The Democratic nominating contest has started out weird, and is still getting weirder. Journalists covering the race are falling all over themselves to present fawning profiles of two of their favorite candidates: Robert O’Rourke, a failed senatorial candidate from Texas (who did very little when he served in the House), and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of Indiana’s fourth largest city. Some attention has even less explicably been directed at Andrew Yang, an earnest, bright fellow would like very much to be president, if you please.
The attention lavished on these men at the expense of more successful politicians has taken strange forms. This month, we have heard about Yang’s policy position (he has many policy positions) on circumcision, which you would think Democrats would call a private decision between a baby and his doctor. Even more uselessly, we have heard O’Rourke’s and Buttigieg’s dueling positions on the works of James Joyce, a subject guaranteed to relate to the concerns discussed around dinner tables from Youngstown to Bakersfield.
The navel-gazing by some of America’s leading political writers makes sense, because in O’Rourke, Buttigieg, Yang, and others, they are looking at people like themselves. The right schools, the right hobbies, the right books, the right interests. They know the same people and talk about the same ideas.
The problem is that writers don’t really represent America. They are a self-selecting class of nerds, when most Americans know in their hearts that nerds cannot lead this country. Given the choice, Americans will pick a jock president over a nerd every time.
What Constitutes a Jock or a Nerd?
Let’s define our terms. We all have a gut feel for what “nerd” and “jock” mean. We’ve all seen the ‘80s moves whose plots centered on the conflict between these groups of eternal sworn enemies. In those days, the jocks were the cool kids. The athletes, yes, but also the broader class of people who felt like society’s natural leaders.
It was an informal aristocracy, bestowed not by test scores (although a jock can be smart), birth, sex, class, or race. It came more from the collective perception of a quintessence of irrefutable coolness. (Apologies for “quintessence.” I am a writer, and obviously a nerd.)
The nerd, too, is readily identifiable. We think of a specific combination of intelligence and awkwardness, but it goes beyond that. The nerds are systematizers, people who put a lot of thought into things and come up with intricate schemes of the world. They have the answers for everything, whether those answers are right or not, which leads non-nerds to disdain them as know-it-alls. (Devising an elaborate nerd-jock axis is, itself, very nerdy.) Just as jocks take pride in their physical strength, manual skill, or all-around likability, nerds’ delight is in their brains and curiosities.
How this affects our political choices has been hinted at before. Every modern presidential election brings up the conversation about which candidate you would rather “have a beer with.” Which candidate “cares about people like me?” Who is relatable, who is authentic, who is sincere? These are all different ways of asking, “Which of these people is cool, and which is a nerd?”
Describing the traits that make jocks and nerds also show which is likely to be more numerous in society. Jocks’ primary attributes vary. The name I’ve picked for this article, “jock,” relates to sports, but it could just as easily be “bro” or “cool.” There are lots of ways to be cool; there’s only one way to be a nerd.
Jocks organize their lives and present themselves in a variety of ways: athletes, soldiers, physical laborers, hard workers, ladies’ men, hard-charging businesspeople, and more. Nerds, even those who are not actually that bright, have one organizing principle: I know better than you, and this chart I’ve made shows why. Jocks, by default, are more numerous.
Jocks Will Always Reign Supreme
Americans have long looked to the jocks as our natural leaders. When delegates left the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they knew they had designed the presidency with one man in mind: George Washington.
Was Washington intelligent? Certainly, but that was not why they selected him unanimously in 1788 to preside over this new union of states. Washington’s virtues were his leadership in war and in peace, his honesty, his principles, but also his pragmatism in applying those principles. He was also said to be the greatest horseman of his day, a trait that is the nearest analogue to athletic prowess in an age where team sports were not played by grown men. George was a jock.
Washington’s nature proved crucial in the republic’s early years. Everything he did as president set the pattern that his successors would follow. Any missteps could easily lead to ripple effects that would tear the republic apart. Washington’s thoughtful pragmatism left a firm foundation for his successors, and his personal virtue and dignity gave them all an example to which to aspire.
Even his final act, limiting himself to two terms, showed humility and proved to the world that he did not think himself indispensable to the republic anymore, even if he had been once. On such strong foundations, the 19th-century presidency did not really need a strong leader after Washington.
That was because the separation of powers and limited government of the Founders and Framers left us less in need of a leader in peacetime. When trouble did call again, though, it is notable that America knew instinctively that jock leadership was crucial. As disunion over slavery threatened, the Republican Party made the crucial decision to nominate an uncouth wrestler and raconteur from the frontier, Abraham Lincoln, instead of the better educated, more refined choices of William Seward and Samuel Chase (nerds).
