How Some Parents Changed Their Politics in the Pandemic – The New York Times
ORINDA, Calif. — They waved signs that read “Defeat the mandates” and “No vaccines.” They chanted “Protect our kids” and “Our kids, our choice.”
Almost everyone in the crowd of more than three dozen was a parent. And as they protested on a recent Friday in the Bay Area suburb of Orinda, Calif., they had the same refrain: They were there for their children.
Most had never been to a political rally before. But after seeing their children isolated and despondent early in the coronavirus pandemic, they despaired, they said. On Facebook, they found other worried parents who sympathized with them. They shared notes and online articles — many of them misleading — about the reopening of schools and the efficacy of vaccines and masks. Soon, those issues crowded out other concerns.
“I wish I’d woken up to this cause sooner,” said one protester, Lisa Longnecker, 54, who has a 17-year-old son. “But I can’t think of a single more important issue. It’s going to decide how I vote.”
Ms. Longnecker and her fellow objectors are part of a potentially destabilizing new movement: parents who joined the anti-vaccine and anti-mask cause during the pandemic, narrowing their political beliefs to a single-minded obsession over those issues. Their thinking hardened even as Covid-19 restrictions and mandates were eased and lifted, cementing in some cases into a skepticism of all vaccines.
Nearly half of Americans oppose masking and a similar share is against vaccine mandates for schoolchildren, polls show. But what is obscured in those numbers is the intensity with which some parents have embraced these views. While they once described themselves as Republicans or Democrats, they now identify as independents who plan to vote based solely on vaccine policies.
Their transformation injects an unpredictable element into November’s midterm elections. Fueled by a sense of righteousness after Covid vaccine and mask mandates ended, many of these parents have become increasingly dogmatic, convinced that unless they act, new mandates will be passed after the midterms.
To back up their beliefs, some have organized rallies and disrupted local school board meetings. Others are raising money for anti-mask and anti-vaccine candidates like J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate in Ohio; Reinette Senum, an independent running for governor in California; and Rob Astorino, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York.
In interviews, 27 parents who called themselves anti-vaccine and anti-mask voters described strikingly similar paths to their new views. They said they had experienced alarm about their children during pandemic quarantines. They pushed to reopen schools and craved normalcy. They became angry, blaming lawmakers for the disruption to their children’s lives.
Many congregated in Facebook groups that initially focused on advocating in-person schooling. Those groups soon latched onto other issues, such as anti-mask and anti-vaccine messaging. While some parents left the online groups when schools reopened, others took more extreme positions over time, burrowing into private anti-vaccine channels on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
Eventually, some began questioning vaccines for measles and other diseases, where inoculations have long been proven effective. Activists who oppose all vaccines further enticed them by joining online parent groups and posting inaccurate medical studies and falsehoods.
“So many people, but especially young parents, have come to this cause in the last year,” said Janine Pera, 65, a longtime activist against all vaccines who attended the Orinda protest. “It’s been a huge gift to the movement.”
The extent of activity is evident on Facebook. Since 2020, more than 200 Facebook groups aimed at reopening schools or opposing closings have been created in states including Texas, Florida and Ohio, with more than 300,000 members, according to a review by The New York Times. Another 100 anti-mask Facebook groups dedicated to ending masking in schools have also sprung up in states including New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, some with tens of thousands of members.
Renée DiResta, a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has studied anti-vaccine activism, said the movement had indoctrinated parents into feeling “like they are part of their community, and that community supports specific candidates or policies.”
Their emergence has confounded Republican and Democratic strategists, who worried they were losing voters to candidates willing to take absolute positions on vaccines and masks.
“A lot of Democrats might think these voters are now unreachable, even if they voted for the party recently,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a Democratic political adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Nathan Leamer, who worked at the Federal Communications Commission during the Trump administration and is now vice president of public affairs at the firm Targeted Victory, said Republican candidates — some of whom have publicly been against Covid vaccine mandates — were better positioned to attract these voters. He pointed to last year’s surprise win in Virginia of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, after he gained the support of young parents by invoking their frustration over Covid-driven school closures.
Even so, Mr. Leamer said, these parents were a wild card in November. “The truth is that we don’t really know what these voters will do,” he said.
‘I Found My People’
Natalya Murakhver, 50, once considered herself a Democrat who prioritized environmental and food sustainability issues. Sam James, 41, said he was a Democrat who worried about climate change. Sarah Levy, 37, was an independent who believed in social justice causes.
That was before the pandemic. In 2020, when the coronavirus swept in and led to lockdowns, Ms. Murakhver’s two daughters — Violet, 5, and Clementine, 9 — climbed the walls of the family’s Manhattan apartment, complaining of boredom and crying that they missed their friends.
