Character-Based Voting FTW

Lorenz Kraus is (or was) a candidate for US Senate, based in Troy, New York. My knowledge of his candidacy is based on about ten minutes’ Internet search after he sent me a crank email cc’d to Counter-Currents Publishing, a white nationalist website, among other recipients. Ten minutes is all it took to figure out that Kraus was a crank, and all it would have taken to figure out not to vote for him.

How? Because Kraus’s entire campaign is based on anti-Semitism of a wild, overt, over-the-top sort. No need to hash through the details; once was enough for me. If you don’t want to take my word for it, spend maybe ten minutes scrolling through his Twitter feed below (underneath the separator), or whatever else comes up in a Google search. If it takes you more than ten minutes, you’re doing it wrong.

Anti-Semitism is a character flaw. So the reason for not voting for Kraus (or dealing with him at all) derives entirely from his obvious defects of character. His anti-Semitism would remain a character-flaw even if he never acted on it.

I don’t know anything about Kraus’s views on “policy.” Nor do I need to know. Here is a clear case where character>policy as far as political deliberation is concerned. And though Kraus is a fringe candidate, it doesn’t follow from that fact alone that cases of this kind are too numerically insignificant to take seriously. You’d have to count them to know that. I’ve read the empirical literature on character-based voting, including the irrelevant red herring literature that Jason Brennan cites in his inept discussion of the issue in The Ethics of Voting and elsewhere. No such count exists. And given how papers are published in political science, it’s unlikely that anyone has the pragmatic scholarly incentive to do the counting, at least in the near future. (If trends change, they might, but right now, they don’t.)

You might, if you insisted that “policy>character” in politics, try to construct an argument to the effect that Kraus’s calls for “war” against the Jews are a policy recommendation; hence that fact about policy (rather than facts indicative of bad character) entails that no one should vote for Kraus. But that’s weak tea.

For one thing, calls for “war” in politics are metaphorical. To interpret them properly, you need to know something about the speaker. Among the things you need to know are facts about the speaker’s moral character, and with it, his intentions. With that in place, you can figure out what the speaker really means by a “war against X.” Otherwise, it’s hard to know. Most calls for “war” are not calls for war at all, and have no clear policy implications.

For another, imagine that tomorrow, Kraus deleted all references to “war against Jews” from his Twitter feed and other online profiles. In that case, the policy recommendation would be gone. Would its absence change anything? No. The “policy recommendation” is not what does the normative work here. Character does. The deletion wouldn’t change anything for anyone who had seen the original reference to the “war against Jews,” and shouldn’t change anything for anyone who sees the obvious, obsessive anti-Semitism in Kraus’s campaign minus that particular reference.

So I infer that a call for “war against the Jews” is more obviously an indication of bad character than it is an indication of bad policy preferences. No one really knows what Kraus means by a “war against the Jews.” That’s part of the problem with people like him. They’re so full of shit that you can’t hold them to anything, or trust them about anything–a character flaw that nullifies the policy positions they hold, not a policy position that indicates the defective nature of their character, or provides a good basis for predicting the expected outcomes of their would-be time in office.

Obviously, a “war against the Jews” is immoral, whether treated as indicative of character flaws, or indicative of a genocidal policy. So is the use of that phrase, regardless of what one means by it. But as I’ve said, most such claims are metaphorical. So imagine that Kraus’s idiosyncratic idea of a “war against the Jews” (or anyway, the first step in his “war”) is the elimination of foreign aid to Israel, followed by a consistent policy of opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Many American Jews (and American politicians) would regard such a policy as tantamount to a declaration of war against the Jews (they’re as metaphorical about the use of that word as anyone). Of course, it isn’t. It’s a perfectly justifiable set of policy prescriptions.

Though I would never call such a policy “warfare,” much less warfare against “the Jews,”  I happen to agree with it in principle: the United States Government should drastically reduce or eliminate foreign aid to Israel, especially aid of a military nature, and put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinians. It should also flout the Israeli view on Iran’s nuclear policy, and re-join the nuclear agreement we had with Iran before the Trump Administration. Such a policy or set of policies is greatly preferable to (virtually the opposite of) the policies adopted by the current Senators from New York.

Yet, one wouldn’t be justified in voting for Kraus even if one had certain knowledge that the preceding policies (regarded ex hypothesi as justified) would occupy all of his energies for his entire first term in office. The defects of his character nullify any policy prescription he could make, no matter how justified. In voting for him, we’re voting directly for a person, not directly on policies. The candidate is the conduit for expected policies. The policies are a proxy for expected consequences. The expected policies and their expected consequences are at present unknowns. The candidate’s character, in this case, is known with near certainty. The nature of the certainty about character, at least in cases like this, trumps any claim to “knowledge” or “value” about the unknowns–whether about policies or about the consequences of those policies.

Indeed, in this context, sufficiently bad character could in principle be a reason for voting for Kraus’s opponents, ignoring their problematic policy positions, ignoring even the defects of character that motivate those positions, and focusing exclusively on the particularly egregious nature of Kraus’s defects of character, relative to the garden-variety defects of the incumbents.

In short, character-based voting FTW. Again.

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