Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is being hyped as the “Democratic celebrity” of the moment. Buttigieg has been the subject of buzz since 2014, when the Washington Post called him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.” Now, Buttigieg is running for president, and headlines are appearing in New York and the New York Times like “Could Pete Buttigieg Become the First Millennial President?” and “The First Gay President?” Barack Obama has mentioned Buttigieg as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, he appeared at a well-received CNN town hall, FiveThirtyEight is charting his possible paths to the nomination (complete with inscrutable diagrams), and Buttigieg has been rising in the polls (even placing third in an Iowa poll after Biden and Sanders). He is still considered a long-shot. He’s only 37, and no one has ever gone directly from being a mayor to being a president, let alone the mayor of a city half the size of Boise. But of course, we live in strange times, and nobody had ever gone from firing D-list celebrities on a reality show to being president either, so if there’s one thing we should expect, it’s the unexpected.
If you know only one thing about Pete Buttigieg, it’s that he’s The Small-Town Mayor Who Is Making A Splash. If you know half a dozen things about Pete Buttigieg, it’s that he’s also young, gay, a Rhodes Scholar, an Arabic-speaking polyglot, and an Afghanistan veteran. If you know anything more than that about Pete Buttigieg, you probably live in South Bend, Indiana. This is a little strange: These are all facts about him, but they don’t tell us much about what he believes or what he advocates. The nationwide attention to Buttigieg seems more to be due to “the fact that he is a highly-credentialed Rust Belt mayor” rather than “what he has actually said and done.” He’s a gay millennial from Indiana, yes. But should he be President of the United States?
When he is asked about what his actual policies are, Buttigieg has often been evasive. He has mentioned getting rid of the electoral college and expanding the Supreme Court, but his speech is often abstract. In this exchange, for instance, a VICE reporter pressed Buttigieg to better specify his commitments:
VICE: I listened to you talk today. On the one hand, you definitely speak very progressively. But you don’t have a lot of super-specific policy ideas.
BUTTIGIEG: Part of where the left and the center-left have gone wrong is that we’ve been so policy-led that we haven’t been as philosophical. We like to think of ourselves as the intellectual ones. But the truth is that the right has done a better job, in my lifetime, of connecting up its philosophy and its values to its politics. Right now I think we need to articulate the values, lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that. And I’m working very hard not to put the cart before the horse.
VICE: Is there time for that? They want the list. They want to know exactly what you’re going to do.
BUTTIGIEG: I think it can actually be a little bit dishonest to think you have it all figured out on day 1. I think anybody in this race is going to be a lot more specific or policy-oriented than the current president. But I don’t think we ought to have that all locked in on day 1.
This is extremely fishy. First, while there’s a valid argument that “technocratic liberal wonkery” disconnected from values is uninspiring and useless, the left is not usually accused of being too specific on policy. Quite the opposite: The common critique is that behind the mushy values talk there are too few substantive solutions to social problems. Why does Buttigieg think telling people your values and coming up with plans are mutually exclusive? Why does he think having a platform means you believe you’ve got it “all figured out on Day 1”? Why treat policy advocates as “dishonest”? Why mention the extremely low bar of being “more policy-oriented than the current president?” And what use are values statements if you don’t tell people what the values mean for action? I’ve seen plenty of progressive policy agendas that don’t sacrifice values (e.g., Abdul El-Sayed’s plans, the U.K. Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto). A candidate who replies to this question with this answer should set off alarm bells.
But it’s not fair to fully judge a person by a single comment in an interview. Pete Buttigieg has just published a campaign book, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, that gives a much fuller insight into the way he thinks about himself, his ideals, and his plans. It has been called the “best political autobiography since Barack Obama,” revealing Buttigieg as a “president in waiting.” Indeed, I recommend that anyone considering supporting Buttigieg read it from from cover to cover. It is very personal, very well-written, and lays out a narrative that makes Buttigieg seem a natural and qualified candidate for the presidency.
It also provides irrefutable evidence that no serious progressive should want Pete Buttigieg anywhere near national public office.
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Before I dive into Shortest Way Home’s account of the life and career of Peter Buttigieg, let me be up front about my bias. I don’t trust former McKinsey consultants. I don’t trust military intelligence officers. And I don’t trust the type of people likely to appear on “40 under 40” lists, the valedictorian-to-Harvard-to-Rhodes-Scholarship types who populate the American elite. I don’t trust people who get flattering reams of newspaper profiles and are pitched as the Next Big Thing That You Must Pay Attention To, and I don’t trust wunderkinds who become successful too early. Why? Because I am somewhat cynical about the United States meritocracy. Few people amass these kind of résumés if they are the type to openly challenge authority. Noam Chomsky says that the factors predicting success in our “meritocracy” are a “combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, [and] self-serving disregard for others.” So when journalists see “Harvard” and think “impressive,” I see it and think “uh-oh.”
I try my best to be fair, though. I thought former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed was suspect because of his shiny résumé. But after examining his proposals and listening to his speeches, I realized he was the real deal. He had done well in school, but he was genuinely outraged by preventable human misery, talked openly about taking on corporate oligarchy, and had bold plans for revolutionizing health care, environmental policy, and just about everything else. I have lots of friends who are the products of elite institutions, but became critical of those institutions after being exposed to their inner workings. If Pete Buttigieg is one of those, great!
Pete Buttigieg is not one of those.
The first thing to say about Shortest Way Home is that while it is extremely well-constructed, it is not tremendously exciting. This is because Buttigieg’s life has been squeakily bland and respectable. He was born in an upper-middle-class family. His parents were both professors at Notre Dame. He did extremely well in school and took piano lessons and became the high school student body president. He won the “Profiles in Courage” essay contest. He went to Harvard.
To give a bit of color to the “from elite school boyhood to elite school undergraduate years” story, Buttigieg portrays himself as an Indiana hayseed for whom the bustling metropolis of Cambridge, MA was an alien world. So, even though he grew up on the campus of a top private university 90 minutes from Chicago, the Boston subway amazed him. “My face would[…] have stood out amid the grumpy Bostonians, betraying the fact that I was as exhilarated by the idea of being in a ‘big’ city as I was by the new marvels of college life.” He claims to have always found something “distant and even intimidating about the imagery” of being a student. His dorm was a “wonder” because it had exposed brick, “a style I’d only ever seen in fashionable restaurants and occasionally on television.” In a ludicrous passage, he suggests that he found the idea of a clock on a bank a wondrous novelty: “Looking up overhead, I could note the time on a lighted display over the Cambridge Savings Bank building. I felt that telling the time by reading it off a building, instead of a watch, affirmed that I was now in a bustling place of consequence.” Uh, you can tell time off a building on the Notre Dame campus, too, albeit in analog form—clock towers are not a unique innovation of the 21st century megalopolis. (I enjoy reading these “simple country boy unfamiliar with urban ways” sentences in the voice of Stinky Peterson from Hey! Arnold.) Calculated folksiness runs through the whole book. On the cover he is literally in the process of rolling up his sleeves, his collar blue, in front of a Main Street Shopfront. There is a smattering of exaggerated Hoosierism on many a page: “You can read the progress of the campaign calendar by the condition of the corn.”
