The Republican Party has become the antivaccine party

Yesterday, I discussed how a potentially promising program in Arizona to educate parents seeking personal belief exemptions was nixed after antivaxers complained to the Governor’s Regulatory Review Commission. In the course of my discussion, I noted a couple of things. One is something that I’ve been saying for a long time, specifically that neither support for vaccines nor antivaccine sentiment is a province of the left or the right. Contrary to the stereotype that antivaxers are crunchy, hippy-dippy granola crunching liberals, in reality they come from all over the political spectrum, with roughly equal prevalence on the left and the right. That’s not to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right in terms of antivaccine sentiment. Although there are roughly equal proportions of people on the left and the right who express fear and loathing of vaccines and believe that they cause autism, there’s a difference in how that belief is channeled, a difference that has evolved over the last decade or so. Basically, as I first noted nearly four years ago during the very early stages of the 2016 Republican Primary race, the Republican Party has become the party of pandering to antivaccinationists. In other words, 2015 was the year when it became undeniable that antivaccine Republicans are a thing, at least to me. Yes, there are left wingers pandering to antivaxers, like Jill Stein, but they are out of power and have almost no influence on government policy.

Sadly, it seems to have taken nearly that four years for the mainstream media to take notice, but I’m starting to see signs that they finally are. For instance, in the Daily Beast yesterday, I saw this:

The anti-vaxxer disease is now a Republican epidemic.

What was once the provenance of a few fringe weirdos—mostly on the loony left—has now migrated into the mainstream. At least three Republican candidates for governor—in Oklahoma, Oregon, and Connecticut—are now open skeptics of requiring vaccinations for school kids.

OK, it’s not a perfect article. That whole narrative about how antivaccine views were once primarily the province of the “loony left” was never true. It was always at best a massive exaggeration and at worse a myth, but it’s a common narrative that mainstream journalists who’ve suddenly come to the jarring realization that large segments of the Republican Party have embraced antivaccine views. Cleary they weren’t paying attention, because this is nothing new. There’s long been a right wing/libertarian strain of antivaccinationism going back to General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation and earlier. More recently, but still years before the “coming out” of the antivaccine-pandering to antivaccine fringe of the Republican Party as the mainstream face of the party. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I monitor tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party was known for sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing, which took place in 2012, was a bust. (Notice that we’re back to 2012 already, and I haven’t even gotten started.)

Of course, it’s all gotten worse, as so much of our politics has gotten worse over the last three years. There used to be a broad and strong bipartisan consensus that school vaccine mandates are a good thing to protect children from infectious diseases. That consensus is definitely fraying. The reason is that antivaxers have been very successful at portraying school vaccine mandates as unacceptable infringements of “freedom” and “parental rights” and efforts to eliminate personal belief exemptions (as California did) or to make them harder to obtain (as Michigan did) as overreach by an overweening government out to control parental rights. As Rand Paul once said, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” That seems to be the attitude behind the confluence of antivaccine views and conservative anti-regulation politics that produces antivaccine Republicans.

Like so many things that were once fringe in the Republican Party but are now mainstream, antivaccine views (or at least pandering to antivaccine Republicans and conservatives) are now mainstream. Indeed, multiple Republican candidates for governor are now openly attacking school vaccine mandates. First, Connecticut:

As the debate around the efficacy of vaccines ramps up again, a video taken over the summer has surfaced showing Connecticut’s GOP candidate for governor Bob Stefanowski questioning the need for childhood vaccines.

The video, obtained by NBC Connecticut, is about two minutes long and doesn’t provide any context for what was said before Stefanowski made his comments.

Someone in the audience questioned Stefanowski about Connecticut’s laws that require students attending public schools to be up to date on their vaccinations.

“Do you think the state should dictate [immunizations] or should local [Boards of Education] handle that?” the audience member asked.

According to Stefanowski, he doesn’t the reason why vaccines should be mandated for public school students.

