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The GOP hates vaccine mandates but loves vaccines. Here's why.

Vaccine mandates go against small government? Maybe — but is a pandemic the time to lean into that?

The Senate on Thursday voted to repeal President Joe Biden’s mandate that private employers require their workers to either get vaccinated against Covid-19 or be regularly tested for it. The bill won’t pass in the House, and Biden has threatened to veto it even if it did — but the GOP is still calling the resolution a win.

It may be a short-term victory, but it’s supporting a losing argument. The vaccine mandates already in place have been shown to work in boosting vaccination rates, including the mandate covering federal employees. And as many people have pointed out, the Republican senators who demonize the mandate for the private sector are themselves already vaccinated.

This rejection of a federal vaccine mandate is actually one of the most ideologically consistent stances that the Republican Party has held in a decade.

That may seem like another bit of blatant hypocrisy from the GOP. But for a party that’s more notable for abandoning its moral foundations in pursuit of naked power grabs, this rejection of a federal vaccine mandate is actually one of the most ideologically consistent stances that the Republican Party has held in a decade. It’s unfortunate, though, that the party has chosen to find its conservative, small-government ideals only in relation to a pandemic that is still killing 1,100 Americans a week.

The justification for this seeming dissonance, at least in their framing, comes down to personal choice. It’s how someone like Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who is himself a physician, can declare that he’s against the mandates and star in a PSA promoting vaccination against Covid. "I support the vaccine. I want people to get the vaccine. I was getting my parents in line to get their booster shot and encourage people to do it," Marshall told Politico last week.

The disdain for top-down social engineering that position embodies is baked into conservatism’s roots. David Brooks, in an essay published Wednesday at The Atlantic, praised the traditional foundations of conservative political thought and the way it focused more on molding individuals through community than government diktat:

Burkean conservatism inspired me because its social vision was not just about laws, budgets, and technocratic plans; its vision was about soulcraft, about how we build institutions that produce good citizens—people who are moderate in their zeal, sympathetic to the marginalized, reliable in their diligence, and willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.


The conservative seeks to defend this wonderful heterogeneity from the forces of bigness and the centralizing arrogance of rationalism—to protect these little platoons when government tries to perform roles best done in families, when the federal government takes power from local government, when big corporations suck the vitality out of local economies.

As Brooks touched on there, it was once gospel in the conservative movement that the closer to its citizens a government is, the more just its rulings, with local governments producing better outcomes. This trust in smaller communities over federal oversight is how Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, justified signing on to the GOP’s resolution:

Tester said he had repeatedly heard from small businesses "about the negative effect the private business vaccine mandate will have on their bottom lines and our state’s economy," while Manchin argued that the government "should incentivize, not penalize, private employers whose responsibility it is to protect their employees from Covid-19."

But, as Brooks argues, the “purpose of the right became maximum individual freedom, and especially economic freedom, without much of a view of what that freedom was for, nor much concern for what held societies together.” That shift has played out in the coalitions that the intellectual conservative movement has latched onto over the years, drowning out the center-right and leading up to a Republican Party that has now centered former President Donald Trump as its nucleus.

What Brooks doesn’t fully grapple with, though, is that that shift occurred not by accident but purposefully over time. The Republican Party drew in the remnants of the Dixiecrats in the Southern shift of the 1960s as reactionaries fumed over advancements in civil rights. It made a pact with the Religious Right and evangelical movements to support the biggest exception to its small government credo: banning all abortions. And it has backed Trump through his authoritarian excesses and his debt-increasing spending alike. The intellectual underpinnings of the party, on shaky ground for years, has all but collapsed.

Eschewing mandates and otherwise undermining the pandemic response is one way to help prolong this current state of Covid purgatory and keep the attacks on Biden coming.

All of this, though, admittedly does something that the GOP may not deserve at this point: It takes their arguments about ideology at face value. Because the hard, cynical truth is that the worse Biden performs on all matters of governance, the better the odds are that Republicans recapture control of Washington. Low vaccination rates and the resulting economic malaise that the continued pandemic inspires thus hurt Biden and boost the GOP politically. Eschewing mandates and otherwise undermining the pandemic response is one way to help prolong this current state of Covid purgatory and keep the attacks on Biden coming.

The arguments that Marshall and other Republican senators present against mandates are interesting philosophically, but, again, they don’t change the fact that this is a bad time to forget the part where conservatism needs people “willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.” States and local governments, the entities that many Republicans would theoretically prefer to issue these decisions, have tried the carrot approach over the stick, and vaccination rates still remain stagnant. And when those local governments have tried to mandate masks, to say nothing of vaccination, the GOP’s most “conservative” governors have raced to overturn them.

In a world where the overwhelming majority of Covid deaths these days are among the unvaccinated and the continued spread of variants like omicron can threaten to overwhelm hospital systems, the time for emphasizing choice has long since passed. It is to the detriment of society as a whole that disease be allowed to spread unchecked. You would think that this, too, would be a conservative belief.