Once, long ago, or so it seems now, we had a Black president, who was widely-read and steady and patient, and careful. He was No Drama Obama. He didn’t get angry. He got thoughtful. And he didn’t change much. Obamacare wasn’t socialized medicine. It was an array of subsidies offered to those who could not afford health insurance, so they could buy what was offered for sale by the private sector – with a few rules about what basic health insurance should be. That didn’t change the system. That opened the system to more people. The Tea Party hated Obamacare but eventually shrugged. It was useful and the world didn’t end. They moved on.
Some on the left hated those Obama years. Where were the bold programs? Where was the passion? Where was the righteous anger at all the injustice in the world that needs attention, right now? But that was not how Obama worked. He had the same aims, but he took the long view. Be patient. He’d quote Martin Luther King – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Change takes a long time, but it does happen. The government doesn’t turn on a dime. The government turns slowly. Policies and procedures and current law and previous court rulings have their own momentum. And all politicians have their egos and their own dreams. Change can take years, or decades, and of course public opinion changes even more slowly. Their heroes don’t become villains overnight. The bad is not suddenly good. That sort of thing takes time.
But something is up. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall has been watching Fox News and that side of things and was stunned:
Sean Hannity Monday night: “I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died. It absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science. I believe in vaccine science.”
Chris Ruddy, owner of Newsmax, announces Biden is doing a totally awesome job with the vaccines which are great.
After months of stalling Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R) gets vaccinated, calls it “safe and effective.”
Right wing homunculus Ben Shapiro: “Get vaxxed. I did. My wife did. My parents did.”
All four had spent months saying that these vaccines were evil and would kill us all, or kill our freedom and be the end of America as we know it, and now are letting everyone know they’d supported universal vaccination all along. Hadn’t you been listening?
That’s the wrong question:
Some Republicans continue to send a different set of messages, however. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), was temporarily suspended from Twitter on Monday for violating its covid-19 misinformation policy after she falsely claimed the coronavirus was “not dangerous for non-obese people and those under 65.” She also previously equated the Biden administration’s push for more coronavirus vaccinations to efforts of Nazi-era “medical brown shirts.”
In a news conference Tuesday, Greene – who declined to say whether she has been vaccinated – continued to propagate misinformation about vaccine-related deaths and side effects, and refused to encourage her constituents to get vaccinated.
“I believe in people’s own individual responsibility to read, to find out and to make their own decision,” Greene said. “I don’t worship science, or think that science rules everything – I believe that God rules everything.”
That’s the choice. Choose science or God. Choose the vaccine or trust that God, not science or medicine, will keep you safe – one or the other – which led to this:
Asked Tuesday whether Greene’s previous tweets distract from convincing skeptical Americans about getting vaccinated, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, “I believe in vaccines.”
He is washing his hands of her, but there’s that other argument:
Many Republicans have characterized vaccinations as a matter of freedom of choice.
“I’ve been pressing for transparency in government so that people have as much information as possible before they make that choice, and no one should be pressured, coerced, or fear reprisal for refusing any medical treatment, including the covid vaccine,” said Rep. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has not been vaccinated, on Newsmax on Tuesday.
His choice could kill many others, and might just do that, but his freedom matters more, the usual argument on that side of things, but there’s this too:
Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas pointed the finger at the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
“Every time Jen Psaki opens her mouth or Dr. Fauci opens his mouth,” he said, “10,000 more people say I’m never going to take the vaccine.”
Those people want to take the vaccine, they really do, but not if Fauci or Psaki say they should. This is a matter of principle:
The political disparity in vaccine hesitancy is stark. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported at the end of June that 86 percent of Democrats had at least one shot, compared with 52 percent of Republicans. An analysis by The New York Times in April found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for Mr. Trump.
“There’s a big gap, and it’s growing,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We know that more of the unvaccinated are self-identified Republicans, so they are much more at risk of illness, death and continued spread than fully vaccinated people.”
That’s rather obvious:
Conservative swaths of the country are being hit particularly hard. Intensive care units in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas are filled or filling fast, while 40 percent of new cases are cropping up in Florida.
At the Capitol on Tuesday, where a vaccinated aide to Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive for the coronavirus, the in-house physician warned lawmakers and staff members that the Delta variant is now present. He begged unvaccinated lawmakers to get their shots, and warned that a mask mandate may have to be reimposed.