“I think it depends on the vaccination,” Stefanowski replies in the video. “We shouldn’t be dumping a lot of drugs into kids for no reason.”

This is what I like to refer to as “antivaccine dogwhistles.” While Stefanowski tries to portray himself as reasonable by saying he got his children vaccinated, but emphasizing that it should be a “choice” and that the government shouldn’t be able to “force” children to be vaccinated. (Yes, it’s the “forced vaccination” trope, as though jackbooted stormtroopers would come in and forcibly vaccinate your child if you refused to have him vaccinated.) In other words, Stefanowski’s trying to have it both ways. He wants reasonable, pro-vaccine voters not to think he’s an antivaccine wingnut, but he’s telling antivaxers that he’s down with them. That bit about “dumping a lot of drugs into kids for no reason” is a dead giveaway. Is Stefanowski antivaccine? I actually doubt it. He is, however, clearly willing to pander rather blatantly to antivaxers. Why would he do that? It’s obviously because he perceives that that’s where the votes are in 2018.

He’s not alone. In Oregon, I learn:

In Oregon, Dr. Knute Buehler—yes, a physician—said that “parents should have the right to opt out” of vaccinations “for personal beliefs, for religious beliefs or even if they have strong alternative medical beliefs.”

Buehler described the opt-out system as beneficial. “I think that gives people option and choice and that’s the policy I would continue to pursue as Oregon’s governor,” he said.

I really hate it when fellow physicians are this dumb. But, then, Buehler’s running for office, which means that he’s a politician now. In any case, as a result of his statement, physicians in Oregon are pushing back (I can only imagine what Mark Crislip is saying about this guy):

On Monday, leaders of the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, the Oregon Pediatric Society, and the Oregon Chapter of the American College of Physicians called on Buehler to reverse his position. They noted the American Medical Association, like many other national medical organizations, accept the scientific consensus recommending a full slate of childhood vaccines.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, the favorite in the governor’s race, Kevin Stitt, is an antivaccine Republican:

The Republican nominee for Governor in Oklahoma expressed skepticism of childhood vaccinations in a speech earlier this year, aligning himself with a fringe movement that equates immunization with government overreach.

At an appearance before a conservative political forum this past February, Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt said he personally did not vaccinate some his own kids and opposed legislation that would require vaccinations for children if they wanted to attend public schools.

“I believe in choice,” Stitt said, “And we’ve got six children and we don’t vaccinate, we don’t do vaccinations on all of our children. So we definitely pick and choose which ones we’re gonna do. It’s gotta be up to the parents, we can never mandate that. I think there’s legislation right now that are trying to mandate that to go to public schools, it’s absolutely wrong. My wife was home schooled, I went to public schools, our kids go to Christian school, and that’s back to a parent’s choice.”

“Choice” is another antivaccine dogwhistle, of course. However, Stitt is in another category. Unlike Stefanowski and Buehler, who say they’ve vaccinated their children, Stitt appears to fall into the “selective vaccination” school of antivaxer. Moreover, he clearly wouldn’t have revealed that he didn’t make sure that his children have had all their vaccinations if he didn’t think it would benefit him politically—or at least not hurt him.

I’m guessing he knows his voters in Oklahoma. Last year, Senator Ervin Yen (R-Oklahoma City) introduced an SB 277-like bill that would have prohibited nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. As a result, he was subjected to a racist smear campaign very similar to what Senator Richard Pan, who introduced SB 277 in California:

It’s not just governors’ races, though. I’ve discussed on multiple occasions how in Texas the antivaccine group Texans for Vaccine Choice has become quite politically influential and has basically shut down all efforts to tighten the requirements for personal belief exemptions in Texas or even to improve reporting of how many exemptions have been granted per school. They were even active during Hurricane Harvey. In Texas, antivaccine Republicans are actually primarying Republicans who are too pro-vaccine and sometimes winning:

Lisa Luby Ryan, an interior designer, beat three-term state Representative Jason Villalba in the Republican primary in March, aided by a slew of far-right groups fed up with the moderate-ish incumbent. She’s backed by Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, and has endorsements from Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick left Ryan off his list of endorsements that included more than 60 other House Republican incumbents and candidates. Ryan has said she supports the “sanctuary cities” ban, which requires local officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents. In explaining her opposition to gun control or even studying gun violence, she said, “My son, who is autistic, was robbed by three black thugs.”