But okay, that’s not unexpected. He’s a politician, from time to time they all have to stand by a truck on a dirt road and talk about corn. The first time I actually became concerned was when Buttigieg described Harvard Square. He writes that when he emerged off the Big City Subway, his “eyes darted around the lively scene.” He mentions the newsstand where you can “get exotic newspapers like La Repubblica or Le Monde” and the motley mix of characters he saw, like the “teenage punks” and someone passing out flyers for “something edgy like a Lyndon LaRouche for President rally or a Chomsky talk down at MIT.” (Same kind of thing, apparently.) There’s something amiss here though. These are indeed some of the impressions you might get setting foot in the Square. But there’s another fact about the world outside the Harvard gates that is instantly apparent to most newcomers: It has long had a substantial population of homeless people. In fact, it’s a scene as grotesque as it is eclectic: Directly outside the Corinthian columns of the richest university on earth, people wrapped in dirty coats are begging for a buck or two from passing students. Most of the university population has trained themselves to ignore this sub-caste, to the point where they don’t even see them at all, and Buttigieg is no different. The closest he gets is reporting “a mix of postdocs, autodidact geniuses, and drifters” at the Au Bon Pain. He doesn’t mention seeing injustice.
Perhaps just an oversight, though every time I’ve passed through Harvard Square it has been my signature impression. But there was soon something even more disquieting. Talking about politics on campus, Buttigieg says:
In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure—Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another—had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.
Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]
I find this short passage very weird. See the way Buttigieg thinks here. He dismisses student labor activists with the right-wing pejorative “social justice warriors.” But more importantly, to this day it hasn’t even entered his mind that he could have joined the PSLM in the fight for a living wage. Activists are an alien species, one he “strides past” to go to “Pizza & Politics” sessions with governors and New York Times journalists. He didn’t consider, and still hasn’t considered, the moral quandary that should come with being a student at an elite school that doesn’t pay its janitors a living wage. (In fact, years later Harvard was still refusing to pay its workers decently.)
If you come out of Harvard without noticing that it’s a deeply troubling place, you’re oblivious. It is an inequality factory, a place that trains the world’s A-students to rule over and ignore the working class. And yet, nowhere does Buttigieg seem to have even questioned the social role of an institution like Harvard. He tells us about his professors, his thesis on Graham Greene. He talks about how how interesting it is that Facebook was in its infancy while he was there. But what about all the privilege? Even Ross Douthat finds the school’s ruling class elitism disturbing! Buttigieg thought the place fitted him nicely.
9/11 happens while Buttigieg is an undergraduate and the rest of the book’s Harvard portion is spent musing on war and peace. One of the few things that does disturb him about the school is that its students are no longer expected to serve in the military. (In an extreme conservative tone, he suggests there was no excuse for a student like him not to voluntarily join the armed forces.) He says that he would spend time looking at the names of Harvard students who died in the Civil War, and that “I sometimes paused to recite a few of them, under my breath, between eating breakfast and going to class.” After the World Trade Center fell, he says, he realized that:
The infinite peace of Cold War promise was in fact a mirage, and we would be dealing with matters we thought our grandparents’ generation had settled, having to do with war, terror, and freedom.
“Matters having to do with” is pretty vague on the geopolitics, and his reflections on the War on Terror remain mostly at that level. He does say the PATRIOT Act “undercut” our freedoms, and observes that the Bush administration took “several quick steps down the slippery slope to torture.” When it comes to Iraq, though, he says something odd. Buttigieg takes pride in the fact that at a rally outside Harvard’s Science Center, he argued that the Iraq War did not meet the criteria for a “necessary war,” though he was convinced Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. After Iraq collapsed into “chaos,” he concludes, “we who were against the invasion had been wrong about the weapons, but right about the war. The administration had been wrong about both.” Hang on a minute, though: Plenty of people who were against the invasion had pointed out that the Bush administration was pulling the wool over the country’s eyes. UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter was a persistent voice insisting that Hussein’s supposed weapons stockpile was no more. It’s odd for Buttigieg to tar other protesters with his own credulity.
That’s a minor point. A more significant one is the way he talks about war. Buttigieg’s thesis was in part about Vietnam, which he calls a “doomed errand into the jungle.” The liberal vocabulary on wars like Vietnam and Iraq should trouble us. It says things like “doomed” and “mistaken,” (“a lethal blunder” that “collapsed into chaos,” to quote Buttigieg) its judgments pragmatic rather than moral. In doing so, it fails to reckon with the full scale of the atrocities brought about by U.S. government policy.
It also treats America as an innocent blundering giant with “the best of intentions.” Buttigieg quotes Graham Greene: “Innocence is like a dumb leper that has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” This is the Ken Burns line: We mean so well but we make terrible mistakes. It excludes the possibility that American leaders know full well what they are doing but simply do not care about the lives of non-Americans. And, in fact, it implicitly accepts the devaluation of non-American lives. Discussing the dissolution of Iraq into “chaos” (note: a word that obscures culpability), Buttigieg writes of “a reality on the ground that could no longer be denied amid rising American body count.” The Iraqi body count (over 500,000) is unmentioned, just as he leaves out the Vietnamese body count (in the millions). The phrase “reality on the ground” is used without any discussion of what that reality was for those who actually lived on the ground.
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After Harvard, it is off to Oxford, where Buttigieg takes up his Rhodes Scholarship with pride. This period of the Buttigieg bildungsroman flits by quickly, but we should pause to note something about the function of Rhodes Scholarships in elite credentialing. Andrew Sullivan—of all people!—wrote a 1988 article poking fun at this sought-after honor (“there is no more glittering prize a young American can win”), and noting that those who win it seem to possess “fecklessness, excessive concern that peasants be aware of their achievement, and a certain hemophilia of character.” They are chosen “not for their creative brilliance but for their slogging ability to make all the right career moves and please their elders.”
The Rhodes recipient, he wrote, is the“apotheosis of the hustling apple-polisher, the résumé-obsessed goody goody,” honorees often having a kind of “bland eugenic perfection.” They “are good at seeking and getting approval. They were good boys at every stage. They were the kind of guys who were editor of the yearbook in high school.” (Or the president of the senior class.) From Oxford, he said, the Scholars tend to take up unexciting but well-paying professional positions, such as working for McKinsey & Company. Sullivan predicted that a Rhodes scholar could never be president, because being president involves making decisions, which they would be unable to do. (Four years later, with the election of Bill Clinton, he was proved both wrong and right.)
