Essays

The Pitfalls and Performance of Virtue Signaling at the Democratic Debates

Every candidate likes to boast about themselves, but there’s an art to getting away with it.

Screenshot via YouTube

A politician wanting to use moral outrage to convince voters of their presidential viability need not yell. Sometimes, a dog whistle is all they need to change their odds of success. That was a critical component of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, which catalyzed conservatives with overtures of misogyny, hatred, and prejudice. But the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are adopting a different kind of coded language: virtue signaling.

The deployment of such performative rhetoric is a survival tool for politicians looking to stuff their speeches with policy points without voters recognizing them as canned responses. Likewise, virtue signaling is an effective ideological idiom that psychologists say adopts a strategic expression of indignation to assume the shape of moral outrage most palatable to audiences. By contrast, authentic versions of outrage typically involve a “genuine” system that evaluates transgression by a personal set of moral values. But we shouldn’t necessarily misconstrue virtue signaling as dishonest; rather, it’s a hyperconscious mode of thinking about how others might judge our reactions.

What better way to explain the actions of 20 people being scrutinized by tens of millions of people? Yes, the first Democratic primary debates of the 2020 presidential election this week were battles between candidates who could use virtue signaling to present themselves as authentic and politicians whose choice of words came off as insincere.

When politicians fail at virtue signaling, it’s painfully awkward to watch. It’s just showing off. Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) made himself the debate’s first victim by responding to an early question from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie who asked if he would support an individual tax rate of 70% on earners of more than $10 million a year. He never answered the question directly, but he did switch into Spanish about halfway through his response. Senators Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are caught by the camera looking at the Texan with stunned expressions. It was a perfect storm. For the Spanish-speaking community, O’Rourke’s response sounded stilted and cringeworthy if also a little endearing. (We’ve come a long way from George W. Bush fumbling through the phrase, “Mi cases es su casa.”) As a performance, though, it was a disaster. The negative reactions from his fellow debaters signaled to the viewers at home that the congressman’s political gamble had gone terribly awry.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking Spanish on national television in the United States, but O’Rourke’s approach failed because his gesture came off as inauthentic and lacking a genuine emotional point of departure. What about a question on tax rates inspired him to switch over to Spanish? It’s the same reason Booker’s later attempts at Spanish also failed to impress, and it certainly didn’t help that both politicians spoke with blunt accents and wobbly grammar. Julián Castro, the race’s only Latino candidate, sprinkled just a few lines of Spanish into his remarks, which played as casual, organic inclusions. And on the second night, Pete Buttigieg issued a short response in Spanish to answer a question delivered to him in Spanish from moderator José Díaz-Balart, a popular journalist and Spanish-language news anchor on Telemundo. It barely registered as noteworthy.

Virtue signaling fails as a form of vanity. It’s no coincidence that the popularization of the term arrived in the age of social media when most people paradoxically use visual formats like Facebook and Instagram to “tell” people they are virtuous rather than “show” it by their actions. And in the wrong hands, virtue signaling defines something one would only say to garner approval. That’s why virtue signaling fails when it operates as brazen political ambition.

Democrats need the Latinx community if they are going to win the 2020 election; it’s one of the country’s largest voting blocs, a crucial factor in gaining Florida’s electoral votes, and a powerhouse for voter turnout as seen in the 2018 midterms. This is also perhaps why the debate was held in Miami, a city whose population is 70% Latinx. It can therefore come across as desperate when someone like O’Rourke or Booker crams their knowledge of Spanish onto the debate stage.

Although O’Rourke may be the best example of failed virtue signaling, he wasn’t the only candidate that struggled to adapt to the form. Pundits have criticized New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for repeatedly using his son as campaign fodder. During the debate, he made a point of saying that he was the only candidate onstage with a Black son before touting his control of one of the largest police forces in the nation. And then there was Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, who tried to woo women voters by claiming he was the only candidate to have advanced the ball on women’s rights. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) shot him down: “I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”

The charge of virtue signaling has become a popular tool for the right to condemn the left’s self-declared hold of the moral high ground. But every politician has to pander to their base at some point or another. Candidates who best use virtue signaling are the ones who wait for the right moment, using indignation to buoy policy points, switching out self-righteousness for purposeful discourse at the last second.

Buttigieg did this last night by addressing Christian moderates during his takedown of Trump’s border policies. One of the Indiana mayor’s major goals is to win back Christian moderates from the Republicans. Here, he wove a story about faith and the hypocrisy of supporting Trump into his answer why the state’s abduction and detainment of children was unjust.

But arguably the master of virtue signaling was Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) who played to virtually every corner of the Democratic party by sharply criticizing her opponents as a segue into her own policy goals. She made them look like squabbling children during a three-way argument to say, “America does not want a food fight, they want to know how we’ll put food on their table.” It was an establishment Democrat tagline, one which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been saying for months. On the other hand, Harris also went after the old guard by criticizing former Vice President Joe Biden for his recent recollections about working with segregationists. As a child, she was in the second class to integrate her public school in Berkeley through a busing program, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education. Putting Biden on defense, Harris was also able to clarify her positions on racial justice and criminal justice — two topics critics have taken her to task on because of her record in California. She also accomplished the unthinkable, leaving Biden stammering to the point where his 30-second reply to her ended with him saying, “My time’s up. I’m sorry.”

Harris’s success on the stage last night doesn’t necessarily mean she will be the 2020 Democratic nominee, but it does mean that other candidates will take stock of her approach. At a time when the personal is always political, virtue signaling may become a way for candidates to connect with voters who can feel alienated from the more technical aspects of policy debate. It’s a clever way to win arguments, as long as the politician can avoid the allure of smug posturing.

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