The Campaign Trail as a Carnival of Virtues
Imagine you are asked to evaluate candidates who apply for a job. The person who gets the job will interact with you a lot. What would be more important to you, that the person is friendly, honest, and overall a good person or that the person is competent, educated, and good at what they are doing?
Or imagine your adult child is bringing home a new partner, would you rather have that person to be honest and trustworthy or have a great job and a great salary?
Now, consider the next prime minster of Britain. Do you want to give the job to a person that has good intentions toward you and people you like, or do you want somebody who is fantastically efficient in implementing their policies?
Ideally, you want each of the people mentioned so far to have both but that is not how life often works. If you have to choose, then, what do you feel is the lesser evil (or the greater good)?
If you are like most people, the choice is easy: you strongly prefer a person that is benevolent toward you and yours over a person who lacks such compassion but is highly competent. And this is also true when we evaluate political candidates. Sure, both morality and competence are important, but morality dominates the picture. Morality here refers to whether you perceive the political candidate to be partial towards the well-being of you and others you care about. Just imagine how devastating it would be to have an evil, yet brilliant leader, and you will happily live with a nice, yet dull mind at the helm.
That we all turn into virtue ethicists when evaluating political candidates — constantly trying to infer the character of the candidates by their actions — helps to explain a host of strange obsessions in the period before the general election, and the sometimes surprising nature of revelations that impact the general vote.
But life as virtue ethicists is not easy, since the candidates are aware of the importance of their moral signals, and are therefore constantly try to convince us of their benevolent character.
During human evolution, we had to be vigilant all the time so that we would not trust the wrong person. And the wrong person had to improve their deception skills in order to take advantage of us, a constant back-and-forth. Similarly, each time Theresa May tries to win over the working class, The Guardian immediately reminds its readers that this is fake, and working people can’t trust her. And when Jeremy Corbin assures the voters that he does love Britain, do those voters listen? Politicians’ good intentions towards us can rarely be communicated directly.
So what are the behaviours that convince us that a political candidate is truly on our side? Eating bacon sandwiches and chips. The press is obsessed with what and how candidates eat food on the campaign trail. Ed Milliband didn’t look perfectly comfortable when eating a pork sandwich during the last general election, something that not only made it on tabloid front pages, but was also taken by The Sun to show that he can’t be trusted to be Prime Minster either. The Guardian tried the same when Theresa May didn’t look pleased enough while eating chips at the seaside. Theoretically, nobody should care about the food preferences of political candidates or the way they devour fast food. Yet, we do. And we do so because if a person doesn’t eat the food we like, then they are probably not “one of us.”
Food preferences are harder to fake than campaign promises are to break, so we prefer the diagnostic value of the bacon sarnie over the in-depth analysis of the party manifesto.
And there are many other behaviours that cause more harm to a political candidate than the consequences of the action should warrant. Brian May (the curly-haired guy from Queen) recently wrote that nobody should vote for Theresa May because she wants to allow a free vote to decide whether fox hunting should be permissible again in Britain. Fox hunting is not the biggest problem the UK is facing currently, and yet, it alone swings Brian May’s vote. He goes even further: “Any MP who supports such a return to cruelty is not a decent one.” A policy of fairly little importance should lead people to form a “coalition of the decent” to stop Theresa May, he suggests. Brian May sees her liberal stance on fox hunting as a reliable indicator of the prime minister’s (bad) character. Or how best to infer if a candidate is racist or sexist? Political correctness prevents (most) misogynist politicians from saying outrageous things, but they often reveal a lot when talking about their wives. Describing a wife as the best decision one has ever made tells me more about his likely feminist views than any well-honed campaign speech.
So how can a politician use this carnival of virtues for winning a general election? As a political candidate, your primary focus should be to convince the most people possible of your benevolence towards them, while simultaneously undermining the perceived benevolence of your opponents. Don’t waste too much time on competence. All recent attempts to ridicule the competence of a political candidate, ranging from “she doesn’t know where Russia is” to “he contradicts himself all the time” were not successful.
The same is true if you are trying to convince people that the other candidate is not playing by the moral rules, such as pointing out that he lies all the time. Most people don’t mind a nasty player on their team, as long as said player brings success to them (the Diego Costa rule?). And they surely prefer a nasty player on their team over the rule-abiding player on the other team. Theresa May, then, shouldn’t take too much time to point out that Jeremy Corbin is unproven as a leader; this will not convince Labour voters to jump ship. She needs to undermine the perception that he wants to bring change to the British working class. Think of the last American election and how deaf Trump’s core voters were (and are) to attempts to paint him as a lying, incompetent politician unfit for office. While true, these voters thought that still, he is their lying, incompetent president.
Similarly, if you have a certain policy that is near and dear to your heart, you need to consider the implications of the dominance of benevolence on person-perception. In Germany, many immigration enthusiasts try to highlight that immigrants will provide a powerful boost to the German economy. People in favour of curbing immigration might not worry about the state of the German economy in general – but they might fear the competition with the newly arrived immigrants or the potential terrorist threats. In other words, they want to hear about the benevolence of immigrants towards them, not about their competence.
Working class people are fine with immigrating academics, while academics don’t fear the immigration of cheap labour. But maybe your campaign trail is less grandiose, and you are just trying to convince a person to give you a job. Here, again, it is important to remind yourself that your competence got you the job interview, but your signals of benevolence towards the future co-workers get you the job.
Some people might feel that basing political decisions on character rather than policies and competence is foolish. Shouldn’t we evaluate Theresa May, Tim Farron, and Jeremy Corbin solely on their policies, party manifestos and leadership qualities? But policies are often hard to evaluate due to their complexities and future uncertainties. So going with the person that tries to get the best for us might be a viable alternative approach. At least this is what voters do, even though they might not be willing to admit it.