Partisan ID and Vaccination
More evidence that elite signals matter for mass behavior.
Dating back to the early days of the pandemic, there were signs that partisan affiliation was affecting the behavior of Americans. I think back to two posts by James Joyner back in early March of 2020: Coronavirus Has Been Politicized to Dangerous Effect and Coronavirus Has Been Politicized to Dangerous Effect II. The concern expressed in both those posts, which would be later amplified in the ongoing conversation, was that the Trump administration’s desire to downplay the virus coupled with its dysfunctional approach to governance would lead to more people dying than had to be the case.
Trump’s message, or lack thereof in some cases, on the severity of the threat, on mask-wearing, on social distancing, on a host of matters clearly created a disjuncture in the populace wherein a significant number of pro-Trump partisans were less likely to take the virus seriously (and still are). This is now manifesting in vaccine hesitancy (if not outright refusal), which jeopardizes the country’s chance at herd immunity and therefore a reasonable amount of control over the disease.
From the NYT (Least Vaccinated U.S. Counties Have Something in Common: Trump Voters) we have these two charts:
There are, no doubt, other covariates that explain some of the two scatter plots above, but there is good reason to assume that the early and continued politicization of the virus by Trump and his allies is a major, if not the major factor.
The messages that elites deliver to the masses matter. And while a person who belongs to a specific partisan group may not be fully influenced by the leadership of their party, there is no denying that leadership influences mass behavior.
It is undoubtedly true that if Trump has championed masks, distancing, and other virus mitigation activities that the death toll would be lower. Likewise, had Trump and his allies been more vigorous promoters of vaccination we would be farther along in that realm. One of the weird aspects of the politics of vaccination, in particular, is that there is an Operation Warp Speed-based opening for the GOP to make some political hay about the shots, but they have utterly failed to capitalize on it.
At a minimum, poor leadership can lead to disaster. Fewer people would have died had Trump been a more competent leader. See, also Jair “It’s Just a Little Flu” Bolsonaro in Brazil for more evidence of this fact.
At this point I am pretty well resigned to the idea that we probably won’t reach true herd immunity since too many people won’t accept the vaccine. This will largely be due to Trump followers not getting vaccinated. To be clear there will be some the left who refuse for their own reasons also, but this will largely be a Trump effect.
I do think we get enough vaccinated that we won’t see the big outbreaks but it will just become endemic but at higher levels than we would like.
@Steve: I also expect we’ll probably have to have booster shots each year as the immunity wears off/new variants arise.
Well, that just makes it more of a jolly holiday for the anti-vaxxers, isn’t it? I suspect that at some point health insurance companies are going to get fed up with continually having to pay out expensive medical care for those who won’t take care of themselves and start insisting on vaccination for continued insurance coverage. At which point the whole mess boomerangs back on the hospitals.
René Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is relevant here. Humans like to fancy themselves as fully autonomous creatures whose preferences and behaviors are independently chosen. But we are rather much more like herd animals. We want and do what others want and do. And this is particularly so for “others” we consider high status (ie, elites).
This used to work ok (at the societal level) in more unified times, when there was a largely shared notion and acceptance of who the elites are. But our increasing polarization has led to divergent mimetic preferences and behaviors, as reflected in vaccination data.
Another aspect of Girard’s theory is the scapegoating mechanism. That is, one thing that unifies societies, particularly in times of stress/conflict, is the shared notion of who the scapegoat is. And the shared agreement that this scapegoat ought to be vanquished, together.
Wrt COVID, we would be much better served if 1) there was a bit more unity around who the elites are (it doesn’t even have to be total unity, just more than what we have now), 2) the elites were consistent, and dare I say performative, in their messaging about social distancing, masks, and vaccination, and 3) there was a shared notion that the virus itself is the scapegoat (or even that the virus deniers/skeptics were the scapegoat, though I’m generally not a fan of such personal scapegoating).
Alas, we are no where near partisan unity, which may not be such a big deal wrt health matters in general, except that our (ununified) politicians have the limelight when it comes to a public health catastrophe like COVID.
I’m wondering how hard it would be to match death records with partisan id via voter records, Facebook profiles, etc.
Is it the policies of the state, or the views of the individual that affect death rate? I expect the answer to be both, but to what extent?
I’m going to push back pretty hard on the idea that this reluctance in Republicans is in any significant way due to Trump. Not that I’m defending Trump. The man is, without doubt, a malignant moron. But there are always malignant morons. What led the people who identify as Republicans to not only vote for him but to exalt him above all others? The old guard party leadership, as much as they resisted, turned out to have little influence on the mob. They eventually gave up and ran to the front of it.
