“It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” declared Ronald Reagan at the 1968 Republican National Convention.
By the time he became president 12 years later, this idea – that individuals can be trusted to act wisely and should be held accountable when they don’t – was firmly entrenched in Republican rhetoric. Reagan even included “personal responsibility” in his list of America’s bedrock values, right up there with faith in God, honesty, and caring for others.
But those days are long over – and the conservative movement’s nationwide anti-vaccination effort proves it. Political parties are large; there are plenty of responsible Republican voters, and a handful of responsible Republican politicians. But the conservative movement no longer argues that individuals are better than the government at promoting the greater good. Instead, the movement encourages its members to make objectively selfish, harmful choices, then uses the tools of government to shield them from accountability when they do.
Republicans have become the party of personal irresponsibility.
In most cases, it’s difficult to say with certainty that a given choice is “responsible.” But getting a Covid vaccine is not one of those cases. Getting vaccinated costs individual Americans essentially nothing – the vaccine is free, widely available, and proven safe and effective.
The costs to society from Americans not getting vaccinated, however, are enormous. A larger unvaccinated population means more deadly infections among the unvaccinated and immunocompromised; it means more taxpayer dollars spent on hospitalizations, and higher health insurance premiums for everybody; it means far less certainty for small businesses desperate for the pandemic to be over so they can re-open for good.
Many people have gotten the vaccine out of self-interest: they’d rather not get Covid. But even for those unconcerned by the health risks of contracting the disease, the vaccine presents a straightforward choice: take an action that benefits one’s community, or reject the idea – expressed so frequently by Reagan – that supporting one’s community is something individuals ought to do? As far as personal responsibility goes, it’s the perfect test.
Which is why it’s shocking that the conservative movement has gone to such great lengths to ensure its supporters fail that test. Fox News has hosted a parade of discredited anti-vaxxers. At both the state and local level, Republican lawmakers have invited conspiracy theorists to testify before their committees, amplifying their messages. Even Mitch McConnell, who to his credit has personally encouraged constituents to get their Covid shots, has refused to publicly condemn the misinformation rampant in conservative media or speak out against his fellow Republican lawmakers, like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green, who encouraged Americans to “Just say no” to the vaccine.
The conservative movement hasn’t just adopted pro-choice rhetoric when it comes to vaccines. It’s gone further, encouraging people to make the choice that is clearly harmful to society at large. It’s debatable whether those who remain unvaccinated because of misinformation are to blame for trusting the wrong sources. But it’s undeniable that the right-wing media and lawmakers peddling misinformation are acting recklessly – and that the entire country is worse off as a result.
Republican politicians are also using the tools of government to undermine accountability, or even transparency, when it comes to vaccinations. Texas passed legislation forbidding businesses in the state from requiring proof of vaccination. Montana prohibited employers, including medical facilities, from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment. Under pressure from Republican legislators, Tennessee’s health department suspended outreach to children about not just the Covid vaccine but all childhood vaccinations.
In this new, topsy-turvy definition of individual liberty, some Americans are free to put their neighbors at risk, while other Americans are barred by the government from trying to keep their own employees, customers, and even children safe. Deciding whether to get the vaccine or remain unvaccinated is technically still a choice – but the Republican party is doing everything it can to make choosing the latter easier than choosing the former.
America is now reaping what the Republican Party sowed. Covid cases are soaring and deaths are up, leaving the CDC with no choice but to recommend reimposing mask mandates in much of the country – mostly to protect the unvaccinated from the potential consequences of their actions. The vaccine is the clearest example yet that the conservative movement is actively promoting, and celebrating, selfish choices.
But vaccines aren’t the only example of the party of personal irresponsibility at work. Republican lawmakers have either remained silent about or defended Donald Trump’s history of tax cheating, and recently rejected increasing IRS enforcement, ensuring that other wealthy Americans are more likely to get away with not paying taxes, too. The Republican Party once promoted “responsible gun ownership” – now, Republicans in Texas and Tennessee have passed laws allowing concealed-carry handguns without permits or training. Missouri’s Republican governor promised to pardon Mark McCloskey, an attorney who threatened peaceful Black Lives Matter marchers with a firearm, if he were convicted of a crime. McCloskey has since parlayed his dangerous display of recklessness into conservative celebrity and a Senate run.
Perhaps most alarmingly, a culture of irresponsibility and unaccountability has taken root among Republican elected officials. Our democratic process gives politicians enormous leeway to make choices that harm democracy: they can pass voter suppression laws; remain in office amid a prostitution scandal; or attempt to cover up an armed anti-government insurrection. But just because officials can do all these things doesn’t mean they should. And it is far from guaranteed that American democracy will survive if they do.
Republicans, particularly Washington Republicans, like to tell themselves that they remain the party of Ronald Reagan - of small government, lower regulation, and faith in the individual. But it’s time for voters and politicians alike to acknowledge the new reality of American politics: the disagreement between the parties is no longer over how best to promote the general welfare; it’s over whether promoting the general welfare is worth doing at all. The Republican Party’s fall from goodness, its devolution from a party that extolled personal responsibility and accountability to a party that extols reckless disregard for one’s fellow Americans, is one of the most important trends shaping the country.
And as we’re too often reminded these days, reversing that trend is a matter of life and death.
David Litt is an American political speechwriter and New York Times bestselling author of Thanks Obama, and Democracy In One Book Or Less. He edits How Democracy Lives, a newsletter on democracy reform