Giving Compass' Take:

• Peter Beinart argues that low vaccination rates and other concerning trends in the U.S. are due to a combination of historical amnesia and lack of trust in the government.

• How can funders work to increase historical understanding and help the government to earn public trust? How do these factors influence issues that you work to improve? 

• Learn more about falling trust in government in western democracies

Why are a growing number of American parents refusing vaccines—in the process welcoming back a disease that decades ago killed hundreds of people a year and hospitalized close to 50,000?

One answer is that contemporary America suffers from a dangerous lack of historical memory. Most of the parents who are today skipping or delaying their children’s combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine don’t remember life with measles, much less that it used to kill more children than drowning does today. Nor do they recall how other diseases stamped out by vaccines—most prominently smallpox and polio—took lives and disfigured bodies.

Our amnesia about vaccines is part of a broader forgetting. Prior generations of Americans understood the danger of zero-sum economic nationalism, for instance, because its results remained visible in their lifetimes. When Al Gore debated Ross Perot about NAFTA in 1993, he reminded the Texan businessman of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised tariffs on 20,000 foreign products—prompting other countries to retaliate, deepening the Great Depression, and helping to elect Adolf Hitler. But fewer and fewer people remember the last global trade war. Similarly, as memories of Nazism fade across Europe and the United States, anti-Semitism is rising. Technology may improve; science may advance. But the fading of lessons that once seemed obvious should give pause to those who believe history naturally bends toward progress.

Although polls suggest that conservatives are slightly less accepting of vaccines than liberals are, a 2014 study found that distrust of government was correlated with distrust of vaccines among both Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, the best predictor of someone’s view of vaccines is not their political ideology, but their trust in government and their openness to conspiracy theories.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a plunge in the percentage of Americans who trust Washington to do the right thing most or all of the time—which hovered around 40 percent at the turn of the century and since the 2008 financial crisis has regularly dipped below 20 percent—has coincided with a decline in vaccination rates. In 2001, 0.3 percent of American toddlers had received no vaccinations. By 2017, that figure had jumped more than fourfold. Studies also show a marked uptick in families requesting philosophical exemptions from vaccines, which are permitted in 16 states.

Read the full article about historical amnesia and lack of trust in the government by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic.