How Anti-Vaccine Ideology Crosses the Political Spectrum

How Anti-Vaccine Ideology Crosses the Political Spectrum

Vaccinations have not been a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, but perhaps they should be. Republican candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly made statements promoting the disproven idea that vaccines cause autism. Third-party candidates have also joined the anti-vaccine chorus. Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson opposes mandatory childhood vaccinations, while Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been rather equivocal on the subject, despite being a Harvard-educated physician. As it stands, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who is not pandering to anti-vaccine activists.

For historians of medicine, this raises an interesting question: Why is it that people on both the left and the right embrace anti-vaccination viewpoints?

According to classical political theory, the far right and the far left converge at a certain point. When it comes to vaccines, the presidential candidates prove that very well.

Indeed, the anti-vaccine rhetoric promoted by candidates both left and right rests largely upon a mistrust of government authority and physicians’ authority. In September of 2014, Trump tweeted: “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.” The bold claim that doctors are liars who can’t be trusted is very much in keeping with the anti-establishment persona Trump has cultivated, as is his prejudiced assumptions that disability ruins children and their future.

Stein’s rhetoric bears many similarities in its distrust of the Center for Disease Control. But there are some key differences. Like many on the left, Stein utilizes mistrust of pharmaceutical companies to make her case. In a recent AMA on Reddit, Stein wrote: “In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs.” According to Stein, this is a case of “the foxes guarding the chicken coop.” In such a climate, it’s only natural for people to develop “widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial [sic] complex.”

Although Stein acknowledges the massive contribution vaccines have made to public health, she implies that the FDA and other bodies regulating vaccine safety are untrustworthy because they’re in the pockets of “industry lobbyists and CEOs.”

She has not outright said that she opposes vaccinations. However, she is certainly using rhetoric that echoes anti-vaccination activists, and her claims about government officials regulating vaccines are simply incorrect. Make no mistake: Stein is courting anti-vaccine activists who lean to the left, just as Trump and Johnson court those on the right.

Perhaps even more troubling than Stein’s “AMA” comments are remarks she made in an interview with Elle magazine last July. In explaining how she joined the Green Party, Stein said:

[gblockquote]I got involved as a mother and a medical doctor. I had been, for a while, very alarmed about the public health calamities that I was witnessing as a new doctor and a mother of young kids. There were these new epidemics of asthma and cancer and autism and diabetes and obesity. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, our genes didn’t change overnight.’ You know, my generation didn’t grow up with this.[/gblockquote]

Coming from a trained physician, this statement is shocking in its reliance on anecdotal evidence. Equally appalling, Stein erases the existence of older Americans with disabilities and chronic illness in order to promote distrust of medicine and government. The statement appeals to Stein’s position as a mother, notably, but falls flat in its understanding of how diagnostic criteria for autism and disabilities have altered.1 Not unlike Trump, Stein paints a picture of an America in decline due to increasing numbers of children with disabilities and chronic illness. This statement is as offensive as it is anti-science, and should give serious pause to those considering voting for the Green party as an alternative to the two major parties.

Anti-vaccination beliefs aren't new to the last ten years, or to the United States, as seen in this 1923 London Times poster that tries to sway "those who disbelieve in vaccination." (Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images | CC BY)
Anti-vaccination beliefs aren’t new to the last ten years, or to the United States, as seen in this 1923 London Times poster that tries to sway “those who disbelieve in vaccination.” (Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images | CC BY)

Despite the historical particularity of the 2016 presidential election, none of this is entirely new. The modern anti-vaccination movement has long relied upon mistrust of authority, whether it be government, pharmaceutical companies, or rank and file physicians. Historian Elena Conis has demonstrated that the anti-vaccine movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s was in many ways a product of second-wave feminism’s challenge to medical authority. Although not all anti-vaccine activists were feminists, and certainly not all feminists were anti-vaccine, feminist criticisms of medical authority paved the way for other activists to challenge the so-called medical establishment.2

As physician Paul Offit has shown, the anti-vaccination movement of the last fifteen years has also utilized both leftist and conservative themes.3 The 2008 documentary Vaccine Nation, for example, takes aim at numerous targets: the medical profession, FDA, and criminal justice system. While the film also appeals to more mainstream political ideals such as American freedom, leftist themes are emphasized even more strongly. According to the film’s “experts,” vaccinations have created a major revenue stream for pharmaceutical companies. Allegedly, the government is in league with Big Pharma to protect big profits.

Typical of anti-vaccine rhetoric, the film vacillates between claiming that they’re not really anti-vaxx and condemning all vaccines as dangerous and unhelpful. While none of this year’s presidential candidates have gone quite this far, the disingenuous nature of their rhetoric should raise major red flags.

Unfortunately, anti-science beliefs are not limited to one part of the political spectrum. As we make critical choices about the future of the U.S. this November, all of us need to bear this in mind. At the DNC, Clinton said simply, “I believe in science” and was met with rapturous applause. This is not mere campaign rhetoric. Among the leading four candidates, Clinton is the only one who unequivocally supports vaccinations—an innovation which has been so critical to upholding public health.

Further Reading

  1. For the history of changing diagnostic criteria for autism, see Roy Richard Grinker, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism (New York: Basic Books, 2007) and Steve Sillberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (New York: Random House, 2015). Return to text.
  2. Elena Conis, “A Mother’s Responsibility: Women, Medicine, and the Rise of Contemporary Vaccine Skepticism in the United States,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87: 3 (Fall 2013): 407-436. Return to text.
  3. Paul A. Offit, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Return to text.

Sarah Pripas holds a PhD in history from UCLA, specializing in the
history of women, gender, and medicine. Her research articles appear
in Gender & History and Great Plains Quarterly. As a Lecturer at UCLA, she has taught women's history and the social history of medicine.

2 thoughts on “How Anti-Vaccine Ideology Crosses the Political Spectrum

    • Author gravatar

      This article is a badly disguised hatchet job on Stein in the service of Clinton. It is completely disingenuous to claim that by _empathizing_ with those who are distrustful of profiteering pharmaceutical companies Stein is deliberately feeding anti-vax and anti-science audiences. We will not rebuild trust in vaccination or medical expertise without empathizing with or at least trying to understand those who are doubtful. This piece just picks up the smear campaign aganist Stein instead of interrogating it, which would be much more useful – why this charge against her, coming from which groups, and which voters are they trying to sway with this particular accusation? All more interesting to consider than the straw-woman created here.

      • Author gravatar

        Thanks for commenting. I don’t make any secret of my own political preferences, but respectfully disagree that this is a “hatchet job.” I quoted from Dr. Stein herself and presented my analysis of her comments.

        You may feel like my post lacks empathy. To the contrary, I am highly empathetic towards people who have suffered from preventable diseases thanks to anti-vax rhetoric and their families. I am empathetic towards people with disabilities and chronic illnesses who have had their existence erased or exploited in the name of pseudo-science. I feel this individuals are more deserving of empathy than people who choose to believe in false beliefs–who tend to be among the most privileged individuals in American society. Whatever their reasoning, they are promoting beliefs that are actively harmful to public health and deserve criticism.

        This is the perspective from which I speak. I am not paid by the Clinton campaign, Big Pharma, or anyone else.

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