Pete Buttigieg’s conversion into one of the left’s most despised neoliberal villains was something to behold this year. While the 38-year-old politician entered the 2020 Democratic presidential race as a little-known mayor of a mid-sized Indiana city, he managed to exit the race — officially as of Sunday — as a symbol of much that is wrong with the Democratic Party establishment.
The traits that prompted this outrage from the left include his financial relationships with billionaires and corporate donors, his ceaseless opposition to democratic socialism and his “smug” hyperbolic language that sounds like it was scripted by Aaron Sorkin for a fictional politician.
Mayor Pete tried to sell neoliberalism by dressing it up with vaguely progressive but mostly empty platitudes. Unlike longtime Democratic National Committee favorites like Joe Biden, who plays up his “bipartisan” establishment credentials, Buttigieg pretended to be a fresh-thinking progressive while advocating policies quite similar to those of Biden. These traits did not win him the presidency nor any friends on the left, where many saw him as a “slick corporate tool.” Indeed, Buttigieg emerged as one of the most prominent opponents of progressive reforms in the Democratic Party. Depending on what he does next, we might see him continue to serve as a vessel for neoliberalism in the next generation of American politics.
“He’s a political consultant for the part of the ruling class that is linked to the Democratic Party,” said Steve Maher, assistant editor of the Socialist Register, in an interview with Truthout. “He does not have real positions, and what little he says cannot be trusted because he will say or do anything to win.”
This kind of sentiment was not uncommon among voters on the left. Still, Buttigieg may have been surprised that his merger of naked ambition and corporate centrism was not ultimately a winning template. For most of his life, the essence of mainstream American politics has consisted of promoting elitism by using the language of folksy populism. Buttigieg took this approach to comical levels in the search for viral moments and audience adoration.
Yet in 2020, many Democratic Party voters are seeing politics in a new way. The world Buttigieg grew up with has changed radically as a result of the economic conditions facing the working class in the aftermath of the economic crisis and the great recession. This anger and backlash have prompted new levels of class consciousness and organization, including Occupy Wall Street and the emergence of Sanders’s movement in 2015-2016.
Buttigieg’s corporatism and plastic demeanor did not gain him the presidency in 2020, but the establishment doesn’t need him to be president to be useful as a promoter of neoliberal goals. His decision to drop out of the race two days before Super Tuesday helped give Biden more than $100 million in free or “earned,” positive media coverage, possibly contributing to the former vice president’s success in those primaries. Given Buttigieg’s impact on the election season so far — and the fact that he likely has a long career in front of him — it’s important that this growing coalition around democratic socialism understand the lessons from his campaign.
Buttigieg the Brand
Mayor Pete has spent his entire adult life preparing to be “presidential,” in the modern sense of the word. His resume includes an Ivy League education, military service, a Rhodes scholarship and a job as a vulture capitalist where he helped clients as they fixed bread prices and laid off workers.
His campaign was even more calculated than his resume. Mayor Pete has branded (and rebranded) himself aggressively in the last year, with the help of the design firm Hyperact. This helped him earn a flurry of positive media coverage from dominant media outlets, but he came off as fake and calculated to many.
His illusions of grandeur were evident in every awkward photo op and encounter with protesters. His campaign added fake applause to his media appearances and Buttigieg went so far as to plagiarize parts of an Obama speech.
“He deliberately lowers his voice to sound like Obama,” observed Virgil Texas, co-host of the left-wing podcast “Chapo Trap House,” in an episode about Buttigieg’s campaign.
His campaign even applied for a Shorty Award for digital marketing, bragging about the use of colors that are “intentionally evocative of the real heart of America with names like heartland yellow and rust belt.” From the application:
Pete Buttigieg is a new kind of presidential candidate. He is a millennial and a mayor of a blue-collar city in the heartland. He is unapologetically substantive, yet refreshingly salt-of-the-earth. He is progressive, yet pragmatic.
The Weaponization of Word Salad
If the trajectory of history ended the day Aaron Sorkin’s show The West Wing was canceled (in 2005), the Buttigieg campaign may have found more success. In Sorkin’s fictitious universe, soaring, impassioned rhetoric is the highest form of currency and the transactional nature of politics is a benign, if not noble part of daily public service.
This in some ways mirrors the way the media outlets cover politics in real life today and even more so how they covered politics during Buttigieg’s formative years. A key metric for the corporate press when critiquing a president is not what policies he or she enacts but how “presidential,” one appears to be. In this sense it is fitting that MSNBC’s long-running cable news show Hardball hosted by Chris Matthews ended the same week the Buttigieg campaign was suspended. They both represented a failed era of American political life that much of the public is eager to move on from.
Buttigieg, in fact, grew up watching relatively young men run this playbook to great heights, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Buttigieg was clearly influenced by both Clinton’s folksy appeal and third-way triangulation and Obama’s famous oratory and trademark language about hope and change in a post-partisan world.
It is hard to overstate just how much things have changed since Obama took glowing oratory to the White House in 2008. The U.S. working class is exhausted and exploited after 40 years of neoliberal policies and massive wealth inequality. The average American family cannot cover an unexpected $500 emergency or bill. The economic crisis and great recession were especially impactful, as are the student loan crisis and the rising costs of health care. This manifested itself in Occupy Wall Street and later the movement behind Bernie Sanders, causing a rise in class consciousness and, what Maher calls, “an ideological crisis for the ruling class.” By 2016, the GOP and Democratic Party establishments faced open rebellions from within their own parties. When Mayor Pete tried to use these establishment tactics in an era of burgeoning populism, it failed to win him a broad coalition.
This plastic approach came off as disingenuous if not downright comical. At one point the campaign posted a picture of the candidate with a quote from his CNN town hall from January. “The shape of our democracy is the issue that affects every other issue,” his campaign tweeted.
His critics, aghast the campaign thought such a trivial quote was worth promoting, quickly satirized this combination of buzzwords.
“If I had said it, there’d be jokes about my being on acid,” said former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
Class Warfare by Proxy: The Role of Buttigieg
One might be willing to forgive Buttigieg’s ego and braggadocio if it was part of an effort to help the working class. But at the root of the left’s contempt for the politician is his agenda. By the end of his campaign he had become one of the most vociferous critics of cornerstone progressive priorities like Medicare for All. This was despite the fact he initially supported the policy as recently as 2018. For a very brief phase of his candidacy he tried to model a more progressive candidacy in the mold of Howard Dean or John Edwards.
This was fleeting. Soon he warmed up to Wall Street, the health insurance industry and the fossil fuel industry, who rewarded him in kind. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Buttigieg and related PACs accepted more than $3.5 million from health professionals, hospitals and other health industry sources, more than $5 million each from finance, and telecom/electronics. He was funded by 40 billionaires as well. He defended these relationships by saying he was merely being inclusive and wanted to welcome billionaires into a progressive coalition.
While Buttigieg is hardly the first Democrat to rely on this kind of money, in an age of increased class struggle and social media, it became a liability. Some voters demanded refunds. Buttigieg’s lack of a clear core ideology made him an ideal front operation for billionaires, who have long counted on politicians to create the illusion that policies are advanced in the interests of the country at large.
We are used to seeing politicians artfully create laws and policies that benefit billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. What has been unusual for the Democratic Party in 2020 is that several of these billionaires essentially skipped the middleman, attempting to run for president themselves in the mold of Donald Trump. As he looks to his future, Mayor Pete can be thankful that Steyer and Bloomberg have dropped out.
As long as billionaires need politicians to advance their agenda, people like Buttigieg will have utility for the ruling class. This is why advocates of social change will keep a close eye on where Mayor Pete lands next.