And part of the problem is the “reasonable people” on the left and right who are oh so sure that things are not as bad as they seem and that surely blame and credit must go to all in significant measures. But the reality is that the Republican Party has been attracting worse and worse members for a half century. The leadership made a devils bargain in 1964 when they agreed to pretend all prejudice had ended in 1865 in exchange for White Southern votes, and again in 1980 when they agreed to pretend that the prosperity brought about by 50 years of strong regulation of corporations coupled with a robust support of actual innovators was all due to the corporations, in exchange for the total support of those corporations. These were power grabs built on fantasies, but ones that brought harsh, harsh results for the less wealthy. The party leadership became overrun with the types who could embrace such nonsense with enthusiasm and rile up the base with it. And the base became overrun with people whose view of the world never evolved past the unshakeable sureties found at the end of the bar or the end of a bong.
50 years ago both parties had all kinds of geniuses and dupes, and nobles and the corrupt. And the Dems still have that mixture. But the modern day Republicans have Trump. They saw this particular malignant moron and said, “this is our Lord!” There is no need to wonder at their inability to rationally assess danger for themselves, their families or the greater community. If they had that ability they wouldn’t be Republicans in the first place.
I hear what you’re saying, it’s just that I don’t see how it refutes the notion that Trump is a factor driving COVID skepticism (to put it nicely) among Trump voters.
I’m not asking you to prove an absence of an effect. But can you connect what you wrote to COVID specifically?
@MarkedMan: Even if I stipulate everything in your comment for the sake of argument, are you saying that if Trump had said “wear a mask, it’s important” that the GOP masses would not have, on balance, complied? Or if he had demonstrated social distancing, etc?
I see nothing in your post that precludes the fact that the actions of the leader in recent history had a commensurate effect on the mass.
I hope we all realize that it went far beyond,
. trump, and various governors, notably DeSantis and Noem, made considered decisions to do as little as possible about the virus. And to run for re-election on doing as little as possible. And they’ve gone past doing nothing and actively impeded efforts to deal with the virus.
While the two state-level charts shown here are sufficient to make the point about correlation, the original article at the NYT site has county-by-county plots for every state if you scroll down about halfway. The trend within individual states is not nearly as clear, though you would expect it to be a stronger effect. In fact, only a few states (California, Colorado) show a similar pattern internally. In some deep red states like Kansas, the few Biden-voting counties are not the most vaccinated. To me, that suggests that there is something else going on. I’d love to see urban-vs-rural and age-based splits for comparison.
Caveat — the county level plots are vaccinations accomplished, not intent. That makes it hard to separate political shenanigans in distribution from political motivations in vax behavior.
@Steven L. Taylor: Sure, and if I taught my cat to play the piano, it would create world peace.
The Republican base exalts and worships Trump, not some hypothetical Trump-like creature that would have embraced mask wearing. The base worships a mindless monkey. Blaming the monkey for being a monkey sorely misses the point.
I say balderdash. Oranges to kumquats (at least both citrus) comparisons. Here on the Left Coast in WA State, the groups that aren’t getting the vaccine (I’m considered fully vaccinated next week, and I probably had COVID in Jan 2019) are anti-vaxers (mostly in the granola crowd, certainly not Republicans), and minorities, both Black and immigrants (2nd generation Mexican-Americans are getting vaccinated, Central Americans are not despite major outreach). A Black friend (we went out for beers yesterday) has told me of the stuff circulating on local black Facebook Groups that sounds like a Tom Clancy novel, conspiracy. The Tuskagee Syphilis stuff from 70 years ago has been elevated to total distrust today (not saying the government is 100% right, just some Blacks see it as aimed only against them). I see this distrust as a major malignant factor. I’ll also add that some of those “Trump” counties are sparsely inhabited so one family getting infected could skew the numbers.
If you’ve spent a year telling each other the Chinese Flu is a hoax, there’s no way you’re going to be rushing to die with blood clots from some baby-killing vaccine. Trump cultists are capable of impressive cognitive dissonance, but there are limits. Trump created the the trap for himself by downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic for months, but then taking a victory lap for the awesome vaccines he’d personally developed in Warp Speed time. Lots of his followers finally reached the point whose existence we often doubted: the one where they jibbed at swallowing his latest contradictory message.
I’m also seeing some rising resentment among the faithful that Trump let Biden become president. When he had the chance to use the Insurrection Act to declare martial law as Mike Flynn and PillowLoon recommended, he wimped it! They are disappointed and mad; was he really nothing but another swamp creature?