In Chicago, Mr. James’s two toddlers developed social anxiety after their preschool shuttered, he said. Ms. Levy said her autistic 7-year-old son watched TV for hours and stopped speaking in full sentences.
“We were seeing real trauma happening because programs for children were shut down,” said Ms. Levy, a stay-at-home mother in Miami.
But when they posted about the fears for their children on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, they were told to stop complaining, they said. Other parents called them “selfish” and “whiny.” Alienated, they sought other like-minded parents online.
Many found a community on Facebook. New groups, mostly started by parents, were rapidly appearing on the social network, with people pushing for schools to reopen. In California, 62 Facebook groups dedicated to reopening or keeping elementary schools open popped up late last year, according to a review by The Times. There were 21 such groups in Ohio and 37 in New York. Most ranged in size from under 100 members to more than 150,000.
Facebook, which is owned by Meta, declined to comment.The company has removed groups that spread misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines.
Ms. Murakhver joined some Facebook groups and became particularly active in one called “Keep NYC Schools Open,” which petitioned the city to open schools and keep them open through Covid surges. Last year, she became a group administrator, helping to admit new members and moderating discussions. The group swelled to 2,500 members.
“We had the same cause to rally behind,” Ms. Murakhver said. “We couldn’t stand by and watch our children suffer without their friends and teachers.”
In Chicago, Mr. James joined two Facebook groups pushing Chicago schools to reopen. In Miami, Ms. Levy jumped into national Facebook groups and discussed how to force the federal government to mandate that schools everywhere reopen.
“I found my people,” Ms. Levy said. While she had been an independent, she said she found common ground with Republicans “who understood that for us, worse than the virus, was having our kid trapped at home and out of school.”
Into the Online Rabbit Hole
The Facebook groups were just the beginning of an online journey that took some parents from more mainstream views of reopening schools toward a single-issue position.
In Chico, Calif., Kim Snyder, 36, who has a 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, said she was a longtime Republican. After her children had to stay home in the pandemic, she helped create a Facebook group in 2020 for Chico parents committed to reopening schools full-time.
At the time, her local schools had partially reopened and children were learning both online and in-person, Ms. Snyder said. But frustration over hybrid learning was mounting, and schools were repeatedly shut down when Covid surged.
By mid-2021, Ms. Snyder’s Facebook group had splintered. Some parents were satisfied with the safety measures and hybrid learning and stopped participating in online discussions, she said. Others were angry that they had not returned to a prepandemic way of living.
Ms. Snyder counted herself in the latter category. She channeled her discontent by attending in-person protests against mask requirements at public schools. At the rallies, she met activists who opposed all types of vaccines. She invited some to join her Facebook group, she said, “because we were all fighting for the same thing. We wanted a return to normalcy.”
The focus of her Facebook group soon morphed from reopening schools to standing against masks in schools. By late last year, more content decrying every vaccine had also started appearing in the Facebook group.
“I started to read more about how masks and vaccines were causing all this damage to our kids,” Ms. Snyder said.
Scientific advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccine shots are considered safe for young children. But Ms. Snyder said she became convinced they were wrong. She browsed other Facebook groups too, to meet more parents with similar beliefs.
Activists posted statistics about Covid vaccines in those Facebook groups. Often that information came from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a database maintained by the C.D.C. and the Food and Drug Administration, which allows anyone to submit data. The C.D.C. has warned that the database “cannot prove that a vaccine caused a problem.”
Yet in a September 2021 post in Ms. Snyder’s Facebook group, parents pointed to VAERS figures that they said showed thousands of vaccine-induced deaths.
“This is absolutely dangerous!” one parent wrote. “This hasn’t been really tested and is NOT NECESSARY….OMG!”
Another post titled “If you want to really know what is going on, read this” linked to an article that falsely claimed vaccines could leave children sterile. The article was originally posted to a Facebook group named Children’s Health Defense, which supports an organization founded and chaired by the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
That tipped some parents into repudiating every vaccine, from chickenpox to hepatitis, and against vaccine mandates of any kind. A right to self-determination so that parents could decide what vaccines their children took was paramount.
“For the first time, I began to look at the statistics and questioned whether all the vaccines I had previously given my kids made sense,” Ms. Snyder said.
Soon she joined explicitly anti-vaccine Facebook groups that activists linked to, including ones supporting Children’s Health Defense. In those forums, parents seethed at the authorities, arguing they had no right to tell them what to do with their children’s bodies. Activists posted other links to Twitter and Telegram and urged parents to join them there, warning that Facebook often removed their content for misinformation.
