We treat the anti-vaccine crowd as if they were an aberration. But they aren't outliers. They are the natural endpoint of two very strong and very American tendencies: distrust of all authorities and hierarchies; and, the belief that we are each responsible for ourselves.
There is a facet of the American ideal that sees each person as a sovereign individual, not just in charge of herself, but as intelligent, as well-informed, as wise, as good as the next person. Hobbes saw this in our English forebears, when he noted that every person is satisfied with the intelligence he has, since he is certain that he is as intelligent as everyone else. You see it in the almost universal negative reaction to being told that someone is smarter; rare is the American who will accept that this might be the case.
Perhaps this characteristic isn't peculiar to Americans, but there is something special in the way that this distrust of authority leads to skepticism of science and the positing of individual authority here. We have no need of authorities. Each of us—every politician so quick to say he is "not a scientist," for example—is as much an expert as those with years of training, with decades of research. Climate scientists point to anthropogenic climate change and mean global warming. So what? It's snowing. And, I don't see that it's warming. So, my feelings and experience trump the data and the research. Biologists are unable to find any evidence of danger in eating GMOs—leave aside other concerns people might have. It doesn't matter. I just know there has to be something wrong with eating these Frankenfoods. There has to be. There's no evidence whatsoever that there's any link between vaccination and autism. The only paper to support such a link has been thoroughly discredited. Its author has lost his medical license. But, though I lack any scientific training, though I cannot identify any plausible causal link, though I have no idea at all about the purported causal mechanism or the etiology of autism, I am certain that there is. And, the ample evidence that I put my own child at risk of serious illness or death—my mom told me a harrowing story of watching a child die of pertussis forty years ago—can never trump my maternal or paternal gut instinct that there just must be some connection.
Who are the experts to claim authority over my own "knowledge" and experience? I am an American.
But, you say, not vaccinating my children also puts others' children at great risk? Well, I'm not responsible for them. They are their parents' responsibility, just as my children are mine. We are a country of individuals and families.
You don't have to be a fan of Ayn Rand or to talk about "makers" and "takers" to have imbued the idea that, in America, everyone is responsible for herself and those closest to her, but no one else. After all, the American God helps those who help themselves. You see this is debates about healthcare. You see it in discussions of the safety net and proposals that put having a life-plan before being fed. You see it in the inane way people describe themselves as have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. You see it in parents withdrawing their children from the public schools to charters and private schools, ignoring the effects on the children who are left behind.
And, you see it in the women I watched on the news the other night trying to explain her decision not to vaccinate her children. Well, she actually refused to explain this decision, since she doesn't even owe others an explanation. Other people, she explained, are invested in their decisions and opinions, and she has her own. But, she needs to make decisions for her children. Risks to others, other children, played no part in her discussion. They don't really exist as any part of her moral calculation.
But that's not an aberration. That is quintessentially American.