Pete Buttigieg, Iowa, and Character-Based Voting

I am colossally overdue in finally editing and posting the fifth installment in my supposedly five-installment-long series on character-based voting. Resolution: before the year is out. But here, at any rate, is a passing thought on that same subject, inspired by a New York Times article on Pete Buttigieg. In previous posts on this topic, I’ve tried to flesh out the ways in which character might be relevant to justified voting. An indirect route to that same end is to reflect on a case where it’s mostly (or largely) irrelevant.

As it is here. The person being discussed is Buttigieg; the people discussing him are older Iowans.

“He reminds everyone of their favorite grandson,” said Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic chair in Polk County, which includes Des Moines.

John Grennan, the Democratic chair in Poweshiek County, Iowa, said Mr. Buttigieg was framing his pitch to older voters in a compelling and empathetic way, particularly when he speaks about retirement security and how it affects his parents’ generation.

“I have to think that some older voters see Pete as the son they’d want to have — very smart, respectful of traditional institutions like the church and the military, and relentlessly cheerful and optimistic about what America can be,” Mr. Grennan said. …

Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times in northwestern Iowa, said he thought Mr. Buttigieg was appealing to older Iowans because they were “impressed with his brains” and because he came across as “polite.”

“Castro kind of comes off with fangs every now and again, as he did with Biden and Beto — Buttigieg just doesn’t do that,” he said, a reference to Julián Castro’s debate-stage attacks, which backfired. “I think that probably appeals to older Iowans’ sense of decorum.”

In a brief interview before an event in Storm Lake on Tuesday, Mr. Buttigieg theorized that he was attracting older Americans because they might have “a more generous understanding of what experience means.”

Depending on how charitable or critical one wants to be, this is either a very mixed bag of relevant and irrelevant character-based considerations or a paradigm of character-based voting gone wrong.

Coming across like your favorite grandson is not a good proxy for political virtue unless there’s something about your grandson, whether on policy or character, that would make him a good president. Maybe there is, in which case fine, but familiarity by itself isn’t politically relevant (which goes for candidates of any gender or ethnicity: no one, black or white, male or female, should be supporting Kamala Harris).

Empathy is relevant (and is recognized by social scientists as relevant), but only goes so far; that said, I don’t find references to it objectionable, just inconclusive on their own. Social scientists nowadays worry that empathy is nowadays taken too far; I’m inclined to think it’s not taken far enough. But that’s a debate for another day.

Smart, respectful of traditional institutions, cheerful and optimistic” is a set of knives that cuts in various different directions. Intelligence is obviously relevant, as is a certain sort of moral idealism. Respect for traditional institutions probably can’t be avoided in an aspirant to the presidency–even I wouldn’t expect Americans to elect someone who takes every opportunity he gets to crap on some hallowed tradition–but it’s often overdone and taken much too far. It seems to me that when we start pardoning war criminals and valorizing Confederate political leaders and military officers, perhaps the time has come to dial back a bit on “respect for tradition.”

I find the claim about Castro’s “fangs” offensive and stupid. I don’t particularly like Castro (I found his attack on Biden pompous and over-wrought), but the idea that Castro has fangs while Buttigieg doesn’t, sounds to my ears like a racialized double standard: how it that Iowans remember Castro’s nastiness but not Buttigieg’s? Recall Buttigieg’s fang-displaying (and transparently grandstanding) attacks on Beto O’Rourke and Tulsi Gabbard at some of the Democratic debates. Buttigieg is conveniently white, young, clean-cut, and good-looking, but let’s face it–he’s also a bit of an asshole. That’s not any more conclusive than his (genuine) sense of empathy, but it’s also not that easy to ignore. A desire to take cheap shots suggests moral and intellectual weakness, not strength. In that respect, Buttigieg has distinct character weaknesses as a candidate–not fatal, but not insignificant, either.

This makes one wonder about the meaning of Iowans’ sense of “decorum.” As our current president makes clear, decorum has a certain defeasible value in a president. You don’t want a president who comes across as an unsavory hybrid of Caesar Augustus and Augustus Gloop,* which is what we currently have.

