Until recently, whenever someone wanted to assert that susceptibility to anti-science conspiracy theories was not solely the province of the right, an example they could cite was the sort-of left-leaning embrace of the anti-vaccine crusade.

With Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the most prominent opponent of vaccination, the picture many people had of a vaccine opponent was a liberal parent from Santa Monica fighting with their school district over whether to get their kids immunized.

That was a distortion — liberals were no more likely to be anti-vaxxers than conservatives — and it certainly didn’t rise up the political ladder to the point where Democratic politicians were waging fights against immunizations. (Never mind that the highest-profile purveyor of the lie that vaccines cause autism was Donald Trump.)

But a year or two from now, we may find that opposition to vaccines has become yet another way Republicans declare their culture war bona fides, and an emblem of identity for conservatives everywhere.

This might not just involve vaccines to prevent the coronavirus, but all vaccines. And the result could be outbreaks of diseases such as measles across the country.

As President Biden urges Americans to get vaccinated, Republicans who previously touted the vaccines have started questioning their efficacy. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

We’re getting a harbinger of what’s to come from Tennessee, a state that currently ranks 46th in the rate of vaccination against the coronavirus (including D.C.). Only in Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho, Louisiana and Mississippi have a smaller proportion of the population gotten at least one shot.

Earlier this week, the state of Tennessee fired its top health official after Republicans in the legislature targeted her department’s efforts to encourage teenage vaccination against the coronavirus. She was just one of hundreds of state and local health officials who have been harassed, threatened or fired for their work trying to handle the pandemic.

But now Tennessee is going even further. The Tennessean reports:

The Tennessee Department of Health will halt all adolescent vaccine outreach — not just for coronavirus, but all diseases — amid pressure from Republican state lawmakers, according to an internal report and agency emails obtained by the Tennessean. If the health department must issue any information about vaccines, staff are instructed to strip the agency logo off the documents.
The health department will also stop all COVID-19 vaccine events on school property, despite holding at least one such event this month.

With Fox News (and especially Tucker Carlson) leading an anti-vax crusade and ambitious Republican politicians touting their contempt for public health measures, it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for the venomous Republican opposition to coronavirus vaccinations to begin turning into opposition against all vaccinations.

This is happening as the highly contagious delta variant spreads and covid-19 cases are on the rise. Which state saw the largest jump in cases last week? Tennessee.

Meanwhile, as my colleague Dana Milbank notes, at least 17 Republican-run states have enacted laws or official orders protecting those who refuse to get vaccinated for the coronavirus, often by making it illegal for private businesses or government agencies to demand proof of vaccination.

Before this pandemic, anti-vaccine lunacy had been a real but contained problem (though there was a frightening measles outbreak in 2019), and not one that created partisan controversy. All 50 states plus D.C. require students to be immunized before they can attend public school, and while requirements vary a bit, every state mandates vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox, among others.

In almost all states, you can get an exemption for medical or religious reasons, and almost half the states allow “philosophical” objections to vaccines. As Pew has reported, “states with philosophical exemptions have 2.5 times the rate of opt-outs than states with only religious exemptions.”

But before now, there had been no partisan pattern to where those philosophical exemptions were available. You could get them in liberal California and Oregon or conservative Idaho and Arkansas.

So how much do you want to bet that before kids go back to school in September, Republican state legislators will start introducing bills to weaken or repeal immunization requirements? They’ll probably start by loosening the exemption process to make it no more difficult than checking a box; some may even propose removing the requirements altogether.

The pieces for a nationwide anti-vaccine movement among Republicans were already there: skepticism of science; distrust of government; a conception of “liberty” that includes the freedom to harm other people if you want. Now, a final piece is being added to the recipe: right-wing identity politics.

We saw it with mask-wearing, where Republicans decided that visibly and loudly rejecting a simple public health measure was how you showed everyone you’re a freedom-loving Trump supporter. Before long we could see conservatives sporting T-shirts reading “Get your liberal needle out of my kid’s arm! Immunizations = communism!”

And of course, they’ll be cheered on by the Fox News prime-time lineup, who will insist that there’s no better way to “own the libs” than by letting your children get diphtheria.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and conservatives will resist the temptation to widen their dislike for vaccines and create yet another battlefield for the endless culture war. But the last year and a half hasn’t given us much reason for optimism.

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