Normally the political biography isn’t a genre toward the top of my reading list. These books tend to be fluff pieces that don’t delve too deeply into existential questions; they’re vehicles for votes, not serious plans for governance. Much of that is true of the one I just finished, which I read not because I’m looking to hitch myself to a particular wagon, but because I’d been told it was relevant for people looking for some ideas on how to make things happen in local government. (It was.) But, much to the dismay of my reflexive resistance to zeitgeisty political trends, Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home fascinated me in ways I didn’t expect.
Sure, I will confess a fondness to millennials with short first names and unpronounceable last names. For some odd reason, I feel an affinity for children of academics who grew up in Rust Belt midwestern cities; those who left for snobby East Coast colleges on what felt like perfectly natural paths, and then sorted out their intellectual worldviews on the road to graduate school. I also can relate to people who took jobs in consulting, spent their 20s in an intellectual and work-driven tunnel that basically closed off dating life, and made their way back to their hometowns out of a commitment to the place and its rebirth. My life story, apparently, is just a knockoff version of Buttigieg’s, though I’m not using this blog post to announce I’m joining the naval reserve or coming out of the closet or running for office. But, hell, I’ve even been told I look like him.
Mayor Pete is having himself a moment right now, and that stems from his ability to bridge across categories. His roots are in Rust Belt America, that swath of the country the Democratic Party forgot in 2016, and he’s a military reservist and a devout Catholic: in many ways, the consummate heartlander. But he’s also a gay millennial who talks of intergenerational justice, one who tries to tap into that authentic hope for the future that has been at the heart of the most successful liberal campaigns of the past half century. He’s at home in a past America and yet a clear step toward a different one, which no other candidate in the Democratic field may be able to say to the same degree. He has less baggage than Joe Biden, more genuine accomplishments to his name than Beto O’Rourke; he is more personable than Elizabeth Warren, more attuned to Democrats who have fallen by the wayside than Kamala Harris, unencumbered by Bernie Sanders’ socialist label, not committed to moderation for the sake of seeming moderate as with Amy Klobuchar.
Still, despite our commonalities, I share David Brooks’ conclusion at the end of his column on Mayor Pete’s momentum: why, given all of his seeming reasonableness, does he think the moment calls for a 37-year-old with no elected experience beyond the local level, the equivalent of Duluth ex-mayor Don Ness deciding he’s going to enter the race tomorrow? (Spare me the Donald Trump whataboutisms, please.) Much of his allure comes from being a blank slate, and the careful relationship-building that makes one a successful local politician has little to do with the partisan war that the national brand has become. It’s easy to project all sorts of hopes and desires on to this type of figure (Barack Obama was a somewhat different flavor of this), and in the right political situation, it can win. It would flatter me to believe this skillset will transfer well to governance at a higher level, but is there any empirical proof of that?
The other critique of Mayor Pete, a somewhat more scathing one, holds him up as the anointed last gasp of a failing meritocracy. People in positions of power like him because his whole biography is one of someone who has done everything right in their eyes: climb the ladder, Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, the smartest kid in the room taking his natural place. But people who climb that ladder are exceptional, not the norm; can they really govern with any hold on reality for the rest? Is a culture based on merit doomed to sneer down on those who don’t achieve such merit, the natural outcome of a society that has replaced inherited status with a Darwinian race to the top?
South Bend’s mayor is aware he runs some risk of losing touch. He relates one story of a critic who compared his data-driven efforts to those of Robert McNamara, another so-called smartest kid in the room who made a mess of the Vietnam War. I don’t think we yet know enough about Pete Buttigieg to know where he falls on the liberal elitism spectrum, but it’s an interesting critique, and one I’ve commented on before. For that matter, let us not forget that many of the most powerful progressive icons in American history were wealthy traitors to their own class. But to succeed, Buttigieg is going to have to surround himself with people who don’t worship his credentials or intellect for their own sake.
Still, in spite of his obvious shortcomings as a candidate for the highest office in the land, I think there are a couple of other reasons why Mayor Pete is particularly attuned to this current political moment. These three facets are all related.
First, he recognizes that different political instincts are appropriate for different political times. Like a lot of people whose understanding of politics formed as a student of foreign policy (another commonality I share with him), he has a very nuanced understanding of power. His own deployment, his college-era theses, and a fondness for Graham Greene led him to recognize the naïve innocence of the democratizing crusades of a previous era of American government. But today, he recognizes that nihilism, not innocence, is the more pressing moral threat to American political life. Different excesses call for different responses, and Buttigieg strikes me as someone who will want to understand deep root causes before he starts throwing around ideas on how to fix things. His lack of policy detail isn’t necessarily an evasion.
Second is an early appreciation of American decline. It didn’t set in right away: I found myself dutifully copying down Buttigieg’s descriptions of childhood in a post-industrial town, these tales of how he went past abandoned Studebaker factories every day but never registered what they meant, because they rang so true. But as soon as we developed our consciousness of that decline—something I expect Pete found in his Harvard days, but didn’t quite examine in the way I would have liked him to in the book—we know that it can’t come back, and that we have to build something decidedly different.
I won’t claim to know what this looks like as a national platform yet, and it doesn’t seem like Pete entirely does either, but it’s become increasingly clear that neither a return to some socialist ideal nor Clintonite third way progressivism is enough to build a governing majority. The unifying story has to be some out-of-the-ashes sort of narrative that admits all is not well—Donald Trump, after all, understood this superbly in 2016—and re-invigorates it with some optimism. This is why I think the meritocratic critique of Buttigieg may be inadequate: he got off the blind achievement train, found his loyalty to a place that needed fixing, and his ideas of good and bad governance stem from the immediate solutions he found (or, occasionally, failed to find) in South Bend. He is grounded in a way that a wishy-washy moderate is not, and the answer to the nihilist challenge requires that.
Third, Buttigieg understands the primacy of culture over policy. He will certainly need to flesh out his platform if he hopes to go anywhere; he can’t float above the fray between the hardened Hillary and Bernie camps that still divide his party forever. But by focusing on stories instead of the minutiae of policy proposals, he has a chance to bring along many more people than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world ever will. This distinction is especially important for Democrats, who are much more of a cultural quilt than the Republicans are, and need to bridge more gaps to build that governing majority. Like it or not, this is an essential first step to winning a democratic election in a sprawling nation. The policy details are secondary.
I’m not convinced Pete Buttigieg should be the next president of the United States. He has a lot still to prove there. I am, however, far more convinced that lots of small and mid-sized American cities need some Pete Buttigiegs: people who commit themselves to places. People who go out and see what the world has to offer, then bring what they learned home, and do it in a manner marked by humility, not as the golden boys or girls returning home as saviors of the unwashed masses. People who go home because roots are the right things to tend to, because they believe in more than that blind meritocratic chase, and because the grass isn’t really all that much greener in DC or New York or the Bay Area. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.