But I’m a little skeptical of the specifically Iowan sense of decorum described in this article. It sounds a little too much like a decorous conversation I recently overheard in the locker room of my local gym. One guy, clearly a Republican, asked another, even more clearly a Republican, what he thought of the Democratic candidates. Clearly channeling Howard Roark, the second one grumbled that he didn’t think of them. Pressed harder by First Guy, the second one finally admitted that “that Buttigieg’s the smartest of the bunch, but I mean, he does have a bit of a…liability.” “Liability?” the first guy asked with feigned innocence, baiting Second Guy into saying what he had on his mind, presumably for the edification of the rest of the locker room. “Well, yeah,” said Second Guy, stammering a bit, hoping not to have to say it. They played charades like this for awhile, then let it go.

The liability, of course, is that Buttigieg is GAY. Clean-cut and military, to be sure, but he does have a HUSBAND, you know.

At this point, Second Guy regaled the first about a house sale he’d recently made to a couple of…well, a you-know-what couple. (Yes, correct: a GAY couple.) Turns out this you-know-what couple paid top dollar for the house,  which put them in Second Guy’s good graces–certainly to be preferred to the other couple who wanted to buy the house, who were (wink, wink) well, you know what they were.  A long pause followed here, as even First Guy figured out that this part of the conversation would have to be redacted as problematic. I mean, some things you don’t say, even in a Trumpian locker room (unless you’re Trump).

Translated out of the Old White Guy Locker Room dialect spoken in the 25th Trumpiest town in New Jersey, I believe this means that this other couple was BLACK. But decorum forbids our saying such things out loud.

Ask yourself, though, how much the moral tone of this pantomime-masquerading-as-a-conversation would have been improved if our interlocutors had just straightforwardly referred to Couple #1 as a bunch of “faggots” and Couple #2 as a bunch of “niggers.” I guess the conversation would have lost in decorum what it gained in clarity. Which is exactly my problem with decorum. Because when people speak decorously, I often don’t know what the fuck it is they’re trying to say. Indecorous speech may be offensive, but to borrow a phrase of Nietzsche’s, that’s what makes it so “offensively clear.” (Believe it or not, Nietzsche used that phrase for Mill.)

The long and short of this little diatribe is two-fold. One is that I need to find the time to finish the goddamn series I started, but easier said than done.

The other is that a defender of the idea of character-based voting has to formulate the thesis so as to restrict character-based voting to those traits of character that are significantly relevant to politics, whether or not they’re relevant to policy or governance as Jason Brennan conceives those things. What has typically made character-based voting so problematic is not the sheer idea or practice of voting for candidates on the basis of character, but of voting for them on the basis of irrelevant traits of character, or relevant ones drastically misconceived. Brennan is absolutely right to say (or imply, really) that the social-scientific literature is full of nonsense of this variety. But it doesn’t follow from that, and isn’t true, that the literature impugns the idea of character-based voting as such. It barely scratches the surface of that issue.

So we’re left with an adequacy condition on a defensible account of character-based voting: don’t just formulate the thesis so as to restrict character-based voting to politics-relevant traits of character; come up with a criterion and/or theory of relevance. We are, I think, handicapped by our conspicuous lack of such a theory. But it’s not as though the absence of a theory entails the absence of the thing. I’m sure I’ll have time to work it all out once the grades are in. All in good time, my little pretties. All in good time.

*In Roald Dahl’s hands as in mine, references to Augustus Gloop are intended as greed shaming, not fat shaming. Similarly, Dahl’s creation of Violet Beauregarde was meant to lampoon inconsiderateness-as-exemplified-by-gum-chewing, not gum chewing per se.

11 thoughts on “Pete Buttigieg, Iowa, and Character-Based Voting

  1. Dear Erfan,

    I disagree with your spelling of Buttigieg’s name. (Perhaps you were thinking that he has steep sides and a flat top?)


