At The Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes that distrust of vaccines has grown in tandem with distrust of government.
.In 2002, Representative Dan Burton, who in the 1990s had repeatedly implied that the Clintons were involved in the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, invited the disgraced doctor to testify before his committee. Burton—whose grandson has autism—went on to hold at least 20 hearings, suggesting that government scientists were covering up a link between vaccines and autism.
Burton was a harbinger. After a Republican presidential debate in 2011, one of the candidates, Michele Bachmann, claimed that the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, causes mental retardation. While running for president in 2015, Senator Rand Paul—a physician—argued against mandatory vaccinations by asserting that there are “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” And from 2012 to 2014, while Donald Trump was claiming that President Barack Obama hadn’t been born in the United States, he also tweeted more than 30 times about the supposed dangers of vaccines.
Yet it’s not only conservatives who translate their suspicion of government into suspicion of vaccines. Many liberals distrust the large drug companies that both produce vaccines and help fund the Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to regulate them. The former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has suggested that “widespread distrust” of what she describes as the medical-industrial complex is understandable because “regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs.” The environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims that thimerosal, a preservative formerly used in some vaccines, harms children. Bright-blue counties in Northern California, Washington State, and Oregon have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Although polls suggest that conservatives are slightly less accepting of vaccines than liberals are, a 2014 study found that distrust of government was correlated with distrust of vaccines among both Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, the best predictor of someone’s view of vaccines is not their political ideology, but their trust in government and their openness to conspiracy theories.