Conspiracy theorists who discount the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and other public-health mandates are often portrayed in the media as right-wing. That’s for good reason: a not-insignificant number of the most vocal conspiracists tie their ideology firmly to President Donald Trump and the right-wing MAGA movement he inspired. Videos of angry red-state demonstrators pushing back against school boards and other local authorities in public hearings, and repeating outlandish, baseless misinformation, have made the rounds in traditional media.
But in the hills of western Massachusetts and in neighboring regions of upstate New York, a traditionally left-leaning area, these theories also hold purchase. I grew up in the region and started my journalistic career there. I’ve been arguing with residents, many of whom are close friends, about vaccines for more than a decade. But despite my efforts, and the efforts of many others, a stubborn resistance to reality has set in here, and only deepened since the pandemic began. Late last month, Do We Need This?, a group of anti-vaxxers and vaccine-mandate opponents, held a “festival” in the region to raise money for their cause, suggesting a $20 donation for entry. They shared the proceeds with other national vaccine-skeptic groups, including NY Stands Up!, the Informed Consent Action Network, and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense.
Anti-vaxxers in the Taconics-Berkshires region include local organic farmers, members of homeschooling and alternative-education communities, anti-war hippies, and the occasional alt-right conspiracist. The anti-vax faction here has its roots in the left-libertarian politics of the Back to the Land movement, which flooded the area with the disaffected urban upper-middle class in the 1970s and ’80s. That influx of hippies and students, most of whom came from New York City, brought with it a political belief in naturopathy and a mistrust of institutional authority.
Today, these crunchy anti-vaxxers are coalescing into a loose political group that is targeting COVID health measures and restrictions as indicative of governmental overreach and medical tyranny. They’re also, predictably, falling down far-right rabbit holes. For more science-minded people who have roots in the region, seeing old friends turn to outlandish, anti-science conspiracy theories can be disheartening, Melissa Pourpak, who grew up in the area and has a doctorate in genetics and molecular biology, told me. “It is shocking and saddening to me that such illogical statements are often heard in a place that used to be known for being a whole lot smarter than that,” Pourpak said. “Did all the progressives leave?”
The progressives didn’t all leave, of course. But some have found themselves drawn to ideas that the national media tend to associate with conservatives. Enid Futterman, a local journalist and Bernie Sanders supporter whom I know through Facebook, is one example. She told me she finds the idea that COVID is caused by 5G cellphone towers more believable than person-to-person transmission. “I’ve read both sides, and that’s what makes sense,” Futterman said. “I’m not saying I’m right; I’m just saying that’s what makes sense to me.”
I’ve cut off contact with several other people from the area, with whom I once spoke at least semi-regularly, because of their views on vaccines. One former friend, who now lives in California, fully embraced the anti-vax narrative more than a year ago, after more than a decade of falling for ever more unbelievable, thinly sourced conspiracy theories. Today he posts on social media incessantly about “studies,” never peer-reviewed, that he contends prove his conspiracist beliefs correct. Other people I grew up with have drifted to the far-right, with anti-vax rhetoric a common thread to their ravings. Even one of my oldest friends is anti-vax, reasoning that the antibodies he got from contracting COVID-19 earlier this year will protect him better than a vaccine (I haven’t cut off contact with him).
Related podcast: Where does our bodily autonomy end and our duty to others begin? Listen to The Experiment, a show about people navigating our country's contradictions.
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that anti-vaccine sentiment is now a left-wing idea. A mistrust of governmental authority mixed with a series of decades-old conspiracy theories about the dangers of modern society produced the core of the modern anti-vaccination movement, Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. But perhaps the wider ideological appeal of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. Traditional left-wing concerns about corporate influence mesh well with anti-vax fears that the pharmaceutical industry pushed federal regulatory agencies to sign off on the COVID-19 vaccines before they were truly ready. Skepticism about the safety of genetically modified food can easily blend into worries about mRNA vaccines. And an affinity for naturopathy and organic produce isn’t too far removed from rejecting the industrialization of modern medicine in the form of a shot.
As opposition to vaccines becomes a more partisan issue, however, progressives who are vaccine-hesitant will face a decision. Do they remain on the left, even as the politics around the conspiracy theories they embrace lead them out of their ideological comfort zones? Or do they dispense with progressivism in favor of a view of the world that holds that public health is subordinate to personal choice? In the hills where I grew up, those caught in the middle are trying to avoid confronting the contradictions.
Futterman told me she sees no contradiction between her views on vaccines and public health and her lefty Democrat political positions, citing the “open-minded” approach of liberalism. When I asked her whether her politics could survive her rejection of vaccines—which a majority of progressive politicians and leaders have been vocally in favor of—she said that pigeonholing her ideology was an error.
“I don’t like those labels,” Futterman said. “I do support Bernie Sanders.” She didn’t see “any disconnect between” her support for progressive values and her embrace of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, she added. “I do see a disconnect between me and a lot of Democrats, which is sort of shocking, but true.”