Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Killing all vaccine mandates was always the plan for extremists

October 15, 2021 2:56 am

A small group of anti-vaccination protesters gather outside of New York-Presbyterian Hospital on September 01, 2021 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There’s been a growing, and understandable, horror that some Republican leaders are agitating against any vaccine mandates after pandering to angry conspiracy theorists for almost two years on COVID-19.

This should be regarded as unequivocally insane, as vaccines are really great at the all-important societal goal of preventing death.

However, recent polling shows a sharp drop for Republicans on whether parents should be required to get their kids vaccinated against infectious disease. In 2015, 81% of Democrats said yes, but only 67% of Republicans did. In 2021, that number increased to 85% for Dems, but plummeted to 46% of Republicans — a 21-point drop that puts it below majority support.

Naturally, some punditry has followed the familiar fill-in-the-blank narrative that President Biden brought this on with COVID vaccine mandates. (We’ve all seen the trope: By focusing on [insert issue here], Democrats have given Republicans no choice but to [do something bonkers.])

But in reality, as polling shows, the partisan divide on vaccines existed before the pandemic. 

There’s definitely been an anti-vaccine left rooted in the moralizing “wellness” movement that pushes so-called natural remedies over medicine and vaccines for profit (from enticing Instagram influencers to sleazy supplements salespeople lurking among your Facebook friends). It’s not a coincidence that affluent Orange County, Calif., was home to a measles outbreak a few years ago amid dropping child immunization rates.

And during the COVID crisis, there’s been an not-insignificant number of seemingly liberal celebrities who have come out against the vaccine, like Rob Schneider (OK, “celebrity” might be pushing it) and Kyrie Irving (who previously was a flat-earther, so it checks out.)

In Michigan and other states, lawmakers have been pushing for years to weaken long-standing school vaccine mandates for measles, polio, whooping cough and more under the guise of “parental rights” — rhetoric that should sound awfully familiar if you’ve been following the often-astroturfed protests over masks in schools this fall.

– Susan J. Demas

But the anti-vaxxer movement had found a snug home in GOP politics long before COVID started to spread. In Michigan and other states, lawmakers have been pushing for years to weaken long-standing school vaccine mandates for measles, polio, whooping cough and more under the guise of “parental rights” — rhetoric that should sound awfully familiar if you’ve been following the often-astroturfed protests over masks in schools this fall.

Michigan is one of 15 states that allows parents to opt-out of school immunization requirements because of their religious or “philosophical” beliefs, a purposefully murky term. As vaccination rates began to slip during the last decade, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder wouldn’t back dumping these oft-exploited exemptions, but his administration did institute a rule that parents had to visit their local health department before getting a waiver.

Several Republican lawmakers were, unsurprisingly, outraged even at that half-a-loaf measure, and held a circus-like hearing back in 2015 with screaming anti-vax parents (again, a fitting precursor to raucous school board meetings during the COVID pandemic, as aptly parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”)

​​Of course, so much of the pre-COVID coverage of anti-vaxxers portrayed them as nice, concerned parents, worthy of the hero shot treatment. A very saccharine 2015 CBS News story unloaded this doozy of a lead: “One is a businesswoman and an MBA graduate. Another is a corporate vice president. The third is a registered nurse. These three mothers — all of them educated, middle-class professionals — are among the vaccine skeptics who have been widely ridiculed since more than 100 people fell ill in a measles outbreak traced to Disneyland.”

Yeah, can’t imagine why.

But if you weren’t paying attention to state-level fights, anti-vax rhetoric became part of the 2016 GOP presidential primary fight, thanks to the likes of Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and, of course, now-former President Donald Trump. It was clear back then that anti-vaxxers were gaining a solid foothold in the Republican Party.

So when COVID-19 hit, they were ready for their moment — and they took it. 

The decision to cozy up to Republicans has paid dividends, with lawmakers in at least 40 states introducing legislation to ban vaccine requirements. State Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine) made the super-convincing case in June for her legislation barring vaccine passports — which don’t exist in Michigan — by arguing that “this is not an absurd idea.”

And of course the logical endpoint is what U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans are now proposing: Get rid of all vaccine mandates. That’s what anti-vaxxers have been working toward for years.

If you look at the lawmakers and right-wing activists railing against vaccines now — and it should be noted that most Michigan GOP legislators haven’t even said if they’ve gotten the shot — it’s just a continuation of their COVID denial that started last spring. 

First they were incensed about stay-home orders, then they got big mad about canceling school sports and then they started screaming about masks in schools and vaccine mandates.

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

And they’ve been peddling lies, scare tactics and misinformation all along the way. There are bizarre claims that vaccines will magnetize you or implant microchips to control you. But then there are highly damaging myths that shots could cause infertility or miscarriage, which has likely contributed to low immunization rates for pregnant people who are increasingly dying of COVID. 

It should be noted that a lot of this has grossly been aimed at African Americans and other marginalized communities that have long struggled to have access to health care. After all, the anti-vax movement is dominated by “overwhelming whiteness” and “fundamentally led and funded by the right-wing,” according to Anna Kirkland, director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research and Gender.

During a presentation in January — as COVID vaccines were still just being rolled out — Kirkland noted that anti-vaxxers had shifted from having a “feminized, mother-focused, natural-living focus to this highly masculinized, anti-mask, gun-rights mobilization.”

It’s more than a little ironic that guns are great for killing people, while vaccines have saved millions of lives. But then again, the anti-vax movement isn’t about logic or keeping folks healthy; it’s just a twisted quest to scare and control people, with deadly results.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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