Today’s post by Harold Fine is the fourth of a six-part series, each featuring invited reflections from a number of right-of-center philosophers. These philosophers are otherwise not associated with Rightly Considered and should not be assumed to hold views expressed by anyone else on this blog.
Fine is a professor at a research university somewhere in the United States who, after some reflection (about the possible consequences from close-minded leftists) chose to write under a pen name. He has numerous publications in top ranking philosophy journals. We are grateful for his contribution.
Virtue Politics and the Failure of the Clinton Campaign
There are two ways to sell a product: you can talk about the product, or you can talk about the kind of person who buys the product. When PepsiCo used the slogan “More Bounce to the Ounce,” they were talking about the product. When they used the slogan “The Choice of a New Generation,” they were talking about the consumer. The same two strategies are available in running a political campaign. In selling a candidate, one strategy is to talk about the candidate and about what he or she would do if elected. We may call this the politics of consequences. A second strategy is to talk about what kind of person would vote for the candidate and what kinds of character traits are typically manifested in voting for the candidate. We may call this the politics of virtue.
In the 2016 federal election, the Trump campaign focused on the politics of consequences. Trump told us, time and again, that if he were elected he would build a wall, bring back jobs, keep out terrorists, strengthen the military, take care of our vets, rebuild our infrastructure, and restore law and order. In short, he would Make America Great Again. And while he certainly attacked the character of his opponent, accusing Hillary Clinton of being dishonest and corrupt, he never impugned the character of her supporters, nor did he suggest that his supporters were superior, morally or otherwise, to Clinton supporters. Thus, he sold himself by telling us what he would do for us, not by telling us what kind of person would vote for him.
The Clinton campaign could have focused on the politics of consequences as well. They could have based their case for Clinton on the idea that a Clinton presidency would have far better consequences than a Trump presidency for the economy, for the national debt, for climate change, and so on. But while these ideas were mentioned, they were not given center stage. Rather, the focus of the Clinton campaign was on the politics of virtue. She focused on the contrast between the kind of person who supports her and the kind of person who supports Trump. In her final television ad, she asks “Is America dark and divisive or hopeful and inclusive? Our core values are being tested in this election.” The implication is clear: if you are hopeful and inclusive, you will vote for her, and if you are the opposite you will vote for Trump. This same contrast is drawn in her various campaign slogans. “Love Trumps Hate”—read: Loving people support Clinton, whereas hateful people support Trump. “I’m with Her”—read: people who care about women support Clinton, whereas misogynists support Trump. “Stronger Together”—read: those who are accepting of difference support Clinton, whereas those who would divide us support Trump. In many of her speeches, she makes this point about Trump supporters explicitly. She is “sick and tired,” she tells us, “of the negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision and behavior of people who support Donald Trump.” Half of Trump supporters, she tells us, are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamaphobic,” and belong in the infamous “basket of deplorables.”
So why did this strategy fail? There are several possible explanations. One is that there were enough voters who didn’t buy the idea that Trump supporters are bigots. Another possibility is that there were enough voters who didn’t care about being bigots, and so weren’t put off by the association between bigotry and supporting Trump. However, in order to explain the failure of the Clinton campaign, we needn’t make either of these assumptions. For even if we assume the best case scenario for the Clinton campaign—that is, even if we assume that everyone accepted the idea that Trump supports are largely bigots, and even if we also assume that everyone has a very strong desire not to be a bigot—we still shouldn’t expect this message to persuade any rational person to vote for Clinton over Trump.
The reason is this. Even if people accept the idea that Trump supporters are largely bigots, people are unlikely to think that voting for Trump will turn you into a bigot. If there is a causal connection between being a bigot and voting for trump, it’s that people vote for Trump because they are bigots, not the other way around. It would be pointless, therefore, to vote for Clinton rather than Trump in order to avoid being a bigot. That would be like holding one’s hands steady at all times in order to avoid getting Parkinson’s disease. You can’t prevent an illness by avoiding its symptoms. More generally, you can’t prevent a cause by avoiding its effects. Hence, if bigotry causes one to vote for Trump rather than the other way around, then one can’t avoid being a bigot by avoiding voting for Trump.
