political cringe

or, Why You Don't Like Pete Buttigieg

Are we ready to have this conversation?

I’m asking for two reasons—the first is that my former boss seems to trigger a visceral and disproportionate reaction from people, especially a certain type of Very Online™️ person for whom he is the political equivalent of the word moist.

And the second is that it’s a hard conversation.

Politics is personal and whether or not a voter responds to a politician is dependent on so many factors—both internal and external—that it’s easy to speak too broadly. Biases around race, gender, and sexuality complicate our discussion. And we cannot forget that likability is ultimately a question of taste and sensibility—which are class proxies.

Like I said—it’s a hard conversation, requiring a lot of nuance.

We did not get a nuanced online discussion of Pete Buttigieg during the primaries.

He was a second-generation communist and he was was a closet Republican. He was too gay and he was not gay enough. He was an evil genius that rigged bread prices in Canada. He was the ineffective mayor of a college town. He was a fake polyglot. He was both hokey and manufactured; a robot, a rat, a research experiment, and a CIA operative. Too good to be true, too much of a boy scout; a liar, a cheater, and a thief.

While working on the campaign I hung out with Pete and Chasten a couple times, but I also met Pete’s friends from college and his employees in City Hall and the residents of South Bend and Pete’s mother and his high school teacher and the band that played at his wedding. His childhood best friend was our campaign manager. Staff got drinks at the bar that he frequented and we shopped in the same Target as him and if there was some secret underbelly to Pete Buttigieg we would have seen it. But there was nothing in any of those experiences that matched the man being portrayed online. It was like the internet was shadowboxing with a caricature of Pete Buttigieg.

And the internet’s dislike for the caricature that they created soon became it’s own storyline.

How the Internet Came to Loathe Pete Buttigieg. Why Young Progressives Hate Pete Buttigieg. How Pete Buttigieg has drawn the fury of the online left. Why Pete Buttigieg Enrages the Young Left. I Spent a Week Interrogating My Dislike of Pete Buttigieg and These Are My Findings. Everybody Hates Pete. Why Do Some People Dislike Pete Buttigieg So Intensely? Everyone had an opinion about Pete.

And while I know it’s late, I think I’m finally ready to throw my take on the pile.

But before we get started—here are some obvious statements that I’m nonetheless going to type because if I don’t people will get mad at me:

  1. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you did or did not like a candidate and this post is not about shaming you for your political or policy preferences.

  2. If your dislike for Pete Buttigieg was based in his policies, his experience, or some other tangible and equally applied standard than this is not about you.

  3. If your dislike for Pete Buttigieg was limited to a couple of tweets and a vote for a different candidate during the primary, then, again, this is not about you.

  4. Pointing out that a thing exists is not a value judgement about the thing.

Now that that is said and out of the way, allow me to get this ball rolling.

(*takes a deep drag off a menthol cigarette*)

Pete Buttigieg is a little bit cringe.

Cringe is a form of social friction.

It is that feeling you get when you remember that time you pushed instead of pulled on that glass door and ran right into it. It is the time you called your teacher Mom or that time you walked out of a restroom with your shirt tucked into your underwear. It’s spending an entire night calling someone by one name only to realize in the Uber home that that isn’t their name—not even close—and feeling mortified. Cringe is the feeling we get when we’ve accidentally brushed against an informal social boundary.

According to Melissa Dahl's book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, cringe is

the intense and visceral reaction produced by an awkward moment, an unpleasant kind of self-recognition where you suddenly see yourself through someone else’s eyes. It’s a forced moment of self-awareness, and it usually makes you cognizant of the disappointing fact that you aren’t measuring up to your own self-concept.

In society, cringe acts as a policing mechanism based in emotion that—in order to ease or remove social friction—punishes us when we violate accepted norms.

And it’s a punishment that is just as strong in our memory as in the moment.

Remember that time you locked your car door right as someone was walking beside it and they looked at you a little hurt as if you locking your door was you saying you didn’t trust them specifically as opposed to the world more generally? Remember that feeling of cringe? It’s still as strong today as it was in that parking lot ten years ago.

And cringe is more than just internal punishment.

YouTube video essayist and entertainer Natalie Wynn, also known as ContraPoints, has perhaps the most detailed explanation of internet cringe.

Her basic argument is that internet cringe culture is complex and probably darker than most people realize. We don’t just cringe at ourselves online—in fact, there is an online ecosystem built around cringing at other people. And while sometimes our internet cringe can come from a place of empathy and mutual embarrassment, we also frequently cringe at people with contempt and misplaced anger or disappointment.

Watch her video, but for now—a chart:

Embarrassment Based Cringe can be directed at either yourself or other people, and it is a form of cringe based on empathy—because either you are doing the cringe and you’re embarrassed or because someone else is being cringeworthy and you can relate.

For instance, we all know the embarrassment of not muting a headset correctly.

