This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and it’s caused by the fact that despite America having unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.
Joe Biden Sept 9 Announcing COVID-19 Mandates.
Last week, President Joe Biden delivered a stunning speech. He announced sweeping new federal requirements designed to increase the percentage of vaccinated Americans. Private employers with more than 100 employees will be required to make sure their workers are fully vaccinated or else monitor their workforce with weekly testing protocols – under the threat of significant fines. In addition, most federal workers, and contractors–health care providers for example that receive federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars–must do the same.
However, it’s not the mandates that are stunning. Rather it’s Biden’s justification for them.
Biden took direct aim at unvaccinated Americans and scolded them: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said. “And your refusal has cost all of us.” The unvaccinated minority, he added, “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.” He drew a straight line from the intransigence of the unvaccinated to the health struggles of the nation and the death of thousands. He separated the unvaccinated minority from the vaccinated majority and blamed the minority for holding back the majority.
For a candidate who campaigned on national unity, political healing, and the end of Trumpian divisiveness, Biden’s rhetorical tactics were jarring, and they are politically risky. His frontal assault on the unvaccinated will merely alienate them and hand Republicans a potent weapon to mobilize midterm voters. In addition, the unvaccinated represent a sizeable and diverse population. They cannot be credibly branded a “radicalized minority” driven by heated partisanship, anti-science sentiment, and anti-reason. Substantial percentages of young people, Independents, Moderates, low and middle income families, Blacks, and Hispanics remain unvaccinated. By stigmatizing these groups, presenting them as the exclusive problem – the cause of the pandemic, Biden sows division and begets intolerance.
To be clear, I am not disputing the logic that vaccinating more Americans will shorten the pandemic – at least in the United States – help protect the vulnerable and ease the burdens on hospitals and medical staffs. This post is not about public health policy or medical science. Rather, it’s about Biden’s rhetoric. The unvaccinated are now an ‘it’, a ‘them’ and an ‘other’.
The unvaccinated minority
In a survey fielded the day before the President’s speech, respondents were presented with a list of several groups and asked to identify which groups posed a serious threat to the nation. The top answer was the Taliban at 52%. Next, China at 49% and then unvaccinated Americans at 39%. Among Democrats, 56% believed the unvaccinated are a serious threat – only Trump supporters were seen as a greater threat to the nation at 57%.
In another survey, the vaccinated population were asked to describe the unvaccinated: Popular phrases included self-centered, ignorant, and selfish. The news media’s portrait is similar but leans political. Unvaccinated are largely radical conservatives, white Republicans, and anti-vaxxers.
This goes a long way toward explaining President’s Biden’s aggressive tactics. However, it’s always helpful to examine the data before drawing firm conclusions.
What percentage of the adult population is not vaccinated?
According to an Economist/YouGov survey fielded on September 4 – 7, approximately 37% of Americans say they are not vaccinated. The survey asked a random sample of U.S. adults the following,
“How would you describe your personal situation regarding COVID-19 vaccines?”
I have received all the injections required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – 60%
I have started the vaccination process, but need another shot – 4%
I plan to get vaccinated – 5%
I will not get vaccinated – 21%
I’m not sure about getting vaccinated – 11%
The last three response categories represent the unvaccinated population – it would be useful to have an additional category for those that had covid and reject vaccinations. Bearing in mind there are several ways to measure vaccine hesitancy, and media reports about the actual size of the unvaccinated population vary considerably, Biden referred to the group’s size at 25%.
Partisans and ideologues
It’s well known that percentages of unvaccinated Republicans and Conservatives are well above the percentages of unvaccinated Democrats and Liberals (see table).
However, there is more to the story. The partisan and ideological gaps are significant, but they do not match the large partisan disparities across many political issues – gun policy, climate change, immigration, role of government – where differences reach 60%. In other words, partisans seem to agree more on vaccination than they do on most other major issues. While 44% of Republicans and 48% of Conservatives are not vaccinated, a majority of each group is fully vaccinated.
We can focus on partisan and ideological gaps and deduce from them the prudence of one group and the foolishness of the other. Or we can acknowledge that covid-19 was quickly engulfed by deep partisan hostilities that profoundly impact how Americans view nearly every aspect of political life. In this respect, it’s a remarkable achievement that a majority of both parties are in fact inoculated.