Lincoln was intelligent: largely self-taught, he became a successful lawyer in Illinois. But cool intellect was not what made him great. Lincoln’s pragmatism, his vision, and his natural ability to charm people made him a natural leader. That, added to his reputation as a wrestler, made him a jock. America needed a jock.
When the South seceded—based largely upon theories by notorious nerd John C. Calhoun—the United States needed Lincoln to bring us back together. Had the country been led by, say, John C. Frémont (the 1856 nominee), the war would have been about two competing extreme visions, and the North might well have lost it. (Frémont is hard to quantify on the nerd-jock axis. He’s a kind of vigorous, physically brave nerd that has almost vanished today. In the 21st century, he would play video games professionally.)
Instead, we had Lincoln, who insisted on two principles that could not be denied: abolish slavery and restore the union. On everything else, he built coalitions, drew men together, and worked toward the proper ends by every legitimate means.
Jock Needed to Govern Government Expanded by Nerds
The nerd-jock axis became more important as America’s president became less of a chief magistrate and more of a national leader. It is ironic that the nerd ideology of progressivism has led us to this point: by centralizing government power and dramatically expanding its application, progressives made it inevitable that the president would need to be someone capable of transcendent leadership. The government expanded by nerds can only truly be led by a jock.
Despite this, nerds are more powerful in America today than ever before. There are two reasons. First is that since the end of the Cold War, we have not looked for the same serious leadership qualities in our presidents. Second, the rise of the tech economy has made a lot of nerds very rich—so rich, that they think they ought to be in charge. But still, Americans tend to prefer jock leadership.
The 2000 election was the perfect example of the dynamic. No one would dispute that George W. Bush was the jock candidate and Al Gore the nerd. Because of the interlude of peace and prosperity that followed the Cold War, though, people thought they needed less of the traditional leadership skills from a president and more technocratic management, so Gore nearly won.
We were lucky that things worked out how they did. Can anyone imagine Gore giving this speech amid the ruins of the twin towers?
He certainly couldn’t have pulled this off a few days later.
That was leadership, and Bush had a jock’s gift for it. No one ever heard a Gore speech and started chanting U-S-A. Bush had Yankee Stadium chanting it without saying a word. That is the talent Americans search for in a leader. It’s what pollsters attempt to measure with all of the awkward “have a beer with” questions. And Bush had it to spare.
The Jock Framework Partially Explains Trump
The question still matters today. It helps supply a solution to the question many left-leaning journalists and pundits struggle to answer about 2016: how could Trump win? How could anyone think he was better qualified than Hillary Clinton?
Many of the voters looked at the candidates and saw one jock and one nerd. The difference was more acute based on where the voter stood. People who thought America was in peril needed a leader to pull us out of it; those who thought everything was fine just wanted a steady hand on the wheel. The choice, for the first group, was based on that indescribable quality of leadership.
It’s a choice that will be played out again in 2020. If the Democrats want to win this time, they need a candidate who is more than the sum of his spreadsheets. O’Rourke has some cool tendencies—he was in a punk band, he skateboards—but also some nerdy ones. Buttigieg and Yang join Cory Booker on the nerd end of the axis. Elizabeth Warren—basically Hillary with high cheekbones—is a nerd’s nerd, and the preferred candidate of Democrats who cannot learn from their mistakes. Bernie Sanders is a nerd, because almost all communists are nerds. None of these people would present a different feel in 2020.
Not every Democratic candidate is wearing a pocket protector. Joe Biden is an old jock, but a jock nonetheless. Amy Klobuchar is a jock, and if you call her a nerd she’ll punch you in the face. Kamala Harris has some jock tendencies, like most career prosecutors do. And Tulsi Gabbard presents an image of vigor and strength that, along with a flexible worldview, makes her quite jockish. (Kirsten Gillibrand is also a flip-flopper, but somehow still a nerd.)
The right Democrat can certainly beat Trump, if that person can appeal to a greater cross-section of the country. The real question is: are there enough jocks left in the Democratic Party to know which candidate is the right one? Progressivism and socialism are nerd ideologies, but this is also the party that once nominated cool jocks like Bill Clinton and John Kennedy.
If they can do so again, they may be able to convince voters in America’s heartland to throw some electoral votes their way. If not, our current jock of choice is looking at four more years.