One link led to a Telegram channel run by Denise Aguilar, an anti-vaccine activist in Stockton, Calif. Ms. Aguilar, who speaks about her experiences as a mother on social media and on conservative podcasts, also runs a survivalist organization called Mamalitia, a self-described mom militia. She has more than 100,000 followers across her TikTok and Telegram channels.
Early in the pandemic, Ms. Aguilar posted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus’s origins and questioned the effectiveness of masking. Now her messaging has changed to focus on political activism for the midterms.
In June, Ms. Aguilar encouraged her Telegram followers to vote for Carlos Villapudua, a Democrat running for California State Assembly who voted against a bill that would let children aged 12 and older get vaccinated without parental consent.
“Patriots unite!” wrote Ms. Aguilar, who didn’t respond to a request for comment. “We need to support freedom loving Americans.”
From Talk to Action
By late last year, the talk among parent groups on Facebook, Telegram and Instagram had shifted from vaccine dangers to taking action in the midterms.
Ms. Snyder said her involvement against vaccines would “100 percent determine” whom she voted for in November. She said she was disappointed in Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat who encouraged masking and promoted the coronavirus vaccines.
In New York, Ms. Murakhaver, who previously supported candidates who favored strong environmental protection laws, said she would vote based solely on a candidate’s position on mandates on all children’s vaccines.
The Facebook group she helped operate, Keep NYC Schools Open, has shut down. But Ms. Murakhaver remains close with activists she met through the group, chatting with them on Signal and WhatsApp. While her children were vaccinated against measles and other diseases when they were babies, she now opposes any mandate that would force other parents to inoculate their children.
“I’m a single-issue voter now, and I can’t see myself supporting Democratic Party candidates unless they show they fought to keep our kids in school and let parents make decisions about masks and vaccines,” she said, adding that she prefers Mr. Astorino for New York governor over the Democratic incumbent, Kathy Hochul.
While states including California have deferred bills requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students attending public schools, many parents said they worried the mandates would be passed after the midterms.
“If we don’t show up and vote, these bills could come back in the future,” Ms. Snyder said.
At the Orinda demonstration in April, more than 50 people gathered outside the office of Steve Glazer, a Democratic state senator to oppose coronavirus vaccine mandates.
One was Jessica Barsotti, 56, who has two teenagers and was at her first rally. Previously a Democrat, Ms. Barsotti said elected officials had let her family down during the pandemic and planned to cast her ballot in November for candidates who were against vaccine mandates.
“If that is Republicans so be it. If it is independents, fine,” she said. “I’m not looking at their party affiliation but how they fall on this one issue. It’s changed me as a person and as a voter.”
Israel diplomats in Canada strike against Netanyahu overhaul
Israeli diplomats in Canada have joined a strike against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Eli Lipshitz confirmed that mission in Ottawa is closed in accordance with a decision by Israel’s largest trade union, Histadrut.
The consulates in Toronto and Montreal are also closed and on strike.
“In accordance with the decision of the labour union (in) Israel, that civil servants are unionized under, all missions abroad are currently on strike and are closed,” Lipshitz said in a statement.
Histadrut spokesman Yaniv Levy says missions are providing only emergency services.
Workers from across a range of fields went on strike Monday in a bid to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu to scrap the overhaul plan.
The planned overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.
Departing flights from the country’s main international airport have been grounded, universities have shut their doors and the main doctors’ union says its members will also walk off the job.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.
How Trump’s indictment interlude has changed America’s political landscape
One of the axioms that commentators in the United States live by is that a year is an eternity in American politics. In one of his trademark overhauls of the principles of politics, Donald Trump has shrunk eternity to a week.
As a result, the tumultuous week since the former president disclosed that a New York grand jury was preparing charges against him has been transformed from an operatic overture into an indictment interlude.
And in that interlude – one in which the themes have changed markedly – several of the principal elements of the political and legal dramas surrounding Mr. Trump have been altered.
New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg meets with his grand jury again Monday to examine Mr. Trump’s role in presenting a porn star with US$130,000 in hush money after an alleged sexual encounter.
By announcing earlier this month that he expected legal action against him to proceed to the next, consequential level, Mr. Trump set in motion two contradictory developments. He fortified his profile as a victim even as he baked in the assumption that a former occupant of the White House was about to be indicted. In a week’s time, the astonishing became the assumed.
