Covid Vaccine Shot
A healthcare worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Mich on Jan. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The biggest public health crisis in America is increasingly a partisan one: Democratic areas are largely getting vaccinated while Republican areas lag far behind. This is a particularly large problem as the Delta variant sweeps across the country, with the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and 99% of deaths among the unvaccinated.

In terms of persuading the unvaccinated, there is a difference between vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal. The ranks of the “wait and see” vaccine hesitant are disproportionately Black and Latino though still by far a majority white and conservative. But the “wait and see” contingent is shrinking rapidly over time, and dissipating particularly quickly in the face of outreach campaigns and fear of the Delta variant.

It’s the vaccine refusal category that is most troubling. A full one-third of white conservatives say they will refuse to get the COVID vaccine–a superficially shocking result for culture that bills itself as one of personal responsibility and “pro-life” in the face of a deadly pandemic.

The partisan inflection of vaccination refusal has been reflected in bizarre laws passed in red states, from Florida criminalizing vaccine passports or using vaccination status for any reason to Tennessee even abandoning vaccination outreach to minors for any vaccines. The governors of South Carolina and Missouri are vowing to reject federal door-to-door outreach efforts in their states.

The reasons for conservative vaccine hesitancy are both simple and complex. Part of it is directly a result of partisan politics and the sociopathic self-interest of both Donald Trump and Fox News hosts. Trump thought that taking the pandemic seriously would hurt the economy and thus his re-election chances, so he minimized it at every turn. Fox News sees advantage in stoking fury at the supposed overreach of liberal do-gooders in government, and has a near seditious interest in seeing the Biden administration fail to meet its vaccination goals.

But it also has to do with increasing rejection of science and lower trust in expertise broadly among Republicans that corresponds with re-alignment on educational grounds. It’s partly grounded in conspiracy theories that refuse to concede that the virus is real or worse than the flu. And it is tied up in the culture of libertarian white supremacy in which a certain kind of conservative foolishly and arrogantly assumes that they’re too inherently fit, immune and close to nature to be harmed by the virus.

A callous blue-stater might respond with a certain wry social Darwinism about all of this. But these are fellow Americans who have been victimized by hucksters and con artists from Tucker Carlson to Donald Trump to their local pastors. Hospitals and frontline workers are becoming overwhelmed by unvaccinated Delta-variant COVID patients. Unvaccinated variant carriers are a petri dish for creating new and potentially even more damaging variants. And unfortunately, while the vaccinated are at far less risk of death and serious hospitalization than the unvaccinated, the Delta variant has shown itself disturbingly capable of breaking through the vaccine barrier and causing mild to moderate illness among even the vaccinated–with unknown long-term health implications. If the unvaccinated turn COVID into an endemic disease to which we never achieve herd immunity, it will affect us all for generations.

So what can be done? A recent much-pilloried article at National Review laid the blame (surprise!) on government officials and the media for making vaccine resisters feel “disrespected.” This is amusing from the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd, and it’s also obnoxious. How much farther must blue America bend over backward to coddle the sensitive emotions of people who insist that their supposedly superior genes and crossfit regimens will keep them from having to wear “face diapers” like those weak liberals, that they want President Bleach Injections unconstitutionally reinstalled in office, and that the main villain of the COVID pandemic is Anthony Fauci? They know that Donald Trump got the vaccine, and they don’t care, and it’s not as if they’re affected by the messaging coming from blue-state bureaucracies or from the New York Times.

What we do know is that the most trusted information sources for them tend to be word of mouth and their own physicians. Often, though, those physicians are also bound up in the same culture conflict as their patients. And clearly the advice of medical professionals is not alone enough to make the difference. Fox News’ constant vaccine denialism is far more influential.

If Fox News and Donald Trump were to make a concerted case to their followers and audiences to get the vaccine, it might make a big difference. But they’re not likely to do that because if they cared about their followers and audiences, well, they wouldn’t be Fox News and Donald Trump. They thrive off stoking white Christianist grievance, not responsible governance.

In the end, moving toward greater vaccine acceptance may simply be a matter of incentives. There is no good ethical reason not to simply pay people to get the vaccine. Culture talks, but so does money. Beyond that, the moves being made in many European countries to push for vaccine passports may be necessary. Certainly, many red states will act (and in some cases already have acted) to ban them. But if vaccine passports become routine in blue areas, they will push conservatives in those areas toward vaccination if they want to see sporting events or concerts and otherwise participate in civic life. And since blue counties account for 70% of GDP, broad corporate and institutional practices in those areas will filter down in various ways to the rest of the 30% of the country.

Unless we want to engage in a bloody and bitter divorce, we have to solve this problem together. And there’s no reason for the responsibly vaccinated to continue to have to put themselves and their kids at risk to mollycoddle conservative snowflakes who place their identitarian culture war and Fox News obsession over the value of life. We, too, deserve to be able to go back to living normal lives at concerts and restaurants unmasked without fear of infection by a conservative who never bothered to make any sacrifices. Whatever we have to do to get there, we should do.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.