IIn a new study published by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Republicans who said parents should be able to forgo the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine for their public school children is higher, even if it is one pose a health risk to others, the proportion has more than doubled from 20% in 2019 to 42% in 2023. White evangelical Protestants showed a nearly identical pattern: the percentage supporting parents’ choice not to vaccinate their children despite the health risk to others doubled from 20% to 40%.
This is obviously worrying. Measles cases in the US rose to levels not seen in decades in 2019. Studies showed that this was linked to growing vaccine hesitancy, largely due to (sometimes intentional) misinformation about the link between childhood vaccinations and autism. So why, after decades of measles surge, should we see conservatives stepping up their efforts to normalize the reluctance to vaccinate children?
Several reasonable explanations immediately emerge from the study. Pew shows there is a strong link between skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines and MMR vaccines for children. And America’s siled media landscape has been proven to fuel skepticism about even vaccines that have proven safe and effective for decades, such as the MMR vaccine.
But what ties these factors together is not primarily scientific ignorance about the efficacy or safety of such vaccines. Rather, it is a combination of partisan polarization and a growing populist identity that prioritizes parental rights over expert advice, government orders, or the safety of others. This is actually a bigger problem than ignorance.
There is an interesting paradox in Pew’s study. Despite the big change in Republican support for parents to avoid vaccinating their children with the MMR vaccine, Republicans are not Your views on the vaccines themselves are changing a lot. Between 2019 and 2023, the proportion of Republicans who thought the benefits of MMR vaccines outweigh the risks fell just 3%, from 89% to 86%. And the percentage of those who felt they had a high risk of side effects didn’t change much.
There is a nearly identical pattern for white evangelicals. In fact, the percentage of white evangelicals who say the benefits of MMR vaccination for children outweigh the risks hasn’t changed at all from 2019 to 2023 and is unchanged at 87%. And those who thought the vaccines posed a moderate or high risk of side effects rose just 5%, from 32% to 37%.
It is not primarily about the fear of vaccinations per se. If that were the case, black Protestants would be most in favor of keeping their children unvaccinated. Likely due to a long history of negative interactions with healthcare providers and less vaccine education, Pew shows that black Protestants are even more skeptical about MMR vaccines than white evangelicals. But they are about half as likely (21% to 40%) to agree that parents should be able to choose not to vaccinate their children.
Rather than starting with ignorance, the conservative shift appears to reflect a worsening of problems that have already surfaced over the past four years: political polarization and populist distrust of experts. This then drives political and religious conservatives to sources and relationships where vaccine skepticism is more normal.
Even before COVID-19, political and religious conservatives tended to be anti-vaxxers. In fact, former President Donald Trump may have contributed to their skepticism. Before he became president in 2016, Trump frequently tweeted the claim that vaccines cause autism in children. And a recent experimental study shows that when Trump voters were shown his numerous tweets, they became even more skeptical about vaccines than before.
How has the response to COVID-19 compounded this problem? Although the COVID-19 vaccine owed its rapid development to the Trump administration, support for COVID vaccination regulations was quickly linked to the political left.
Research shows that “motivated thinking,” often fueled by a natural propensity to distinguish our group from others, always takes precedence over any evaluation of facts. After one of the most contentious elections in American history, ideological and partisan identities are driving both Americans’ consumption of immunization news and the lens through which they read it.
No matter how many meta-analyses show that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, the narrative on the right endures must However, they may pose serious health risks and be ineffective. In fact, Pew found just that among both Republicans and white evangelicals.
But there is also a growing populist skepticism towards experts and a normalization of individualized vaccination decisions. Pew found that only 37% of Republicans said they had “a lot” of trust in their own doctors to give them accurate information about MMR vaccines, compared to 55% of Democrats. Again, this is not skepticism about vaccines per se, but skepticism about experts. And Pew shows in other reports that this biased gap in trust toward experts is widening.
Eventually, vaccination skepticism among children is gradually normalizing. Here’s an indicator. Pew asked Americans if they would feel uncomfortable or comfortable about letting their child spend time with a child who hadn’t received the MMR vaccine. Over two-thirds (67%) of Republicans said they were happy with it, compared to just 42% of Democrats. Part of this may be due to the issue of polarization, but it also likely reflects that Republicans simply know more parents who have chosen to keep their children unvaccinated.
Scientists can close information gaps. We can publish findings. Ignorance is not an insurmountable barrier. More problematic, however, is an identity based on distrust of experts, especially experts suspected of serving the narrative of leftists and elites. This is all the more true as these communities become increasingly isolated.
At this point, there may be little chance of depoliticizing COVID-19 vaccines, and there will be consequences. But we should all work to depoliticize narratives surrounding childhood vaccines, which have proven safe and effective for decades. The future of all Our children are at stake.
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