You can see why Buttigieg was a perfect fit from this line in a New Yorker profile: “for much of his life, Buttigieg has been giving those around him the impression of extreme promise.” The “impression of extreme promise” rather than “the evidence of extremely sound moral character” is what gets you onto those 30-under-30 or 20-under-20 lists. And so it is no surprise that, after informing us that he got the highest possible grade in his Oxford course, Buttigieg narrates his next move as follows:
Knowing I would head back to America meant that there was less at stake for me in the grade, but I took pride in it even while sensing that the time had come to learn what wasn’t on the page and get an education in the real world.
Which is why I went to McKinsey.
Okay, pause for a moment. If you are Pete Buttigieg, at this point in your life you have the ability to take almost any job you want. These schools open doors, and you pick which one you go through. (Ask yourself: If I could do anything I wanted for a living, what would I do?) Pete Buttigieg looked inside himself and decided he belonged at… the world’s most sinister and amoral management consulting company.
McKinsey: “A place to learn”
McKinsey is in the news almost every week for some new horrendous deed, from advising Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” OxyContin sales to counseling dictators worldwide on how to build more efficient autocracies. A former McKinsey consultant recently wrote a long exposé of the firm’s crimes for Current Affairs. The writer did not equivocate:
[If you believe that capitalism’s] continued practice poses an existential threat to governments, the biosphere, and poor people the world over, then the firm’s role is that of a co-conspirator to a crime in which we are all victims. McKinsey is capitalism distilled. It is global, mobile, flexible, and unabashedly pro-market and pro-management. The firm has an enormous stake in things continuing more or less as they are. Working for all sides, McKinsey’s only allegiance is to capital. As capital’s most effective messenger, McKinsey has done direct harm to the world in ways that, thanks to its lack of final decision-making power, are hard to measure and, thanks to its intense secrecy, are hard to know. The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires. By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems, McKinsey shrinks the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo.
Pete Buttigieg does not recall his time at McKinsey with a sense of moral ambivalence. Today he says it might have been his most “intellectually informing experience,” and by that he doesn’t mean that he saw the dark underbelly of American business. No, he was “learning about the nature of data.” It was a thoroughly neutral experience, “a place to learn.” The most critical thing he will say is that he was “sympathetic” to those who think consulting careers less worthy than “public service.” But ultimately, Buttigieg only left McKinsey because it “could not furnish that deep level of purpose that I craved.” His sense of purpose. Have a look at the book: See if you can find a single qualm, even a moment’s interrogation of the nature of the company he worked for.
In fact, Buttigieg was asked in an interview what he thought of the company’s misdeeds. On the work pushing OxyContin, he replied that he “hadn’t followed the story.” On collaborating with the murderous Saudi government:
I think you have a lot of smart, well-intentioned people who sometimes view the world in a very innocent way. I wrote my thesis on Graham Greene, who said that innocence is like a dumb leper that has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
The dumb leper again! Man, Buttigieg never misses a chance to cite that thesis. Vietnam was poor innocent America wandering the earth and accidentally causing a million deaths. McKinsey consultants are poor, innocent, leprous invalids, too sweet and unworldly to notice that their client is Mohammed bin Salman.
Buttigieg even became a bit defensive, suggesting that consultancies might be singled out arbitrarily for ethical judgments:
You don’t see blanket denunciations of law firms that serve any number of these clients, because the thought is just, client service is what it is. And you serve people and represent their interest. But there seems to be a higher expectation of consultancies.
To which I can only say: You’ll definitely see blanket denunciations of law firms if you keep reading Current Affairs.
The Man For The Job
Since he was in grade school, listening to the adults talk, Pete Buttigieg says he had wondered: “Could political action be a calling, not just the stuff of dinner table talk?” At McKinsey, he was satisfied and untroubled, but had not found his Purpose or Calling. After a failed race for State Treasurer, he found his purpose in South Bend.
Here is one thing I keep noticing about Pete Buttigieg: When asked why he wants to hold an office, he talks much more about who he is than what he will do. Here’s his passage explaining why he wanted to be the mayor:
The reason to run—the ideal reason to seek any job—was clear: the city’s needs matched what I had to offer. The city was fearful of losing its educated youth, and I was a young person who had chosen to come home and could encourage others to do the same. Its politics were mired in the struggle between two factions of the Democratic Party, each with its own candidate in the race; I belonged to no faction, and could arrive without strings attached. … This didn’t just feel like an opportunity; it felt like a calling.
The city feared losing its youth and I was young. It was mired in factional struggle, and I was a person of no commitments. It was as if I was called by Destiny herself!
Here’s another remarkable thing you’ll notice throughout Shortest Way Home: When Pete Buttigieg reports having meetings with people, it’s usually party bosses and advisers rather than ordinary voters, around whom he often seems uncomfortable. In a city that is ¼ Black, the most visible encounter he has with a Black constituent is an extremely telling one:
A big man who was also a deacon at Mount Carmel, the fastest-growing black church in town, he leaned back in his seat and shifted between knowing glances at his fellow firefighters and piercing stares at us. He seemed interested but skeptical. ‘I like what I’m seeing, and I like what you’re saying. But how do I know you’re not just another sweet-talking devil trying to get my pants off?’
It was hard to think of a good answer to that, so I kept on with the pitch. ‘I don’t know about that, but you’ll be able to hold me accountable for what we achieve from day one…’ You could never be sure, but I felt our case was convincing…
The fireman gets it: Pete is a skilled rhetorician trying to get people’s pants off. How do you know the fireman is right? Because Pete can’t even think of an answer to this extremely simple question. If someone asks you “How do I know you’re not just some bullshitter?” and you’re not just some bullshitter, you can say “Because I have done X, Y, and Z. I have shown that I’m a person of my word. I have clear plans, and I can tell you why they’ll work, how they’ll help you, and exactly what I’m going to do to make sure they come about.” If, on the other hand, you are just some bullshitter, and your entire life experience up to this point has been going to Harvard and working for one of the world’s worst companies, you will flounder. You have no plans, no ideas, you have no record of good deeds and community service. He’s got you figured, and all you can do is “keep on with your pitch” and stammer the word “accountability.”
One thing I find remarkable is that when Buttigieg listens to other people, he’s not actually listening to them. Check out this little gem from when he’s figuring out if he can run:
I sat listening to anyone who would give me time—the redevelopment commission [first on the list, of course], the head of the local community foundation, the most respected black pastors on the West Side—to see what they thought of the city’s future, and to gauge what they might think of me.
