The vaccine skeptical you will always have with you

(Apologies to Jesus for the title of the post)

Yes, it is really frustrating that so many people don’t want to get the vaccine that can save lives and allow us all to return to 2019 living, but the reality is that a decent amount of vaccine skepticism is clearly just human nature.  Tara Haelle lays out the history of vaccine skepticism from Edward Jenner to know and it’s always there:

As vaccines to protect people from COVID-19 started becoming available in late 2020, the rhetoric of anti-vaccine groups intensified. Efforts to keep vaccines out of arms reinforce misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and spread disinformation — deliberately misleading people for political, ideological or other reasons.

Vaccines have been met with suspicion and hostility for as long as they have existed. Current opposition to COVID-19 vaccines is just the latest chapter in this long story. The primary driver of vaccine hesitancy throughout history has not been money, selfishness or ignorance.

“Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with misunderstanding the science and more to do with general mistrust of scientific institutions and government,” says Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy expert at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who studies the phenomenon. Historically, people harmed or oppressed by such institutions are the ones most likely to resist vaccines, adds Agnes Arnold-Forster, a medical historian at the University of Bristol in England.

A range of recurring and intersecting themes have fueled hesitancy globally and historically. These include anxiety about unnatural substances in the body, vaccines as government surveillance or weapons, and personal liberty violations. Other concerns relate to parental autonomy, faith-based objections, and worries about infertility, disability or disease. For example, some people oppose vaccines that were grown in cell culture lines that began from aborted fetal cells, or they mistakenly believe vaccines contain fetal cells. One of today’s false beliefs — that COVID-19 vaccines contain a microchip — represents anxiety about both vaccine ingredients and vaccines as a surveillance tool.

Meanwhile, here’s a handy chart from Drum that shows American attitudes towards major vaccines since WWII.  Covid is just part of this same pattern:

What’s especially of note in the current pandemic, though, is this strong partisan polarization.  Drum with some interesting commentary here, too:

Overall response to the COVID-19 vaccine is right in line with historical averages. What’s more, Republicans have always been more hesitant about vaccines than Democrats—though with a twist:

As you can see, Republicans have always been more wary of vaccines. That wariness has increased over time, but it’s been stable since 2000 and obviously has nothing to do with Donald Trump. In fact, the especially big difference in the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t due to Republicans becoming more hesitant at all. It’s due to Democrats becoming less hesitant. Democrats are about 20 points more enthusiastic about the COVID-19 vaccine than they have been about other vaccines.

There’s an important point here: People are hesitant about vaccines for different reasons, and conservatives have historically been more hesitant than average about them. This means that loud snarking about Republicans being idiot zealots willing to kill themselves just for partisan satisfaction misses the point: their hesitance has little to do with Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson or the polarization of modern politics. Vaccine yahooism may have made things worse at the margins, but that’s about it. Conservatives have always been this way.

Short version: We’ve always had vaccine skepticism (and always will).  What seems to have changed is how the constellation of demographics/beliefs/attitudes that seem to lead to vaccine skepticism are now much more common in the Republican Party, relatively speaking, than in previous eras.  

And that was going to be the post.  But, then I saw Leonhardt today and clearly part of this story is educational polarization (which as we know, is increasingly tied to partisan polarization).  This chart is something else:

Wow.  So much of this is a class gap.  Though, especially noteworthy to me is just how much true anti-vaxxerism there is among Republicans of both college and non-college variety.  The 25% of Republican college grads who are full-on anti-vaxx strikes me as the biggest outlier in this chart.  

Anyway, lots to chew on in all of these pieces, but, for me the takeaway is to not at all be disheartened and to recognize that this is a hill to climb in every major vaccination campaign.  That said, this outsized partisan valence almost surely makes it harder (like it makes everything harder).  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The vaccine skeptical you will always have with you

  1. Laura Goodwin says:

    Should be *of note* instead of “What’s especially of not”

    My takeaway from the Leanhart graph was a bit different from yours. I didn’t see the Republican grads as an outlier when I woke up and read his newsletter this morning, I saw it as – why are you even showing me this? It IS partisan and the proof is in that bar.

    That aside, it IS important how much class plays a role. But with that depiction I have a quibble as well – they are measuring class by education – let’s call it education.

    If the Why of elections is the economy, stupid, then the How of politics has got to be education, stupid. It is the silver bullet, the thing that solves so many of the other things. Democrats have gotten more vaccine acceptant – is it a coincidence that it has been as they have gotten more educated? If there is something that can help us make better decisions (and I take well your point that we are not evolved to do so – I’m talking marginally better decisions. But on the population level, marginally better decision-making is a big win.), it is learning how to think and analyze. And if I take your class it doesn’t even matter if I agree with you or disagree with you, as long as you are making me think critically about why, and to question my own assumptions.

    On Mon, May 24, 2021 at 10:32 AM Fully Myelinated wrote:

    > Steve Greene posted: “(Apologies to Jesus for the title of the post) Yes, > it is really frustrating that so many people don’t want to get the vaccine > that can save lives and allow us all to return to 2019 living, but the > reality is that a decent amount of vaccine skepticism is” >

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