Politics

How Joe Biden Is Winning the Culture War Over Vaccines

He’s singling out anti-vaxxers as public enemy No. 1.

Biden gestures as he speaks at a podium to a crowd at a construction site. A vaccines.gov poster stands beside him.
Biden in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, on Thursday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, President Joe Biden went to Chicago to make his case for COVID-19 vaccination mandates. He warned that unvaccinated Americans were “overrunning” hospitals—thereby crowding out patients who needed care for heart attacks or cancer—and he accused them of jeopardizing the economy by scaring people away from shops and restaurants. Getting vaccinated, said the president, was a simple matter of “being patriotic, doing the right thing.”

Biden has been using this kind of language—moralizing the COVID debate and vilifying noncompliant Americans—for the past month. It’s a formula that Republicans have often exploited in other contexts. Here’s how it works: First, you identify a politically vulnerable minority. Then you accuse that minority of deviant behavior. You depict these people as a threat to everyone else, and you blame them for the country’s troubles. Over the years, conservatives have cynically applied this algorithm to many topics, such as homosexuality, welfare, immigration, Islam, and kneeling for the national anthem. But now it’s being turned against Republicans, because they’ve chained their party to a genuinely deviant minority: vaccine refusers.

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Unlike Muslims or gay people, vaccine refusers really do pose an inherent threat to others. Yet Republican politicians proudly embrace them. In Congress, state legislatures, and the courts, conservative governors and lawmakers are fighting to block vaccine requirements—even requirements imposed by private employers—as the virus kills thousands of Americans each week. These politicians accuse progressives of “shaming” vaccine refusers and treating them like “second-class pariahs.” Often, they borrow language from the abortion rights movement, framing vaccination as a matter of “personal choice.” Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz defended NBA players who have declined COVID shots, tweeting “#yourbodyyourchoice.” On Tuesday, another abortion opponent, Sen. Mike Lee, pleaded that unvaccinated Americans “just want to make their own medical decisions.” His fellow pro-lifer, Sen. Ron Johnson, told vaccine proponents to butt out because “it’s not your body.”

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For months, Biden was patient with people who resisted vaccination. He offered them retail discounts and paid time off from work to get a shot. He appealed to their altruism, arguing that most would “be convinced by the fact that their failure to get the vaccine may cause other people to get sick and maybe die.” After four years of Donald Trump’s divisiveness, Biden wanted unity. “We’ve had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much polarization,” he lamented in May, referring to the debate over masks. “Let’s remember that we are all in this together.”

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Day by day, unvaccinated Americans who could be moved by incentives or altruism became vaccinated Americans. That left a pool of hardcore resisters. Meanwhile, the delta variant swamped the United States, making vaccine refusers an increasingly lethal vector. On July 6, a reporter asked Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, about “frustration in the White House” over vaccine holdouts: “Are you guys, like, banging the table? Are you upset?” Psaki refused to take the bait. The administration could only make the vaccines “accessible,” she replied, falling back on traditional pro-choice language. “We don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated or feeling upset about individuals not getting the vaccine.”

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It took a right-wing Southern Republican, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, to shatter this culture of vaccine liberalism. On July 22, exasperated by her state’s surge of infections and its paltry uptake of vaccines, Ivey unloaded on people who remained unvaccinated. “The new cases of COVID are because of unvaccinated folks,” she said. “These folks are choosing a horrible lifestyle,” she added, using the kind of rhetoric conservatives had long applied to gay people and unwed mothers. “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

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When reporters asked the White House about Ivey’s tirade, Psaki demurred. “I don’t think our role is to place blame,” she said. But a week later, on July 29, Biden did exactly that. He applauded Ivey and went after vaccine refusers. “America is divided between … people who are vaccinated and those who are not,” he said. “I understand that many of you in the majority are frustrated with the consequences of the failure of the minority to get vaccinated.” The president squarely blamed that minority: “Unvaccinated people spread the virus. They get sick and fill up our hospitals. And that means if someone else has a heart attack or breaks a hip, there may not be a hospital bed for them.” He warned vaccine holdouts that they would “find the patience of businesses and the patience of a lot of other people running thin.”

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Biden tried bigger incentives, offering $100 to anyone who came in for a shot. But immunizations still lagged, the delta wave worsened, and deaths soared. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration gave final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, removing the last excuse to delay getting a shot. So, on Sept. 9, Biden announced new vaccine mandates. He lamented that despite months of information, exhortation, incentives, and easy access, “a distinct minority of Americans” had “failed” to comply. He called these people “the unvaccinated,” and he castigated them for “overrunning the emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving no room for someone with a heart attack.” The purpose of the mandates, he explained, was to shield responsible citizens from this reckless minority, “protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part.”

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In subsequent appearances, Biden has continued this line of attack. “That distinct minority is causing … an awful lot of damage for the rest of the country,” he complained last week. He blamed vaccine refusers for “causing unease around the kitchen table” and potentially “slowing economic growth, costing jobs. … Their refusal has cost all of us.”

Some people worry that this harsh language will alienate holdouts who might otherwise be persuaded to accept vaccination. But after months of entreaties, incentives, and wide-open access, it’s not clear that gentle persuasion would have accomplished much more. At this stage, the most effective factor seems to be requirements, particularly those imposed by employers. Biden’s case against vaccine refusers—that they’re endangering others and that the responsible majority is entitled to protect itself—is designed, in part, to justify those requirements.

It also aligns Biden with the public. In poll after poll, most Americans endorse his vaccine mandates. More than 60 percent support vaccine requirements for teachers, health care workers, and airline passengers. And in a Navigator survey taken two weeks ago, most voters—including 39 percent of Republican voters—expressed an unfavorable view of “adults who have not received a coronavirus vaccine.” For once, a president has launched a culture war against a deviant minority that fully deserves its opprobrium. And this time, politically as well as morally, Republicans are on the wrong side.

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