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Why This Anti-Science Fanaticism Is Dangerous for Democracy

The blue versus red vaccine divide is troubling from a public health perspective—and terrifying from a democratic perspective.

Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs outside of Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.
Mark Felix/Getty Images
Anti-vaccine rally protesters outside Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas

Check out these state vaccination numbers. Here are the top 10, with the percentage of the adult population that has received both shots: Vermont, 64.6 percent; Maine, 60.5; Massachusetts, 60.4; Connecticut, 59.4; Rhode Island, 57.7; New Jersey, 55.3; New Hampshire, 54.9; Maryland, 54.4; Washington, 53.3; and New Mexico, 52.9. (New York, for those of you who insist that New York is the center of the known universe, is next, eleventh, at 52.7.)

And here are the bottom 10, from forty-second to fifty-first (because the District of Columbia is included), with the same percentages: West Virginia, 36.7; Utah, 36.7; Georgia, 35.4; Idaho, 35.4; Tennessee, 34.7; Louisiana, 34; Wyoming, 33.8; Arkansas, 33.6; Alabama, 32.1; and pulling up the bottom, it practically goes without saying, is dear old Mississippi, at 29.2 percent.

See a pattern here? Yes, it’s mostly geographic, with a few exceptions. But the starker snapshot here is blue versus red. The top 10 are a blue state sweep. With the exception of Georgia, which in 2020 barely voted blue for the first time in more than a quarter-century, the states gathering at the bottom are all scarlet-hued. This pattern extends: Of the bottom half of states, there are two blue ones, Georgia and that other newly minted and barely blue state, Arizona. Of the top 25, there are just three red states: #22, Iowa; #23, Nebraska; and #25, South Dakota (they’re all in the mid-40s, percentage-wise).

These trends are consistent within states, as well, broken down by blue and red counties. In my state of Maryland, for example, we go from a high of 66.5 percent in Howard County, which sits in between the urban centers of Washington and Baltimore, to a low of 36.8 percent in Garrett County, the westernmost county in the state. Check out this site, which breaks down every state by county, and you’ll see that the pattern prevails everywhere.

You’re probably thinking at this juncture that the point of this column is to make fun of red states. No. The point of this column is to denounce them. Their willful anti-science ignorance is going to prolong this pandemic by months (at least) and lead to thousands of needless deaths—in the nation, need I remind you, that still leads the world in deaths by a country mile (620,000; Brazil is second at 514,000).

Almost worse, though, is how this anti-science fanaticism is perverting the meaning of the concept of freedom. This is dangerous for democracy in ways most people aren’t even thinking about right now.

Historically, freedom has a pretty precise meaning. As I wrote in a column in The New York Times last October, it comes to us chiefly from John Stuart Mill—a man whom conservatives used to revere. In “On Liberty,” Mill wrote that freedom (or liberty) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.”

Notice that “as long as what we do does not harm them” part. That’s crucial to the entire enterprise, and it has always been broadly accepted in democracies by left and right as a crucial part of the definition. If I want to dump some garbage on my lawn, that’s my business, distressing though it may be to my neighbors. But I can’t go dumping garbage on my neighbor’s lawn. And I can swing my fist around in the air to my heart’s content, but my right to do as I please with my fist ends where your jaw begins.

Today’s Republicans are making a different and more dangerous set of claims about freedom that would horrify Mill. To their mind, they can dump garbage on their neighbors’ lawns and swing their fists wherever they please. Aren’t those morally equivalent to refusing to get vaccinated and helping to spread a deadly disease? There is no doubt. It’s the same principle at play: doing as one likes even if it does harm to others.

I suppose some would say that in the case of not getting vaccinated, the harm done to others is merely potential. We can’t know that an unvaccinated person will get someone else sick. But the unknowability doesn’t weaken my argument; it strengthens it. Imagine I throw a 50 pound sandbag off the top of a building down onto a city street. It may or may not hit someone. If it doesn’t, I got lucky. If it does, and it kills them, I get charged with homicide. The fact that the result was unknowable when I threw it becomes irrelevant. It was an asocial, sick thing to do.

For all but the small number of Americans who have legitimate medical reasons why they cannot get the jab, so is going into a public crowd without having been vaccinated. Incredibly, the right has now established the “principle” that people can engage in potentially harmful action without any expectation that there will be consequences. Indeed, with the conviction that consequences are tyranny. Where does this end?

Now the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus is out and about. Last week, a Washington Post article warned that the Delta variant is “poised to divide the United States again, with highly vaccinated areas continuing toward post-pandemic freedom and poorly vaccinated regions threatened by greater caseloads and hospitalizations.”

One is almost tempted to think, well, if they want to kill themselves and each other, that’s their business. But it isn’t that simple. When people really start traveling again, the virus will spread. Are we really going to have to go into a lockdown again because nearly half the country is so consumed by ideology-driven hatred of the other half that they’d literally rather see loved ones die than go get a simple shot?

Freedom in a democratic society depends on limits. My freedom is limited by your freedom, and where they clash, we have to make peace or decide to leave each other alone. That this core democratic principle has been tossed out the window by nearly half the country is mind-boggling. Voter suppression and gerrymandering aren’t the only ways that these people are destroying democracy.