And in that brief time much of the American political landscape was transformed. Here are some of the effects of the indictment interlude:
The emergence of a new Republican litmus test
For months, Mr. Trump’s putative rivals for the party’s presidential nomination have performed an awkward rumba with the 45th president, their subtle side-to-side movements providing them with distance from him. Now the apparent imminent indictment has forced them into a gavotte, the 18th-century kissing dance that in its 21st-century version required Mr. Trump’s opponents to deplore Mr. Bragg’s legal tactics and to dismiss the notion of indicting him for actions after an alleged sexual incident as nakedly political and patently revengeful. All of these announced and probable candidates have conformed to this pressure.
The development of an uncomfortable consensus among Mr. Trump’s supporters and his opponents
The criticism from the Trump corner of conservatism over indicting Mr. Trump for the alleged payment to Stormy Daniels was unremarkable; his base marches in lockstep with him.
But the qualms among progressives were notable; the gathering concurrence in that corner of liberalism is that, in the spectrum of Trump crimes – debasing democracy, trying to overturn the 2020 election, inciting insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 – the Daniels episode is peripheral.
Moreover, the progressives argue, indicting Mr. Trump for a relatively insignificant action has the potential of removing the power of the legal action that may follow, growing out of investigations in Washington (Justice Department examinations of his harbouring of classified government documents) and Georgia (inquiries into his efforts to “find” sufficient votes to swing the state from Joe Biden’s column to his).
The changes in the architecture of the 2024 presidential election
For months the GOP nomination fight has taken the character of a Sunshine State struggle between Palm Beach (site of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat) and Tallahassee (site of the governor’s mansion where Ron DeSantis resides, in part because of the boost of the 2018 gubernatorial endorsement from Mr. Trump himself).
For weeks, Mr. Trump had taunted Mr. DeSantis, calling him an ingrate, assailing his character, labelling him “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The Florida Governor’s political potential – he led several public opinion polls – became a Trump preoccupation. Mr. DeSantis’s failure to engage Mr. Trump was seen for a time as prudent if not brilliant.
In recent days Mr. DeSantis bowed to party pressure and joined the criticism of the New York District Attorney. At the same time doubts about Mr. DeSantis’s restraint grew as Mr. Trump made discernible gains in the polls, consolidating his position as the Republican Party leader and nomination front-runner. The gap in the RealClearPolitics running average now is 15 percentage points.
Caveat: The Iowa caucuses, the first test in the GOP nomination fight, are more than nine months away. Many swings in political support are inevitable. At this point in the 2008 presidential race, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a commanding 24-percentage-point lead in the Republican race and senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had a 14-point lead in the Democratic race, according to the USAToday/Gallup poll. Neither became the nominee, and the distant second-place candidates (senators John McCain and Barack Obama) advanced to the autumn general election.
The even further solidification of Mr. Trump’s profile as a defiant warrior against conventional political comportment
Mr. Trump’s recent steps into once-forbidden rhetorical territory promoted the New York Post, the onetime Trump ally owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., to label him, in a tabloid front-page headline, as “deranged.”
Saturday night Mr. Trump told a raucous crowd in Waco, Tex., that “when they go after me, they’re going after you.” Earlier in the week he threatened “death and destruction” if he is indicted, an unsettling reprise of his remarks before the Capitol insurrection. He labelled Mr. Bragg, who is Black, as an “animal,” calling him a “degenerate psychopath.”
Responding to Republican congressional efforts to investigate his investigation Saturday, Mr. Bragg said, “We evaluate cases in our jurisdiction based on the facts, the law and the evidence.”
The German Greens and the ills of green party politics
Earlier this month, the European Union was expected to vote on a law banning the sale of combustion-engine cars by 2035. But the legislation, which had been months in the making, was blocked by the German government which had initially supported it.
The about-face was yet another major disappointment for environmentalists coming from a government, which paradoxically includes a green party as a coalition partner.
While it was the liberal Free Democratic Party pushing for this position within the coalition in order to get a concession favouring the car industry (which it succeeded in doing), this development demonstrated yet again how the Greens are struggling to push through an adequate climate agenda in Germany.
Just several weeks earlier, the leadership of that same Green Party watched on as the German police brutally cleared climate protesters trying to prevent the razing of the village of Lützerath to make way for the expansion of a lignite coal mine.
Worse still, that leadership participated in striking a deal with the coal mine’s owner, energy company RWE, which happens to be Europe’s single largest carbon emitter. They claimed the deal was good for the climate, as supposedly it was going to accelerate phasing out coal and thus help meet Germany’s climate goals.
Studies, however, have shown that this is not the case; if Germany is to meet the 1.5C temperature increase limit set in the Paris Agreement, which the German government has signed and said it will abide by, then it must stop burning coal within the next two or three years, not 2030.
