In January, weeks before Iowa’s first-in-nation presidential caucuses, I met Saundra, a 73-year-old Republican from rural Iowa. Saundra thinks American politics are broken. Like so many of her neighbors, she voted for Donald Trump, the only candidate who promised “a change, something different,” Saundra told me. “You couldn’t get too much different than Donald Trump.”
But three years later, Trump had failed to deliver change, Saundra said. The nation was dangerously divided, and more than anything she wanted a return to the comity and unity that seemed to define politics in her youth. So Saundra was switching her party registration to support a candidate as different from Trump as Trump was from Obama: Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
I was confused. When I last saw Buttigieg, at the end of a year-long odyssey covering the Iowa caucuses for a newspaper along the Mississippi River, the 38-year-old mayor urged Iowans to “not get caught up in the arguments of before.” Contrasting his candidacy with the nostalgic allure of former Vice President Joe Biden, Buttigieg urged voters “to leave the politics of the past in the past and build a new politics that is defined by belonging, by boldness and by action.”
What sort of “boldness and action” did Saundra—a rural, female, septuagenarian, devout Catholic, Fox News viewer—want from liberal, cosmopolitan, Oxford-educated Buttigieg? Did she like that Buttigieg was pro-choice? That he supported the legalization of marijuana? That he endorsed the Green New Deal? That he backed a $15/hour minimum wage? What was Saundra’s politics, her outlook, her worldview?
The square was hard for me to circle. And then Saundra mentioned something extraordinary, and mundane: She had recently quit her job because she was too sick to work. Occupied by palliative care, Saundra wasn’t concerned with ideology. She didn’t fuss over policy or white papers, over constitutionality and funding mechanisms or internecine fights between Democratic moderates and progressives. Saundra was a Republican, a rural white Midwesterner, a Catholic, and an out-of-work saleswoman. But in the context of the 2020 caucuses, Saundra was mostly a grandmother nearing the end of her life who wanted to restore a moral sensibility for her kin. “I kept thinking that we had been very strong with the grandchildren not to make fun of people, to accept and embrace people,” Saundra explained to me. “When I saw Pete, well, he’s the person who set this example. That trickles down to my children, my two girls, and my grandchildren. We all felt it was important to help that man get elected.”
Like all voters, Saundra is a practitioner of identity politics. That’s not “identity politics”—or how pundits analyze voters through the narrow prism of a few variables related to demographics—but voter preferences that emerge from the fluid, messy, contingent process of making a decision with imperfect information, competing values, and multiple claims to self-interest.
Call it “identities politics.” The key is that voters contain multitudes and mysteries that are informed by their history, guided unconsciously by their preconceptions, and changed by their context. Whereas physical science follows universal laws, political science must grapple with contingency and personality. It’s the difference between art by Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock.
As University of Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss puts it in Who Needs a World View?, a new collection of probing and playful essays, the real world is not a game with tidy rules and clear outcomes. Life “is characterized by a plurality of interlocking and also sometimes not fully articulated goals, and it proceeds following sometimes some fixed rules, but more often changing policies and guided by shifting and unclear general orienting principles.”
World views, as Geuss writes, aren’t fixed monoliths that can be read neatly like the Code of Hammurabi. When “problematic situations” arise, people search “not for an idea or theory that correctly mirrors the world, the ‘truth,’ but for something that ‘works,’ that gets rid of the obstacle I have encountered and allows me to go ahead with what I am trying to do.”
On the 2020 campaign trail, where national reporters chased national narratives for a national audience, Iowans became minor characters in stories about immigration and trade wars, globalism and progressivism. The trouble isn’t that these narratives are wrong but that they’re not always relevant. They begin with information that can be gleaned from a Facebook page—gender, race, age, family status, location—and proceed to predict attitudes and preferences about issues. These descriptors often matter enormously, but not always in ways that are obvious or straightforward.
Americans are generally concerned less with worldviews than with the vantage from their own front porch. They approach their problems pragmatically, in search of solutions that might not always work, in all circumstances, but that get the job done here, now, in this instance. Consider the Drake University undergrad who told me she was caucusing for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders because he understood the crisis of student debt—but who confessed she probably would have supported Biden had she been voting with her family back in North Carolina. Or the Bosnian immigrants at a Des Moines mosque who told me their favorite candidate was U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar—but were caucusing for Biden because their friends at the caucus site supported him overwhelmingly. Or the retired truck driver from eastern Iowa — an elderly white man and army veteran — who told me he was supporting Warren because “we’ve had enough old white guys in office.”
Part of the problem is the social premium on coherence and consistency that prioritizes allegiance to first principles over adaptation to changing circumstances. “The sage has a unified personality because he subscribes to a unitary worldview which he can express in a unitary monographic account of ‘the system of the world,” Geuss writes about philosophers. The same can be said of a candidate like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was lionized for his ideological “purity.”
Voters are more diverse, both internally and externally. Five members of the same household might hold five diametric views on an issue. Or a single person might hold three different views that change from day to day, or even from room to room. “Members of the same community will often have much in common, many habits, attitudes, reactions, ways of doing things, beliefs,” Geuss observes. “However, it obviously does not follow from this that they share a single determinate, well-defined, explicit set of organized beliefs about the world.”
Is this a problem? Most of the time, most of us want to leave well enough alone. Our worldviews might not be the same, but they’re compatible enough to sustain our most important institutions: our churches and synagogues, our public schools and private universities, our households and our congress.
As the 2020 campaign marches on—now at a safe social distance—the country will continue to debate its problems and who exactly shares them. As Geuss notes, worldviews aren’t necessarily some “grand scientific theory of the universe” but something that “actively addresses particular people by name, telling them who they are and at the same time imposing on them an identity.”
To understand the identities that matter, political journalists would do better to focus not on the disease but on the patient who has the disease, as the physician William Osler advised. That means probing not just the voter identities that are readily apparent but also those that dwell in the depths of their fears and hopes, their personal stories and communal histories.
Who Needs a Word View?
By Raymond Geuss
Harvard University Press
Published May 19, 2020
Graham Ambrose is a reporter who covered the 2020 presidential caucuses for a daily newspaper in Iowa.