    • I often think of Nietzsche’s line about Mill (“insulting clarity,” in the Kaufmann translation, which I generally prefer to the Hollingdale) when my students are struggling with Mill and clearly failing to be insulted.


          • I didn’t think that he was grandstanding in his disagreement with Tulsi Gabbard. He appeared to be vehement in his disagreement with her. You and I both are both more in her camp in regard to foreign policy, but you can be easily offended by any attack on your favorite candidate. Are we talking about the same moment here? I didn’t think he was displaying any kind of “fangs” when he disagreed with her.

            There is no comparison between Castro’s despicable attack on Biden and Buttigieg’s disagreement with Gabbard. Castro’s attack was driven by blatant agism and probably played well with the younger generation, a generation that loves to think of themselves as “woke” while they constantly complain about “old” people as if that descriptor in and of itself should tell us something about a person. Beyond that, Castro got what Biden said wrong and misrepresented what was said. Buttigieg, on the other hand, simply disagreed with Gabbard. I don’t see the comparison here unless you can tell me specifically what he did that was fang-worthy and grandstanding. What moment are you talking about here because perhaps I missed it?


            • I’m referring to this exchange:


              I agree with you about Castro on Biden, but Buttigieg evaded Gabbard’s criticism, mischaracterized her criticism, mischaracterized his own view, and managed to give the impression that Gabbard’s criticism was somehow just crazy: “outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics.” Outlandish by the standards of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris? That’s grandstanding. There was nothing outlandish about her criticism.

              Then the claim: “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is seriously proposing to invade Mexico?” Please. That’s gaslighting. No one seriously thinks that because no one ever said it. He just introduced that obvious red herring to distract attention from what she did say. The issue is not invading Mexico, but sending troops there. He did say that we should send (additional) troops there. It made him sound very tough at the time to say it. But is it really necessary to send troops there? We have lots of troops all over the place. Is that necessary? Tulsi Gabbard seems to be the only candidate capable of asking that obvious question, but the minute she asks it, people either want to change the subject or accuse her of something insane.

              Buttigieg, faced with direct criticism about his troop proposal, suddenly wants to backpedal it while suggesting that criticism of it is over-the-top. Then he starts mumbling about the military cooperation with Mexico that already exists. But his proposal wasn’t intended as a continuation of the status quo. It was intended as a new proposal (as far as the Democrats were concerned), even though it just echoed a proposal of Trump’s.

              He certainly takes a more reasonable tone here, but these claims are flim-flam. There is no difference between Trump’s proposal and Buttigieg’s. Trump wasn’t proposing to invade Mexico, either. Bear in mind that both Buttigieg and Trump were making this proposal of additional troops as a response to the killing of an American family in Mexico. That’s tragic, but why does it call for a new, more militaristic policy? Trump at least admits that he wants a more militaristic policy. Buttigieg wants exactly the same policy but can’t admit that it’s the same and can’t admit that it involves an escalation. The honest thing to say to Gabbard would have been that a troop deployment to Mexico is an escalation, but a needed one. What he does instead is to pretend that he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

              There’s no point in debating whether Castro’s anti-Biden comment was worse than this comment of Buttigieg’s. My point is, Buttigieg is no different from Castro in resorting to cheap, diversionary rhetoric to evade legitimate criticisms. Like Castro, he has an asshole streak, and the Iowans have a blind spot if they can’t see it.


  2. I actually think they have good chemistry and would make a good team. In the original video she quoted, he talked about ending the war on drugs (and he gets points from me on that if he means it). I’d vote for the two of them (okay, she can be President and he can be Vice-President). How does that sound?
    Personally, I find him much less offensive than Castro. Castro insulted Biden and anyone over the age of 50. Perhaps you see him as a poor debater but I’m not inclined to give up on Buttigieg just yet. But, I prefer her policies over his so that’s why he’ll have to be VP. 😉


    • If Buttigieg and Gabbard were on the same ticket, running against Trump, I would vote for them regardless of which of them was President and which VP. Frankly, if Buttigieg and Hugo were on the same ticket, running against Trump, I’d vote for them on the same premise.


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