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Opinion | How Republicans Failed the Unvaccinated

But the advertisement experiment, the apparent effectiveness of just highlighting Trump’s pro-vaccine rhetoric to receptive audiences, is an example of a different kind of creativity. Republican vaccine skepticism was hardly monolithic: Most Republicans got the vaccines, many prominent conservatives — politicians, Fox News figures, more — urged people to take them, and plenty of figures on the right insisted they were pro-vaccine, anti-mandate. All this could have been material for more Republican-friendly and therefore more persuasive forms of advertisement and outreach than what the Biden administration, with its mandates-and-misinformation focus, ultimately delivered.

Or so I tend to think. But in the end, it’s Republicans themselves — officeholders, media personalities, Trump — who had the best opportunity to do outreach to their own vaccine-hesitant supporters, to cut the ads and hold the events and otherwise break down the more understandable and sincerely motivated forms of skepticism. And so it’s within conservatism that the failure of the past year was the clearest.

The best way to understand that failure is to connect it to the things that conservatives got right, or partly right, during the course of 2020 and 2021. In particular, as we look back over the pandemic era, the right-wing doubts about the various mitigation strategies — mask mandates, school closures, lockdowns, social distancing — now have a certain amount of data to support them.

For instance, there was a lot of talk throughout 2020 about how quick-to-reopen red states were killing their residents while blue states were protecting them. But as my colleague David Leonhardt has pointed out, “by the end of Covid’s first year in the U.S., the virus had swept across the country, and there was no significant partisan divide in deaths.” More recently, as Omicron swept through the country, he noted that it was hard to discern a clear difference in infection rates between liberal and conservative counties, even though liberal areas were still implementing more mitigation measures. Or to step outside the United States: A study published last month in The Lancet looking at excess death rates worldwide in the Covid era found that two European countries often critiqued for being too lax relative to their neighbors, Sweden and the Britain, didn’t have notably worse outcomes relative to their peers.

These trends are suggestive; they don’t mean that all nonpharmaceutical interventions were in vain. But they do imply that they were often oversold, their capital-S Scientific basis emphasized at the expense of reasonable doubts. Combine this reality with the manifest harms of some interventions, school shutdowns especially, and you get the fact pattern that made a figure like Ron DeSantis into a conservative folk hero for resisting many of these measures.

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