Contemptuous Based Cringe can also be directed at either yourself or other people, but it has two different underlying facts—the first is that it is a form of cringe based on contempt and mockery, and the second is that the person causing the cringe is often oblivious (or seems oblivious) to the ways in which their behavior is cringeworthy.

ContraPoints uses the example of American Idol.

It is not cringeworthy to be a bad singer—when the office gathers around a cake to badly yodel Happy Birthday to a co-worker nobody calls that performance cringe because nobody expects Happy Birthday to be sung well. But if you believe yourself to be good enough to audition for American Idol and then fail spectacularly in front of Randy and Paula and Simon—well, that’s more than a little cringe.

Just like with compassionate cringe, you perceive that the person is embarrassing themselves, but instead of feeling embarrassment on their behalf you feel annoyance and disgust…and maybe even a little schadenfreude….My sense that [the singer] deserves it suppresses my compassionate response and helps remove any guilt that I may otherwise have for taking pleasure in someone's humiliation.

To return to an idea from Dahl's book Cringeworthy—the disappointment or the failure to meet the societal expectation is the source of the cringe, and then that cringe is externalized into annoyance, disgust, and schadenfreude directed at the cringeworthy.

But what happens when someone enjoys feeling contemptuous cringe?

What happens when that annoyance or disgust isn’t being yelled at a television, but is instead put on the internet? What happens when the algorithms lift that outrage into people’s feeds and it’s rewarded with the dopamine hit of likes and retweets? What happens when you do it again and again—going back to the same targets repeatedly?

What happens when cringe is weaponized against someone?

Morbid Cringe is what happens when contemptuous based cringe meets an internet always looking for the next lolcow it can milk for humilitainment. It is an obsessive fascination rooted, according to Natalie Wynn, in the need (or want) to feel superior to the cringeworthy transgressor. They’re so cRiNgE!!!! If I EVERRR did that KILL ME!

(*deep beleaguered sigh*)

Our internet is deeply broken.

It is a culture defined by a sort of post-ironic nihilism that finds if not pleasure then at least an algorithmic incentive in contemptuously cringing at people. It is a system that uses cringe as a weapon to not only police a very narrow framework of what’s cool to post on the internet, but to punish those who act outside its constraints. Divorced from any sort of personal connection, it’s much harder for compassion to restrain us.

Especially when what we’re contemptuously cringing at is political.

I should clarify that I don’t contemptuously cringe at Pete Buttigieg.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours around him or looking at videos of him or writing copy for him or reading his plans or all the little things you do when you’re on a campaign that keeps a candidate’s voice inside your head. I have a lot of empathy towards Pete and I see his occasional awkwardness with compassion even if it makes me cringe.

But why is it so easy to cringe—compassionately or contemptuously—at Pete?

It’s because so little about him fits the modern internet’s vibe. He does not conform to mass culture. He is not ironic and he is definitely not nihilistic. He is not jaded and he refuses to feign detachment in order to look cool for strangers on the internet. His self worth was not built up by the internet and because of that he can sometimes seem oblivious to the obvious ways in which he is bumping up against its social norms.

And as we’ve discussed before, those barriers are heavily policed by cringe cops.

They cringe at him for being over-earnest, having bad comedic timing, and for being an awkward dancer. It’s cringe that he has a similar speaking cadence as President Obama and it’s cringe that he has a similar speaking cadence as Vice President Pence. It’s considered cringe for him to support Notre Dame, to overzealously prepare for a debate, or to talk about things like the heartland or American values and freedom.

His celebrity supporters are cringeworthy and when he spoke ineloquently about Kobe that was totally cringe and him liking Panic! at the Disco is, like, super cringe!

Some think it’s cringe that he has a husband.

It’s an obsession that’s lasted long past the primaries. For instance, during a fundraiser with Cher, Pete made a joke that made some Very Online™️ people cringe loudly:

Large swaths of the internet spend an incredible amount of time engaged in a morbid cringe obsession with Pete—channeling their annoyance at his earnestness, seeming perfection, and Midwestern mentality into tweet after tweet after tweet. They feel as if Pete should be embarrassed of himself and because he isn’t their cringe turns toxic.

His refusal to tailor himself to the internet means he is a consistent source of cringe.

It’s why so many people online hate Pete Buttigieg.

And based on everything that I’ve read and explained today, I understand why he brings out those feelings in them. And I understand why they’re behaving that way.

But I’ve also seen how that authenticity and steadfast sense of self helped propel him from the mayor of the fourth largest town in Indiana into a contender. I watched how his refusal to give into the internet’s demands for conformity built him one of the strongest online fandoms. I’ve watched it build bridges across communities.

Not because fans aren’t cringing also—just ask #TeamPete and they’ll freely admit to cringing at Pete from time-to-time. But they cringe with him because they empathize with a world telling them that their passion and earnestness and nonconformity are cringeworthy. And his refusal to bend has given some of them that same strength.

It’s helped build a sense of belonging.

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