I’m not suggesting the mob is turning against him by any means, but a few of them are pulling at the threads of the legend. We may well see the likes of Carlson and the America Firsters in Congress lead the cult into new, overtly white supremacist aggressions while Trump is gradually relegated to the position of Old Man Who Meant Well but Failed to Deliver.
@Richard Gardner: Balderdash! The number of people I know who have travelled from Seattle to red counties to get vaccine appointments is disturbingly high. The demand isn’t there.
There are also problems with the black communities and other poc communities trusting the vaccine.
There are many groups with vaccine hesitancy or refusal. The Republicans are the biggest of them.
” are anti-vaxers (mostly in the granola crowd, certainly not Republicans)”
The pure anti-vaxxer crowd, the ones who existed before Covid, are fairly well split between the right and the left, but that is a pretty small group. In polls it has been Republican men who are most likely to refuse the vaccine. If you look at the states with the worst records of getting vaccinations done they are almost all red states with blue state being (largely) the ones with better success.
I’m not here to defend Steven – he’s more than capable of that himself. But I have to say that some of the comments on this post seem more akin to an “open forum.” That is, some of the same characters and issues are mentioned across comments (eg, Trump, voters), but the OP has not been engaged with. Or people are arguing something that Steven directly addressed in the OP (eg, “There are, no doubt, other covariates that explain some of the two scatter plots above”)
Thanks for engaging and advancing this discussion. I hadn’t looked at the more micro-level data presented in this article. I will note that the central point (and data) of the OP is consistent with data I’ve seen elsewhere – the convergence across data sources and time intervals, despite the messiness in methods and data, is compelling.
The increased partisan concentration at the more local level would lead me to expect a stronger association. But the lower numbers might temper that.
Me too. I think this dimension (rural/urban) is important, for both partisan and access reasons.
Shenanigans are real, but I think they are less a factor now that distribution is fairly widespread. My gripe with many of these data sources is the lack of consistency and transparency in what is being measured. Hesitancy, intent, jabs (and how many), estimates vs. realized data, etc.
Not only is this a factor when reporting/disseminating the results, but it makes me question whether respondents understand what it is they are being asked to respond to. As you likely know, given your experience, respondents are, um, not always on the same page as researchers.
Well, you can’t teach a cat to play piano and piano-playing doesn’t lead to world peace.
You can see and study how elite signals effects mass behavior.
A different Republican president, or different behavior from Trump, would have led to different outcomes.
I am not sure why this notion is so actively resisted.
I understand that there are lots of reasons to be unhappy with Republicans en masse, but the ongoing need to make them into an alien other (like the whole cult conversation) is based, IMO, more on emotion than anything else.
What I see here and with similar polling and behavior for the last year is consistent with the elite-mass dynamic that social science has long identified. That isn’t a defense of Trump of those who listened to him, but it is a clear human dynamic in action.
@DrDaveT: I almost made mention of the county-level plot which do show, as you note, a more mixed bag.
But I would like to see more data to understand those smaller plots.
@Richard Gardner: I would argue that neither the hardcore anti-vaxxers nor even vaccine-hesitant minorities are large enough groups to affect the overall trend.
But, as usual, I must point out: individual behavior is not the issue here, but the aggregate behavior.
@MarkedMan: Put another way: if your thesis (like the cult thesis) is that those other people are just bad and stupid and they did it to themselves and there is nothing you can do with them anyway. Well, that’s a position.
But then if that is your position all well and good, but then social science analysis is probably a waste of your time, yes?
Or, if your point is that if some variable were different (e.g., who the leader was) matters (because Trump was never going to behave responsibly) then you agree with my basic thesis that leadership does matter and that people as groups don’t make fully independent decisions.
@gVOR08: Those state-level leaders were follwoing the cues of their national leadership.
It is worth noting that there was some variation–while hardly perfect, Governor Ivey of AL took a more strict approach than, say, Gov Kemp in GA.
Yes, that’s the way conversations often go. I don’t think either Steven or James insist that the comments section be limited to either support for, or opposition to, some point they made. Quite often commenters essentially agree and bounce off the OP to widen the discussion. It’s one of the reasons this is such a consistently interesting comment section – smart people offering interesting arguments, sometimes precisely on-topic, sometimes more of a bank shot.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I think you both have a point here.
For starters, Republicans have been engaging in science denial for decades. Things like evolution, global warming, and so on. Adding COVID denial fits right in. But they are selective in what they deny. there’s no big GOP push against GMOs, for instance. And of course, not all Republicans are science deniers, but the trend within the party is there.
