April 20, 2019, 15:29


Pete Buttigieg, Barack Obama, and the psychology of liberalism

Pete Buttigieg, Barack Obama, and the psychology of liberalism

There was a word missing from the speech Pete Buttigieg gave in South Bend, Indiana, announcing his presidential campaign. It’s a word you heard twice in Bernie Sanders’s and Beto O’Rourke’s announcement speeches, nine times in Cory Booker’s, 21 times in Kirsten Gillibrand’s, 23 times in Kamala Harris’s, and 25 times in Elizabeth Warren’s.

That word? “Fight.”

Instead, Buttigieg returned to a word those speeches shied away from, a word whose relative absence from the Democratic primary is all the stranger given its potency in past Democratic campaigns.

That word? “Hope,” which Buttigieg said eight times, Gillibrand said three times, O’Rourke uttered once, and Sanders, Harris, Warren, and Booker avoided entirely.

Bill Clinton, famously, was “the man from Hope.” Barack Obama ran on “hope and change.” But hope has become unfashionable in the Democratic primary. Partly, that’s because Democrats are trying to build a legacy distinct from Obama’s and are looking for language of their own. Partly that’s because the lesson many Democrats took from Sanders’s strong showing in 2016, and Donald Trump’s victory, is that an angry country is looking for fighters — and no matter how many times Hillary Clinton played “Fight Song” at rallies, a critical mass of voters didn’t think she really meant it (more on the gendered dynamics of this in a minute).

Buttigieg’s rise has been unexpected and, to be honest, a bit weird. Young mayors of midsize cities don’t typically vault ahead of talented presidential fields to poll third in Iowa and New Hampshire before they’ve even officially announced their campaigns. “Candidly, I don’t even know all the reasons why this is going so well,” Buttigieg told New York magazine.

But there is a reason, and it’s bound up in the psychology that attracts liberals to the word “hope.”

Hopeful liberals, concerned conservatives

Liberals and conservatives have different ideologies, different philosophies, different policies, different parties. But beneath all that is the fact that they have different psychologies.

In their book Open Versus Closed, Christopher Johnston, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine write that “Democrats and Republicans are now sharply distinguished by a set of basic psychological dispositions related to experiential openness — a general dimension of personality tapping tolerance for threat and uncertainty in one’s environment.”

A similar argument, using slightly different data, can be found in Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s Prius or Pickup:

In Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, John Alford, John Hibbing, and Kevin Smith write:

These differences show up in surveys, in experiments, and in lifestyle choices. People high in openness are more likely to enjoy trying new foods, traveling to new places, living in diverse cities, keeping a messy desk. They’re less sensitive to threatening photos and disgusting images, even when measuring physical indicators like skin connectivity, eye tracking, and saliva.

At the core of this worldview divide is hope, in its most basic, literal form. Are you hopeful about new things, new people, new places? Does change excite you? Does difference? If it does, you are more likely to be liberal. If you look at the new, the different, and feel a spike of fear, you’re more likely to be a conservative.

Not every liberal is high in this kind of openness, and not every conservative is low in it. But these associations are present and strong across huge numbers of studies spanning dozens of countries. In one meta-analysis of the literature, John Jost, Chadly Stern, Nicholas Rule, and Joanna Sterling looked at 134 surveys in 16 countries and found “a significant association between subjective perceptions of threat and conservatism.”

Over the past 50 years, America’s political parties have increasingly sorted themselves into ideologically and demographically distinct coalitions, and part of that sorting has been psychological. As the Democratic Party has diversified, it’s become particularly attractive to people who see difference as strength and who are excited by the idea of a changing country. The Republican Party has experienced the same process in reverse.

Obama and Trump, in their respective campaigns, took this subtext of American politics and made it into bumper stickers. A black man with a strange name won the presidency tying together the words “change” and “hope.” He was succeeded by a white man who won the presidency promising to turn back the clock, who built a campaign around the word “again.”

All this has supercharged America’s psychological sorting. Johnston, Federico, and Lavine find that the more politically engaged someone is now, the more intensely correlated their psychology and their voting behavior becomes. Hetherington and Weiler, who measure a related basket of traits they call “fixed” and “fluid,” find that now, “among the fixed, 84 percent of those who chose one of these two labels chose conservative,” while “among the fluid, 80 percent of those who chose one of them chose liberal.”

Democrats miss Obama

Most of the Democrats running for president have tried, in their own ways, to out-Trump Trump. They promise to be the populist fighter he only pretends to be.

But a lot of liberals, temperamentally and psychologically, don’t want a fight. They don’t want politics to be an endless war; they believe that mutual understanding is possible, that the country will respond to someone willing to believe and call forth the best of it. That’s not just their view of politics; it’s their view of life. It’s the view that Obama spoke to in the speech that made him a star:

And again in his 2008 campaign announcement speech:

And even if Mitch McConnell has disabused many liberals of the notion that this style of politics will pass laws, it still describes the candidates and messages they find themselves drawn to. Obama appealed to them because he represented them, because he was one of them, and if they could, they would put him back in office a third time. There are a lot of these Democrats, but there’s not, at the moment, a lot of competition for them.

