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The Campaign Trail as a Carnival of Virtues

by Andreas Kappes


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.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. I don’t know whether this is entirely serious. It seems to have been written in a hurry – for instance, Corbyn is misspelt.

    There are serious ethical issues in politics. Electoral campaigns in democracies simply ignore many of them. Nevertheless, the current UK campaign did cover very serious issues, and in a sense was forced to consider them by terrorists. Issues such as radicalisation, extremism, moderation, and terrorism, present major ethical questions, yet get little academic attention. Self-censorship is probably the main reason: if you question the official line on terrorism, then your career is finished. Perhaps this culture of self-censorship results in a cynical approach, and a tendency to treat elections as a game, a joke.

    1. Hi Paul, this is serious despite an attempt to keep things light (and the typo). And I agree that there are serious issues to debate, but my point is that people care relatively little about them when deciding whom to vote for. Terrorism is a great example: I think it is impossible to evaluate which parties proposal to address the war on terror would actually result in less attacks. And I think that nobody knows what works. But I would be curious to know what the official line on terrorism is, and what self-censorship I practice? I also think that terrorism receives a fair share of attention in academia, but maybe not the way you would like it?

      1. There are some who think that election campaigns are simply a question of marketing, and that issues have no relevance. That attitude fits well with the kind of post-history narrative popularised by Francis Fukuyama. However: such attitudes are not as common as they were 15 or 20 years ago. The rise of populism has generally disproved the thesis that western voters are ideology-free, and primarily concerned with personal short-term financial benefit.

        The terrorism issue is a good example. Andreas Kappes sees it as a managerial issue: which party is the most effective ‘attack-manager’? He assumes the voters treat terrorism no differently from taxation, and judge the parties in a similar practical manner. “Party X will cut your taxes by 4% and your risk of being stabbed by a jihadist by 43%.” Voters plainly don’t see it that way, however, and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, many are ferociously angry, and fanatical in their demands. Their anger is also directed at the political elite, precisely because of its managerialism. We see that in the last few weeks in the UK, for instance as parties compete to put more police on the streets. This is not what concerns most voters: they want some form of ‘War on Islam’, which the political elite refuses to deliver.

        This disconnect between the general population and the elite, is one of the subjects that don’t get enough academic coverage in the present climate. I did not want to be specific about terrorism, because it is off-topic with respect to this article, but since the author asked: the ‘self-censorship’ refers to the behaviour of UK academics in general when considering the ethics of terrorism. Certainly there is a lot of research done on terrorism, but never questioning the official line. It’s all pragmatic and descriptive, about the political background for instance, or about anti-terror strategies. Since it is mainly about muslims, much of it is orientalist as well. Nobody, to my knowledge, will touch the ethics of terrorism. And that’s not surprising when the police and security services determine what research is permitted, and what may be said inside universities. Almost every single member of staff in British universities will function as an informant for the security services, as required. Other countries are not much better, I suspect it is just as bad in France, and historically we know it was just as bad in Germany, several decades ago.

        My point was that the resulting intellectual climate, where anyone with non-mainstream views has to keep their mouth shut for fear of being intimidated/sacked/banned, is a breeding ground for dismissive cynicism. I thought that might be the explanation for the tone of Andreas Kappes’ article, but perhaps he is simply a convinced managerialist.

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