Last week’s headline above a New York Times column by Ezra Klein read:
What if the Unvaccinated Can’t Be Persuaded?
I hate that I believe the sentence I’m about to write. It undermines much of what I spend my life trying to do. But there is nothing more overrated in politics — and perhaps in life — than the power of persuasion.
It is nearly impossible to convince people of what they don’t want to believe.
The column followed a predictable path: tales of the unvaccinated writhing on deathbeds as they repented too late, reminders about the positive history of vaccine mandates, and a somber conclusion: “I urge those who object to vaccination passports as an unprecedented stricture on liberty to widen their tragic imagination.”
Even though I ostensibly persuade people for a living, I no longer believe persuasion works. Here, have some authoritarian solutions was the basic gist. Whatever happened to Yes We Can? “Nothing to fear but fear itself”? “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro?” So much for the American’s celebrated can-do spirit.
As with the mask and lockdown stories last year, public sneering has also become an important cultural signifier, e.g. this tweet from the editor of the intel community’s favored house organ, Lawfare:
I am with this tweet instituting my own vaccine mandate. I am not interacting with people any more whom I do not know to be vaccinated, and I reserve the right to demand proof of vaccination from anyone on pain of refusal to further engage. Children excepted of course.— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) August 2, 2021
Most everyone who’s heard about the recent upswing in Covid-19 cases has come away believing one of a few versions of events. In one, Republicans presented a wall of resistance to the national vaccination program, converting only recently under the heroic shaming efforts of Democrats and defenders of science in the media. The hesitancy of Trump followers, described by as the Washington Post as an “emblem of conservative identity, a way to own the libs,” is the primary or even the sole cause of the new wave of death. Hence, the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
In another tale, found on right-wing sites and in the statements of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn, Joe Biden’s “door to door” vaccination efforts are pretense for “medical brown shirts” to take guns and Bibles and perform experiments using dangerous untested medicines. Here the Nazistic state hopes to forcibly sell disfiguring drugs straight into the arms even of children on behalf of rapacious pharmaceutical companies. I don’t read a lot of far right media, but these legends are apparently out there (they’re for sure lovingly described by the misery-hounds at papers like the Washington Post and New York Times).
A third, less-publicized version of reality is that the vaccination program developed under the Trump administration via Operation Warp Speed, and subsequently administered by the Biden administration, has been an incredible accomplishment we should all be… happy about?
A year ago we were all going to bed at night wondering if we’d wake up drowning in our own pleural fluids. Now, 346.9 million doses of a vaccine have been administered as of this week, with 164.9 million Americans fully vaccinated overall. A full 191.8 million Americans have received at least one dose, including 70% of the population above 18 — we missed Biden’s target of 70% by July 4th by weeks — and an amazing 89.9% of the population above 65. The sheer breadth of the achievement, for which both parties can rightly take credit, is a big reason Covid-19 looked to be in retreat as recently as a month ago.
Now the pandemic is on the upswing again, thanks at least in part to the appearance of a new, more contagious “Delta variant” that doctors warn can be contracted “as easily as chickenpox.” In the latest of what’s becoming a long series of awkward message “adjustments,” federal officials also noted the new strain may perhaps be transmitted “just as readily” by the vaccinated. The CDC, whose director Rochelle Walensky not long ago described breakthrough infections among the vaccinated as a rarity, leaked a document noting officials must “acknowledge the war has changed.”
Some of the resurgence might also be seasonal, as experts were predicting even in May when Biden administration officials were celebrating and the disease looked beaten. We went through something similar last year. But because Donald Trump said a triggering thing along these lines last year — “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat” — seasonality has since been a bit of a no-no subject in media, leaving some people both overexcited about this spring’s decrease and perhaps unprepared for the disease’s possible late-summer return.
It’s also true that the resurgence of Covid-19 has hit the unvaccinated harder, meaning those people absolutely bear responsibility and should be a focus going forward. But the overall story, of an unprecedented pandemic threat answered with a vaccine rapidly developed and administered across two administrations and implemented aggressively by both Republican and Democratic governors, saving hundreds of thousands of lives at home (and millions more overseas) during a period of utter disunity and political chaos, is the version heard least of all. The narrative barely interests people. Ask most Americans about the pandemic and they’ll either rage out on some theoretical unvaccinated person in another state — grr fuck him derp! loser! — or they’ll shake their heads in despair, like the hopelessness of everything has just been revealed to them.
