US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Chris Christie, never one to mince words, backpedaled furiously on Monday after wading into a national discussion about vaccinations following a recent measles outbreak. During a trip to England, where he is attempting to burnish his foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 run, the New Jersey governor called for “balance” between parental choice and public health in the vaccination debate.

Christie quickly walked back his remarks. His spokesperson clarified that “with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But far more interesting than Christie’s foot-in-mouth moment (which will no doubt become a regular occurrence should he choose to run in 2016) was the response it generated, much of which offered a political framework for the governor’s remarks.

“If his campaign is going to be about kissing up to the radical, conspiracy theory base that's wagging the dog of today's Republican Party, that's up to him and his cracker-jack team,” said a Democratic National Committee spokesperson. CBS News compared his remarks to those of President Barack Obama, who said in an interview with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. …There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not.”

This is exactly the wrong approach. Attempting to shove the anti-vaccination debate into a partisan framework has the potential to increase the number of vaccine-resisters in the U.S., especially when combined with the tendency to ridicule the anti-vaccination position.

Anti-vaccination advocates have long been met with a mix of contempt and ridicule. In 1885, the New York Times derided the city’s new “Anti-Vaccination League,” which had sprung up in opposition to the push for compulsory small-pox vaccinations. “Neither ignorance nor imbecility can justify any person in establishing himself as a distribution centre of pestilence,” the editors wrote. Returning to the subject in 1910, the editors needled anti-vaccinationists as “queer people” representing “unreason at its culmination.” “An emptier grievance than theirs could hardly be imagined,” the editors wrote.

Given the tone of this taunting, it should come as no surprise that one of these “queer people” wrote in to the Times, calling the editorial “unjust and absurd.” Anti-vaccinationists, the letter writer insisted, were “mostly progressive, intelligent and thinking people, who don’t follow the crowd.”

That dynamic of insult and obstinacy is as present today as it was a century ago. As Paul Waldman reported in the American Prospect, how the issue of anti-vaccination is framed affects how vaccine-resisters respond. A study conducted by Dan Kahan of Yale Law School shows that anti-vaccination is not a partisan issue; the few people who believe childhood vaccines are dangerous are just as likely to be liberal as they are conservative.

But after reading an op-ed ridiculing anti-vaccine advocates as “anti-science,” more people moved into the anti-vaccine camp. That is, seeing anti-vaccinationists ridiculed caused some people to become defensive of the anti-vaccine position. (Waldman describes this as “a tribal signal to (some, not all) conservatives” that anti-vaccine advocates were being attacked for resisting the mainstream position, which forged a shared sense of exclusion between the two groups.)

It is not surprising that journalists and partisans reached for the political framework in covering Christie’s remarks. The only reason anyone cares what Christie has to say is because he is a potential 2016 candidate. And vaccines were a political issue in the 2012 GOP primaries, as then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry had issued an executive order requiring HPV vaccines, an action that drew condemnation from social conservatives like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. The issue stayed alive when Bachmann asserted that the HPV vaccine was linked to “mental retardation,” a statement that drew derision from liberals and conservatives alike.

But at the moment childhood vaccination is not a partisan issue, and journalists and partisans should be careful not to make it one. As we’ve seen with issues such as climate change and evolution, nonpartisan scientific questions can quickly become part of political polarization, with dramatic consequences for public policy. For now anti-vaccination advocates remain a tiny portion of Americans. Responsible coverage and reasoned debate will help keep them that way.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report