Okay, true, he wants to know “what they thought of the city’s future” in addition to their thoughts on him, but note what he’s not asking them: What do you need from a mayor? What should a mayor do and can I figure out how to do it? He listens to gauge whether he should run, not to find out what community concerns were. Lest you think I’m being unfair to the passage, read the book: Try to find out what those Black pastors’ political priorities were. Try to determine what the Black fireman wanted from a mayor. Pete wasn’t curious enough to find out, so you won’t either.
Spoiler: Pete Buttigieg won an improbable victory and became the mayor of South Bend. And here’s where things get very interesting indeed.
As mayor, he says, he was “tech-oriented.” He was “fresh from a job in management consulting and eager to unlock whatever efficiencies could be found.” He wanted to “follow the data where it leads.” What does that mean? Buttigieg cites “app for pothole detection” and his “smart sewers” that used wi-fi-enabled sensors to more efficiently control wastewater flow. He was even willing to “follow the data” toward layoffs. He found that it would save money to put robotic arms on city garbage trucks and fire human trash collectors. Buttigieg was “prepared to eliminate the jobs,” in part because the robots “led to lower injury rates” (fewer injuries being the predictable consequence of fewer jobs). Buttigieg’s ruthlessly quantitative approach to municipal government leads an acquaintance to compare him to Robert McNamara, which leads to another musing on the folly of well-intentioned planners.
Buttigieg speaks of turning Indiana into a “Silicon Prairie,” filling the “once-moribund Studebaker corridor with data centers and start-ups.” He is giddy about the prospect of using “machine learning,” “big data,” and “artificial intelligence” in city government. Buttigieg talks about changing the town-gown dynamic between Notre Dame and South Bend. Usually when people talk about “town and gown” they refer to a class divide between the professional university and its working-class environs. To Buttigieg, however, it means creating “College Town 2.0,” a situation in which the college would share its talents with the city. He cites examples of Notre Dame students creating a micro-lending nonprofit for the community, and a student group presenting a slideshow on neuroplasticity to a group of recently-released ex-offenders.“This could be the future of what it means to be a college town,” he says.
Alright, so Buttigieg sounds like a bit of a Silicon Valley “growth is everything,” “we can make an app for that” kind of guy. So what? Well, so, I didn’t realize the whole way through Shortest Way Home that South Bend actually has a serious poverty problem! Over ¼ of its residents are poor. It’s not just that Buttigieg is interested in hooking the sewers up to wi-fi. (I’m a “sewer socialist,” I like progressive wastewater management.) It’s that he spends zero time in the book discussing the economic struggles of the residents of his city!
Did you know there’s a giant racial wealth gap in South Bend? You won’t if all you read about South Bend is Shortest Way Home. Oh sure, he takes us on an ambling tour through the city, shows us people kayaking on the old industrial canal, wanders under the railroad bridge, takes us to see live music in an abandoned swimming pool. He tells us about twilight on the river, the fish-stealing heron on his running route (“To some he is a villain… but to me he is an elegant bird.”) But have a look at Prosperity Now’s “Racial Wealth Divide in South Bend” report and see if you think these should really be the mayor’s narrative priorities.
South Bend African Americans make ½ of what South Bend whites make. They’re twice as likely to be in liquid asset poverty as whites. Their unemployment rate is nearly twice as high. Moreover:
The median African American household income level in South Bend is $14,000 lower than African American national average and they hold an income poverty rate of 40.2%, which is almost two times higher than the country average for African Americans.
As the report makes clear, the situation for Hispanic residents of South Bend is similarly disturbing.
What did Mayor Pete do about this? Well, to do something about it he might have had to care about it, and there’s no evidence from his book that he’s ever even thought about it. In fact, as I started reading about South Bend after getting through Shortest Way Home, there was a lot Buttigieg had left out. The eviction rate has been nearly three times the national average, a “crisis” among the worst in the country. If the word “eviction” appears in Buttigieg’s book, I did not notice it. The opiate crisis, homelessness, and gentrification are all serious issues in South Bend, but Buttigieg mentions them offhandedly if at all.
All of this made me go back and rethink one of Buttigieg’s proudest stories. Every time the media talks about Buttigieg, if they mention anything other than his résumé, it’s his signature initiative to deal with “blight.” Buttigieg says that when he took office, there were “too many houses,” that the main complaint he received from residents was about the proliferation of vacant homes. His major policy goal, then, was to “repair or demolish” 1,000 homes in 1,000 days, a number his staff thought impossible. The council president called this an initiative to “right-size the city” (“right-size” is a euphemism from the business world used to make layoffs sound like the simple reasonableness of a corporate Goldilocks). Thanks to his diligent, McKinsey-esque management, Buttigieg blew past the goal.
But news coverage of the plan makes it sound a little less savory:
By leveling fees and fines, the city leaned on homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished. In many cases, Buttigieg said, the homeowners proved impossible to find amid a string of active and inactive investment companies. In other cases, he said, they were unwilling or unable to make repairs.
Make repairs or have your house flattened? Wait, who were these people who were “unable” to make repairs? Were they, by chance, poor? Also, how did these houses become vacant in the first place? Were people evicted or foreclosed on? Look a little deeper into the coverage and you’ll find that this was not simply a matter of “efficient and responsive government,” but a plan to coerce those who possessed dilapidated houses into either spending money or having the houses cleared away for development:
Community advocates in poorer, often African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods began to complain that the city was being too aggressive in fining property owners over code enforcement. The city leveled fines that added up to thousands of dollars, in certain cases, to pressure homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished.
Buttigieg’s autobiography does not discuss the social implications of his plan. He brags about his “audacious goals” and “ambitious initiatives,” but questions of justice and injustice are absent.
And there are issues of justice in South Bend. In places, gentrification is apparently “gobbling up more of the smaller more middle class and more black parts of the neighborhood.” Last winter the city’s inaction on homelessness left “the chronically homeless to camp in the woods as temperatures drop[ped],” and activists say Buttigieg’s “leadership has fallen short on homelessness.” (Buttigieg declined to appoint a homelessness czar.) A charter school company (“Success Virtual Learning Centers”) is trying to introduce one of those most hellish of things, the “online charter school” where students sit in a bare room all day being taught by a laptop instead of a teacher. The school-to-prison pipeline is a serious problem, with black boys being suspended and kicked out of school. But community activists aren’t characters in Shortest Way Home, and you won’t hear about the actions of groups like Community Action For Education.
You will, however, hear a very weird story about the “police tapes.” In the book, Buttigieg defends himself from accusations in a scandal I’d never heard about. He talks about having to fire the city’s much-respected African American police chief, after the chief was investigated for allegedly blackmailing five white officers with illegally recorded tapes of them. It’s a complicated scandal, and I’m not quite sure I understand it, but there were apparently allegations that the tapes contained racial slurs, and at one point community activists were demanding that Buttigieg be impeached after he refused to release the tapes or disclose their contents. A portion of the book is dedicated to Buttigieg’s insistence that he exercised sound judgment and that this should not be held against him.