Consider, therefore, the position of a rational voter. Consider, in particular, a voter who hasn’t thoroughly examined the two main candidates and their platforms, but who has heard the central messages of the two campaigns. Thus, she has heard from the Trump campaign that if elected Trump will keep the country safe, and she has heard from the Clinton campaign that Trump supporters are typically bigots. Suppose she buys both these messages, and she knows nothing else about the candidates. In this case, in deciding how to vote, she could reason as follows:
Either I’m a bigot or I’m not a bigot. If I’m a bigot, then I’ll remain a bigot regardless of how I vote. And so the only foreseeable difference my vote could make concerns the safety of the country. And I’d prefer an outcome in which I’m a bigot and the country is safe to an outcome in which I’m a bigot and the country is unsafe. Hence, assuming I’m a bigot, I should vote for Trump. If, on the other hand, I’m a not bigot, then I’ll remain a non-bigot regardless of how I vote. And so, again, the only foreseeable difference my vote could make concerns the safety of the country. And I’d prefer an outcome in which I’m a non-bigot and the country is safe to an outcome in which I’m a non-bigot and the country is unsafe. Hence, assuming I’m not a bigot, I should vote for Trump. And so, either way, I should vote for Trump.
Thus, the rational voter, even if she is fully convinced by the message that Trump voters are typically bigots, and even if she desires ever-so-strongly not to be a bigot, will nonetheless be completely unmoved by the central message of the Clinton campaign. And the same applies, quite generally, to the politics of virtue. Since voting for a given candidate may be the effect, but is not the cause, of having a given character trait, the rational voter will never be persuaded to vote for or against a given candidate by being told that such voting is associated with good or bad character traits.
Perhaps I have been unfair to the politics of virtue. I have argued that there is no reason to be moved, in one’s voting behavior, by the kind of association the Clinton campaign has attempted to draw between one’s voting behavior and traits of character. My opponent, however, might argue that there are two reasons to be so moved. First, if one associates voting for a particular candidate with being virtuous, then voting for this candidate will be a way of proving to oneself just how virtuous one is. Second, if others associate voting for a particular candidate with being virtuous, then voting for this candidate will put one in a position in which one can, by honestly reporting on one’s voting behavior, convince others that one is virtuous. Thus, being moved by the politics of virtue is a way of convincing both oneself and others of one’s virtuous character. But now we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. For having the overriding aim of convincing oneself and others that one is virtuous is itself far from virtuous. Virtuous people will be guided, in making political decisions, not by this aim, but by the aim of bringing about the best possible outcome, not only for themselves but also for others. And so the virtuous person will be moved, not by the politics of virtue, but by the politics of consequences. Thus, the politics of virtue is inherently incoherent, as it rests on the assumption that those who are moved by its appeal are the virtuous ones, and this assumption, as we have seen, is indefensible.
Let me conclude by pointing out one final irony. Because the Clinton campaign focused on the politics of virtue while the Trump campaign did not, it was chiefly the followers of the Clinton campaign who became fixated on the supposed character flaws of their political adversaries. Thus, many Clinton supporters came to believe that Trump supporters are evil bigots. In fact, when Clinton officially retracted her claim that half of Trump supporters belong in the basket of deplorables, many of her supporters responded that her only mistake had been to underestimate the relevant number. And now we find Clinton supporters publishing responses to the election with such headlines as “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter” and “The Decent White Woman Who Voted for Trump… Does Not Exist.” Many Clinton supporters have declared that they want nothing to do with anyone who voted for Trump, and some have expressed fear of going out in public lest they be physically attacked by mobs of ferocious Trump supporters.
Thus Clinton supporters, to a far greater extent than Trump supporters, have come to hate and fear those with whom they disagree politically. They have come to embody the very hateful and fearful attitudes that they impute to their opponents and that they pride themselves in being free of. This, of course, is bad for the health of the republic. But it’s especially bad for those who harbor these attitudes. Hatred always takes a psychological toll on the hater, and this toll is especially great when the hatred extends to half of one’s fellow citizens. In reflecting, therefore, on those who have been moved by the politics of virtue to hate their political opponents, we should not hate them, but we should pity them.
- Left-Leaning Bias in Ethics Textbooks - April 13, 2017
- I Value Guns because I Value Life - February 10, 2017
- Gun Rights are not God-Given - December 7, 2016
- Election Reflection VI: Daniel von Wachter - November 27, 2016
- Election Reflection V: Philippe Lemoine - November 26, 2016
- Election Reflection IV: Harold Fine - November 23, 2016
- Election Reflection III: Spencer Case - November 22, 2016
- Election Reflection II: John Kekes - November 21, 2016
- Election Reflection I: William F. Vallicella - November 20, 2016
- Congratulations, Donald J. Trump - November 9, 2016