Of Vaccine Mandates and Facing Reality

Three weeks ago President Biden announced plans to require Covid-19 vaccinations — or, in some cases, weekly testing as an alternative — for most U.S. workers. There were immediate predictions that the move would backfire, that it would only stiffen vaccine resistance. Indeed, some surveys suggested that as many as half of unvaccinated workers would quit their jobs rather than take their shots.

But such threats are proving mostly empty. Many state and local governments and a significant number of private employers have already imposed vaccine mandates — and these mandates have been very successful. Compliance has been high, and only a relative handful of workers have quit or had to be fired.

To understand why vaccine mandates seem to work so well, we need to think about the real nature of vaccine resistance. Most of the people refusing to take their shots don’t really believe that the vaccines contain tracking microchips or that they have severe side effects.

Instead, everything we’ve seen suggests that many vaccine resisters are like the people who in the past raged about seatbelt laws and bans on phosphates in detergents, or more recently refused to wear masks. That is, they’re people who balk at being asked to accept what they imagine to be a cost or inconvenience on behalf of the public good. (In reality, getting vaccinated is very much something you should do on purely selfish grounds, but as I’ll explain in a minute, that information may not be getting through.) And as I’ve noticed in the past, political rage about public health rules seems, if anything, to be inversely related to how onerous these rules really are.

The point is that most vaccine resistance isn’t about deep concerns, but it often involves assertions of the right to give (misguided perceptions of) self-interest priority over the public interest. So, luckily, many resisters fold as soon as the calculus of self-interest reverses, and refusing to take their shots has immediate, tangible financial costs.

Let’s back up and talk about why the U.S. vaccination drive stalled — why, after a promising start, we fell behind other advanced countries. And let’s be blunt: The core problem is Republicans.

It’s true that vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic adults initially lagged behind the rest of the population, as did rates among political independents. But those gaps have been rapidly closing. For example, between April and September the vaccinated share of Black adults rose from 51 percent to 70 percent, while that of self-identified Republicans rose only from 52 percent to 58 percent.

The geographical evidence is also stark. Counties that strongly supported Donald Trump have far lower vaccination rates than counties that strongly supported Biden. And since June 30 the Trumpiest tenth of the country has had 5.5 times the Covid death rate of the least Trumpy tenth.

But why have so many Republicans refused to take their shots? Some, of course, have bought into the wild claims about side effects and sinister conspiracies that circulate on social media. But they’re probably a small minority.

Almost surely, mainstream right-wing media outlets, especially Fox News, have played a much bigger role. These outlets generally steer away from clearly falsifiable assertions — they have to worry about lawsuits. But they nonetheless want to do all they can to undermine the Biden administration, so they have done their best to raise doubts about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.

The effect has been to encourage many Republicans to think of getting vaccinated as an imposition, a cost they’re being asked to bear rather than a benefit they’re being offered — and, of course, something they’re primed to oppose precisely because it’s something Democrats want to see happen. Medical experts may say that going unvaccinated greatly increases your risk of getting seriously ill or dying, but hey, what do they know?

As I said, there probably aren’t very many Americans, even among self-identified Republicans, who really believe the vaccine horror stories — or are willing to make large, visible personal sacrifices in the name of “freedom.” So as soon as the cost of going unvaccinated stops being about statistics and becomes concrete — refuse the shot, lose your job — most vaccine resistance evaporates.

All of this has a clear policy implication for the Biden administration and for other leaders like governors and mayors — namely, full speed ahead. Vaccine mandates won’t cause mass resignations; they will cause a sharp rise in vaccination rates, which is key both to finally getting Covid under control and to achieving sustained economic recovery.

And Democrats shouldn’t fear the political fallout. Almost nobody will vote Republican because they’re enraged by public health rules, since such people are most likely to vote Republican anyway. What really matters for Democrats’ political fortunes is that life in America be visibly getting much better by next fall — and getting shots in arms is the way to make that happen.

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