Instead, Buttigieg wants us to focus on his legacy, like “addressing a thousand vacant homes, staging for the 150th anniversary celebration of the city, and redesigning the two major arteries in our downtown streetscape.” He imagines traveling back in time to the bustling industrial South Bend of the Studebaker years, thinking about what they were missing out on and what they’d be impressed by if they saw his new, improved South Bend with lower unemployment and impressive rates of growth:
Those shopping there would never know the simple pleasure of a taco de chorizo, a chicken pad thai, or a California roll—all now taking their place alongside cheeseburgers and goulash as part of South Bend’s twenty-first-century menu. … They would surely appreciate the sewer sensor system, the 311 system, the law enforcement technology.
(Yes, if the African American residents of South Bend who came north during the Great Migration could be transported from the 1940s to today, I’m sure they would marvel at the California rolls and law enforcement technology, rather than sighing about the persistence of the income gap.)
Mayors can’t solve all problems. What’s disturbing about Buttigieg is that he doesn’t even seem very interested in the problems at all. Someone should ask him: Why does his book spend less time talking about poverty than about the time he played Rhapsody in Blue on the piano with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra? (“Technique sometimes took precedence over expressiveness” was the review of Buttigieg’s performance in the local paper, which sounds fitting.)
Is another type of municipal progressivism possible? Yes, it is. You may not be able to introduce Medicare For All as a small-city mayor (though some places are thinking about local Green New Deals), but there’s a lot you can do to expand democracy. How about these to start: Participatory budgeting. Citywide minimum wage. Municipal public banks. Social work/case management access in local libraries. Enforcing strict tenants’ rights. Lowering the voting age for city elections. Kicking out the charter schools. High-quality public toilets and napping benches. Safe injection sites and needle exchanges. Wage theft enforcement. Fighting state attempts to privatize public assets. The right to counsel in immigration and housing court. A co-op conversion fund to buy rentals and permanently convert them to affordable co-ops. A community land trust. Free public daycare and universal pre-K. Usury caps to keep aggressive lenders out of the city. Converting municipal utilities and vehicles to renewable energy. Requiring community benefits agreements for new developments. Diverting money from policing to mental health services and public housing, and reducing use of armed police officers to solve social problems.
That’s just a beginning. Creative, committed democratic socialists in city governments across the country are thinking hard about ways to create new progressive policies, small and large, using the power of local governments. Not that they object to throwing sesquicentennial celebration or installing public art or renaming streets. But they understand that in an unequal age, being in charge of a city means being in a real fight for the welfare of the people.
“I did not carry an assault weapon around a foreign country so I could come home and see them used to massacre my countrymen.”
This was an odd remark by Pete Buttigieg. Assault weapons are fine for shooting foreigners abroad, just not Americans over here.
Perhaps you think that’s an unfair spin on the remark. He apologized if it “came out wrong.” But from Buttigieg’s account of his time in Afghanistan, it doesn’t seem as if he has thought very hard about American militarism or empire. Buttigieg served overseas for seven months with naval intelligence, taking a hiatus from his mayoral duties. By his account, it was mostly uneventful, as the U.S. war was winding down and he spent most of his time either doing analysis at a computer terminal or driving gear through the city. He did not apparently meet a single Afghan who he thought worthy of naming in his book, and the people of Kabul appear as anonymous pieces of scenery. (In this respect they are like the Black people of South Bend or the homeless people of Harvard Square: nameless nonentities whose opinions Buttigieg has never sought.)
Buttigieg spends a lot of his time in Afghanistan googling things and meditating on why soldiers must die in wars that are largely over. He doesn’t have any serious criticisms to make of the military itself, and one can see how he’s the type of person who would pronounce himself “troubled” by Barack Obama’s clemency for Chelsea Manning. (Remember that Manning publicly exposed U.S. war crimes, a misdeed for which she was imprisoned and tortured.) The scope of Buttigieg’s self-awareness can be seen from the fact that, in recalling his ambivalence about deployment, he quotes a friend quoting G.K. Chesterton to him: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A morally serious person would realize that one American person’s inconvenience/adventure is another non-American person’s incinerated wedding party. Considering Buttigieg’s stance on Israel, totally oblivious to the mass killings and the brutality of occupation, we might worry about his commitment to restraining militarism.
The Encyclopedia Of Pete
Look, perhaps you think I’m being awfully nasty to poor boyish Buttigieg. I already told you I hate consultants. You might think I’m picking and choosing select quotes that make Pete Buttigieg look insipid, and burying the parts of his book where he sounds like a true progressive. I can already see the comments: A hit job. A smear. A presentation of all the bad with none of the good.
Fine. How about this: To see what Pete Buttigieg finds important, let’s look at the Index to Shortest Way Home. Helpfully, it contains an entry for “Buttigieg, Pete,” broken down into all the aspects of Pete Buttigieg’s life and political work. Let’s see what this “encyclopedia of Pete” shows:
I see a résumé longer than a CVS receipt. I do not see anything suggesting Pete Buttigieg is an organizer, activist, or really a left-winger of any kind. “Harvard education of.” “Campaign for office of.” “Crossfit phase of.” A lot about “bipartisan cooperation.” A lot about the city’s 150th anniversary celebration and the “data-oriented city administration.” Riding in a car with Barack Obama. “Symbolic role of.” “Online dating and.” A lot of “running routine on Mondays” references. Lots about running for positions. No “picket lines joined by” or “Justice For Janitors participation of.”
Buttigieg’s book is actually one of the strangest pieces of writing I’ve ever read by a “progressive.” Buttigieg doesn’t even seem to speak the language of progressivism. Justice. Workers. The powerless versus the powerful. It’s just not in here. Don’t believe me? Read the book! Oh, you’ll find a cursory reference here and there, perhaps something like the students were volunteering at homeless shelter or we need to think about people’s lives. In the story about his publicly coming out as gay, he mentions that he wished reporters would talk about poverty and hunger “that were impacting our city” instead. But you’ll get a lot more that’s completely apolitical: the origins of his husband’s tattoos, what it was like to first get Bluetooth, snowflakes on an Indiana winter morning, the biographies of his professors, a former mayor’s picky eating habits, etc. There is more about the snow in South Bend than the people of South Bend! By the time you finish Shortest Way Home you may be thinking what I was thinking: Where the hell is justice?
A Quick Digression On False Modesty
Do you know what false modesty is? I sometimes forget, because it can be a little tricky to distinguish between “false modesty” and over-the-top-but-sincere modesty. But false modesty is the insincere performance of modesty by an egotistical person, rather than excessive self-deprecation by a genuinely humble person.