Unvaccinated partisans and ideologues
Independents and Moderates
Now, let’s examine those detached from party and ideological politics. A substantial percentage of Independents and Moderates are not yet vaccinated – see table. In fact, the percentage of unvaccinated Independents (40%) is only 4 points smaller than the percentage of unvaccinated Republicans. This does not fit the narrative. Independents and Moderates are not featured in discussions about the unvaccinated. They should be!
Moreover, considering Independents account for 44% of party identifiers, while Republicans just 25%, the unvaccinated minority includes a comparatively large number of Independents. Alone, this result should have prompted caution among Biden advisors. Recall Independents and Moderates were crucial to Biden’s victory in 2020.
Unvaccinated Independents and Moderates
Income is another line of division. The lowest income category has the highest percentage of unvaccinated (46%). The highest income category has the lowest percentage (22%). There are reasons for the differences including regular access to health care and the absence of health insurance. Biden drew majority support from both income brackets.
Age represents a considerable division as well. Younger people are less likely to be vaccinated than older people. This can in part be explained by the initial vaccine rollout. Recall, older people were prioritized to receive vaccines. The country agreed those at highest risk (the elderly) and the most vulnerable would be first in line. In addition, the initial wave of the virus did not inflict the youth to the same extent as others – hospitalization and deaths were comparatively low. A vaccination lag resulted, and many younger people did not see a need for the vaccine.
In 2020, Democrats received a historic boost from young voters. Sixty percent of the 18-29 age group voted for Biden, and 52% of 30-44 year old’s.
Finally, the last fault line is race. While the virus hit Black and Hispanic Americans especially hard, Black Americans skepticism of vaccines goes back many decades – Tuskegee experiment . And Hispanics, like Blacks, experience significant barriers to vaccine access including lack of health insurance, distrust in government agencies, concerns about costs, and fears about sharing personal information. Both groups are strong and consistent supporters of Democrats.
|% of group unvaccinated||39%||39%|
If the unvaccinated are considered a small, extreme, militant faction, raging against authorities, and blinded by ideology, Biden’s speech appears on target. Instead, the data reveal a large and diverse group of unvaccinated Americans that include young people, Independents, Moderates, low and middle income families, Blacks, and Hispanics. The unvaccinated are not politically, socially, or culturally monolithic. Ironically, many of them are members of groups vital to the Democratic coalition.
Biden needs to reach these people. Yet instead of reaching out – as he had since inauguration, Biden confronted them. For months, Biden had resisted calls to get tougher. Democrats felt he was much too soft , treating the unvaccinated with kid gloves, talking unity, promising there would be no mandates, and reminding Americans that we were are all in this together.
But as the delta variant spread, and his public approval dropped, the President took a decidedly aggressive posture. Instead of persuasion he chose coercion. Instead of a carrot he chose a stick. Instead of an inspiring message of progress and hope, Biden’s message intimidated.
His rhetoric contrasts sharply with a carefully crafted image that many voters considered the antidote to Trump. And the head-spinning pivot away from a strategy of coaxing and persuading the unvaccinated risks further division and may weaken Biden’s electoral base. After Biden’s rebuke, surely, the unvaccinated will be angry and feel bullied into getting the vaccine. That’s the sort of experience that can be a very powerful motivator in voting.
Perhaps the President set public expectations to high, hoping to reach 70% of adults vaccinated by July 4th. Was that realistic? After all, the very first vaccines were given to high risk health workers and elderly in mid-December. There is in fact no historical precedent for such a large, rapid, and successful vaccination campaign. The polio vaccination plan took several years to complete.
More broadly, Biden’s call for mandates and the public reprimand speaks to a growing frustration in the White House and in the country. As with 9/11, the coronavirus tests the established boundaries of government authority and citizen liberties. Biden’s speech appears to be an attempt to establish a new equilibrium – at least for questions of public health. Yet distinct from 9/11, the pandemic did not manufacture consensus. The vaccinated majority demands stronger government actions while the unvaccinated minority evokes personal liberties. The coronavirus raises the long-standing and explosive issue of majority will and minority rights.
Time will tell whether Biden’s instincts are correct. Recent polls show majorities support mandates on large businesses. Ultimately, though, like most other political strategies developed over the past year and a half, the trajectory of the unpredictable virus will determine success or failure.