I belief Mayor Pete
His inaugural address was about unity. They were conventional feelings that would have been instantly unforgettable if they hadn’t been so acute. After a difficult year, a highly competitive election, and an outbreak of mob violence in the Capitol itself, conventional platitudes could really feel inspired. Of course, no sane person really believes that our 46th President has what it takes to broker peace in America’s raging cultural wars.
Joe Biden is an old man who follows in another old man’s footsteps. It seems that we are determined to be ruled by old men, perhaps partly because our nation is so polarized that “consensus candidates” are hard to find among the young. Older politicians had an opportunity to build notoriety in a more normal time when political rivals were at least a little able to put business aside while they drank. It has been difficult for younger politicians to penetrate the ranks of the political elite without soliciting the support of one camp or another of ideological zealots. When the similarities dwindle, the gerontocracy rises because only older candidates appear to be sufficiently eligible. This trend is not a good sign for the future.
An elective moderator?
Young moderates should pique our interest at such a moment. Base populist strikes have become boring and predictable. Everything that seems can spark political passions these days. Moderates are those who are really waging the political battle in our time, weighing every word and carefully turning every phrase around, striving endlessly to hit the sweet spot between “inflammatory” and “milquetoast”.
On the right we see Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley reaching for the moderate coat. Left is Pete Buttigieg, the 39-year-old child prodigy from South Bend, IN. His new book, Trust, is apparently intended to bolster his references as a left-wing moderator. It’s boring, like most books (supposedly) written by politicians. Even so, it offers some indications of Buttigieg’s aptitude for the role he is obviously aspiring to: that of the moderate consensus candidate.
Buttigieg was a surprising sensation in the 2020 Democratic primary. In an absurdly crowded field of competitors, he somehow managed to be a serious competitor who shocked everyone with a big win in Iowa. Some Americans found it difficult to take him seriously. On a stage with other Democratic competitors, he appeared to be someone’s shaky little brother. His profile, however, was fascinating outside the box. He was trained at Harvard but had also served in the military. He was a white man with a privileged background, but also the mayor of a Midwestern city. He went to church but he was gay. And he came out of nowhere. Who had heard of Pete Buttigieg before 2019?
I had heard of him. I personally knew Buttigieg two decades ago as a student at Notre Dame. I took a class with his mother and on the weekends I would sometimes see him at my parents’ house because he was my sister’s high school friend. Some things change over the years: At that time he passed “Peter” and had not yet come out as gay. However, many things remain the same. The Peter I remember was serious, ambitious, and well spoken. These still seem to be among its most important characteristics. He still has a kind of eagerness to please that is posh but also feels slightly submissive. He was obsessed with himself and his sense of humor was dry. I remember walking into the foyer of my parents’ house on a Sunday afternoon and saying with a puzzled expression, “You know, it seems like every time I come here your family is gathered around the piano and hymns of praise sing to God. “
Within the Biden administration, Buttigieg will be the new transport secretary in 14th place in the presidency. It seems entirely possible that he could serve as some sort of party official for the rest of his life, which could really be optimal for his health and personal happiness. No doubt he is still thirsting for the president’s glory. It is possible that ambition pushes him to give up his image moderation and instead join one camp or another of populist zealots. That would surely be the easiest way to climb the rock.
In order to survive as moderate in our time, you have to be tough. If you can’t stand against the extremists in your own party, so can you.
Obama never got past his deeply patronizing “god and guns” view of the other half of America. Buttigieg could easily end up in a similar location, and if that happens, his success in the healing department will likely reflect Obama’s.
However, it is only possible that Buttigieg will succeed and emerge from the impasse of contemporary politics as an elective moderator. He won’t have my voice, but I wouldn’t necessarily be sorry if that happened. It’s not just because I remember his parents with a degree of fondness. It’s also because I believe that Buttigieg is inherently more of a compromiseer than a zealot. He likes it when people get along. His background at least gives him a framework from which to understand the kind of compromises that would be required to help Americans find that much-needed solidarity. Buttigieg is a creature of the left, but he is not rejected per se by Mormon families who have gathered around a piano and hymns of praise to God.