That may not help. There’s that God Lady:
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was suspended from Twitter temporarily for writing that Covid-19 was not dangerous for people unless they were obese or over age 65. On Tuesday, she refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether she had been vaccinated, calling it a violation of the federal law governing the privacy of health care information. (The law does not bar an individual from speaking about her own medical status, or prohibit anyone from inquiring.)
Representative Madison Cawthorn, Republican of North Carolina, suggested that the Biden administration’s door-knocking effort was just a first step. Next, he said in an interview with Right Side Broadcasting Network, they would “go door to door to take your guns.”
“They could then go door to door to take your Bibles,” he added.
And then there’s Fox News:
The morning anchor’s plea was urgent and framed in the starkest of terms: Get the Covid-19 vaccine, or you could die. “It will save your life,” he said on Tuesday, echoing a now-common refrain in the news media as the highly contagious Delta variant drives a rise in coronavirus infections.
But the messenger in this case was Steve Doocy, the conservative co-host of “Fox & Friends,” and the venue was Fox News, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network whose stars have often relayed the view that vaccines can be dangerous and Americans are justified in refusing them.
Mr. Doocy was not the only big Fox News personality to intensify his warnings about the coronavirus this week. Sean Hannity urged viewers on Monday to “please take Covid seriously – I can’t say it enough.” He added: “I believe in the science of vaccination.”
Fox News has not changed overnight. When Mr. Doocy made similar remarks on Monday, his co-host Brian Kilmeade issued a counterpoint, telling viewers to “make your own decision” and adding, “We are not doctors.” Laura Ingraham, whose 10 p.m. show follows Mr. Hannity, accused Democrats on Monday of trying to “de-platform, cancel, defame or eliminate inconvenient opinions regarding their Covid response.”
But that’s not cutting it now:
Fox News has faced heavy criticism in recent days over its vaccine coverage, including a denunciation on the Senate floor and accusations of hypocrisy after a memo revealed that its own employees would be allowed to go maskless in the office if vaccinated. And with views on vaccines increasingly split along partisan lines, some leading Republicans have grown alarmed at the deadly toll of the virus in conservative states and districts.
The Biden administration, which has criticized the spread of Covid-related misinformation, has focused on Fox News’s coverage, given the channel’s influence with conservative viewers who have expressed skepticism about vaccines. The White House organized an informational briefing for Fox News producers and journalists this spring with several officials who are helping with the coronavirus response.
That was gentle. This is the situation. Do what you will. And that was useless:
The administration has held similar discussions with other networks. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday that her team recognized “the importance of reaching Fox’s audience about the Covid-19 vaccines and their benefits.” She added: “We don’t see vaccines as a political issue. It’s an issue about keeping Americans safe.”
The conversations have not included Mr. Murdoch or his elder son, Lachlan Murdoch, who runs the channel with his father. Nor did they involve senior Biden advisers like the chief of staff, Ronald Klain.
“There have been no high-level conversations between Fox News Media and the White House regarding our coverage,” Fox News said in a statement. “We had one routine briefing with the White House in early May on vaccination rates, and our D.C. bureau personnel are regularly in touch with them on a variety of issues, as is the case with every other network.”
But that’s as far as this went:
Aides to Mr. Biden say they are wary of criticizing Fox News directly, reasoning that it would be counterproductive to promoting a pro-vaccine message to Fox News viewers.
“We need every media platform to step up and ensure their coverage provides accurate, objective information,” a White House spokesman, Kevin Munoz, said in a statement that avoided an aggressive attack against Fox News. “As with any misinformation, we don’t shy away from calling it out.”
But something happened:
Fox News has produced its own 30-second vaccine public service announcement, featuring the hosts and anchors Mr. Doocy, Harris Faulkner, Dana Perino and John Roberts. “If you can, get the vaccine,” Ms. Faulkner says in the ad. The anchor Bret Baier said in April that he was “grateful” to be vaccinated. Mr. Hannity and Mr. Doocy have previously told viewers to consider whether a vaccination would be beneficial to their lives and their families.
On Monday’s “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Doocy echoed government officials in noting that nearly all coronavirus deaths now involve unvaccinated people. After acknowledging that some people, such as pregnant women, might be hesitant, he said: “Everybody else, if you have the chance, get the shot.” Mr. Doocy also cited examples of online disinformation claiming the vaccine is “killing lots of people” or “changes your DNA” or comes with “little microchips.”
