Joe Biden has fallen short of his goal to inoculate 70% of American adults with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 4th. He hasn’t missed the mark by much–67% of American adults have received at least one vaccine dose. However, a new, more transmissible COVID variant known as the Delta variant is running rampant in the United States, and the vaccination rate has dropped to an average of about 870,000 shots a day, down dramatically from a high of about 3.3 million shots a day in April. While the vaccines have proven remarkably effective against the virus (including against the Delta variant), the slowing of the vaccination rate calls into question the United States’ chances of reaching herd immunity anytime soon.
A look under the hood of the vaccination statistics reveals a disturbing situation. Twenty states did hit Mr. Biden’s 70% goal, but all of them voted for him in the 2020 presidential election. In addition, 21 of the 25 states with the highest overall vaccination rate (under-18s included) voted for Mr. Biden. In other words, there is a massive, apparently partisan, gap in vaccination numbers. Such a fact is a stark reminder of the dangers of political polarization, and the reality that despite Mr. Biden’s promise to lower the temperature and bring “unity” to a divided country, that aspiration remains well out of reach.
This also sheds interesting light on the role that science and facts play in politics. Educated liberals tend to view adherence to “truth,” be it scientific or with respect to social phenomena, as being, in many ways, the end goal of politics. If we can all live in a world where the truth is acknowledged, the thinking goes, we will all be measurably better off. In abstract, this might be the case, but in practice the current vaccine statistics suggest that it’s anything but. Perception, after all, is everything.
Conservative elites like Tucker Carlson are surely acting irresponsibly when they cast doubt on the efficacy or safety of vaccines, but simply taking for granted a belief in the inevitable triumph of scientific truth over falsehood is hardly politically productive. Similarly, it is neither sensible nor moral to cast those who do not share such beliefs as ignorant rubes unworthy of our time. It is eminently human to be taken in by those whose words we view as authoritative, regardless of our political party.
Rather, what is needed is a better rhetorical and political strategy for using science as an instrument of politics. Vague platitudes such as Mr. Biden’s repeated refrains of “truth over lies,” and “listening to the science” on the 2020 campaign trail provide little to no guidance for a future in which science plays a meaningful role in the crafting of public policy. Politicians don’t need to abandon the distinction between what is true and what isn’t, but they should recognize the limits of leaning on “truth” as a political tool.
The dispute over vaccines is but one among many. The looming threat of climate change, for example, stands out as another issue where science, situated in a vacuum rather than in a political and rhetorical context, is insufficient for achieving what needs to be done to avert catastrophe. The goal of politics is a decent life for all citizens, not the absolute authority of truth. Perhaps the latter might induce the former, were it heeded everywhere and always, but it should not be confused for the ultimate end goal of politics. In politics and policy, science is not good because it is true, but because it can–utilized prudently and persuasively–help us build a better world.