Christie later clarified his views, seeming to also back vaccinations strongly. But not before Americans were given an opportunity to view vaccinations as a matter upon which leading Democratic and Republican politicians disagree — a development that Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, commenting on Twitter, called “very dangerous.”
But imagine what would happen if that were to change. We already have the blueprint readily available from other science based issues that have become substantially partisan, namely, embryonic stem cell research, global climate change, and the teaching of evolution.
In each of these cases, we see that people seize on facts (and behaviors) that align with their political and religious identities and belief systems. Partisanship leads people to divide over scientific fact itself, and then creates policy dysfunction, gridlock, and quite a lot of divisiveness.
A version of this happens, too, with vaccine deniers as they argue back against the medical establishment. But that’s still a fringe battle that doesn’t map easily onto U.S. political divides.
“Vaccine risks are neither a matter of concern for the vast majority of the public nor an issue of contention among recognizable demographic, political, or cultural subgroups,” writes Yale’s Dan Kahan, who researched the topic through a nationally representative survey.
If at some point, vaccinations get framed around issues of individual choice and freedom vs. government mandates — as they did in the “Christie vs. Obama” narrative — and this in turn starts to map onto right-left differences in American, then watch out. People could start getting political signals that they ought to align their views on vaccines — or, even worse, their vaccination behaviors — with the views of the party they vote for.
Granted, I’m not saying we’re there now. Christie’s backtrack suggests he himself doesn’t want to go there. But it’s a scary thought. Just as we lament how polarized and partisan the climate issue has gotten, we should also pray that the same never happens with vaccines.