There’s something both sad and fascinating about a politician taking on an entirely new persona as they seek high office, especially given all the value we place on “authenticity.” To some, pandering comes naturally — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) couldn’t tell you what time it is without sounding creepily insincere. To others it can be a real strain, and the visible effort makes it all the more riveting.
But do these candidates deserve our scorn? Or might they be exactly what partisan voters should be looking for?
Let’s consider the case of J.D. Vance author of “Hillbilly Elegy” renown, who is now a candidate for Senate. Vance first emerged as a conservative intellectual who understood the masses but moved with the elites; in 2016 he cast a protest vote for Evan McMullin and was particularly critical of Donald Trump’s race baiting, charging that Trump was “leading people to racially ugly attitudes.”
But that was then. Now that he’s seeking the votes of those same Trump supporters, Vance is ready to spread those racially ugly attitudes, by taking on Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who suggested that we have an obligation to help Afghans who worked with us, including by allowing them to settle here as refugees. Vance isn’t having it:
It’s got everything, from the implication that refugees are terrorists, to a bizarre mention of “sovereignty” under threat, to jabs at the liberals and the media. Vance is no highfalutin’ politician who puts on a suit before recording a campaign video! He’s just a down-home reg’lar guy chilling in his OSU T-shirt, telling it like it is.
In other words, Vance isn’t going about this haphazardly. He understands that proper pandering is about substance and style, about issues and identity. And if you think he probably doesn’t believe a word of it, we should ask: So what?
I mean that seriously.
There are different political styles and varieties of ideology out there, each with something to say in its favor and a critique one could make of it. For instance, the substance-free centrism that is so important in Washington is a particularly shallow approach to politics, since it doesn’t have any real goals or vision; it just wants to be at the fulcrum of power, which it now is due to the narrow margins Democrats hold in both houses.
There’s the movable center-leftism of President Biden, who seeks to represent his whole party by planting himself wherever the party’s ideological midpoint is. There are some true ideologues like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who believes the same things he believed 50 years ago and the same things he’ll believe until his last days on earth.
But if you’re a voter looking for someone to truly represent you, a shameless panderer might be the way to go. If your opinions change, his will change right along with yours. He’ll parrot your prejudices and vote the way you tell him to. When you’re feeling mad, he’ll mirror your anger right back at you. He’ll hate who you hate, love who you love, and always reassure you that you’re righteous and wise.
Candidates often tout their independence, but isn’t that overrated? After all, Republicans weren’t too happy with John McCain’s independence when he cast the deciding vote in 2017 to keep them from repealing the Affordable Care Act. In an age of firm polarization and tight intraparty competition, independence is the last thing most partisans want.
And the nice thing about the committed panderer is that they almost never revert to what they used to be; instead, they usually move only in one direction, deeper into the arms of their party’s base. The fact that they worry whether they’ll be trusted by that base makes them even less likely to contradict it than the politician with more well-established bona fides.
It’s too early to know whether the Ohio GOP primary electorate will see the appeal of Vance’s candidacy. The Trumpists, who will no doubt dominate the primary electorate, may decide that former state treasurer Josh Mandel, a candidate so repugnant in so many ways he seems more a caricature of contemporary conservatism than an actual human being, is more their speed.
After all, the criticism usually goes, why vote for someone who’s only pretending to believe what you do when you could have someone who really believes it? But that’s a shortsighted way to look at things. The candidate who has no real beliefs other than his belief that it’s important to tell you whatever you want to hear? That’s someone you can rely on.