Media Promotes Fake “Vaccine Hesitancy” Narrative To Justify Coercion And Scolding

According to the latest musings of liberal pundits and public health “experts” — the latter often being de facto liberal pundits, who mask their political advocacy by falsely appealing to some sort of scientifically-endowed “objectivity” — suddenly, in the past week or so, Republican elected officials did an about-face and began promoting uptake of COVID vaccines. The widely-cited Twitter epidemiologist Eric Topol claimed that “only in recent days, interestingly, have they [Republicans] started to come out with a message that this is important.” A deluge of MSNBC segments and tweets from all the usual suspects have predictably followed on the theme.

While it’s true that many high-profile Republicans have recently reiterated their pro-vaccine stance after an uptick in COVID cases/hospitalizations arising from the “Delta variant,” simple checking confirms it was just that — a reiteration. Consult the factual record and you will find that a wide cross-section of the country’s most prominent Republican elected officials didn’t just decide in mid-July 2021 to begin promoting vaccines. Far from it: they’ve been promoting vaccine uptake consistently, for months, though perhaps without the moralizing zeal that many liberal pundits seem to crave as an essential ingredient of any vaccine-related advocacy. Here is an incomplete list of prominent Republican figures who had been steadfast vaccine proponents long before this month:

  • Donald Trump

This one produces an overload of cognitive dissonance, both among hardcore Trump supporters and detractors. The simple fact is that Trump presided over and spearheaded Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s initiative to publicly fund the production and manufacture of a vaccine on an expedited timescale far beyond anything ever before attempted in history. Whether or not Trump should receive “credit” for doing this is an ancillary pundit-style consideration; it’s just the factual reality. Of course, throughout 2020, Trump was pilloried by self-appointed “fact checkers” — the most exalted Guardians of the Facts — for his assurances that a vaccine would be available on an expedited schedule. But then that’s exactly what happened. 

Put another way: if there’s any single individual who’s most directly responsible for this historically unprecedented mass provision of vaccines — perhaps other than the scientists who actually created them — that individual would have to be Donald Trump. This isn’t something that’s often acknowledged by the most hardcore online factions of Trump supporters, who tend to lean “vaccine skeptical,” nor is it acknowledged by Trump opponents who shudder at the mere thought of assigning him “credit” for anything. But, it’s also just true. 

Trump himself seems cognizant of this. At every opportunity, he trumpets Operation Warp Speed as one of his Administration’s signature accomplishments, and understandably so:

Trump has also made multiple appearances on Fox News touting the vaccine and urging his supporters to get it — not this July, but months ago. At the CPAC convention in February he implored, “Everybody, go get your shot.” Trump has also said that he personally received the vaccine in January. Maybe he could’ve done more of this vaccine promotion on Twitter and Facebook if they hadn’t nuked his accounts.

Sorry if this fact bothers you from whatever angle, but again, it’s just true: Donald Trump is one of the nation’s highest-profile vaccine proponents.

  • Mike Pence

While Pence is now reviled among an element of Trump supporters for his perceived inaction during the ceremonial certification of Electoral College votes, he nonetheless made a big show of personally receiving the vaccine live on TV and endorsing its efficacy, weeks before the whole Jan. 6 business went down. Pence even framed his vaccine support in terms of traditional conservative policy goals, heralding that the Trump Administration was able to “cut red tape” and produce the vaccines as quickly as possible.

  • Ron DeSantis

Here’s another odd one. When the vaccines first became available, DeSantis immediately declared, “We are working to get as much vaccine for our citizens as possible” and implemented a distribution plan that prioritized elderly Florida residents, which resulted in a bizarre round of media pushback — as though prioritizing the elderly for vaccine distribution was some sinister plot. DeSantis also personally received the vaccine, and publicized this fact, when his age group first became eligible. Like all other Republican Governors, he’s been in charge of administering and promoting his state’s vaccination program from the outset.

  • Greg Abbott

The Governor of the most populous Republican-run state invited the press to publicize his vaccine injection on-camera, all the way back in December. Abbott proclaimed his intention to show Texans how “safe and easy” the vaccines were. Since then, he’s reiterated his vaccine advocacy on many occasions

  • Kristi Noem

Despite being well-known as a critic of other COVID mitigation measures — South Dakota never issued any kind of statewide “stay-at-home order” or mask mandate — Noem has been effusive in her vaccine advocacy, posting a requisite “jab” selfie and touting the “life-saving” quality of the vaccine.