Perhaps Ryan’s most vocal advocate in the primary was Texans for Vaccine Choice, a group of self-identified “mad moms in minivans” fighting for “medical freedom” and “parental consent,” code words for the right to not vaccinate children. The group was created in direct response to a 2015 bill filed by Villalba that would have eliminated non-medical “conscience” exemptions for vaccines at public schools, which have skyrocketed in Texas in the 15 years since they were allowed. (“If we don’t do something quickly, the blood of our children will be on our hands,” Villalba told the Observer earlier this year.)

Flanked by Texans for Vaccine Choice leaders on primary night, Ryan said she couldn’t have won “without my amazing group of moms who believe in the power of family.” Volunteers with the organization block-walked for Ryan during the GOP primary.

Yes, you read that right. Texans for Vaccine Choice and antivaccine Republicans took their revenge on a state representative for trying to pass a Texas version of SB 277 that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates by primarying him and replacing him with a much more conservative candidate backed by antivaxers. Fortunately, there’s hope that Ryan won’t win. As the article notes, House District 114 is in North Dallas and has a more moderate electorate; Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly 9% in 2016.

Of course, in my own state, there are plenty of antivaccine and antivaccine-pandering politicians, including (sadly) my own state representative and state senator. When the crew who made the antivaccine propaganda movie VAXXED came to my state two years ago to promote vaccine “freedom,” they found a receptive audience in far too many of my state legislators, thanks to antivaccine groups like Michigan for Vaccine Choice and its associated PAC.

Back in August a few days before the primary, I attended a local Republican event in which one of the Republican candidates for my Congressional district held an antivaccine roundtable. Antivaccine Republicans from all around southeast Michigan attended. Ironically (and annoyingly) it was my own state representative, Rep. Jeff Noble, who said something that I’ll never forget. He sits on the Michigan House Health Policy Committee and is the cosponsor of a bill to provide “informed consent” about “fetal cells” in vaccines and another bill to eliminate Michigan’s requirement that parents seeking personal belief exemptions attend an educational program and use only a state-sanctioned form to claim the exemption that includes text acknowledging that the parent could be placing her child and other children at risk. During the Q&A, Rep. Noble made a very telling observation. He noted that on the Health Policy Committee it is only Republicans who are willing to listen to “vaccine choice” initiatives, while Democrats won’t even consider them and, as Noble put it, want to “shove vaccines down your throat (or arm).”

I think Noble has a point. Antivaccine views might well be roughly equally prevalent across the political spectrum, but only on the right have these views been co-opted by antivaccine activists to the point where Republican candidates for office see an advantage in pandering to them or, if they happen to be antivaccine Republicans, openly letting their antivaccine freak flag fly high. And I haven’t even mentioned President Donald Trump, who has a decade-long history of spouting antivaccine conspiracy theories; we’re just lucky that he hasn’t done anything substantive about them as President (yet). There’s nothing even remotely similar on the Democratic side or the left. Jill Stein? Sure, she spews left wing antivaccine dog whistles, but she has no influence. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? He’s antivaccine as hell but he’s not an elected official.

In 2018, there is really only one antivaccine party (even among its educated members), and that’s the Republican Party. Antivaccine views used to be seen only on the fringes of the Republican Party, but they’re rapidly becoming mainstream Republican. As a result, the bipartisan consensus that for so long supported school vaccine mandates is breaking down. If that doesn’t scare you, regardless of whether you’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, it should.