How Vaccinations Become Partisan

Failing to challenge Donald Trump on vaccines was more than just a political faux pas.
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Failing to challenge Donald Trump on vaccines was more than just a political faux pas.
Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

One of the more interesting moments in last Wednesday's Republican presidential debate was when Ben Carson, a physician, was asked to comment on Donald Trump's previous comments supporting the idea that vaccinations can lead to autism. Carson's response was fascinating:

We know from many, many studies that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. None. There are many parents out there who are taking care of autistic children, and others who have newborn babies, who don't deserve to be fed these kinds of lies. Donald Trump actually has a following among our party's voters, and it's dangerous, irresponsible, disrespectful, and wrong for him to be saying such things. I hope every other candidate on this stage will join me in condemning what he has said, and I call upon Mr. Trump to repudiate his statements and apologize to parents, children, and doctors everywhere, right here and now.

Oh, sorry, that's what he should have said. What he actually said was an odd collection of mealy-mouthed statements that actually validated some of Trump's baseless immunization concerns. Politically, this was a huge waste for Carson, who was actually second in the polls at that point and could have used his expertise in medicine to his advantage.

But it was more than just a political failure. Trump, Carson, and Senator Rand Paul all expressed some concern about the number of vaccinations given to young children and the delivery of those vaccines in a short time period. Those three candidates represented the top choices of more than half the potential Republican electorate prior to last week's debate, and many of those voters heard their preferred candidate give credence to immunization concerns that have no basis in medical science.

So far, anti-vaxxers are not really associated with one ideology or another. As sociologist Jennifer Reich notes in her work on this topic, anti-vaxxers tend to be white, wealthy, and well-educated, but are also focused on organic foods, prolonged breast-feeding of children, and other variants of healthful diets. That is, they have both liberal and conservative tendencies and demographic characteristics. What's more, their presence in the population, while growing, is still very small.

But we know that people can be influenced by opinion leaders in their own political parties. In many cases, people's opinions on issues are not well formed, and they adopt the issue stances of politicians they admire.

This has not been a major source of concern in the vaccines world since pretty much all politicians of all major parties have taken strongly pro-vaccination stances, when they take any stance on the issue at all. But when leading candidates in one political party, and not the other, take a different stance, it is quite possible that voters will follow suit.

As I have written previously, opposition to vaccinations is potentially an idea that could mesh well with American conservatism:

The idea that I can make better judgments about my kids than the government can, that I should be concerned about me and my own rather than the larger social network, that I shouldn't have to make sacrifices or face risks on behalf of strangers -- it wouldn't take much to fold that into the definition of modern conservatism. Resistance to vaccinations doesn't have to mean embracing organic food or breastfeeding toddlers; that's simply a liberal interpretation of it.

The risk that candidates like Trump, Carson, and Paul (and CNN, for asking the question and treating the issue like a matter for honest disagreement) run is that this would become a partisan issue. Adherence to the traditional vaccination schedule for young children would become the Democratic approach, with Republicans speaking of freedom from medical tyranny.

That potentially takes us down a dicey road, with Republican presidents and members of Congress softening or even eliminating immunization rules while in power and Democrats working to replace them once they gain office. A child's immunization status would be highly dependent upon which party controlled the White House when she was born.

Of course, having half the population immunized is only modestly better than having no one immunized. It would mean a resurgence of a great many diseases that have been virtually eradicated during the past century of immunization policy. It would mean an end to herd immunity for many population groups.

Carson's political errors last Wednesday are only of modest consequence—he was highly unlikely to become the Republican presidential nominee anyway. But his errors in medical judgment could have far costlier ramifications for the country.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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