Joe Biden, Jerkface

by Benjamin Studebaker

The Vice Presidential debate was fairly minimal in terms of its intellectual content. Biden was aggressive, and the left came away thinking he annihilated Ryan while the right argued that Ryan fought it to a draw. The left’s been painting it as Biden debunking the various lies and manipulations of the Romney/Ryan campaign, while the right paints it as, well, Biden being a rude a jerkface. On this blog I’ve provided many reasons to question some of the claims that have been made by Romney and Ryan. I’m not here to retread those posts; you can read them on this site. Today I’m here to talk about this perception that Biden was a jerk and whether or not this is a legitimate reason to not support the Obama/Biden ticket.

There are a lot of people, especially on the right, who think that Biden was a jerk. The WSJ says:

the moments of policy discussion—such as they were—were largely obscured by the bullying Biden. His constant interruptions and obvious contempt for his opponent, made it all but impossible for the two men to have any real exchange of ideas. This was the real tragedy—for viewers—of the debate.

Leaving aside for the moment that presidential debates are never a serious exchange of ideas but are more an exchange of sound bites and propaganda lines, let’s see what National Review had to say:

Biden was seen as condescending, obnoxious, creepy, and generally unbearable. Nichole Perreault compared the scene to “Thanksgiving when that rude, inappropriate elder relative makes you want to rip him a new one and throw your wine in his face on your way out the door — but for the sake of family you take a drink, smile and look the other way.” Joni Lynn e-mailed that Biden had struck her as “an arrogant, condescending pig.” “He’s that obnoxious guy that every woman knows at work who always interrupts at the meeting to show how ‘brilliant’ he is but has nothing to say,” wrote one woman. “He’s the guy no one wants to get stuck next to at a dinner party.”

The RNC already has an ad based on the “Biden is a jerk” theme:


All of this is being written about as if it matters, and it does matter–we’ve seen this before, where politicians are punished based on how their behaviour is socially interpreted, and it goes both ways–it happened to Nixon in 1960 (that debate is actually online now in its entirety–you can view it here). Nixon’s demeanour in the debate was perceived to be lackluster due to his sweating and poor physical appearance relative to Kennedy’s. His mother is famously said to have called him afterwards to inquire as to whether or not he was sick. Nixon’s sweat and Biden’s mixture of wrath and mirth matter to some people. The question is, why on earth should it matter?

The fact that Nixon looked ill or that Biden laughed and interrupted may very well say negative things about them as individuals. Perhaps Nixon was not very self-conscious about the way he looked, or Biden is a jerk. What of it? What do these personal characteristics have to do with whether or not Nixon or Biden know anything about statecraft?  There’s an old quote from TV’s House:

What would you want, a doctor who holds your hand while you die, or a doctor who ignores you while you get better?

This question of whether the fact that you dislike someone’s personality is more important than someone’s capacity to do a given job is a universal question for all fields in which experts and specialists are interacting with laypeople, and it’s a question for which, too often, the answer provided is “yes”. There are people out there who will refuse to take the advice of doctors who rub them the wrong way, who will base their vote on which candidate they happen to find more personally appealing. Of course, when a patient refuses to take a doctor’s advice and dies, the patient and the patient’s immediate friends and family are the ones who suffer. When a political candidate wins because he’s more likeable and defeats a more capable candidate, all of society pays the price.

It is hypocritical (though unsurprising) that the right is now making ads focusing on Biden’s personality when the right was so thoroughly agitated with how people were voting for Obama in 2008 because of his charisma and personal appeal. The Hillary Clinton supporters have the same grievance–Hillary was seen as mean spirited and suffered for it, next to nice, friendly, amicable Obama. There were people who genuinely believed that Obama was better than Clinton and McCain for policy reasons and there are people who believe that Ryan is better than Biden for policy reasons as well, but the proliferation of people who vote emotionally based on personality is corrosive to the health of the state. Al Gore lost to Bush in part because Gore was thought to be arrogant and cold while Bush was friendly and someone you could “have a beer” with. These emotional issues can and do routinely turn the tide of elections in democratic states.

Unfortunately a lot of people are hard wired to make their political choices on the basis of these silly things because they simply do not have sufficient comprehension or knowledge of statecraft to make their opinions on the basis of anything else. No matter how many people read this article and find it persuasive, there are an awfully large number of people who straight up do not have access to or comprehension of enough to make their political decisions on superior criteria, who nonetheless feel they are obliged to vote for some reason or another, and who will vote on this basis. This is why the democratic system presents us with so many deeply intractable problems–our government was not designed by the people, for the people, but by the political obsessives, for the political obsessives. It assumes an unrealistic view of human nature, one in which pretty much everyone loves politics and wants to consume political information all the time. It is the most difficult and unpleasant thing for those of us, those of you, who, like me, find all of this stuff very interesting and important, to conceive of just how little most people care or know. When confronted with this information, our impulse is to condemn them for being dissimilar to us. That’s the wrong response. Many of these people are doing wonderful things for you and me, right now. They’re doctors and police officers and fire-fighters and farmers and manufacturers, teachers and scientists and bus drivers and mechanics, all manner of wonderful, useful people. We keep trying to force them to be like us, to spend piles and piles of their spare time obsessing over politics, but it’s just not their thing. They have families, they have jobs, they have other interests, and all those things are every bit as crucial for them and for society at large as politics is for us and for our society. It’s time to stop abdicating responsibility and saying “you get the government you deserve” and start trying to use what we know to help people. Just because you aren’t a political philosopher, an economist, or a policy wonk doesn’t mean that you deserve a mediocre state. People deserve better government than they themselves are capable of electing, and that’s why we’ve got to become sophiarchists.