Are they angry American scientists didn’t solve the biggest health crisis in history more quickly? Was under a year not fast enough? Of course, it’s not hard to see the frustration — here we are, eight whole months after the first shots were administered, and they have to read about a setback? Outrageous! The whole thing recalls Louis C.K.’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” routine, about Americans who sit in airports with scrunched noses, furious they have to wait a whole second for their cell phones to get signals from space:
What gives? In a political atmosphere in which the most impenetrable taboo is the social problem that doesn’t belong solely to one or the other party, any explanation for the recent resurgence that we can’t stress out and blame someone for has to be downplayed. So we stay steeped in the same orgy of bitching and fault-finding that’s dominated our lives since 2016.
Covid-19’s comeback is Exhibit A for why America needs sweeping changes in the way we organize our lives and our politics. We have the worst and most useless political parties in the world. Neither of our reigning brands is capable of articulating a positive vision for the country, because neither has any identity anymore apart from tireless slander of the other. Democrats, worse on this front, are a rat-hair away from describing the whole GOP as a terrorist organization in need of outlawing. They’re perpetually miserable because being visibly happy while Trump still walks the earth is “normalizing.” Republican leaders meanwhile may still be caught between the Sophie’s Choice of backing Trump and appealing their post-2016 firing as Washington’s most trusted handmaidens of corporate influence, but they at least seem happier in public, probably conscious of how lucky they are to be in office despite a total lack of coherent message.
For all America’s multitudinous problems and injustices, its two political factions were once always able to “manufacture consent” toward optimism in an emergency, whether of the self-created variety (e.g. the invasion of Iraq) or of the unexpected sort (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Our policy responses in these moments ranged from incompetent to criminal to, at times and especially at the ground level, heroic — think the firefighters after 9/11, or the first responders during this pandemic — but until now, the corresponding propaganda effort never malfunctioned to the point where political leaders stressed defeatism and mutual hatred as a patriotic imperative in the middle of a crisis. Yet this is happening now.
Neither party has shown much inclination to move past the culture war, but Democrats are utter addicts in this regard. The victim of a throw-the-bums-out movement in 2016, they crawled back into power by using the media to declare an ongoing state of emergency, identifying both Trump’s Napoleonic presidency and the dangerous radical movement of mitten-clad Bernie Sanders as vessels of foreign contagion.
They kept that state of emergency going for five years, screeching warnings of everything from treason to concentration camps to a rapist on the Supreme Court to fascist coups to at least ten different “existential” threats to “democracy itself,” including a proposed voter identification law that the president of the United States said with a straight face “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
We’ve had five years of this escalating hyperbole because without it, the Democratic establishment knows it has no argument for power beyond not being Donald Trump. Because Trump promised to Make America Great Again, Democrats have stressed being conscious of the country’s flawed legacy, adopting a clipped, “Build Back Moribund” tone. On the other hand, they’re not fixing the health care system or breaking up predatory monopolies or ending idiotic interventions abroad, or really changing anything at all — that was the plan of the internal faction they spent the 2020 primaries crushing. Their argument is competence in crisis, so we must never be without one.
The pandemic in this sense has been a godsend, playing to all their pretensions of technocratic superiority while also offering myriad opportunities for the double-faced fuckery for which Clintonian Democrats are famous. The Biden administration crows about its limitless rectitude when it comes to mask-wearing and social distance, but a little over a year ago, when finishing off the Sanders campaign was more important than a few lives here and there, they quietly went full steam ahead with in-person voting for (among others) the Wisconsin primary, causing a “large” spread of Covid-19 that included 52 cases among those who voted or worked on the polls.
Moreover, when a poll last summer found the percentage of Americans planning to get the vaccine had dropped from 55% to 41%, including a 15% drop among Democrats, Biden didn’t blame those vaccine skeptics, but exulted in the opportunity to ding Trump. “It’s not the usual anti-vaccine crowd,” he said. “People are losing faith in what the president says.”
There’s no question that with any other president cracking a whip on a vaccine program — if Biden himself had been in office last year, or Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush — the storylines then would have been about a heroic cutter of red tape who pulled out the stops to get shots in arms. Not so with Trump, whose supporters were explicitly told that their man was rushing a dangerous product to market. Biden and his running mate spent a long summer cynically raising such concerns about the safety and “transparency” of the same vaccine they’re now blasting Trump supporters for not taking. Only in a totally dysfunctional political system would this be considered logical, or okay.
Moreover, having labeled the entire lot of Trump supporters treasonous, white supremacist, insurrectionist scum, the “Fed Up” Party has committed itself to a narrative that has to deny any Republican role in the vaccination program. To say this has complicated outreach efforts is a massive understatement. It’s been a constant, duplicitous theme of the pandemic story, the textbook example being Kamala Harris’s claim that there was “no national strategy or plan for vaccinations” before the arrival of the Biden Administration, despite 20 million people receiving their first doses before Inauguration Day.
