President Joe Biden’s Thursday announcement that federal regulators will seek to compel businesses with more than 100 employees to require their employees to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested for the virus weekly isn’t the ideal solution to the pandemic. But the right-wing echo chamber sabotaged the ideal solution a long time ago.
In a better world, safe, effective vaccines developed under a Republican administration and distributed under a Democratic one would not have become a partisan issue. Politicians from both parties would have worked together to vaccinate communities as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Right-wing, mainstream, and left-wing news outlets would all have pursued whatever messages they deemed most effective in getting their audiences to take life-saving shots. High vaccine uptake would have sent COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths plummeting.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, as Biden made the vaccination campaign a central focus, Fox News hosts decided that their network’s self-declared role as Biden’s “opposition” did not have a carveout for his effort to vaccinate the public and halt the deadly pandemic. They and many of their right-wing media colleagues decided that their interests lay in fueling skepticism for the vaccines and undermining the vaccination campaign.
Since Biden took office, right-wing propagandists have falsely suggested that the vaccines are ineffective or unnecessary and that they might be killing thousands of Americans. They have lashed out against the prospects of vaccine mandates, whether imposed by private businesses, universities, or government agencies. They have wailed about requirements for proof of vaccination to enter certain venues.They have raised up vaccine refusers as culture war heroes. And they have denounced door-to-door campaigns to urge residents to get vaccinated as akin to the tactics of the Gestapo.
With the Republican base so firmly ensconced within the right-wing media echo chamber, it was inevitable that these sentiments would spread to the party’s political leaders. GOP members of Congress waged misinformation campaigns about the vaccines and denounced the vaccination effort. Republican governors who see themselves as potential presidential candidates fought to prevent businesses, schools, and even cruise ships from requiring proof of vaccination. Meanwhile more responsible party politicians just threw up their hands over why their voters weren’t getting shots.
The situation is reminiscent of 2009, when Republicans and right-wing media realized that they could foil President Barack Obama’s promise of unity simply by withholding their support for anything he tried to do. But this time, the stakes are bigger than whether a president is viewed as divisive.
You can see the results of the right-wing effort to politicize vaccination all around you. Polls routinely show that Republicans are less likely to say they have been or will be vaccinated. As the delta wave crested in recent weeks, with hospitals strained to capacity and daily recorded COVID-19 death totals again exceeding 1,500, it’s been clear that those claims are neither idle nor irrelevant. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump detailed, state vaccination rates are closely correlated with 2020 vote margins, with increased support for former President Donald Trump consistent with lower vaccination rates. Higher COVID-19 cases, hospitalization, and deaths during this wave are also all correlated with Trump votes.
Republican leaders and right-wing media outlets convinced their supporters not to get vaccinated, and it’s killing them and threatening the vaccinated. The powerful hold they have on their supporters has stymied the Biden administration’s messaging and policy efforts at cajoling them into voluntary vaccination. The remaining options were to give up and accept that the right-wing vaccine disinformation campaign will keep killing Americans, or try to sidestep that propaganda machine with vaccine and testing requirements. Biden chose the latter.
But the forces that have worked so hard to limit vaccine uptake aren’t taking this lying down.
And Fox’s propagandists are furious, and they will surely expend far more effort trying to make their viewers angry about vaccine mandates than they ever did to try to cajole them to get shots.
All they had to do was show as much interest in life-saving vaccines as they did in hydroxychloroquine. But they were too devoted to opposing Biden to look out for their audience, and now here we are.