We know from audio recording that Trump knew how dangerous COVID was, and that he knew that he knew this. Still he chose to downplay it, and not to lead in preventive measures like distancing and masking. Instead he chose to politicize such measures, especially the need to lock down, and he produced millions of avoidable infections and hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
He carried out a genocide by neglect of american citizens, and his supporters think he’d the bestest ever.
Such people would sooner eat buckets of aquarium cleanser than take a vaccine.
According to the CDC only 55% of the seniors in my county are fully vaxxed.
Yes, I’ve observed and participated in this. I enjoy it. And I learn from it.
Yes, and this is the reason why I’m here.
I responded to each specific comment of yours because I apparently gave the wrong impression earlier. I didn’t intend to play internet hall monitor, insisting that people “STAY ON TOPIC!”
Rather, I intended to point out what I perceived to be an anomaly on OTB. Steven made a few specific points, with data and caveats. Some of the comments essentially said “no, you’re wrong” (directly and forcefully) and then proceeded to talk about other things that were, at best, adjacent to the OP.
This struck me as different than what you stated (and I agreed with) about conversations, widening the discussion, etc. Of course, I could very well be wrong in my perceptions – indeed, I specifically asked for clarification.
And/or perhaps my interest in the specific topic, and my desire to hear from others on it, tipped me into hall monitor mode. Matters not at this point.
@Steven L. Taylor:
No argument there. But the Republican base wanted Trump. Just as my cat is never going to learn the piano, Trump is not capable of understanding rational behavior.
I’m most certainly not arguing that if the Republicans had voted for a different president the outcomes would have been different. But they didn’t. They chose the person they chose willingly and with eyes wide open. Trying to push the responsibility for their own actions off onto Trump makes no sense to me
@Gustopher: Meh… I dunno. I live in a pretty red county (Cowlitz) and it took me about a month to find an appointment available to get vaccinated, and even then it was because of some sort of logjam break connected with the local school districts getting as many teachers jabbed as possible. Over a 2 or 3 day period, we went from one site that didn’t have any appointments available to a reopening of the mass injection site at the neighboring county’s fairgrounds, opening (two days a week for 1000 jabs total/week) at our county fairgrounds, offers of vaccination appointments from 3 major healthcare providers who had only days before announced that they weren’t scheduling appointments, and 2 or 3 additional announcements of community sites that had available appointments. My opportunity to get vaccinated changed literally overnight.
I’d love to see if the correlation in those graphs is even more extreme at the county level then the state level, where the red parts of blue states and the blue parts of red states are no longer regressing to mean.
They deny inconvenient science. If they smoked, they rejected links to cancer. Evolution challenges easy faith in the Bible, global warming threatens their lifestyles, ditto pandemic restrictions and so on. They enthusiaastically embrace convenient science, such as studies that suggest increased CO2 will improve crop productivity or children raised by their natural parents have better outcomes than others. Of course most people are guilty of confirmation bias, but intelligent people acknowledge it and try to correct it. American right-wingers won’t even admit they do it.
Steven, I think on this case it’s you that are tossing SSS analysis aside. Republican voters are not a random group of people. They are self selected. And they are not a group that just go along with the party leadership. In 2015 no one in Republican Party leadership wanted Trump as the party head. It was the base who forced it on them.
My point is very narrow and very specific: the base of the Republican Party, ie those people who proudly declare themselves Republicans, might have responded to Trump saying to wear a mask, but that was never going to happen given who Trump was. My point is specific to Trump. In your original comment you tried to assign blame to him for those very same voters not wearing a mask, I.e. transfer blame for their own actions from their shoulders . and onto Trump. You imagine a hypothetical Trump that would have promoted mask wearing, but there were a dozen other candidates like that in the primary and the voters didn’t want them.
What about other leaders? Well, in the beginning of the pandemic there were a fair number of Republican leaders, especially Govs, who promoted sensible precautions and those voters turned on them. They changed their tune only after realizing their voters won’t accept that.
Sure, there is diversity of opinion in those who lean Republican and even in those that proudly identify as Republican. But the Party has been attracting the “no one tells me what to do!” contingent for two generations. As a social scientist you should ask yourself what affect that has on the clumping of poor personal and communal choices exhibited by the Republicans as a whole.
I keep inserting myself here, which is starting to annoy me (so I can only imagine how you and Steven feel). I’m really trying to understand your perspective. I did a very quick search of past posts on the insurrection, as I thought that might bring some clarity. It did not. Some of your past comments seem in contradiction to your position here. For example, on the 1/28/21 post re the insurrection, you made the following separate comments:
I cite these not to pick a fight with you or anything like that. I also appreciate that one can change one’s mind, and that this can be a noble thing. I am genuinely trying to understand. Perhaps the last clause of the last quote above (“provided they…”) is where the action is, so to speak.