You can see the yearning in Joe Biden’s persistent lead in the polls. Biden’s popularity frustrates lefties who think him insufficiently progressive and liberals who see him as an out-of-touch white guy. But Biden knows that a lot of his supporters aren’t really supporting him. They’re supporting Obama by supporting him. An Associated Press story on Biden’s planning suggests channeling this longing will form the foundation of his campaign:

Biden’s weakness is that temperamentally, demographically, and stylistically, he’s not that much like Obama. He was brought onto Obama’s ticket to add balance, to offer reassurance. If you looked at Obama and saw too much change too fast, you could look at Biden and see a familiar face.

As Rebecca Traister wrote, “Biden’s role has been to comfort the lost, prized, and most fondly imagined Democratic voter, the one who’s like him: that guy in the diner, that guy in Ohio, that guy who’s white and so put off by the changed terms of gendered and racial power in this country that decades ago he fled for the party that was working to roll back the social advancements that had robbed him of his easy hold on power.”

This is where Buttigieg has found an opening.

Pete Buttigieg’s play for the “hope and change” vote

Buttigieg can’t run as the heir to Obama’s administration. But of the candidates, he’s the one who uses his personal story and political message to most closely echo Obama’s appeal.

Buttigieg began his announcement speech by doing exactly what Obama did in his early speeches: He framed the choice America faces as embracing a moment of change with hope — or rejecting it out of fear.

“Change is coming, ready or not,” Buttigieg said. “The question of our time is whether families and workers will be defeated by the changes beneath us or whether we will master them.”

As Obama did before him, Buttigieg turned his own life story — in which an alienated, closeted teen watches his country change enough to not only accept him, but embrace him — into an argument that America is a place worth being hopeful about:

“How can you live that story and not believe that America deserves our optimism, deserves our courage, deserves our hope?” Buttigieg asked.

And in perhaps the most Obama-like flourish in the speech, Buttigieg used the jumble of his own identities — a Midwest mayor, a married gay man, an Afghanistan veteran — to argue that the divisions of our politics obscures the grandeur of our common humanity:

It was a speech aimed right at the Obama wing of the Democratic Party, down to the homage-like jokes about being a young kid with a funny last name. It was a speech aimed at voters who look to the future with excitement, who find themselves thrilled by the word change.

“It’s time to walk away from the politics of the past,” Buttigieg said, “and toward something totally different.”

That Buttigieg trusted that line to be received with applause spoke volumes about his intended audience.

It’s not 2008 anymore

Buttigieg, of course, isn’t running in the 2008 Democratic primary. He’s running in the aftermath of Obama’s presidency, in the questions raised by Trump’s rise. And he’s running in the aftermath of Clinton’s 2016 loss and amid the #MeToo moment, both of which have sharpened attention on why it is that the exciting, fresh new faces in presidential politics always seem to be men.

“Whether a youngish candidate is bright, brilliant and promising or inexperienced, off-putting and ruthlessly ambitious depends on whether the young thing in question is male or female,” writes Jill Filipovic.

I was struck, looking at the prevalence of the word “fight” in the 2020 announcement speeches, that the top-tier female candidates used it so much more than the men. Nor is that unique to this election. In 2008, Clinton used the word so often that she was mocked for it. She’s the “fightingest fighter in the fight,” wrote Byron York. In 2016, people complained about her use “Fight Song” as the campaign theme.

Men are assumed to be fighters, which frees them up to build messaging around ideas like hope. Women have to overcome suspicions of weakness, which means they have to be much more explicit about their willingness to fight. But as Anne Helen Petersen points out, the work women do to prove themselves fighters often then gets them dismissed as aggressive or abrasive. Why can’t they smile more?

As a result, some liberals resent Buttigieg for representing a status quo that frustrates them. To them, the rapturous reception he has received, particularly as more qualified female candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand struggle, shows not how much has changed, but just how much has stayed the same.

“Yes, Pete Buttigieg is a gay man, and that’s a big deal!” wrote Filipovic. “But it’s not a slur to say that he’s a white man. Is he a white man in the exactly same mold as every other previous white male president? No. But being gay doesn’t make him not-white or not-male.”

Another challenge for Buttigieg is that Obama didn’t win just by impressing openness-minded liberals. He won by building a coalition between them and black voters. As of yet, there’s little evidence of Buttigieg breaking through among nonwhite voters — and, notably, nonwhite voters aren’t as sorted by the openness dimension between the parties, so the messages that work for white liberals in New Hampshire often fall flat with black churchgoers in South Carolina.

Still, Buttigieg’s rapid rise carries a lesson for the rest of the Democratic field. Democratic elites have given up on hope and change because Washington is a place that dashes hopes and repulses change. To them, Obama’s messaging now seems quaint, even naive. At the same time, Democrats have been obsessed with reverse-engineering how Trump dominated his primary and won the election, forgetting that the voters who propelled him to victory want different things — in personality as well as in policy — from the voters that propel Democrats to victory.

But this is still the Democratic Party that elected Barack Obama twice and that adores him today. A lot of liberals still want a candidate who sees the world the way Obama did, because that’s the way they see the world, too.

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