At a time of historic political polarization, the anti-vaccination movement has accomplished something unprecedented: It has united the left and right fringes of the political spectrum.
The anti-vaccine movement is a curious blend of anti-government sentiment on the right and a revolt against all things “big” on the left. This toxic cocktail has spawned a new form of populism built on institutional distrust and conspiracy theories about governments and corporations, as well as a convergence of race and gender politics.
Two clear characteristics define the movement: growing moral isolationism disguised as a strong belief in freedom, along with an overwhelmingly white and female activist base.
The “freedom” the anti-vaccine movement demands is not the garden variety Libertarian notion of individual rights. Instead, it wants a hall pass from the tacit social contract needed to create a civilized society.
Our freedoms stop where harm to others begins. We do not get to drive on the wrong side of the road just because we feel we have a right to do so. There are public health consequences to all of our actions, but the anti-vaccine ideology selfishly dismisses the social contract.
This self-selection by anti-vaccine “warriors,” as they call themselves, is the manifestation of a growing self-righteous ideology that believes we have no obligation for the health or well-being of each other. This emerging attitude is precisely the opposite sense of community that drove millions of Americans to be vaccinated in the early days of immunization efforts against polio.
Society was all too aware before vaccines that communicable diseases do not care about your economic class, education level, race or ethnicity. In the 1950s, people lined up their children, in schools they trusted, to be immunized by doctors they didn’t know but trusted, to be injected with something foreign but trusted. In the process, millions of lives were saved because we were committed to each other’s health and welfare.
Everyone bought into scientific research and the larger idea that these vaccines would work for everyone if everyone worked together. Sadly, that quaint notion that we were all in this together has been replaced with a modern mantra: “Not my child”.
It is the same selfish thinking that justifies buying your child’s acceptance into an elite university or using excessive water for your lawn in times of drought: “Society’s rules obviously do not apply to me.”
Many of the neighborhoods where vaccination rates are lowest are wealthy, white enclaves. Curiously, it’s not just these largely liberal neighborhoods on the coast suffering from an abdication of collective consciousness. Rural Trump-supporting counties have low rates of vaccinations as well. They also feel no obligation to follow the dictates of a government run by people they do not trust and who they feel do not listen to their concerns.
White women make up much of this movement, using aggressive and confrontational behavior couched in the language of both civil rights apocalypse. Marin County moms’ groups have essentially adopted the tactics we might more closely associate with male-dominated militia movements.
Paradoxically, in a political climate characterized by female empowerment, we are witnessing a vocal subset of white women finding its voice as an aggrieved racial minority. Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., claims of segregation, efforts to cast themselves as the next civil rights movement, and, of course, singing “We Shall Overcome” at the governor’s door despite not knowing the words of the famous African American gospel song.
While it’s easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers as turbo-charged conspiracy theorists, we should take note of the underlying fear, anger, distrust and frustration growing among groups on the right and the left. By ignoring or, worse yet, dismissing the early symptoms of this fringe emergence, we risk not taking the early actions required to inoculate society against the far more dangerous disease of populism in our body politic.
The anti-vaccination effort is kindled by people who feel overwhelmed, disempowered and ignored. More importantly, they have lost confidence in our social institutions and believe those institutions are actively trying to harm them and their families.
To take it a step further, this is a symptom of a greater problem, like the Tea Party movement, the Occupy protests, the rise of populist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Brexit, etc.
It’s a phenomenon present on both the right and the left. It transcends economic class. The left’s boogeyman is “big corporations,” while the right’s boogeyman is “big government.”
In the end, it’s the same argument: The system is failing and can’t be trusted. All a person needs to do to join this movement of moral isolation is to pick a convenient institution to blame for everything.