The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Once again, we’re being held hostage by Republicans’ delicate feelings

Anti-vaccination and anti-covid-19 mandate protesters in Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

In recent years, conservatives have convinced themselves that liberals are a bunch of “snowflakes,” so tender and fragile that they’re ready to collapse at a moment’s criticism. But again and again, we’ve seen how conservatives are the ones pouting about how people aren’t paying enough attention to their delicate feelings.

And right now, the entire country is about to be held hostage by those feelings, with consequences that literally involve life and death.

We’re reaching a critical phase of the coronavirus pandemic, where our efforts to reach herd immunity and finally defeat this virus could run up against the reluctance of significant numbers of Americans to be vaccinated.

As the Kaiser Family Foundation notes, “we will likely reach a tipping point on vaccine enthusiasm in the next 2 to 4 weeks. Once this happens, efforts to encourage vaccination will become much harder, presenting a challenge to reaching the levels of herd immunity that are expected to be needed.”

To be clear, there are at least some people in every demographic group who are reluctant to take the vaccine. But as polls have repeatedly shown, it’s Republicans, especially Republican men, who are the biggest problem.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

A new focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz helps us understand what’s going on in some people’s heads:

Stop talking about the possibility of coronavirus booster shots. Don’t bully people who are vaccine holdouts. And if you’re trying to win over skeptics, show us anyone besides Dr. Fauci.
That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters urged politicians and pollsters during the weekend, as public health officials work to understand potential roadblocks in the campaign to inoculate Americans against the coronavirus.

Public health campaigns often involve cajoling people into doing something that’s just common sense. But the people in Luntz’s focus group show an infuriating degree of self-awareness, as though they know perfectly well that they’re holding us all hostage and are just negotiating the terms.

There are many reasons for vaccine reluctance, some more reasonable than others. And the number of those willing to take the vaccine has been slowly but steadily rising; for many people, the “wait and see” attitude will eventually resolve itself with a vaccination.

But reluctant Republicans seem to want to force the rest of us into contortions as we tiptoe around them, begging them to just think of someone other than themselves for a change. And then there’s the fact that some focus group participants were more concerned about the possible need to take more shots going forward:

“I feel like this is not going to end. I mean, we’re just going to be shot up and shot up and shot up,” said a man identified as Erzen from New York. “We can’t live like this. This is not sustainable.”

That’s what’s “not sustainable?” Not the life we’ve been living since last spring, with a thousand Americans dying every day and schools closed and businesses bankrupted and social isolation and a wave of depression, but having to get a booster shot once a year? After all we’ve been through and how close we are to putting this nightmare behind us, that’s just too much for you?

This all feels too familiar.

After the 2016 election, we in the media became obsessively curious about the feelings of the voters who put Donald Trump in the White House. Which buttons of rage and resentment did Trump push so effectively? What had Democrats failed to understand? The result was a string of safaris to Midwestern diners, producing endless “In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Support Trump” stories.

All along it was clear that the heart of Trump’s appeal lay in the permission he gave Republicans to not just stop caring about other people’s feelings, but to celebrate giving offense. It was a political style and a philosophy of life, to the point where “owning the libs” became for many their most important goal. Yet the rest of us were supposed to constantly cater to their feelings, lest they rise up again and do even more damage.

And after being told “This is how you got Trump” a thousand times — that Republicans put such a corrupt and morally repugnant human being in the White House because their feelings were hurt by liberals — Democrats took it to heart in 2020. They nominated the candidate they thought would be least offensive to Republicans, a reassuring avuncular white man who wouldn’t activate prejudices and induce the rage that comes from status anxiety.

No one is more aware of the volatile nature of the GOP base’s feelings than Republican politicians, some of whom say they literally fear for their lives if they upset their constituents, especially by failing to reinforce the lie that Trump won the 2020 election. Republicans tell us they have to pass brutal voter suppression measures because their base has “doubts” and “concerns” about whether they can trust the electoral system.

And now we all have to genuflect before those same Republicans, who between marathon Facebook sessions imbibing conspiracy theories and nightly Fox News binge watches will maybe, if we ask just right and make sure not to insult them, consider doing their part to control a pandemic that has already killed 567,000 of us.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use the insights we get from focus groups like this one, along with every other useful source of information, to figure out how to convince people to get vaccinated. The stakes are incredibly high. If we have to give in to emotional blackmail, so be it.

But don’t ever try to fool us again about who the snowflakes are.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Derek Chauvin’s conviction shouldn’t feel like a victory. But it does.

Karen Attiah: The verdict isn’t the end of this story

The Post’s View: Police reform is not enough. We need to rethink public safety.

Greg Sargent: Biden’s next big plan could blow up one of the GOP’s worst lies