Is the suddenly emotional debate over US vaccines driven by partisan political differences?
That’s the implication of a lot of media coverage in recent days. Reports have focused on New Jersey’s GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who on Monday said that parents “need to have some measure of choice” in vaccinating their children, and on Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who in an interview said that he knows of children who have wound up with “profound mental disorders” after receiving vaccine shots.
Both these men are Republican presidential hopefuls. Prominent Democrats, meanwhile, have been taking a somewhat different approach, saying public health depends on widespread vaccinations.
“The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids,” tweeted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic presidential front-runner.
The participation of all these ambitious politicians has made it easy to cram the overall story into a partisan framework. The New York Times, for instance, today portrayed the uproar as a “delicate issue” for the GOP field.
The vaccine debate poses a challenge for Republicans “who find themselves in the familiar but uncomfortable position of reconciling modern science with the skepticism of their core conservative voters,” according to the Times.
Well, maybe. But before this sensitive subject gets politically polarized by presidential campaigns and cable news chat, we’ll note that currently the difference of opinion on vaccination among actual Republican and Democratic voters is quite modest, if it exists at all.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2009, there was no difference, according to Pew research. Seventy-one percent of both Republicans and Democrats said that vaccinations should be a requirement. Twenty-six percent of Republicans said that parents should decide whether their kids get those shots. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said the same thing.
Since then, those percentages have moved a bit. In 2014, Pew found that the Republican figure dipped, with 65 percent of GOP voters saying vaccinations should be a requirement. The corresponding Democratic number went up, with 76 percent now checking the “requirement” box.
The 11-point difference there is statistically significant, but not really that large, especially if you take margin of error into account.
“There are slight differences in views about vaccines along political lines,” according to Pew’s Monica Anderson.
Other studies find there’s still no gap. A Harvard/Yale study issued last January found politics made no difference in respondents’ attitudes towards vaccination. What did matter was whether they had a conspiratorial mindset. That cuts across partisan lines. On the left, anti-vaccine parents worry that corporations are pushing tainted medicine onto their children. On the right, anti-vaccine parents worry about the government doing the same thing.
Some groups also object to vaccinations on religious grounds. Overall, about 95 percent of US kids eventually get vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a partisan sense, vaccines are not climate change. Many prominent Republicans question the latter, saying they don’t believe humans have had a role in altering the earth’s weather, scientific consensus to the contrary. On the former, Governor Christie said vaccines work, and his own children are vaccinated. What he addressed was the parental role in vaccinations.
True, Senator Paul, an ophthalmologist, said that he’d known kids stricken with “mental disorders” after vaccinations. Numerous studies have found no link between vaccines and autism.
But even Paul said he was not arguing that vaccines are a bad idea. They are a good thing, he said, but parents should have some input into their use.
“The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own your children and it is an issue of freedom,” Paul said.
That may be what is really at issue here, politically-speaking, according to Julia Azari, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. Christie and the more-libertarian Paul are looking at vaccinations through a longstanding Republican paradigm of individualism.
Individual rights and choice have been a potent part of Republican platforms since the Reagan era, writes Professor Azari at the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog. They’re a default position for Republican leaders. But in this particular instance, they may be an uncomfortable fit.
“Reagan-era individualism may not be suited to address public health crises and economic inequality. But it remains a seemingly unshakeable paradigm for political leaders whose careers were built on these premises,” writes Azari.
Conversely, neither Ms. Clinton nor President Obama have explicitly stated the implication of their own positions: that government at some level should have the power to order parents to vaccinate their children. (That’s the way things stand now, of course: Most states require kids to get vaccinated to attend school. Forty-eight allow religious exemptions, while 20 allow exemptions for personal beliefs.)
Promoting government power isn’t always an electoral winner. But that’s the B side of the Republican’s individualist argument.