I mention this because I’m not sure Pete Buttigieg understands the concept of false modesty. In this passage, he recounts an exchange with a well-liked City Hall security guard:
Curtis is working security today. In his brown county police uniform, sitting in his usual spot beside the X-ray and glancing at the monitor, he reaches out for our customary handshake.
“What do you know, Curtis?”
“Not much,” he replies.
False modesty. He’s retired from the city police, and seems to know half the city. His annual August birthday party brings hundreds of people to the yard of his ranch house…
Now, presumably, Buttigieg did not intend to insult Curtis here or accuse him of egotism. Everyone loves Curtis! Buttigieg was trying to say that Curtis is a pleasant, self-effacing guy. He’s too modest. But he doesn’t have “false modesty.”
I bet you’re thinking I’m being really pedantic right now. (“Yes, that is exactly what I am thinking.”) But I kept thinking about Buttigieg’s use of this phrase. It was strange, because Buttigieg’s father was a literature professor, and Buttigieg himself is a meticulous stylist, to the point where he has a snobby tendency to note misspellings on handmade signs. He knows everything about the English language, undoubtedly far more than I do. (I can’t diagram a sentence to save my life, and I am not just being modest.) Why do “modesty” and “false modesty” appear to mean the same thing to Buttigieg?
I think it’s because false modesty is a concept Buttigieg would find almost impossible to grasp. Buttigieg is one of those people who thinks Republicans are good folks whose values you can respect, even if you differ with them. The idea of “false modesty” requires you to be a little cynical about the world, to believe that there is a class of people out there who seem unpresuming but are actually shrewdly calculating. But Buttigieg didn’t notice any of this even when he was at Harvard, the global capital of false modesty. (See every admissions essay about one’s commitment to community service written by a future management consultant.) If you don’t notice the Machiavellians at McKinsey, you’re probably one of them.
Buttigieg might not understand false modesty, but we need to, because otherwise we might think every politician who pulls the “Aw shucks, I’m just a down-home Indiana boy” routine is just genuinely unaware of their own achievements. We won’t see how manipulative it is when a mayor writes their memoir of their humble surprise that a consulting firm was “willing to give me an interview for a post-MBA job” as a newly-minted Rhodes Scholar. (Little old Rhodes Scholar me!) Or when they mention that they humbly chose McKinsey’s Chicago division, even though it was “not the most glamorous office in the Firm.” Or when they humbly say that they were “not great” at the piano, just “skilled enough to play Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp Minor Prelude in competitions” and receive honorable mentions. Or when they casually drop mention of what a humble surprise it was to them that they got a First at Oxford after only having received straight-As their entire life up until that point.
Why was false modesty the only phrase in the English language that Buttigieg is incapable of using correctly? Because he’s the person for whom the phrase was invented. False modesty does not come from what people like Curtis are doing, it comes from public officials who write long bestselling memoirs about their call to service.
An “Alignment of Attributes”
As we’ve discussed in Current Affairs before, one of the main problems with liberal politics is that people think it should operate like The West Wing: You just pick the smartest and most credentialed people, and they’re the ones who should be solving the nation’s problems. (Jed Bartlet, coincidentally, is a former resident of South Bend, Indiana.)
Part of this emphasis on background and credentials is a kind of “demographic politics,” by which the demographic boxes a person checks are taken as indicative of their political potential. This is how Tim Kaine was selected as Hillary Clinton’s Vice Presidential candidate: He was from Virginia, went to Harvard, spoke Spanish, played the blues. Swing state appeal, competence, cosmopolitianism, “cool dad” factor: a perfect mix.
Pete Buttigieg is trying the same thing. Look at the number of boxes he checks. He’s from the Rust Belt so he’s authentic, but he went to Harvard so he’s not a rube, but he’s from a small city so he’s relatable, but he’s gay so he’s got coastal appeal, but he’s a veteran so his sexuality won’t alienate rural people. This is literally the level of political thinking that is involved in the hype around Buttigieg.
Buttigieg himself is quite explicit about pitching himself this way. Asked about why anyone should vote for him over other candidates, he did not cite a superior governing agenda. Instead he said:
You have a handful of candidates from the middle of the country, but very few of them are young. You have a handful of young candidates, but very few of them are executives. We have a handful of executives but none of them are veterans, and so it’s a question of: What alignment of attributes do you want to have?
Alignment of attributes? Are we building a Sims character? This is McKinsey-speak: optimizing candidate attribute matrix for maximal cross-national vote share. Unfortunately, many in the political press still find this meaningful. Have a read through the profiles and see how much time is spent thinking about Buttigieg’s Attribute Alignment versus asking him to name a single thing he plans to do to help working people.
A labor organizer friend of mine has a test he uses for politicians: When they talk, is it all about themselves, or all about the causes they care about? Do they talk incessantly about their Journey and their Homespun Values, or do they talk about people’s needs, the power structure, and how to build a more just world? Pete’s book is, for the most part, all about Pete. That’s not what you want.
But it’s a memoir. How could it not be all about him? Tell you what: Grab a copy of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution and crack it open. Look at the Table of Contents. What do you see? Page 1-185 is Part I, about how Bernie’s early life shaped his politics and why he feels his presidential campaign was important. Then from page 185-449 is Part II, “An Agenda For A New America: How We Transform Our Country.” The subsections are things like “defeating oligarchy,” “real criminal justice reform,” “health care for all,” “corporate media and the threat to our democracy,” and “protecting our most vulnerable.” In great detail, he lays out the problems that disturb him and the things we need to do to fix them. You are, in fact, allowed to write about things other than the essay contest you won in high school, how much you learned about big data during your time as a management consultant, and the time you played Gershwin with the local orchestra.
Here’s another good test for politicians, one that comes from the great socialist polemicist Alexander Cockburn. When working at the Nation, Cockburn used to ask his interns: “Is your hate pure?” If they said no or seemed confused, he just shook his head. At one point a young Ed Miliband, the future British Labour leader, happened to be working at the magazine. Cockburn posed his usual question, and Miliband “replied with shock that he did not, in fact, hate anyone.” “It tells you all you need to know,” Cockburn said. And it did.
