Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Latest Anti-Vaxx Congressman

Newly elected Tennessee GOP congressman Mark Green is a doctor. He's also dipping his toes into the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.
A soon-to-be congressman from Tennessee told constituents Tuesday he believed vaccines may be causing autism, denying data from the Centers for Disease Control and other institutions disproving such a theory. 
Not only did Republican Mark Green, a Congressman-elect from Clarksville who is also a medical doctor, express hesitation about the CDC's stance on vaccines, Green said he believed the federal health agency has "fraudulently managed" the data. 
His remarks came in response to an audience question at a town hall meeting in Franklin from a woman identifying herself as the parent of a young adult with autism. The woman was concerned about possible cuts to Medicaid funding. 
"Let me say this about autism," Green said. "I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County, to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines.
Anti-vaxx conspiracies are actually tend to cross ideological borders, though the precise vectors are a little different. On the left, the conspiracies generally focus on greedy pharmaceutical companies selling a bogus product (or worse, infecting children so they can sell yet more bogus products). On the right, the tale usually is one of malicious government bureaucrats or sneaky elites -- this, obviously, is the approach that Green takes.

There's something else interesting about this story, though. You'll note that while Green was responding to a question from a woman whose child has autism, her query did not (at least as reported) mention vaccines at all. She was worried about cuts to Medicaid funding.

Needless to say, "cuts to Medicaid funding threaten the health of my child" is not terrain Republican congressmen particularly like to stand on. Green's pivot to vaccines is not just a random grasp at a conspiracy theory. It is a deliberate political move -- an attempt to change the conversation away from Green's own policy positions (which, of course, are brazen efforts to strip health care from vulnerable populations) and onto something else. Don't blame my votes on Medicaid for threatening your child's health -- blame those sneaky, untrustworthy government bureaucrats!

Anti-vaccine politics, in short, are by no means the exclusive redoubt of the right. But at the moment they have a particular tactical benefit for conservative politicians: they are a ready-made narrative, which unfortunately has attraction for a lot of people, that distracts attention from their own unpopular policies and instead diverts attention elsewhere. That it also (in its conservative iteration) helps spread suspicion of "government" and "elites" in the process is a bonus.

Of course, the raw political benefit of relying on anti-vaccine conspiracies has to be balanced against the Republican Party's commitment to truth, the common good, and adherence to basic moral principles over transient political advantage. In other words, expect right-wing Republicans to begin embracing anti-vaccine politics completely and without any hesitation whatsoever.

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