A funny thing happened in the culture wars the other day. After taking steadily more extreme anti-vaccination positions over many months, leading rightwing commentators and Republican politicanss suddenly jumped ship, announcing that everyone should be vaccinated as soon as possible.
It would be encouraging to imagine that this shift was the result of a recognition of the surge in cases and deaths among the (predominantly Republican) unvaccinated population, and of the dangers posed by the Delta variant. But that explanation seems implausible, given that the same politicians and commentators watched half a million Americans die and opposed every conceivable measure that might reduce the death toll.
It seems even more unlikely that this shift is a response to the efforts of the Biden Administration to pressure organizations like Fox News into a more sensible position. The whole raison d’etre of the rightwing media is to ‘own the libs’. Rejecting such pressure and boasting about it would be par for the course.
A more plausible explanation is that Republicans have realised that, at least at the national level, this is a culture war that they can’t win, or even play out long enough to mobilise voters for an election win. The critical problem is that the vaccination debate no longer fits the standard culture war playbook in which an easily demonised outgroup is imposing their way of life on ordinary (that is, white, heterosexual and Christian) decent Americans.
Campaigns of this kind can naturally be presented in terms of the preservation of liberty not liberty in any abstract or universal sense, but the specific liberties of the dominant group to do things as they have always done them, whatever the effects on others.
As the proportion of American adults who have received at least one shot creeps towards 70 per cent, the proportion likely to join a fight against vaccine mandates declines.In particular, the old, who are normally the most reliable recruits for the culture war, are also the most vulnerable to Covid-19, with the result that their vaccination rates are close to 100 per cent
A final, but essential, factor is that Donald Trump has stayed on the sidelines. The development of vaccines was one of the few genuine success stories of his Administration, and he has shown himself unwilling to undermine it. As a result, Republicans who break ranks with the dominant anti-vax position are unlikely to suffer the consequences that would result from appearing on Trump’s list of enemies.