The countercultural Left is and has always been the core of the anti-vaccination movement. From NPR to PBS to the broadcast networks, the message of all-natural food and holistic homeopathic medicine has been broadcast for decades, while traditional scientific medicine has been brought under suspicion as something being put over on us by the government and corporations.
Vaccines are a part of public safety, and accordingly a part of traditional government, just as are quarantines. Conservatism is accordingly in favor of them, liberalism and libertarianism leery of them — as was seen clearly in the divergent instincts of conservatives and liberals on the Ebola outbreak. Conservatives favor government coercion when needed, or the quasi-coercion of vaccinations’ being required for attendance at public schools, in such a matter of public safety, while liberals and libertarians cavil at it.
This is fundamental, but it frequently gets confused, in the present by some conservatives themselves, for three reasons:
1. The liberal-Left controls the media, and with it the public messaging. It has developed an instinct for shaping the messaging to fit its political prejudices, and can turn on a dime when the PR need demands it. The countercultural, pro-organic-foods media are all now suddenly pro-vaccine, and highlighting any anti-vaccine statements they can get from Republicans.
2. Conservatives are easily confused with libertarians. Libertarians really are anti-government. Conservatives are not. Libertarians frequently advertise themselves as useful to the Left in its struggle against government security and against traditional culture, and as “not as bad” as conservatives. In doing this, they show they know who is culturally hegemonic. In these matters, they speak more for the Left than the Right, despite their frequent Republican affiliation.
3. Conservatives are suspicious of today’s predominant elites, not without reason. This creates what in a good moment is a creative tension with their underlying support for government; but when framed in a “principled” (simplified, single-principle) libertarian way, it is readily used to turn them against their own cause.
Being pro-government has nothing to do with favoring big government. It is simply about supporting government in its core functions — what appears in the preamble of the Constitution, and in the laws and constitutions of the other English-speaking countries under the affectionate rubric of “POGG”: “peace, order, and good government.”
Similarly, being anti-government has nothing to do with opposing big government in matters extraneous to government, sometimes explicitly for the purpose of diverting government from its basic identity as a public security provider. And that is what anti-governmentalism is all about — being viscerally suspicious and habitually undermining of the core of government, which is its provision of public safety: putting obstacles in the way of its functioning, casting aspersions on it, accusing it of creating imaginary threats to justify its existence, weaving conspiracy theories against it, and deprecating and vilifying its agents and agencies — police, military, intelligence, and, yes, scientists and doctors, at least when they’re plugging for hard scientific results, not for money for economically distributive programs.
Ever since the 1960s, the predominant elites have had an underlying, or overarching, countercultural tone: organic, anti-science, anti-corporate, and anti-government. PBS TV outlets plug hours of infomercials selling holistic healing and alternative lifestyles and churning out conspiracy theories against traditional Western science and medicine. Often their gurus have been exposed as quacks; often they have cult-like audiences; always they instruct people on multiple psychological levels as to what they must say and believe to get social approval in the group. The devil in their scenario is always the same: the world of traditional governments and markets and Western lifestyles and doctors. PBS outlets peddle this, despite facing criticism for it, because it is what is loved by their audience subculture — elites, elitists, and would-be holders-on to the elite. It is a solid measure of who is really who in this matter. It tells us clearly what is the “base” for the anti-vaccine movement.
Exemptions from vaccines show statistically the same ideological base. Only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, allow no exemptions from mandatory vaccination; both are red states, culturally deep red. California, the source of the current outbreak, has icon status for its countercultural blueness. Most red states do allow exemptions for religious beliefs. But it is mostly blue states that allow exemptions also for personal beliefs, i.e. any views at all — and they in fact on average exempt a considerably higher percentage of children from MMR vaccination, despite being richer and more urban.
We may be grateful for the media’s self-protective PR instincts in turning pro-vaccine in this instance. They have for the moment begun doing a little to protect the public, belatedly, from the consequences of their own ideological foibles. They have met the enemy, and it is them, even if they cannot face this fact.
— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.