly contagious diseases like measles all the vector they need.
Then there’s the dire possibility that someone might get a vaccine that prevents a sexually transmitted disease like HPV and that’s not what God wants. An entire mythology claiming young women should avoid being vaccinated against cancer causing viruses because it can cause mental retardation has sprung up and spilled over into the mainstream awareness. Most notably when Michelle Bachmann tried to pass it on during the 2012 Republican clown car spectacle.
Lastly, anyone can dig their heels in despite mounting evidence they are wrong and act the stubborn fool. But in my personal experience, progressives, independents and the politically apathetic are more open to scientific evidence, even when it conflicts with preexisting bias, than the average wingnut. There is something in the wingnut DNA which immunizes them against facts and reason, their leaders don’t seem to care much about correcting those false beliefs, and the grifters who prey on them are more than happy to exploit false beliefs to the hilt for power and profit. Rejecting science isn’t a bug in that world, it’s a lucrative industry. Whereas writers and commenters at progressives sites like Daily Kos do an excellent job of challenging anti-science nonsense among our own members.
What this all means to me is, if anti-vaccination hysteria gets a firm political grip on the right, it will be more likely to progress to pandering from political eladers and maybe even make it into public poicy than it might in other groups. Which could be tragic. There are few regimens in all of modern medicine more effective and safer than vaccines. Together with modern sanitation and antibiotics, vaccines form a protective trio against infectious disease that has arguably saved more lives and prevented more suffering than any other healthcare innovation in history.
It’s bad enough that an utterly unscrupulous industry has recently grown up around frightening parents to the point that they needlessly expose themselves, their children, and all the rest of us to otherwise preventable disease. Given the right’s track record on science and politics, the last thing we need is Chris Christie or Rand Paul exploiting that fear for a few political brownie points and setting a political standard for other conservatives to follow.