Republicans and personalities on stations like Fox obviously shoulder responsibility for “hesitancy,” but the fact that a significant plurality of Trump voters still eschew inoculation when even Trump urges getting a shot of his vaccine — what Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called a “frustrating irony” — demonstrates a fundamental truth that Democrats refuse to understand about this moment, which is that even Trump has been more passenger than driver of the last five years of Republican rebellion. What we now think of as the Trump base calls a lot of its own shots and is far less monolithic in its beliefs than commonly thought, including about vaccines. It shares those qualities with a not-insignificant number of independents and even Democrats, another development we hear comparatively little about.
An oft-quoted statistic from a YouGov poll in the middle of last month showed that 29% of Republicans said flatly, “I will not get vaccinated,” in addition to another 13% who said, “I’m not sure about getting vaccinated.” That was as opposed to 4% and 6% of Democrats, respectively, and 23% and 12% of Independents. The Washington Post noted with horror that this same poll showed about a third (32%) of Republicans thought it was “probably or definitely true” that the vaccine program was a ruse to plant microchips. What but a mandate would such people understand?
The paper neglected to mention that 14% of Democrats said the same thing — that the microchip theory had currency with a wide variety of groups and influencers, ranging from Charlamagne Tha God to a magazine sent to Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn to Roger Stone to a Baptist Pastor who linked the conspiracy to Bill Gates.
This is how The Verge described such pockets of vaccine resistance:
Polling from March found that 42 percent of respondents believed at least one COVID-19 conspiracy theory. That survey… found that 16 percent of eligible Americans are a hardened group of COVID-19 skeptics steeped in conspiracy theories, while another 7 percent are system distrusters. The skeptics are disproportionately white and conservative, while the system distrusters are heavily Black and Latinx. This mixture of ideological strains means vaccine hesitancy has taken hold in rural communities and religious enclaves, in dense coastal cities and in wine country.
This sounds like a complex and varied picture of a hesitancy problem, not the blunt partisan split we’ve become accustomed to hearing about. Hesitancy doesn’t just correlate to party identification, but also to sex, age, marital status, race, whether or not you have children at home, and especially income. Only 10% of people who make $100,000 or more say they don’t intend to get vaccinated, compared with 15% of people who make between $50-$100K, and 24% of people who make less than $50,000.
In Alabama, the state with the worst vaccination rates, white (31.6%) and black (31.8%) residents have opposite political affiliations, but share equally poor rates of vaccination. Especially given the Tuskegee history, the low numbers in the black community are understandable, but in how many poor states is there a similar picture? As the Journal of Community Health wrote earlier this year, “Individuals living in rural areas, those with lower household incomes, and lower levels of education were more likely to be hesitant about getting immunized with a COVID-19 vaccine.” Is it possible we’re overestimating politics and underestimating the role of money or education or other factors in the hesitancy problem?
Would blaming and shaming seem like a sensible strategy if you broke it down by income, or geography, or parental status? Of course not. It’s only considered okay to do so by political affiliation because the culture war long ago become more important to the leaders of this dysfunctional, misery-addicted version of America than governing, even in a crisis.
If we lived in a normal country, the issue of holdouts would be dealt with rationally, as a logistical issue. Leaders would ask: what percentage of that infamous 29% of refuseniks is really holding out just to “own the libs”? Are any of them people who’ve already had Covid-19 and believe they’re protected by natural immunity? How many are waiting for full FDA approval, and as a corollary question, why are we still waiting for that approval 340 million shots in? How many just have reservations about vaccinating their children, and how necessary are such vaccinations, especially given that countries like the U.K. are hesitating on that front? And they would charge out with sleeves rolled up and billions in walking-around PR money to take on the problem.
Moreover, if people like Trump or Sean Hannity are willing to say things like, “Enough people have died… I believe in science… I believe in the science of vaccination,” the normal pol or pundit would just take yes for an answer, and let them. Don’t run catty articles saying, “Yes, a few Republicans are advocating vaccines. They don’t deserve much credit,” or “Sean Hannity’s limited vaccine endorsement is a small drop in Fox News’s ocean of doubt.” For God’s sake, let it rest a minute.
Democrats have spent the last five years so consumed with removing the scourge of Trumpism that they’ve become their own poisonous part of his story. They’re now Ahab to Trump’s whale, and their revenge trip is whirlpooling us downward even in would-be moments of national triumph. Writer Walter Kirn talked about how the dull old Time magazine where he once worked tried to ground the American mind in a “moderate, shared reality,” but our leaders refuse on principle to allow any shared American experience, forcing us to stay on this interminably exasperating jihad instead.
Read the rest here.