Hate? Why should anyone need “pure hate” in them? Because the world is full of terrible injustice! If that injustice doesn’t absolutely enrage you, then your moral compass is busted. You don’t have to hate people, necessarily (though when I look at George W. Bush dancing on the Ellen show, and I think about the faces of Iraqi orphans, I seethe uncontrollably). You do at the very least have to hate the things that happen to people: the way some grow up with unbelievable privilege while millions of children are homeless (in the U.S. alone), the eviction of families in winter, the way American leaders can casually destroy the lives of foreigners without a second thought, the killing of children and journalists by our allies. The bumper sticker is right: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
There are two brief flashes of anger in Shortest Way Home. First, Buttigieg condemns Mike Pence for the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sanctioned anti-LGBT discrimination on religious grounds. Buttigieg says he felt “moral outrage,” but he spends more time lamenting that Pence had “set the Silicon Prairie on fire” just when it was becoming a “forward-looking place to do business, thanks to a fiscally disciplined state government, low taxes, and livable communities.” Pence’s Republican predecessor Mitch Daniels had been a “business-minded technocrat” (a good thing, in Buttigieg’s eyes) who was “eager to work across party lines.” Buttigieg says that bipartisan cooperation with Republicans like Daniels on economic issues “has little to do with stretching or changing your beliefs,” which is only true if you’re a neoliberal. But Buttigieg desperately wishes Pence could have been like Daniels, shunning “social issues” and forging a “bipartisan friendship” so that they could “work together on promoting growth.” But Pence insisted on being Ideological and Unpragmatic. (Weirdly, though they interacted regularly, Buttigieg does not seem to have actually confronted Pence about the RFRA: “I wish I could say I made a good effort to talk him out of it, but it was clear from the look in his eyes that he had made up his mind.” Profiles in courage. Buttigieg frequently moderates his outrage about fundamentalist bigotry, saying of Chick-fil-A that he “does not approve” of their politics but does approve of their chicken.)
Buttigieg gets angry a second time around Donald Trump’s immigration policy. He speaks movingly about the deportation of a South Bend man who had lived in the country for decades, with “not so much as a traffic ticket against his name.” The man was taken from his U.S. family and sent to Mexico. Buttigieg laments that as a city official, he was unable to do anything. (“I had little role other than to listen; a mayor can’t do much when it comes to immigration policy.”) But nearby Gary, Indiana declared itself a sanctuary city, and openly welcomed unauthorized immigrants. As far as I can tell, Buttigieg has not done the same for South Bend, and while he is upset at Donald Trump specifically, he doesn’t display the important insight that the cruelty of American immigration policy did not begin with Trump and will not be fixed by ousting him.
Unity Through Vacuity
I have heard many left-leaning people I respect say kind words about Pete Buttigieg, and treat him as a serious progressive presidential contender. What do they see in him?
I actually understand the appeal. Not just because of his “attributes” but because Buttigieg is very good at the “getting voters’ pants off” aspect of politics. He can say all the words you want to hear. So when he says things like “bipartisanship and appeal to independents [need not be] the same thing as ideological centrism,” I find myself nodding. When I watch a video of him talking about freedom, arguing in Rooseveltian language that we need freedom from want as well as freedom from outright oppression, I nearly cheer. He says the “system no longer works.” True! That we should think about “the concrete impacts of political decisions.” Yes! That we need to focus on “everyday lives.” We sure do! Cynicism is bad! Don’t ignore the red states! Hope! Change! Not the blue and the red, but the red, white, and blue!
But the question is always: What do you actually mean by this stuff? I remember one of my high school teachers always marked essays down when they drifted into “glittering generalities.” It was the right approach: If a statement can mean many things to many people, what are you sticking up for? What can we expect of you? You can always achieve unity through vapidity, but you can’t achieve anything else.
In Buttigieg’s unsuccessful race for DNC chair, we can see this same lack of clear intent. On the reason for his presence in the race, he said he could “transcend an emerging internal struggle between its establishment wing and its new left,” whatever that means. And if Buttigieg was not in the race:No one would be seen as speaking for the dynamic, hopeful communities whose stories could be distilled into an antidote to the prevailing cynicism about Washington-driven politics. Buttigieg was wary of the DNC because he would have to lead an “extremely partisan existence,” but wanted to bring “honest and optimistic politics” that was “not being afraid to talk about our values.” There had been a “loss of decency” and he would have a “values-led message.” (Sometimes it seems as if Buttigieg’s values are the word “values.”) Buttigieg lost the election badly, but set himself up for his 2020 run. The DNC campaign is noteworthy, though, for its initial demonstration of what “nationwide Buttigiegism” would mean: rhetoric about bridging divides, Optimism and Honesty (the new Hope and Change), and the barest pretense that Buttigieg’s career moves are about anything except advancing Buttigieg himself to the next rung of the political ladder.
In the last five minutes of his political life, Buttigieg has started making some radical noises, as is necessary to compete in a Sanders-dominated primary. Buttigieg is smart, and I think people should be warned: He’s probably going to say a lot of good stuff. He’s probably going to sign on to major left initiatives, or even try running to the left of Sanders somehow. (“You want to put two more justices on the Supreme Court? How about twelve?”) You’re going to nod, you’re going to cheer, you’re going to say “Wow, he’s really speaking our language.”
But here’s a fact about Pete Buttigieg: He picks up languages quickly. He already speaks seven of them, and you can find stories online of him dazzling people by dropping some Arabic or Norwegian on them. The lingo of Millennial Leftism will be a cinch for Pete. He will begin to use all the correct phrases, with perfect grammar. The question you should ask is: What language has he been speaking up until now?
Let me say it one more time for extra emphasis: Pete Buttigieg is going to make good points and make them well. He’s not a dummy. He will adopt proposals you like. In his “Letter from Flyover Country” he touches very briefly on some issues that go undiscussed in the book, such as “dishonest banking practices.” He says that fairness is good and we should have more of it. As he realizes that people care about these things, he will talk about them more. But compare this with Elizabeth Warren’s set of new policy plans, compare Shortest Way Home’s tech-driven governance with Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, and compare Buttigieg’s “I don’t think it’s honest to be specific” thing with the way Warren began her campaign, talking about the centuries-long struggle of the labor movement before spitting out policy plan after policy plan.
There’s one small fact about Pete Buttigieg that I have found intriguing: In high school, he won the “Profiles In Courage” essay contest by writing about Bernie Sanders. Maybe he was a secret socialist? I’m afraid he wasn’t. In his book, Buttigieg says Sanders wasn’t even his first choice of subject—he originally wanted to write about gun control proponent Carolyn McCarthy, but found out someone had already written a winning essay on her. Buttigieg’s respect for Sanders didn’t reflect sympathy with Sanders’ socialist politics, but was about the fact that he “succeeded by being totally transparent and relentless about his values” and “came by his values honestly.” Sanders “often worked across the aisle,” and the essay also “lamented that a strong conservative like Pat Buchanan,” who also had Values, had been booted from the GOP.
We are already being informed that Pete Buttigieg can “package himself as a young Bernie Sanders.” And in fact, he’s doing so by throwing Actual Bernie Sanders under the bus: The problem with the world is that old people ruined it.
His campaign’s main theme, which he calls intergenerational justice—he believes that millennials are suffering from their elders’ short-term thinking on climate change, economics, and other issues.
