Updated at 8:06 p.m. ET on July 20, 2021.
Conservatives are not necessarily vaccine-hesitant, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, but most vaccine-hesitant Americans are conservatives. Resistance to vaccines has been concentrated among Republican voters, and led by GOP politicians and various leading lights in conservative media.
And that makes the past day or so one of the stranger stretches in recent pandemic politics.
“Just like we’ve been saying, please take COVID seriously. Enough people have died. We don’t need any more deaths. Research like crazy. Talk to your doctor,” Fox News’s Sean Hannity said last night. “It absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated.”
Hannity’s “just like we’ve been saying” is doing a lot of work. He reportedly called the pandemic a “hoax” early on, and his colleague Tucker Carlson continues to cast doubt on vaccines, including on yesterday’s program. But Hannity is not alone now. His statement comes as several other major conservatives are speaking up too.
Steve Doocy, one of the anchors of the network’s popular morning show Fox & Friends, has been advocating for vaccines, and tangling with co-hosts over it. “If you have the chance, get the shot,” he said yesterday. “It will save your life.”
Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, who has been a vocal proponent of vaccination all along, also told his followers today on Twitter, “Get vaxxed. I did. My wife did. My parents did.” Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, a confidant of Donald Trump, today published a column praising the current president: “Six months into his administration, President Joe Biden should be applauded for making a huge dent in the COVID pandemic.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who had conspicuously declined to get a shot, offering dubious excuses, announced today that he finally got vaccinated this weekend.
These exhortations have often come in the service of political arguments. In the same breath as his plea for seriousness, Hannity suggested that people who have been infected do not need to be inoculated, misconstruing a scientific study. Shapiro made his point in the midst of a case against lockdowns and mask mandates. Meanwhile, plenty of other major right-wing figures remain quiet or worse.
Nonetheless: The shift in tone among these high-profile voices is sharp and sudden enough to merit notice. A few conservatives have long been outspoken in favor of vaccinations. A group of Republican members of Congress who are medical doctors produced a pro-jab PSA this spring, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been as fiery about COVID-19 precautions as he is about anything. He warned again today, “These shots need to get in everybody’s arm as rapidly as possible or we are going to be back in a situation in the fall, that we don’t yearn for, that we were in last year.”
Fox News, in particular, has been a hive of vaccine skepticism, though. Carlson, the network’s leading personality, was initially a lonely voice in taking the pandemic seriously, but has since become a merchant of doubt. This editorial tack comes even though owner Rupert Murdoch was quick to get his own shot in December. Fox has also reportedly encouraged, though not mandated, employees to disclose their vaccination status, even as Carlson has likened vaccine passports to Jim Crow laws on air.
Why the shift is happening now, and so abruptly, is not clear. One possible factor is that, as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported, “there have been regular, high-level conversations between the White House & Fox News regarding pandemic & vaccine coverage.” Fox quickly denied the report.
Another possibility is the emergence of a new COVID-19 surge, fueled by the Delta variant. Scalise, like some of the others, cited Delta as a reason to get vaccinated now. The more infectious strain has led to rising case numbers in the United States, overloaded hospitals in some states with low vaccination rates, and reinstated lockdowns around the world. Fear about Delta is spreading around the U.S., and it was blamed for a swoon in the stock market yesterday. The Delta variant is also spreading particularly in red states, which lag more liberal areas in vaccine uptake. Yet widespread death and suffering among conservatives and Republican voters has not inspired such a unified response.
Whatever the reason, the shift is welcome. Researchers such as Brendan Nyhan have noted that trusted messengers can be effective in breaking down vaccine hesitancy. As my colleague Daniel Engber writes, vaccination rates have tumbled “because we’re running out of people who think vaccines will save their lives.” Although the number of Americans who have received or want to receive a vaccine has risen somewhat, opinions also seem to have hardened over time. Such blunt messages might have been more influential this spring. Even if audiences heed the call now, it will take time for their vaccines to have an effect.
Meanwhile, the most trusted messenger of all for many on the right remains mostly on the sidelines. Trump has sought to claim credit for the development of the vaccines, but has not devoted the energy to boosting them that he has to (for example) spreading disinformation about the 2020 election. And though the former president did get vaccinated, he declined to take his shot publicly, a gesture that experts thought could have instilled faith among his supporters.
That’s one of many missed opportunities for a more effective COVID-19 response in the United States. But even if the effect of this week’s messaging from conservatives is small, it’s enough to elicit a sentiment you won’t read in The Atlantic often: Sean Hannity is right.
This article has been updated to clarify that Ben Shapiro has long been a proponent of vaccination.