More:

That sure seems like a healthy sample of the country’s most prominent elected Republicans, and all had promoted vaccination well before July 2021, in addition to receiving it themselves. Furthermore, if your summarization of Republican elected officials’ vaccine-related attitudes includes no acknowledgment that 27 states' vaccination programs have been administered by Republican Governors for the past seven or eight months... something’s seriously off. I again checked the public record, and not only have all of the nation’s Republican Governors — all 27 of them — consistently promoted uptake since the vaccines first became available in December/January, they’re also personally vaccinated themselves. To take one example that some may find surprising, here’s the Republican Governor of Idaho, Brad Little, receiving the vaccine live on camera in January:

Little said he “hopes by getting the safe and effective COVID vaccine, it will instill confidence in Idahoans to make an appointment.”

This universal pro-vaccine stance among Republican Governors includes Governors of states that are currently thought to be suffering disproportionately from the “Delta variant” — such as Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. Though she was just attacked by the reliably tedious liberal pundit Joan Walsh “for waiting so long to make a vaccine pitch,” as a factual matter Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey has been making exactly that “pitch” from the beginning. Once again, the kind of simple checking that apparently escapes these media narrative-sellers would reveal that Ivey also received the vaccine in full public view, also back in January:

The Republican Governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, has repeatedly done the same: 

The Republican Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, has been on national TV constantly discussing his efforts to encourage vaccination, and has been vehemently promoting the vaccine for months, since it became available. And on and on and on.

When these naysayers and nitpickers complain about the invented narrative that prominent Republican officials have only recently begun advocating vaccine uptake, what they seem to be really lamenting is that there hasn’t been enough sanctimonious, self-important hectoring — the kind they regularly engage in to showcase their claimed moral and political superiority. It’s apparently not enough for Republican-run governments to offer vaccines such that they’re universally available and free at the point of use, nor for Republican officials to encourage vaccination in normal language. It must all come with a side of browbeating, lest the Culture War not be waged for two seconds.

And while plenty of Republicans have done the “vaccine selfie” routine, there’s also something to be said for taking the vaccine without much fuss or spectacle, since most Americans are probably not inclined to broadcast their private medical procedures online. Showing off a needle in your arm on social media might not be the most effective persuasion strategy, especially for those who may otherwise have reservations about the vaccine. Plus, let’s face it: the whole “take a selfie with a needle being inserted into your arm” concept is a bit weird to begin with. Some may even call it creepy and invasive!

There’s also some conflation happening here. Because many Republicans, including those listed above, have been on the “skeptical” side of debates over secondary issues involving vaccines — including “passports,” mandates, and the like — these secondary policy disputes get lumped in with overall vaccine skepticism. Which definitely exists among Republicans to some degree — but certainly not as a function of Republican voters simply parroting the cues of Republican elected officials. The impression that Republicans are in aggregate a rogue band of vaccine denialists is what you might call a function of the “Marjorie Taylor Greene effect”: a phenomenon in which the most performatively wacky Republicans occupy an exaggerated role in the media’s imagination and consume an excessive amount of their attention. Yes, it’s true that Marjorie Taylor Greene has engaged in dimwitted vaccine-rejectionist talk. Is she a more influential Republican than... Donald Trump? Does she have more day-to-day control over vaccine distribution than literally every Republican Governor?

The fake “sudden Republican epiphany on vaccines” narrative seems to derive in part from the liberal desire to exercise permanent coercive control over their perceived cultural and political inferiors, using measures that were initially justified on the grounds of a public health emergency. There’s a point at which it becomes laughable to suggest that COVID is an “emergency” situation requiring intrusive state interventions; yet the executive order issued by Joe Biden on which his COVID “travel ban” policy is based still contains the language of “national emergency.” The Administration just reaffirmed this week that this policy — prohibiting entrants to the US even from highly vaccinated countries like the UK, France, and Germany — will continue indefinitely. If an “emergency” is permanent, it’s not an “emergency” in any credible sense. Lots of people were willing to tolerate certain extraordinary measures for a short time, on the understanding that an unprecedented situation had befallen the entire world; universal vaccine availability obviates that emergency condition. However, there are liberals who’d like to continuously, endlessly flaunt the emergency powers that were temporarily granted — with some snide grandstanding thrown in.

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A glance at the national data also suggests that while partisanship is clearly a factor in disparate rates of vaccine uptake across the country, the constant media fixation on this one variable can obscure more than it illuminates. Much of vaccine hesitancy seems to flow from a distinctly non-partisan distrust in state and “official” authority. It’s reminiscent of what one often hears when people explain why they don’t vote: they think voting somehow compels them to enter “the system,” and this could somehow get them in trouble. They don’t want their information collected in any government database that could be exploited — and it isn’t as though government databases have a pristine track record of preventing exploitation.

In Dare County, North Carolina, which voted for Trump 56% to 41% in the 2020 election, the latest data (according to the New York Times vaccine tracker, as of July 25) indicates that over 99% of all persons age 65+ are fully vaccinated, and 70% of the adult population is vaccinated. Meanwhile in Anson County, NC — won by Biden 52% to 48% — just 44% of persons age 65+ are fully vaccinated, and just 26% of all adults. These counties have a roughly comparable population size.

