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The Weird, Bipartisan Politics of The Anti-Vaccination Movement

While it might be easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers as another act in the Tea Party circus, the phenomenon is actually a rare instance where crazy crosses party lines.

by Grace Wyler
Feb 3 2015, 6:24pm

On Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the unenviable error of wading in on what is unambiguously the wrong side of the anti-vaccination debate. While on a trade trip in the United Kingdom the likely 2016 presidential candidate was asked by reporters to respond to the ongoing measles outbreak in the United States.

"Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated, and we think that it's an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health," he said, before adding, "I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide." Then he went even further, making the bizarre medical assessment that "not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others."

It was probably only a matter of time before the question of whether parents should be made to vaccinate their children creeped its way into 2016 presidential politics. Anti-vaxxers have been hovering around the fringes of American elections for years, occupying the dark corners of the partisan imagination alongside homeschoolers, chemtrails conspiracy theorists, and people who want the government to stop putting fluoride in the drinking water. Usually, this passionate group of parents can be safely ignored, but when more than 100 kids catch the measles at Disneyland, their views on inoculation start to seem alarmingly relevant, not to mention dangerous. In an interview with NBC that aired Monday, President Barack Obama urged parents to get their kids vaccinated, saying that the "science is pretty indisputable."

"We've looked at this again and again," he said. "There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not."

Christie's more expansive position, meanwhile, predictably set off a partisan powder keg. The governor's office tried to walk back his remarks in a statement Monday afternoon, but the damage was already done, as Democratic oppo researchers gleefully scrambled to pin down other likely Republican presidential contenders as anti-vaxxer sympathizers. They didn't have to wait long, thanks to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who went on cable news to talk about vaccines as an issue of "personal freedom," jumping much, much further down the anti-vaxxer rabbit hole.

"I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," Paul said in an interview with CNBC Monday. "I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing. But I think parents should have some input. The state doesn't own your children, parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health."

Paul's comments underscore how easy it is for Democrats to tie anti-vaxxers to the more extreme characterizations of right-wing politicians, namely that they are anti-science and that their distrust of the government—and dogmatic championing of individual choice and freedoms—is borderline dangerous when applied to real-life issues like public health. The tendency among liberals is to assume that anti-vaxxers, like their political allies, are driven by some kind of conservative religious zealotry and/or hatred of the government.

There are plenty of examples to illustrate their point. The widely debunked idea that vaccinations can cause tragic health problems in otherwise healthy children last entered the political debate during the 2012 election, when Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann attacked Texas Governor Rick Perry for signing an executive order mandating HPV vaccinations for preteen girls, recounting the story of a woman who said that her daughter had suffered "mental retardation" after receiving the vaccine.

The more libertarian view that the government shouldn't dictate how parents care for their children was espoused frequently by Paul's father, former Congressman Ron Paul, who won over the anti-vaxxer set with his vocal opposition to the swine flu vaccine. And as Bloomberg's David Weigel notes, a recent Ohio State University study has found that confidence in government played a role in how people felt about the swine flu vaccine. "It's not that Republicans reject vaccination because of their conservative views or exposure to certain media," OSU sociology professor Kent Schwirian, one of the authors of the study, wrote in a statement. "It was their lack of confidence in the government to deal with the swine flu crisis that was driving their anti-vaccination views."

But evidence suggests that the politics of vaccinations are a little more nuanced. Other research has shown that there really isn't much of a correlation between people's political affiliation and their views on vaccinations. A study released last week found that the vast majority of Americans believe that the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks, although liberals are a little more likely to be skeptical of the value of vaccines. More interesting, a 2013 study found that while conservatives may be more likely to reject scientific findings on issues that affect regulations—like climate change—that doesn't necessarily apply to vaccinations. On that front, the biggest contributing factor is not political ideology but having a "conspiratorial mind-set"—and that exists on both the right and the left.

The numbers bear this out. According to CDC data compiled by RealClearScience, of the five states with the lowest vaccination rates in the US, four went for Obama in the last election and the state with the lowest vaccination rate was Oregon—hardly a bastion of Tea Party extremism. Conversely, of the eight states with the highest vaccination rates, five are solid Republican strongholds that went for Mitt Romney in 2012. It's also worth noting that the most recent measles outbreak started in California, which is basically ground zero for the liberal anti-vaxxer movement—this is where you'll find parents who take their kids to homeopathic pediatricians and don't let them eat Cheetos. So while it might be easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers as another act in the Tea Party circus, the truth is that the phenomenon's actually a rare instance where crazy crosses party lines.

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