“None of that is true,” he said.
Fox News viewers are now completely confused, but this wasn’t always this hard. Andrew Wehrman, an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University, looks back on how things used to be:
American political leaders are compelled by the Constitution to provide for the “general welfare” of the people. Following this logic, vaccination has traditionally been viewed as a godsend. When Thomas Jefferson first learned of the promise of vaccination, just before taking office as the third president of the United States, he wrote that “every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one evil is withdrawn from the condition of man.”
These things solved everyone’s problems:
Some of the earliest laws in Colonial America were restrictions intended to keep the public safe from epidemic diseases, which was viewed as one of the foremost duties of government. Outbreaks of disease in the 18th century required an immediate response from officials who enacted restrictive quarantines, isolated and provided care for the infected, and, in extreme cases, oversaw the shutdown of entire communities to control the spread of disease.
These early epidemic orders were not without critics. Merchants often complained about how quarantines and shutdowns hampered their businesses. Enslavers worried about the damage an outbreak might do to the people enslaved on their plantations. The solution? Vaccines. When vaccination for smallpox was introduced to the United States, after the English doctor Edward Jenner published his experiments with cowpox in 1798, it offered a cheap way to prevent epidemics without harming businesses.
And there was nothing to argue about:
No matter how bitter the political climate, vaccines remained bipartisan. Despite a harshly contested partisan election in 1800 that eventually saw Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans defeat Federalist incumbent John Adams, both Adams and Jefferson cheered the discovery of vaccination.
So enthusiastic was Jefferson that he devised a method for transporting vaccine matter over long distances – a feat that was notoriously difficult before refrigeration. After having several of his slaves vaccinated, Jefferson called for the vaccination of some 200 people, performing dozens of vaccinations himself on his white family members and enslaved persons at Monticello.
And that led to this:
Jefferson marveled that vaccinated people missed so little work, commenting to a Delaware physician in 1801 that “a smiter at the anvil continued in his place without a moment’s intermission.” Jefferson naïvely hoped that the “liberal diffusion” of the evidence supporting vaccination would lead to its broad adoption without much government intervention, but vaccinations in the United States began to lag behind more coordinated efforts in other nations.
To correct this, newspapers supporting both political parties supported Massachusetts’ 1810 law known as “The Cow Pox Act,” which stated that it was “the duty of every Town, District, or Plantation” to establish a board of health “to superintend the inoculation of the inhabitants,” therein. Other states were slower to take such measures, especially when smallpox was not present.
Calls for a national vaccination program coalesced under President James Madison. Congress eventually passed and Madison signed “An Act to Encourage Vaccination,” popularly known as the Vaccine Act in 1813.
And that then led to this:
While some wanted the act to compel communities to require vaccinations like in Massachusetts, the Vaccine Act was more modest. Its goal was to ensure that anyone who wanted the smallpox vaccine could receive it from a reliable source for a low cost. The program was underfunded and ultimately canceled nine years later. And by the 1820s, some in Congress began calling the program an unconstitutional intrusion on states’ rights to provide for the health of their own citizens.
In the early 20th century more state and local governments mandated the vaccination of school children, business owners often required their workers to be vaccinated, and the United States did not see another outbreak of smallpox after the 1940s. These sometimes-aggressive actions did trigger a vocal but largely disorganized anti-vaccination movement, which contested state health laws in court, but it was not central to any major political party.
Even as providing health care to all Americans became a partisan ideal in the 20th century, vaccination programs have long stood as obvious, apolitical duties of government. While such programs have not always been popular with everyone in the history of the United States, the nonpartisan promotion of vaccination is nearly as old as the country itself.
And then everyone forgot that, and then, this one day, suddenly remembered that.
What has happened to us? Paul Krugman suggests this has something to do with “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation” as features of our new authoritarian right:
Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.
In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?
And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.
Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy…
Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months.
That seems inevitable:
Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.
How did lifesaving vaccines become politicized? As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests, today’s Republicans are always looking for ways to show that they’re more committed to the cause than their colleagues are – and given how far down the rabbit hole the party has already gone, the only way to do that is “nonsense and nihilism,” advocating crazy and destructive policies, like opposing vaccines.
That is, hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling.
And that’s that:
Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.
But something just changed. Change is slow, but right now, no one wants to die or see others die. The arc just bent.