How Some Parents Changed Their Politics in the Pandemic

on Aug2
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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.

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 Twit