If it were possible for abrupt shifts in political messaging to induce whiplash, millions of Republican voters would be wearing neck braces this week. After months of deliberately cultivating skepticism about the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, a number of conservative talking heads and elected officeholders have done a 180 on the issue this week.
Fox News has led the way. First morning show (Fox & Friends) co-host Steve Doocy urged viewers to get vaccinated: "It will save your life." Then, on Monday evening, prime time host Sean Hannity begged those watching to "please take COVID seriously — I can't say it enough ... I believe in the science of vaccination." By Tuesday night, even the highest-rated and most obsessively vaccine skeptical host on the network, Tucker Carlson, appeared to waver in his efforts to cast doubts about the efficacy of getting the shot.
What gives? Did the powers that be at Fox circulate a memo over the weekend directing its on-air talent to stop encouraging its viewers to resist protecting themselves from a deadly disease?
Perhaps — though if so, it was a memo distributed far more widely than the offices of the cable-news network. Because over the last couple of days, the list of prominent Republican politicians and leading conservative pundits to suddenly get vocal on the issue is long. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell implored Americans to get vaccinated "as quickly as possible." House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise got vaccinated himself, after holding out for months, and announced that the shots are "safe and effective."
So what's going on here? Maybe the surge in new cases of the Delta variant has Republicans spooked enough that their commitment to 24/7 demagoguery has momentarily wavered. Maybe arm-twisting by the Biden administration (mostly behind the scenes) is having an effect. Or maybe Tom Nichols' elegantly simple explanation, focused on political self-interest, is the answer. On Tuesday night, the anti-Trump, former Republican commentator tweeted, "Apparently, Republicans are starting to realize that a Republican-driven re-ignition of the pandemic might be bad for Republicans."
Whatever the explanation, something has shifted on the right. Let's hope it makes a difference in boosting rates of vaccinations.
Editor's note: This article was updated after publication to remove a statement by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who has regularly encouraged vaccinations. We apologize for the error.