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Opinion | E.J. Dionne: Greg Abbott's vaccine demagoguery: Welcome to 'lethal partisanship'

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E.J. Dionne

WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's reckless, politically motivated ban on all covid-related mandates will lead to many more needless deaths in a state that has suffered too many already. But the Republican's extremism could have one salutary effect: It will underscore the need to make the moral case for the urgency of vaccine requirements.

Abbott did not even try to disguise the extent to which his executive order is political showmanship aimed at inspiring the Trumpist right. Its language reeks of political advertising.

"In yet another instance of federal overreach," Abbott declared, "the Biden Administration is now bullying many private entities into imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, causing workforce disruptions that threaten Texas's continued recovery from the COVID-19 disaster."

Actually, the bully here is Abbott. He is going after not only President Joe Biden but also private companies desperate to protect their employees and customers. Conservatives, apparently, are all for free enterprise until they are not.

Among the companies defying Abbott's interference with their decision-making are Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, headquartered in Fort Worth. In another signal of just how out there Abbott's move is, consider that the Greater Houston Partnership, a business group whose members include Exxon Mobil and Chevron, came out against the governor's order, saying it "does not support Texas businesses' ability and duty to create a safe workplace."

When a Texas governor moves to the right of Big Oil, it's the end of the world as we know it.

It's no secret, of course, that our country is in political crisis -- witness the continued refusal of so many Republicans to say Biden won the 2020 election and the Republican-led election subversion efforts in numerous states. But at least as dispiriting is our inability to have a sane conversation about how best to beat back a virus that as of Wednesday had killed more than 717,000 Americans.

In 2019, political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason coined a term for our situation: "lethal partisanship." "Lethal" turns out to have been no exaggeration.

It is, in theory, possible to have a civil argument over vaccine mandates, where they are most appropriate, and whether there should be carve-outs for those with conscience objections. Biden sought to avoid requiring vaccinations earlier this year, hoping that persuasion and the overwhelming evidence of the vaccines' efficacy would move Americans to get their shots.

Most of us have. As of Tuesday morning, 56.5% of the population -- nearly 188 million people -- were fully vaccinated. But that is far short of what's needed to neutralize the virus, and rates of full vaccination vary wildly by state: In Wyoming, 42.6% of the population is fully inoculated, compared with 70.3% in Vermont. The costs of low vaccination rates are measured not only in deaths but also in the inability of hospital systems to keep up. This threatens covid patients and those with other conditions.

What the federal government, states, localities and private companies are doing in demanding vaccinations is in line with a long U.S. history of vaccine mandates. George Washington mandated smallpox protections for revolutionary troops in 1777. The Supreme Court upheld compulsory vaccination laws in 1905.

Those inclined toward communitarian ways of thinking naturally turn to the obligations that each of us has to all of us. We should get vaccinated so we don't infect others, and requirements that we do so are designed to protect our communities. Thus did Pope Francis describe getting vaccinated as an "act of love."

But vaccine mandates also have support from some libertarians, based on their core principle that, yes, we should be free almost all of the time to do what we want; we are not free to inflict harm on others.

"Citizens do not have the right to turn themselves into biological weapons that expose innocent bystanders to undue risks of harm," Jessica Flanigan, a libertarian philosopher at the University of Richmond, wrote in 2013. "Compulsory vaccination relies on a relatively uncontroversial moral premise that it is wrong to harm people and that coercion can be used to some extent to prevent harm."

Unfortunately, the words "relatively uncontroversial" are like a foreign language in today's climate.

The anger of the growing vaccinated majority favors Biden in any political showdown with the likes of Abbott. So does the desire of businesses, small and large, to get the economy back to normal. "It's straightforward," White House virus coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday. "People want to work, shop and visit where they feel safe." Thus will many Democrats welcome the fight that Abbott and the far right have started.

The dispiriting part is that, while we already knew polarization was a problem, we didn't expect it to kill us.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator for NPR and MSNBC. His latest book is “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.”

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