Last summer, the Greens also worked to open liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals with contract terms of at least 15 years. The party leadership justified their actions with the “gas shortage” following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but many of us environmentalists wondered why we need such long-term gas contracts that run way past the period necessary to expand renewable energy production to meet demand.
Looking at the policies the Green Party is supporting these days, one may think that it lost its ways and succumbed to realpolitik when it came to power at the federal level in 2021. But these “Einzelfälle” (isolated cases) – as the party leadership likes to frame them – of striking deals and making compromises on the climate agenda are not isolated at all.
Even before the Green Party joined Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, we were used to their leadership taking decisions that directly clashed with the party’s own political platform.
In the summer of 2020, for example, I was among the hundreds of protesters who protested the clearing of part of a 250-year-old forest in the German state of Hesse to make way for a highway.
Although the Green Party was not involved in the decision to build the road, as part of the Hesse state government, it could have blocked the project on account of violations of the German and EU water law. But it chose not to.
The Green Party’s minister of transport in Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir, justified the decision to go forward with the construction by saying that it was taken democratically and was not the party’s responsibility.
Indeed, there is quite a track record of “isolated cases” in the Green Party’s recent history.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that even with a green party in power, Germany is nowhere near fulfilling its plan to reduce emissions in order to meet the 1.5-degree target. According to Wolfgang Lucht, a sustainability science professor at Humboldt University, Germany is currently planning to emit about twice more CO2 than it could afford to within its Paris Agreement commitments.
The disappointment and frustration that many climate activists are feeling are hard to describe. Perhaps it suffices to say that after Lützerath, offices of the Green Party were attacked, occupied and decorated with “traitors” graffiti.
Many climate activists like myself believe that the top leadership of the party have grown too pragmatic and lost sight of their original goals of promoting climate justice. Indeed, it is difficult to see how green party politics in their current form can lead the way in ending Germany’s and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and take the radical climate action needed to avert a climate apocalypse.
The question many of us are asking is whether we should give up on green politics, stop voting for the party and focus our energy on the climate movement, which is unrestrained by narrow partisan interests and corporate pressure. Some members of the Greens already have made that choice by leaving the party.
But, as emotions run high, it is important to think strategically. If we give up on the Green Party, wouldn’t we lose an important tool – one of just a few at our disposal – to affect change at the political level? And wouldn’t that play into the hands of the “enemy” – the big corporate polluters?
It is clear that green parties are unlikely to follow the same radical agenda as the climate movement. They face harsh dilemmas when in power, as they navigate the complexities of policymaking and balance the demands of their voters with the realities of governing in a coalition.
But that does not mean that we should give up and stop pressuring them to live up to their electoral promises. And it does not mean that we should close our eyes to the fact that many within the party itself disprove of striking deals with big corporations and succumbing to pressure from various lobbies.
Young members of the party, called the “Green Youth”, have been speaking up and criticising the leadership for their controversial decisions. They seem quite eager to change the course the party has taken and have been conspicuously present at climate protests, including at Lützerath.
“We wouldn’t be Green Youth if we didn’t put pressure within the party and in parliaments – that’s why we’re taking to the streets”, Luna Afra Evans, the Berlin spokeswoman for the youth branch of the Greens, said in an interview in January, as the organisation mobilised its members to go protest in Lützerath. She called the deal with RWE “a rotten compromise” and said that a “significant part of the Green Party does not support it”.
There has been open dissent even within the higher ranks of the party. MP Kathrin Henneberger, who ran for office on a platform of saving Lützerath, was the only member of the party to abstain during the vote on the resolution to demolish the village.
“Since Lützerath, debates have been conducted differently. Many have recognised that when the climate movement draws a red line, this must also be taken seriously. Nor must we allow the interests of fossil fuel companies like RWE to prevail,” she told me in a private exchange.
As much as we are disappointed and frustrated with the Green Party, we should not give up on it. We need to recognise that there is potential for radical change from within the party’s own ranks and encourage it. We also need to continue scrutinising the party’s policies and hold them to account whenever they veer away from their own declared environmental goals.
Indeed, if the climate movement, strong as it has been in Germany, continues to build pressure from the outside and from within the party, there is a good chance that we can prevent other “isolated incidents” from happening.
As we battle the formidable enemy that corporate polluters are, we must learn from them. As the noose around their fossil fuel profits tightens, they have employed every tactic, every opportunity to fight back; and they have definitely not given up on trying to influence global and national politics.
We, too, should be strategic in our fight. While I absolutely understand the frustration and have felt it myself many times over the past years, I believe that we still have a long way to go before we achieve real climate action. And until then, we will need to work strategically with all the allies we can get, even if they are sometimes swayed by realpolitik.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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