Pete Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-edge), mayor of South Bend, Indiana is running for president. His candidacy is a long-shot compared to democratic front-runners like former vice president Joe Biden or senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Nevertheless, he’s worth watching for the window he offers into his generation: millennials.
Buttigieg is 37 years-old, and while twice-elected mayor of South Bend, his first splash into the political scene was with the winning essay he wrote in the year 2000 for the JFK Presidential Library and Museum’s “Profile in Courage” contest. His chosen topic? Bernie Sanders.
While it is safe to say the mayor is to left of me politically, there are elements of his essay that resonate and which I believe paint a more accurate picture of our generation’s approach to politics — or, at least, another side to the story. Too often, our political discussion — especially when one generation is critiquing another — devolves into grouchy name-calling because the terms used, such as “socialism,” don’t mean the same thing to different generations of Americans.
One key difference that I’ve observed, if only anecdotally, is that millennials are far less cynical than previous generations. This is important politically since according to Pew millennials will likely be the largest generation among the electorate in 2020. It is important morally because inter-generational understanding is essential to communicating timeless principles to the future leaders of our societies.
In his essay, Buttigieg begins by outlining the cynicism that perennially characterizes our nation’s political discourse:
We must re-examine the psychological and political climate of American politics. As it stands, our future is at risk due to a troubling tendency towards cynicism among voters and elected officials. The successful resolution of every issue before us depends on the fundamental question of public integrity.
While the tendency today is for the major parties to drift away from one another rather than feigning to be centrists — as Buttigieg saw it in 2000 — much posturing is still a matter of similar, cynical rhetoric.
I remember watching former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Price-Is-Right Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic debates. Instead of betting one dollar more like a contestant on that game show, her policies were one degree less progressive than the senator from Vermont. Sanders said he wanted Medicare for all, so she said she only wanted to expand the Affordable Care Act. Sanders said he wanted a $15 national minimum wage, so she said she wanted $12. The fact that some pundits still refer to her as a centrist — despite voting with Sanders 93 percent of the time when they were in the Senate together — shows that the rhetoric worked.
So how did Buttigieg think that Sanders broke the political mold?
Fortunately for the political process, there remain a number of committed individuals who are steadfast enough in their beliefs to run for office to benefit their fellow Americans. Such people are willing to eschew political and personal comfort and convenience because they believe they can make a difference. One outstanding and inspiring example of such integrity is the country’s only Independent Congressman, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.
Before jumping to the conclusion that Buttigieg was just another young socialist, keep reading:
[A] politician dares to call himself a socialist? He does indeed. Here is someone who has “looked into his own soul” and expressed an ideology, the endorsement of which, in today’s political atmosphere, is analogous to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Even though he has lived through a time in which an admitted socialist could not act in a film, let alone hold a Congressional seat, Sanders is not afraid to be candid about his political persuasion.
I actually wrote something quite similar during the 2016 election: “Far from a liability, [Sanders’] idealism has served his interest.” My essay came 16 years later and didn’t win a prize, but I’m not mayor of a Midwestern city or a presidential hopeful either. So props to the mayor on that.
While Buttigieg may be sympathetic to Sanders’ proposals, he at least disagrees with them enough 19 years later to run against the man for the same party’s nomination. And indeed, it is not Sanders’ idealism alone but his perceived pragmatism that stood out to Buttigieg in 2000:
It is the second half of Sanders’ political role that puts the first half into perspective: he is a powerful force for conciliation and bi-partisanship on Capitol Hill…. It may seem strange that someone so steadfast in his principles has a reputation as a peacemaker between divided forces in Washington, but this is what makes Sanders truly remarkable. He represents President Kennedy’s ideal of “compromises of issues, not of principles.”
One might expect Buttigieg’s own campaign rhetoric to be full of starry-eyed idealism, like fellow millennial rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but he instead touts his record in South Bend in terms more reminiscent of this latter quality he admired in Sanders. If anything, I’d say his “ideology” is hard to pin-down from the interviews he’s given so far. He speaks in moral terms about restoring the character of our national discourse, but he quickly shifts to pragmatism when it comes to policy. Instead of rhetoric about the “one percent”; evil, conniving millionaires and billionaires; or the inherent and unquestionable virtues of organized labor, Buttigieg talks about how South Bend transitioned away from the auto industry toward tech, for example. Unions love Sanders. I doubt the UAW has any thought of endorsing Buttigieg.
Perhaps the mayor wouldn’t be that different from Sanders, but despite his youthful praise for the senator, the contrast between the two is sharp. He admires Sanders, but he isn’t Sanders. He isn’t bothered by a term like “socialist,” but he doesn’t call himself one either. He doesn’t really talk much about socialism at all from what I’ve seen.
Buttigieg may not be likely to win the Democratic nomination for president, but he has managed significantly to raise his profile in the last few months. Perhaps he’s really running for a vice presidential nomination, or maybe he’s hoping the extra media attention will help him sell a book or run for Senate or something like that.
Or maybe his lack of cynicism is genuine. And maybe the mayor’s uniquely millennial mix of pragmatism and idealism will fare better than anyone can predict.
In the meantime, I think if one wants a clearer political picture of millennials, Buttigieg offers a window into another side of that multifaceted demographic.
Photo credit: Pete Buttigieg @ Merrimack, NH (20190216) by marcn.