Last time I wrote about Mayor Pete Buttigieg here, I analyzed him as a phenomenon (as well as a phenom), a symptom of an upper-middle-class preoccupation with achievement and narrowly defined “smarts.” I went easy on his brief “career” and on his politics. Now that he’s a more of a significant player, it’s time to remedy that. Yes, Mayor Pete is an annoying, entitled nerd. He’s condescending to everyone to his left, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to his black constituents in South Bend, no matter how much more knowledgeable they might be. He’s that guy who always thinks he knows better than you. But he’s also worse than that.
First, look at what he’s trying to communicate to his base: the finance industry and others in the top 0.1 percent. By choosing Lis Smith as his campaign spokeswoman, he’s letting them know that he’s friendly and comfortable with Democrats who might as well be Republicans. Smith was the spokeswoman for Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democrats in the New York state senate who chose to install a Republican leadership in the chamber in order to made progressive legislation almost impossible. The IDC was voted out of power a year ago, and as a direct result of their ouster — as well as, equally importantly, the election of some genuinely left and progressive representatives — New York has passed strong, historic legislation on a range of issues, including climate, abortion rights and housing, all of which would have been unheard of in the IDC era.
Lis Smith was the public face of political hopelessness in New York state. Her New York moment has passed, and she should never have been heard from again, but Buttigieg would like to bring that sense of doom back to the national stage. Mayor Pete chose the person who represented the bleak nihilistic cynicism of pre-2018 Albany to represent his own campaign.
In the midst of the current upsurge of a vibrant youthful left, he is living proof that young people can be just as awful as older people.
Much has been written both about Buttigieg’s tenure at McKinsey, one of the worst consultancies on earth. Duff McDonald, author of The Firm, a book about the company, told Time magazine that it “might be the single greatest legitimizer of mass layoffs in history.” While most companies lay off workers in hard times, he argued, McKinsey pioneered the idea of advising firms to do it in good times “simply to juice profits.” Nice place to spend your idealistic boyhood!
Mayor Pete’s McKinsey work does not seem to have pushed against the grain of the firm. It may have led to mass layoffs at Blue Cross Blue Shield and may also have prompted the firm to recommend layoffs at the US Post Office. Mayor Pete also worked on a McKinsey contract in Afghanistan exploring how best to extract and exploit that country’s natural resources; the project sounds deeply environmentally destructive and has also been criticized as a huge waste of US taxpayer dollars. He was strongly chastised for his initial refusal to disclose his client list or the exact nature of his work at McKinsey even by the editorial board of the New York Times. If he were merely a centrist boy-wonder rather than the corporate enemy of the public interest that he is, the Times would be his biggest fan. Buttigieg repeatedly cited the nondisclosure agreement he signed with the consultancy, signaling that he cared more about his loyalty to McKinsey and the corporate elite it represents than about his obligation to the public.
His attitude toward black voters and black leaders has also been jaw-droppingly disrespectful. Dogged by criticisms over his relationship to black communities in South Bend, he has struggled to attract any black support at all. His solution to this has been creative — disruptive, even. Some candidates would attempt talking to black voters, or even creating a better platform that might appeal to the middle and working classes to which most black voters belong. But these strategies are for plebes. Mayor Pete took the far more edgy strategy of simply making stuff up. As Ryan Grim reported in the Intercept, Buttigieg’s campaign recently published a list of South Carolinian “supporters” of his “Douglass Plan” for the “Empowerment of Black America.” But some of the prominent black leaders on it were not in fact supporters of Mayor Pete or even of his plan, nor had they agreed to join such a list.
As this short overview might indicate, Mayor Pete’s worldview is about as bleakly ungenerous as possible. I suppose to his credit, he has not been attempting to pretend otherwise. He doesn’t claim to support Medicare for All, and has used right-wing arguments — and, as Ryan Cooper has pointed out, misleading libertarian data — against the idea. He also recently deployed the Clintonite (as in Hillary) argument against free college tuition: that it would benefit the children of millionaires and billionaires. If the idea of rich people benefiting from public goods — and the largesse of your hard-earned tax dollars — makes you mad, you have two political choices. One is to tax the rich so heavily that they cease to exist as a class. That’s sensible. The second, preferred by neoliberal dead-enders like Pete, is not to have public goods at all — or at least, to keep them as narrowly guarded and marginal as possible. Because by definition, as Kate Zaloom, author of Indebted: How Families Make College Work at All Costs, has pointed out, public goods are for everyone. We do not charge millionaires and billionaires a toll to walk on the sidewalks. We do not charge them admission if their toddler wishes to make use of the swings in a public playground. And we do not charge the rich — no matter how rich they may be — any tuition if they send children between the ages of four and eighteen to public school. If we agree that college is a public good, it has to be free to everyone.
Sometimes in public policy, charging money for access to the commons can make sense if you are trying to discourage a particular behavior. Cities like London have charged motorists to drive into the city center in order to cut down on air pollution and traffic. Perhaps Buttigieg fears, like the old Southern ruling class, that providing education could result in challenges to the social order. An aide to California governor Ronald Reagan in 1970 noted the “danger” of “an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite!” And sure enough, it was Reagan who imposed tuition on the formerly tuition-free University of California. But Buttigieg doesn’t even seem like that expansive a thinker. Maybe he hopes to discourage the masses from the pursuit of higher education, a resource he has been hoarding, with degrees from Harvard and Oxford. Perhaps he’s worried that the masses will discover they’re just as smart as he is. After all, at present, his kind of “smart” is a good in fixed supply — but with free public college, it might not stay that way.
Mayor Pete is dropping in the polls and that makes sense. Liberals are learning more about him. Meanwhile, the handful of voters committed to centrism — for whom Biden is too dumb and unpolished — are giving Mike Bloomberg another look.