This is false, though. There are poor old people who are bagging groceries in their 70s, and there are rich old capitalists who own the world. There are young people who are bartenders in Queens, and there are young people earning six figures at multinational consulting firms. “I think we really hit on something with this idea of intergenerational justice,” Buttigieg has said. You sure did. You hit on a way to sound like a millennial leftist without having to talk about class and economics. (Buttigieg knows that he will be seen as more leftist than he actually is because he looks like a student. His chief of staff, Kathryn Roos has said that with young politicians, “people elect you because they want change. Even if you don’t run on change, your face kind of says that.”)
I’ll try to shut up about Bernie, but seriously: Look at page 3 of Our Revolution, in which he lists what his Democratic Party stands for, from a $15 an hour federal minimum wage to breaking up the banks. Then read Buttigieg talking about how his aim was to “generate economic growth and maintain confidence in the business community,” and he thought he’d be a good mayor because he had a “professional background in economic development and was fluent in the language of business.” He’ll tell you what his goals were: “to grow jobs by simplifying business process, to set up a 311 line for customer service, and to deal with the hundreds of boarded-up vacant homes in our neighborhood.” I am sorry, but that’s not enough.
How The Hype Machine Works
“Mayor Pete is fresh, he’s untainted… He has an entirely different story than any other politician in our lifetime.” — a wealthy Upper West Side Democrat, quoted in the New York Times
Mayor Pete does not have an entirely different story than any other politician in our lifetime. He has the same story they all have. David Axelrod has gushed: “His story is an incredible story.” Is it? The son of two professors at an elite university goes on to several different elite universities, serves an uneventful seven-month tour of duty in the Navy, and then becomes the technocratic mayor of the city his parents’ university is in? Ilhan Omar has an entirely different story than any other politician. So does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This man is the story of the American elite.
The myth-making here is going to be intense. The profiles are already streaming forth. The New York Times covered his wedding by wondering if Buttigieg would be president. You will be sold Buttigieg’s small-town milliennial neoliberalism the way they’re trying to sell you Beto O’Rourke’s skateboard neoliberalism. Hey kids, you like Medicare For All? So does this guy! But he’s young and from the Midwest and likes Hamilton! Bernie is old. You don’t need an old man. You need young hip progressivism.
Do not be deceived by this. Look into the actual records of these candidates. Get their shitty books and scrutinize them closely. A lot of money is going to be flowing toward tricks like this, as frantic Democratic elites try to push someone like Buttigieg in order to prevent a Sanders nomination. They know Buttigieg is one of them; they see “McKinsey” and realize they’ll come to no harm. But they hope you don’t see what they see. It has been the same over and over: Hey kids, Tom Perez isn’t any different from Keith Ellison! No need to do anything rash now! At every turn, bandwagon-hopping frauds are going to mouth the latest slogans. Abolish ICE? Yeah dude! I’ll abolish the fuck out of ICE.
You can see it in the press coverage. Here’s what the New Yorker writer concluded:
I began to see [Buttigieg] not as a counterweight to the radicalization of his Party but as an expression of it. If the cautious, studious, improbably ambitious Rhodes Scholar in the race, who emphasized the necessity of meeting middle America where it was, was himself supporting the abolition of the Electoral College, then that suggested that the generational transformation of the Party had been completed.
It does suggest that things have changed. But it doesn’t suggest that Pete Buttigieg is actually a radical. It’s just that the consultants all have to be a bit more careful now.
Pete Buttigieg will be in the debates, and he will be good. There will probably be all kinds of profiles about the “breakout star” of the first debate. “Is Sanders finished?” Slate will ask. “Pete Buttigieg Out-Sandersed Sanders,” the Atlantic will insist. Joe Hagan will travel with him, accompanied by Annie Leibovitz. They’ll talk about how he’s a fit, world-weary Afghanistan survivor who is still “most alive when discussing James Joyce.” There will be a long puff piece about how Buttigieg squares his sincere religious commitments with his gay identity. (Actually, while New York calls him “openly Christian,” if God appears in Shortest Way Home I could not find Him. The chapter epigraphs are from Lincoln, Keynes, James Joyce, Michael Collins, and Hilary Mantel.)
Always watch for the qualifiers. The Times says Buttigieg is a man of “quiet rebellion.” A quiet rebellion is not a rebellion. “In his own understated way, he is suggesting a sharp break with the past.” Suggesting. Understated. These words mean “he is not actually a break with the past.” “Ideologically, Mr. Buttigieg is a progressive — sometimes an adventurous one.” Sometimes. “At the very least, Axelrod said, Buttigieg was likely to emerge from this ‘an interesting voice from his generation.’” Interesting: the fallback word for when something has no meaningful other qualities worthy of note.
Demand the evidence. Examine the record. We have got to learn to see through this stuff. You have to look at what they did and said before it was politically opportune to say what they’re saying now. Five minutes ago, Pete Buttigieg was “the management consultant making the South Bend sewers run on time.” Now he’s suddenly a radical who want to pack the Supreme Court. From Mitt Romney to Eugene Debs in a single news cycle.
A Plea for No More Petes
Why? Why have I spent so long talking about the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, an underdog candidate for the presidency? Why have I been so relentlessly negative? Because I see what this is, and I see how these things go, and we can’t afford to make this mistake again. No more Bright Young People with their beautiful families and flawless characters and elite educations and vacuous messages of uplift and togetherness. Give me fucked-up people with convictions and gusto. Give me real human beings, not CV-padding corporate zombies.
If we are lucky, Buttigieg Fever will dissipate quickly when people realize this guy is the same rancid wine in a new wifi-enabled bottle. “Hah, remember when Pete Buttigieg became a thing for a hot second?” It will be remembered as neoliberalism’s last gasp, a pitiful attempt at co-optation that was met with a unanimous reply of “Nice try.” Let’s hope to God that’s how this goes.
But let me finish by reminding you why this matters. It matters because of the people Buttigieg doesn’t see, the people who aren’t in the index of his “beautiful” book with its “classic American success story” of “humility and tentativeness.” Read this recent Washington Post profile of Monica Diaz, who is 40 years old, went to college, has a full-time job, and is still having to live in a tent because the rent is too high and her pay is too low. Think about the people who have to launch GoFundMe campaigns for their insulin, and those like Shane Boyle who die when they can’t make their goal.
These things should make you fucking angry. You should not be able to stop thinking about them. Your hate should be pure and should burn white hot. If you find pothole locator apps more compelling than the lives of people like Monica Diaz, then there is something wrong with you. Get out of politics. Take the shortest way home and stay there.
We need representatives who are all about the lives of people like Monica Diaz and Shane Boyle.
Pete Buttigieg is all about Pete Buttigieg.
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