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The coronavirus pandemic now has a heavy partisan bias.
COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared in blue states like California and New York. But places that have managed to surpass 65 percent vaccination are in a better position than red states like West Virginia, Idaho, or Wyoming, where hospitals are overrun with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. (Idaho’s COVID death rate last week, for example, was seven times that of New York state.) Even at the county level, as David Leonhardt shows at The New York Times, there’s a marked partisan bias: Republican counties in blue states have vastly more cases and deaths on average, while Democratic counties in red states are faring better than their neighbors.
A primary reason for this disparity is how right-wing media has come out hard against COVID vaccines. From pundits on Fox News to the gutters of Trumpist Facebook, anti-vaccine misinformation is everywhere. As a result, vaccination rates are starkly partisan. Many Republicans aren’t getting vaccinated, and a lot of them are dying. Rejecting the vaccines is costing the GOP votes it can ill afford to lose.
Tucker Carlson may be the worst offender: He’s the top-rated cable news host in the country and a prolific source of anti-vaccine lies. Ever since President Biden was elected, Carlson has spread false stories that the vaccines don’t work and the government is covering it up — or that they’re killing thousands of people and the government is covering it up — or that there are folk remedies like ivermectin which are better than vaccines for treating COVID and, yes, the government is covering it up.
Carlson’s goal is obvious: to harm Biden and his party. As Brian Beutler writes at Crooked, Republicans always do this kind of thing when a Democrat is in the White House. After the 2008 financial crisis, they deliberately hurt the economy with austerity measures to tank then-President Barack Obama’s approval rating — then happily promoted and passed job-creating stimulus bills after GOP President Donald Trump took office. Now the conservative movement is exacerbating the pandemic and blaming it on Biden.
This behavior is only semi-intentional. Right-wing media is always prone to “reflexive, oppositional demagoguery,” as Beutler writes, and the Republican mindset is always gleefully irresponsible, paranoid, and mulishly resistant to doing anything liberals propose. It’s as much paranoia in the GOP base driving this as it is deliberate cynicism. The big tell on the cynicism, though, is how top Fox News hosts, GOP members of Congress, and conservative Supreme Court justices have largely admitted to being vaccinated (or refused to say, which implies the same thing). Meanwhile, the dimmer regional radio hosts who aren’t in on the con are unvaccinated and dropping like flies.
As a political strategy, the anti-vaccine stance seems to be working for Republicans, at least for the moment. Biden’s approval rating has been steadily falling for months — it’s hard to say why exactly, but the depressing persistence of the pandemic after a spring in which many assumed the vaccines would finally end it (as they have in many European countries) is no doubt involved.
But in the long term — as in, from Election Day 2022 onward — the strategy carries quite a political risk. Thus far, pandemic deaths have been fairly evenly spread, because COVID-19 hit blue states like New York and New Jersey early. Now conservative Mississippi has shot to the top of the state death rankings, with Louisiana and Alabama not far behind. Biden’s 2020 margin of victory in the three key states of Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia combined was only about 44,000 votes. Something like 53,000 people have already died in those three states — and it seems safe to assume the people dying there and in other swing states are disproportionately Republicans.
Suppose the pandemic finally eases off next year thanks to children becoming eligible for vaccination, various employer mandates, and widespread natural immunity. Suppose the economy then picks up, and Democrats run a successful midterm campaign blaming Republicans for worsening the pandemic on purpose. Carlson’s anti-vaccine innuendo won’t hurt Biden anymore then. But everyone who died of COVID-19 because they bought into anti-vaccine misinformation will still be dead. The GOP might lose the midterms without their votes.
Occasionally, this possibility becomes apparent even to some on the far-right. Breitbart’s John Nolte recently advanced a tortured argument that conservative media turned anti-vaccine because of a liberal conspiracy: “The organized left wants unvaccinated Trump voters to remain unvaccinated. That’s what they want,” he wrote. In another article, he asked: “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?”
Setting aside the birdbrained idea that timid, milquetoast liberals like Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would conspire to massacre people to win an election, the argument here implies an astounding and belligerent stupidity in the Republican base. And while Nolte’s conspiracy theory is ridiculous, his picture of the base is not. People who will refuse to take a free, life-saving treatment simply because people they don’t like urged them to take it are the final form of a politics with no more substance than “owning the libs.”
Nolte deserves kudos for trying an innovative pro-vaccine argument. It could actually work. His audience won’t take the vaccine to save their own lives, but they just might get vaxxed to crush the Democrats in the midterms.