Virtue Signaling and Republican Communication

Virtue Signaling and Republican CommunicationThis morning, Brian Beutler wrote History Will Remember the Republicans Who Appeased Trump. And he introduced me to the concept of “virtue signaling.”

This is where you indicate to other people that you are virtuous. Normally, virtue signaling is something that conservatives attack liberals for. If I write an article bemoaning the treatment of native Americans, I might be accused of virtue signaling because I’m not native American. But generally, the person who would make such a claim does it because they don’t care about native American rights and so can’t imagine that I really care about them either.

Paul Ryan’s Virtue Signaling

Beutler used the term in relation to Paul Ryan who has made statements against racism and white supremacy without linking them to Donald Trump or the Republican Party. For example, Ryan tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”

In so doing, someone like David Duke can think, “He’s just signaling what a virtuous guy he is to the liberal press, but I know what he really thinks! He’s on my side!” This is a different take on virtue signaling. And it’s useful stuff. Let’s face it: Republicans are good at this.

The Power of Dog Whistles

In this form, virtue signaling is just a specialized form of dog whistling. I’m not saying that Republicans are the only ones who use it. But they’ve made an art of it. How else could they have been so successful electorally with policies that are so unpopular? A majority of Republicans are actually economically liberal. Think of the so called Reagan Revolution. All those people who voted for Reagan did so because of his social signaling — not his economic policies.

As a liberal, I know just how frustrating dog whistling is. Conservatives manage to imply the most offensive things. But if liberals call them out on it, the conservatives play naive.

Returning to Reagan, there is the “states’ rights” speech that was the first he gave after winning the Republican nomination in 1980. It was given right outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was where three civil rights workers were murdered by Klan members in 1964. It’s obvious what Reagan was signaling to bigots: I’m on your side.

Of course, conservatives defend the speech to this day by saying that Reagan meant no such thing. It’s just us liberals who see racism in everything. That’s why dog whistles are so powerful.

Trivializing Language

But as a man who makes his living communicating with words, I find this pretense at naivete offensive. It asks us to pretend that language is simplistic — that it doesn’t have layers of meaning. And sadly, it is the moderates — those who are supposed to define what norms are (people like nightly network newscasters) — who allow Republicans to get away with this.

I don’t think for a minute that Paul Ryan thinks that his tweet is virtue signaling. But given that not offending Trump or his most vile supporters takes precedence over his hatred of racism, it does come off as facile. It is hard to think that he’s doing anything but virtue signaling. It is certainly true that the racists who think that are far closer to the truth than the “both sides do it” moderates who applaud such statements as though they were bold stands against racism.

The Rise of Virtue Signaling in Republicans

The reason that virtue signaling has not been a major part of the Republican lexicon is because it is only fairly recently that the party has gotten so far outside the mainstream that they’ve needed to. In the past, they didn’t really need to worry about alienating Pat Buchanan’s base. But now it is the Republican Party base itself. If you really think racism is a bad thing, you are not going to last long as a Republican politician.

Just the same, virtue signaling is one of the least powerful forms of dog whistling. And I wonder if the Republicans haven’t reached the point where they can’t manage the inherent contradictions in their party. If they have to polish every speech so that it is palatable to unabashed white separatists, it may be impossible to hang on to the latent racists that have so long been base of their party.

I remember reading an article several years ago where a guy said, “The worst thing about being a Republican was never being able to say what you actual thought.” That’s true. And it is only getting harder as their party slips into actual white supremacy and fascism.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Virtue Signaling and Republican Communication

  1. That really is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? If someone mocks you for expressing a sympathetic point of view towards any underdogs, they’re probably a person who has absolutely no sympathy for anyone besides themselves. It’s not always the case — people can have bad memories which makes them less sympathetic towards a particular subset of humans — but generally, when they accuse you of pretending compassion, it’s because they don’t have any.

    Why they don’t have any — that’s a difficult question.

    • Absolutely. It’s the same with “political correctness.” Everyone has their own form of this. Everyone thinks that certain things shouldn’t be said or done. Passing laws against burning the flag is a prototypical case of political correctness. No one complains about political correctness that they agree with. So when Trump complains about political correctness meant to space the feelings of African Americans, what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t care about the feelings of African Americans. People who complain about the prohibition against using the n-word aren’t upset for free speech reasons; they are people who want to use the word.

      In the case of “virtue signaling,” it is just jerks who can’t imagine that people really do care about, say, the treatment of Native Americans. After all, they don’t care. In fact, read the comments to Ayn Rand and Indians. It’s amazing how vile they are. I’m sure they think I am virtue signaling. What’s actually going on is that I naturally align with those who are oppressed because I’ve always seen myself as the weak. What I find interesting is that so many weak people (almost all people are actually weak) identify with the powerful. But I would never say that such people were lying about it.

    • That is a funny video — so is another one on “Cultural Marxism” I watched immediately afterwards by the same guy. A part of me, though, watches these things and makes me wish I’d never heard of the internet. I honestly don’t see the point in engaging with disturbed individuals. I’ve never had an internet fight that didn’t make me feel degraded afterwards. What if you “win”? (You never “win” an internet fight, although you can make the other person go away.) What does that accomplish? You made someone even angrier? I’m not sure what good that does.

      But I tend to participate in online communities like this one, where there are firm site mods. (My favorite-ever online discussions were in community college courses, where debate is encouraged and rudeness strictly prohibited.) For people who play online games or engage with social media constantly, trolls spewing half-bright insults like “virtue signaling” must be a common annoyance. I’m not sure what to do about such people.

  2. “takes precedence over his (Paul Ryan) hatred of racism…”
    Objection. Assuming facts not in evidence. And I’m not referring to your probably correct view of racism as background radiation in the human mind. I mean if you strapped Speaker Ryan in a chair and administered a polygraph test and a large syringe of sodium amytal don’t think we would get too far into the session before we started hearing references to “those people”. Conservatism, as it is known today, lacks a commitment to universal human rights. Your rights are only what you can buy with money. This belief easily lends itself to racism. Indeed, it would require considerable discipline to hold this denial of humanity to others and not use racism to suppress the natural dissonance felt in the sight of human suffering.

    • In Ryan’s “defense,” he probably hates poor people of every ethnicity equally. But I’m sure you’re right, and his sort presume some kind of moral/genetic inferiority that explains Black poverty. Anything but systematic, institutional racism.

      In the Ryan/Rand worldview, there can ultimately be no such thing as ill-gotten gains. Wealth always signifies virtue, poverty always signals worthlessness. Racism therefore cannot be a reason for whites having more power. And it’s very easy to convince oneself of this; just point to a rich African-American and think “anyone can make it, hence the others are flawed.”

      Ryan survived childhood via our then-stronger social safety net. His ilk, in my experience, tend to assume they would have survived just fine without public assistance. They’re successful now — e.g., they are superior humans — and so it was inevitable that they would do great. Accordingly there is nothing immoral about demolishing the safety net for others, so that the Good People get tax cuts. It’s what the holy market would want.

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