Doom: Less than half of Republicans now support childhood vaccine mandates

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

You don’t say.

The charitable read on this new YouGov poll is that it’s just a proxy for sentiment about the COVID vaccine, especially for kids. There’s a reasonable argument that children don’t need to be immunized against a disease that seldom causes them a problem. (There are also reasonable arguments that they should be anyway.) The calculus is different for something like measles. Not everyone who opposes forcing parents to vaccinate their kids against COVID opposes forcing them to vaccinate their kids against all diseases.

But more do than you may think.

The reason why the charitable read doesn’t work in this case is because YouGov also asked specifically about mandating the COVID vaccine for students as a condition of attending school. Democrats split 79/9 in favor on that while Republicans split 25/63 against. Then the pollster asked a far broader question, “Do you think parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases?”

Not great:

Republicans still showed plurality support for childhood vaccine mandates, splitting 46/35. But Trump voters were underwater at 40/42. (Blacks and Latinos each showed 60 percent support, by comparison.) MAGA is now opposed on balance to all vaccine requirements for kids if YouGov’s data is accurate.

And who can blame them in light of the arguments that have been deployed by Republican leaders against COVID vaccine mandates? I wrote about that last month after Chris Wallace put Pete Ricketts, the governor of Nebraska, on the spot about double standards:

There are two ways you can handle a question like that if you’re anti-mandate. One is to do what Ricketts did by explaining what makes the COVID vaccine different. It’s new, we don’t know what long-term effects it might have, and it targets a disease that children typically shake off without difficulty. As I say, measles is different. But most Republican officials don’t bother drawing those lines. When Ron DeSantis denounces vaccine mandates, for instance, he tends to do it in the language of liberty and fairness, highlighting the cruelty of taking away someone’s job if they haven’t had their shots.

That’s a sweeping argument. Once this becomes a debate over freedom and bodily autonomy instead of a debate over the particular costs and benefits of the COVID vaccine, it’s logical for people to extend the anti-mandate logic to all vaccines. If, as a matter of natural right, the state shouldn’t have the power to pressure me into putting some drug into my body, what does it matter if the drug in question has to do with COVID or with measles or whooping cough? The principle is the same.

The “freedom and autonomy” argument against mandates is more rousing and in line with broader libertarian tendencies within the GOP (the pre-Trump GOP, at least), which is probably why ambitious pols like DeSantis prefer it to a dry dispute over a specific vaccine’s merits and disadvantages. But it’s poisoning Republican attitudes towards basic public health measures to prevent infectious disease and kids will pay the price if it becomes party orthodoxy. Which it probably will, given the electoral incentive to pander to populists when running in a GOP primary. “Fewer than half of Republicans (47%) describe vaccines in general as ‘very safe,’ 25 points lower than the share of Democrats who describe them that way,” YouGov found in another result today. If this isn’t a party litmus test yet, give it another three years.

Aaron Blake is right that there are other cultural currents influencing Republican opinion here. School policy and parents’ right to influence it has become an animating issue in the Virginia gubernatorial election. Partly that’s due to concerns over the curriculum being radicalized to teach woke ideologies like Critical Race Theory but much of it is a backlash to pandemic policies requiring kids to mask and, soon, to get vaccinated. The more resentment there is over forcing kids to follow rules that don’t make sense despite their parents’ objections, the greater the risk that that resentment will bleed over into opinions about rules that do make sense, like vaccine mandates for measles and other dangerous diseases.

Since everything else in modern American politics becomes ruthlessly polarized by party in time, we should expect it to happen with this issue as well, which will push Republicans further towards a hardline anti-vax position. At least one red-state legislature has already flirted with the idea of banning vaccine mandates, and not just for COVID. Scott Gottlieb is so worried about partisan polarization being driven by Biden’s federal vaccine mandate that he’s come to oppose it even though he supports mass vaccination emphatically. I’ll leave you with that clip from October 3. This decadent country is in a dark place when one party saying “vaccines are good and children should get them” leads the other inexorably towards taking the contrary position, just because.