Yes, you can nitpick those figures — county-based data might be a sub-optimal metric — but at the very least this suggests that sheer partisanship isn’t always the most relevant variable to take into account. Yet it’s overwhelmingly what the media and “expert” class seem determined to obsess on. 

Again, no one’s denying that partisanship has some role in predicting vaccination rates. There are quite a few places where partisan affiliation does seem to overlap almost perfectly with vaccine uptake. For instance, Biden won Johnson County, Iowa in 2020 with 71% of the vote. The current adult vaccination rate in Johnson County, Iowa is… 71%. That’s creepily symmetrical. 

But consider West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, which has the highest reported rate of adult vaccination in the state — 79% — and which voted for Trump in 2020 by a 62% to 37% margin. Nearby St. Helena Parish, won by Biden 54% to 44%, has an adult vaccination rate of just 24%. (For the nitpickers who I’m sure will find a way to pedantically quibble with every jurisdiction-based comparison in this article, these two small Parishes have a roughly comparable population size — West Feliciana 15,568, St. Helena 10,132.)

Other potentially relevant variables to explain this disparity beyond simple partisanship: West Feliciana has a significantly greater median household income than St. Helena — $59,637 to $43,886. The percentage of black residents is also higher in St. Helena (52%) than West Feliciana (44%). With the national media’s rabid fixation on partisanship, would you have any idea of this being the case in Louisiana?

None of these jurisdictional comparisons are going to be flawless, but if we’re not supposed to look into such comparisons on a granular level, why is the New York Times publishing them, and why are state and county health departments so scrupulous about reporting county-based data? It’s the information that’s available.

There are countless other findings that could easily be dismissed as somehow “anecdotal” but nonetheless shed light on the limits of a partisanship-obsessed approach. In Collier County, Florida — won by Trump 67% to 32% — the age 65+ population is 86% vaccinated. It’s hard to imagine a more solid Trump demographic than 65+ residents of the Naples, FL area. The overall adult population is 64% vaccinated in Collier, which is a greater rate than some heavily Democratic counties in Florida, such as Leon County (Tallahassee) whose adult population is only 50% vaccinated, and which Biden won 64% to 35%. These are larger counties population-wise (Collier 384,902, Leon 293,582) and therefore presumably conducive to some sort of comparison. 

Is hysteria being stoked among elements of right-wing media about the alleged specter of forced door-to-door vaccinations, and similar imagined intrusions? Yes, definitely. Read any right-leaning website’s comment section for examples of this. I’ve been approached numerous times by vaccine-promoting workers in New Jersey and New York (at pharmacies and outdoor festival type events) who ask whether I’d like to get vaccinated, and these are probably among the least intimidating interactions you’ll ever have with a government agent. If you’re so inclined, you can simply say “no thanks” to this offer of free inoculation against an infectious disease, and move on. It’s not a big deal — nor is it particularly “tyrannical.” For the record, I got vaccinated on my own initiative in April. And while I generally encourage others to get vaccinated, I’m not going to condemn “the unvaccinated” (a creepy term in its own right) as moral lepers who deserve our scorn, censure, and coercion.

Either way, if you’ve bought singularly into this hyper-fixation on partisanship as the only obstacle that needs to be surmounted to achieve more wide-scale vaccination in the US, you would probably never know about regional discrepancies which defy that simplified narrative. Forty percent of New York City public school employees remain unvaccinated. Does that seem like a quandary that will be remediated by complaining about Fox News? How about the Bronx lagging substantially behind other NYC boroughs? Are those folks reading the “Gateway Pundit”? What “misinformation” are these vaccine-hesitant populations supposedly captured by, and why aren’t we hearing much scoldy moralizing about it? 

This is obviously a complex, multivariate issue, which if collapsed into a narrow Culture War grievance narrative enables liberal pundits and public health “experts” to flatter themselves for possessing unearned cultural and political superiority. That strategy doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with actually increasing vaccine uptake, though.


UPDATE — 7/29/2021: After this article was published, the office of Ron DeSantis sent me the following statement:

“Governor DeSantis has spoken positively of vaccines nearly 100 times in public remarks and interviews since November 2020. He appeared at dozens of vaccine sites around the state in the first few months of 2021 to promote the rollout and encourage Floridians to get vaccinated, especially if they are in high-risk groups, such as senior citizens. The Governor’s recent comments that the vaccines protect against serious illness are no different from comments he has always made, since the data about the vaccines became available. It’s not clear why some in the media are treating his statements last week as a departure from his earlier messaging, because he has been very consistent on this subject.”


I’ll be doing a livestream on this topic July 29 at 8pm EST on Rokfin! Lots of good stuff on there, increasingly. Watch a clip from the previous stream on YouTube, or the full video on Rokfin.