Trust that we can believe in
Very little of it ends up on the trust side. The book is for the most part an ordinary left-wing paper with lots of little provocations for the conservative reader. We hear a lot about structural racism, #metoo and the scourge of republican “voter repression”. Several pages are devoted to a sophomoric rejection of the conservatism of small governments. (Why, Buttigieg wonders, would a strong leader like Ronald Reagan stand against a big government? It’s a mystery.) Right-wing conspiracy theorists, neo-conservative warmongers, and climate defenders are all properly held accountable. One particularly strange passage shows the possibility that America may need a “truth and reconciliation process” to recover from the Trump administration, much like countries like Rwanda have used to facilitate social healing after genocidal violence. It is amusing indeed to imagine Buttigieg in a room full of MAGA Conservatives and try to form the circle of partners.
It’s all pretty silly, but there’s little point in being confused. Books like this are the political theorist’s equivalent of hotel room furnishings. They are meant to read like a well-crafted College Democratic manifesto, allowing already personable readers to go from cover to cover without feeling challenged or uncomfortable in any way. An interesting book that made a significant contribution to an ongoing conversation would inevitably offend some readers. For an aspiring moderator, some things could be worse.
In short, this book is not worth reading if you are interested in learning more about restoring confidence in America. Even so, it is somewhat noteworthy that Buttigieg chose this topic for his anodyne political treatise. It is a widely accepted fact at this time that trust is a negligible good in our nation, especially among young people. We no longer trust our fellow citizens as much as we used to, and we trust our leaders and institutions even less. That’s a real problem. Trust is a necessary prerequisite for practically any productive collaboration. It also makes a massive contribution to individual health and happiness. Nobody wants to live in a world where everyone seems out to get it. Additionally, we live in an extremely complex society in which we constantly rely on people we have never met to properly handle our food or medicine, secure our utility and financial records, and prevent our bridges from falling . Without trust, life in such a world is just miserable. We can hardly avoid becoming paranoid and bitter.
Trust will make no headway in restoring American confidence, given how much guilt there is on the political right. Still, it’s something that Buttigieg’s broad-spectrum diagnosis of the diseases of our society focuses primarily on polarization itself, rather than resenting the despicable revanchism of the deplorable Trumpians. In and of itself this is not enough to reach a meaningful compromise. Barack Obama sometimes offered the politically correct rhetorical gestures in the form of an olive branch, but he never got around his deeply patronizing “god and guns” view of the other half of America. Buttigieg could easily end up in a similar location, and if that happens, his success in the healing department will likely reflect Obama’s.
I still see some reasons to hope for better. Buttigieg is not as fresh as the Peter I remember now, but he’s still young and has time to refine his perspective. His background already gives him advantages over most other democratic politicians. His father, a Maltese-American Marxist from a large Catholic family, had complex views on religion, but the roots were clearly ingrained. It is interesting, in fact, that Buttigieg himself chose the American military, which is by no means a typical step up the ladder for an aspiring Democratic politician. And while Trust gives many mild hat tips to waking up, there are a few more thoughtful passages in which the author acknowledges a little the real challenges that militant “inclusion” poses in a large and diverse nation. In one passage, Buttigieg notes the fact that America’s founding fathers were white, Christian men. We expect him to berate the patriarchy for its arrogant privilege, but instead comments that these background similarities likely made it easier for the founders to govern effectively. Another passage comments on how military discipline made it easier for people who didn’t even know each other to function as an effective unit. This is not quite the Kumbayah message we would expect from a democratic politician.
America’s culture wars are diverse, but some of the most intractable centers for the importance of sex. What does that mean? What moral principles should govern our sexual practices? Both progressive liberals and religious conservatives are deeply involved in these issues, and their views are so diverse that a workable modus vivendi may seem completely out of reach. But somehow we have to find one if our children and grandchildren are to live together. Neither cultural group has enough power or influence to wipe the other out.
Buttigieg is a gay man who wants to be a great compromise maker. It would be stupid to trust him, but could we be brave enough to hope he would play a positive role? At some point old men move on and shaky younger brothers take their place. Buttigieg is hardly a visionary, but America could probably make it worse.