@Mimai: My opinion hadn’t changed. For the sake of simplicity I’ll stick with that 70% of the people just going along. The tone and tenor of any large group come from some portion of the other 30%.
50 years ago Democrats and Republicans had roughly the same number of cranks and belligerent assholes (and of course, of saints and public stewards). But starting around that time, and due to some very unfortunate tactical decisions by the leadership, the Republican Party started to attract more and more of cranks and belligerent assholes and drive away those who thought through consequences and behaved in a more community minded way. This has continued on for two generations until we’ve reached the point that a controlling proportion of that people of this sort.
My argument isn’t that somehow they are getting what they deserve. I don’t want anyone to die. My point is that it is the 30% choosing their leadership, and they are picking the worst possible people. And if despite that those leaders try to do the right thing they are turned on by the base. My point is narrow and not based in morality or justice but merely the fact that speculating about Republican leadership actively promoting masking is a waste of time. The base would not allow such leaders.
So, you are saying that either: 1) Trump was a certainty–that he was inevitable in some almost metaphysical sense, or 2) any Republican who competed for the 2016 nomination would have acted precisely the same way Trump did vis-a-vis the pandemic.
@Steven L. Taylor: I feel like you are trolling me. You said:
Up above, I said this:
Oh, wait. Maybe the problem is that my first sentence is unclear? Here it is more clearly: I believe that the majority of the Republican GOP candidates running in the 2015/16 primary would have behaved more responsibly if they became President. But the primary voters, i.e. the most motivated of the Republican base, rejected those and chose Trump. And that’s why I feel it is not useful to try to shift the responsibility away from the voters and onto Trump and the traditional party leaders, although two different reasons apply to Trump and those other leaders.
In Trump’s case it is because, whatever his propensity for lying, he was totally upfront about how irresponsible and reckless he was. And the traditional party leaders vociferously warned their primary voters not to choose him, but they did so anyway.
In the traditional leader categories, most of them tried to behave more responsibly in the beginning. Their highly motivated voters rejected that and actually turned on them. Eventually the leaders backed down and then ran to the front of the mob, but it was clear they responded to their voters and not the other way around. It is obvious that, more so than any other point in my life, the Republican Party is being steered by their highly motivated voters rather than by the leadership.
If you had made the argument Fox or Rush or a few other organizations could have made a difference in mask wearing or other personal safety, then I would agree with you. But I think it has been made abundantly clear that the Republican base (and not just the highly motivated base) are not going to listen to the party leadership.
As for Trump being inevitable, well, I don’t believe anything is inevitable. But I think you are underestimating a) the power of the highly motivated base in guiding the party, and b) the impact that, for two generations, the Republican leadership (and here I AM talking about the traditional leadership) has both actively and incidentally recruited voters who are both decoupled from reality and highly belligerent.
@MarkedMan: No, not trolling.
But, of course, Rush and Fox were taking their cues from Trump.
And my whole point is that the president, no matter who he is, is the pinnacle of party leadership.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Can I take that to mean we are in agreement as to the inability of non-Trump party leaders to move the needle on personal responsibility and safety?
As for Trump, that does appear to be a fundamental disagreement between us. I think that if Trump had been capable of behaving responsibly, he wouldn’t have been elected. The motivated base chose him because of his irresponsibility and belligerence. For me, it all goes back to my original statement that contemplating Trump as someone who could have embraced personal responsibility is as futile as contemplating what my cat would do if he could play the piano.
One final attempt at analogy. If someone I know joins the “Let’s Go Drink and Drive Club”, and then ends up in a terrible accident, I’m not going to say, “If only the president of the club had warned people not to drink and drive!”
This is the heart of the disagreement.
Also, this conflates, in my view, the role played by the primary electorate and the general electorate as well as the important difference between a candidate and a sitting president.
Another key point of disagreement: for my analysis to be correct it doesn’t matter why Trump is in office.
@Steven L. Taylor: Again, it sounds like we are in agreement as to the non-Trump leadership?
As to your other point, if Trump had been replaced by a body double who promoted mask wearing, then sure, more Republicans would wear masks, especially those in the go-along get-along 70%. But the idea that Trump could have gotten elected in the first place if he was the type of person who talked about personal responsibility is, for me, a nonstarter.
I think we have reached the end of this particular thread in about the same place as usual: we understand each other’s position a bit better but are unlikely to be moved by it.
I’m just catching up, but it looks like you and Steven have put this to bed for now. Nevertheless, I did want to circle back and thank you for taking the time to clarify your position. This was particularly helpful in understanding your position (and previous comments):