Vaccination rates are improving at a steady clip. As of Wednesday afternoon, almost 124 million Americans have received at least one shot and over 76 million are fully vaccinated. There have been no meaningful bad effects from either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and only a handful of extremely rare incidents that have forced the FDA to temporarily pause the administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The vaccines are safe, effective, and well-documented on social media. These are the exact conditions — basically, other people getting it first and proving it's safe — that many vaccine-hesitant Americans were telling pollsters that they wanted to see in order to convince them to get the vaccine.
And yet, a new poll released Wednesday by Monmouth University shows the number of Americans — 1 in 5 — who refuse to get vaccinated has barely dropped from where it was in polls conducted in January and March. The only thing that's really changed is the excuse people are offering for why. In the past, 21% of Americans gave the "let others do it first" answer. Now only 12% of people are even bothering to pretend that condition hasn't been met yet.
Instead, what's becoming ever more clear is the reluctance to get vaccinated is about one thing and one thing only: Owning the libs.
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"The number of people who have been skittish about the vaccine has dropped as more Americans line up for the shot, but the hardcore group who want to avoid it at all costs has barely budged," Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in the press release, adding that "much of this reluctance is really ingrained in partisan identity."
In fact, that might be most of it. As the Monmouth poll found, "43% of Republicans versus just 5% of Democrats" are refusing to get the vaccine altogether. Another recent poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that while overall vaccine hesitancy has hit an all-time low in the U.S., Republicans, unlike either Democrats or Independents, have for months remained largely unmoved in their unwillingness to get vaccinated.
The reasons for this are not mysterious.
Right-wing media networks like Fox News and various personalities have gone out of their way to signal to conservatives that refusing the vaccine is a way to demonstrate tribal loyalty and, even more importantly, demonstrate contempt for liberals. For instance, after CNN's Brian Stelter hosted a segment calling on Fox News hosts and other right-wing pundits to encourage vaccination through vaccine selfies, a number of those figures childishly flipped out, as if Stelter was their mommy telling them to eat their broccoli. The Blaze's Glenn Beck posted a picture mocking vaccine selfies, substituting the bird for the jab.
Hey CNN I got your vaccine selfie right here pic.twitter.com/RLgOTud76r
— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) April 13, 2021
Fox News "comedian" Greg Gutfeld whined it's "none of your f**king business" who gets the shot, even though vaccination quite literally works through herd immunity and cannot be understood as a "personal" choice any more than driving through red lights is a "personal" choice.
The anti-vaccination sentiment is clearly building on a tendency on the American right to define "manhood" as an unwillingness to act like an adult who can handle even basic responsibilities, which is no doubt one reason why women are more likely to get vaccinated than men. Another problem, of course, is that right-wing media has been bombarding their audiences with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, a problem that has only grown more intense this week, after the pause in the distribution of Johnson & Johnson vaccinations.
Tucker Carlson, who Media Matters' Senior Fellow Matt Gertz says "has become perhaps the nation's most prominent coronavirus vaccine skeptic," has taken to portraying vaccines as a massive hoax. On Tuesday, for instance, Carlson suggested that the vaccine "doesn't work and they're simply not telling you that."
It's a troubling situation, especially as widespread vaccine hesitation could very well prevent the U.S. from achieving herd immunity, and therefore letting COVID-19 spread widely as it continues to mutate.
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That said, there are some things that Joe Biden's administration can do in order to fight this onslaught of pressure on conservatives from right-wing media to refuse vaccination.
First, as I've argued before, it's important to deny right-wing pundits their ultimate goal, which is drawing out the lockdown measures as long as possible, to tank the economic recovery and therefore hurt Biden's presidency. Even though it's less than ideal, it must be made clear that the time to roll back recommendations against parties and other gatherings is when supply outstrips demand for the vaccine — not when we reach herd immunity. If conservative media realizes that they're not going to be able to leverage the unvaccinated bodies of their own audiences against Biden, they may give up their anti-vaccination crusade.
Second, the Centers for Disease Control needs to dial back the hyper-caution in its messaging. There are some understandable reasons that the CDC still doesn't want to tell vaccinated people that eating out, going to church, going to gyms, and other such occasions are low risk. But refusing to do so is, unfortunately, sending an entirely different message, which is that being vaccinated has no personal benefit and thus there's no reason to bother. Carlson exploited this confusion during his latest anti-vaccination rant, literally asking, "If vaccines work, why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives?"
The solution to this problem is, in a large part, to start highlighting the freedoms that full vaccination gives you. Model the messaging on the upbeat ads for HIV prevention drugs that focus on the sexual pleasure and connection people who use the drugs can enjoy. Stop with the dour messaging that makes people feel like the shot changes nothing about their lives. (Masks will likely still have to be worn for many months, but otherwise, vaccinated people really should be able to return to something far closer to normal than the CDC is currently allowing.)
Third, more resources should be focused on getting people's individual doctors to push them to get the shot. Right now, COVID-19 vaccination has been focused on community health channels. This is totally understandable, as the swiftest way to get shots into arms is to have folks queue up in centralized locations. The problem is that this kind of communal health care repulses conservatives who — for totally grotesque and often racist reasons, to be clear — really hate the very concept of health care as a shared resource, an attitude that only got worse in the decade-plus of anger over Obamacare. But conservatives might take a different view if they could see the COVID-19 vaccine shot as individualized health care being offered to them by their own doctor.
Pro-vaccine GOP pollster Frank Luntz has conducted some research on this front and reported that if conservatives perceive the vaccine as coming from the government, they won't take it. But "the most compelling message we tested was that more than 90 percent of doctors who have been offered the vaccine have taken it." The "we're all in this together" message works on most communities but can injure the easily bruised egos of conservatives, who like to think of themselves as rugged individuals. Reframing the shot as something elite authority figures like doctors get and contextualizing it like a personalized health care recommendation just for them could help get a lot of conservatives to just get the shot already.
Some of these ideas understandably frustrate liberals.
Why should public health strategies have to change to accommodate stubborn people who are motivated by childishness, conspiracy theories, and racism? Why should we even have to worry about people who willfully listen to liars like Tucker Carlson?
Unfortunately, the reason, in this case, is that we really are all in this together. Conservatives who refuse to get vaccinated are going to spread disease — indeed, that's what right-wing media is counting on. So anything that can be done to reduce the political salience of vaccination, to make it seem less "liberal" and more like regular health care, can benefit us all. Besides, at least part of the strategy requires leaving conservatives behind if they don't want to get the shot, which means more freedom sooner for the rest of us.