The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservatives are dying to own the libs. Can anyone use that logic to get them vaccinated?

Flags fly at the "In America: Remember" public art installation near the Washington Monument on Sept. 19. The installation commemorates all the Americans who have died due to covid-19. (Al Drago/Getty Images)
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Arranging your entire political worldview around being against something can have very strange drawbacks. One recent example: A significant number of Republicans in a large number of red states are, essentially, dying in order to own the libs. At least one conservative writer is pushing back, but even his efforts show how convoluted and dangerous this strain of thinking has become.

This phenomenon, known as negative polarization, can be a potent force. It helped Donald Trump get elected president, after all. He stood against a media class that despises his voters. He attacked an elite class that considers Trump backers uncouth and unclean. He stood against immigrants who depressed wages and took their jobs. If you can be against enough things, you don’t really have to be for much of anything — a fact that also helped Joe Biden defeat Trump in 2020.

Another thing Trump was against: taking the covid-19 pandemic seriously. He denigrated masks, took risks that contributed to outbreaks in the White House and continued to hold live events, including election rallies and a rollout of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, that culminated in his own hospitalization. Trump’s opposition filtered down to his supporters: Though Trump could easily claim credit for the lifesaving vaccines that have dramatically curbed the coronavirus’s deadliness, many of his party’s members remain stubbornly resistant to getting their shots.

It doesn’t really matter how you break it down: Republican vaccination rates are lagging. You can look at self-reporting: When polled, only 55 percent of Republicans say they’ve been vaccinated, compared with 88 percent of Democrats. Or you can look at county-by-county numbers: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there’s a nearly 13-point gap in the vaccination rate between Trump-supporting counties and Biden-supporting counties. Or, most disastrously, you can look at per capita death rates: Ninety-five of the 100 worst-hit counties are in states Trump won in 2016.

However you want to slice it, one thing becomes strikingly obvious: There is significant Republican hesitancy to vaccination, and that hesitancy is swelling death rates. There’s something vaguely embarrassing about this, which is why you’ll occasionally see a Republican try to deflect from all of this data by pointing to other demographic groups as vaccine holdouts.

The numbers don’t really bear this out: Sixty percent of those who have received at least one dose are White, while 61 percent of the population is White; 17 percent of those who have received at least one dose are Hispanic, while 17 percent of the population is Hispanic; 10 percent of those who have received at least one dose are Black, while 12 percent of the population is Black. Still, it’s telling that the first response is to grasp for someone to be opposed to (recalcitrant minorities, in this case) rather than grappling with the ugly chain of logic the numbers of unvaccinated Americans reveal.

The thinking goes like this: The media and the elites are telling people they need to get vaccinated; the media and the elites are “the enemy of the people”; therefore, getting vaccinated against this disease that kills “only” 1 percent of the infected is bad. They’ll take their chances, thanks. And while I appreciate the fact that Republicans are in a tough spot philosophically thanks to mandate hesitancy — a hesitancy I, frankly, share — CNN’s Jake Tapper is right when he tells the governor of Mississippi, the state that now has the highest per capita death rate in the country, “Your way is failing.”

A philosophical resistance to mandates means people need to be persuaded to take the vaccine. But it’s hard to persuade people when they have already been persuaded by the websites they read and the talk show hosts they listen to that the people arguing in favor of vaccination are wicked. The result: Folks in Republican-leaning states (and folks in Republican-leaning media) are dying in greater numbers. And dying to own the libs has electoral consequences, as Breitbart’s John Nolte recently noted. Understanding he can’t make a straightforward case for vaccines to save the lives of his fellow travelers, though, he instead couches the fact that dying to own the libs is nuts by suggesting that the libs want you to die to own the libs.

“If I wanted to use reverse psychology to convince people not to get a life-saving vaccination, I would do exactly what [radio host Howard] Stern and the left are doing,” Nolte writes in one of the most fascinating political documents of our time. “I would bully and taunt and mock and ridicule you for not getting vaccinated.”

I wish Nolte nothing but the best in convincing Trump-backing Republicans that the path to electoral success and continued lib-ownage is to get vaccinated. If he can get his audience to finally take to heart the fact that 99.5 percent of those who are dying of covid-19 are unvaccinated, more power to him. But I do wish he spent more time exploring how negative polarization became the be-all and end-all in the Republican Party, to the point that it is a deadly phenomenon.

This might have undermined Nolte’s goal; no one wants to be told that their worldview is literally killing them. Still, it would be nice if we could figure out how to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths in the future ahead of time — and how to talk to each other in a straightforward, sensible, grown-up way instead of tying ourselves in knots.