Pete Buttigieg has gone from mayor of a small Indiana town to one of the top contenders for 2020’s Democratic presidential nomination. “Mayor Pete” styles himself as a simple Christian from the Midwest. He can win in rural America, a common selling point this primary season. After the Rust Belt fiasco of 2016, the Democratic Party has to confront its image as the party of coastal elites. Mayor Pete, alongside Tim Ryan and Steve Bullock, are here to return the party to its blue-collar roots and take back the White House.
But how has this small-town mayor risen to such prominence above other contenders who have much more prestigious offices? The simple answer is that Buttigieg is a unique combination: a mayor, a veteran and a gay Christian. His academic bona fides are impressive: undergraduate studies at Harvard and graduate work at Oxford with a Rhodes Scholarship. He supposedly speaks seven languages, having taught himself Norwegian. He gave up a high-paying job in a consultancy firm to work as a simple public servant in his hometown and to serve in the navy. He’s also the youngest candidate: just 37 years old. He ticks all the boxes for a high-grossing Hollywood flick.
But like all Hollywood stories, the truth is distorted. Buttigieg’s story is just another version of the American dream, repackaged to indoctrinate working-class people. Buttigieg is a product of American elite society, even if his being an academic overachiever contrasts with the anti-intellectualism of President Trump. If you want to know “all about Pete,” Current Affairs magazine has already published a comprehensive takedown. But as with Kamala Harris, we will examine his life history to learn about U.S. politics and society—particularly white heteronormativity, scientific racism and outsourced imperialism.
A Stellar Academic Career
Buttigieg was born in 1982, in South Bend, Indiana, the same town that he’s mayor of. South Bend is a post industrial town in the Rust Belt. After massive manufacturing plant closures, the town’s population dropped from 132,000 inhabitants in 1960 to the current 100,000. But there’s something else to this small town. South Bend was recently named the “best city in America for a young adult to get rich.” And one of its main employers is Notre Dame University, a top research university with a $13 billion endowment. Pete’s late father, Joseph Buttigieg, was an English professor at the university, and happens to be a Gramsci scholar. The Buttigieg family was thus shielded from the hardships caused by deindustrialization. Buttigieg was educated in the private St. Joseph’s High School, close to the university, whose tuition for the 2010-21 school year is $8,000. Buttigieg was an exceptional student, graduating as his class valedictorian and honored by Kennedy family members for an essay he wrote. At Harvard, he was president of the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee and in 2004 earned his BA in literature and history.
Buttigieg took full advantage of his privileges. He won the extremely prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and attended Oxford for postgraduate studies. In 2007 he earned a first-class honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics, or PPE—one of the traditional degrees taken by people who intend to pursue a career in politics. There is a long list of alumni with this degree, including current and former heads of countries, as well as British members of parliament. Degrees like PPE provide a meeting place where the future ruling class intermingles. Buttigieg’s choices clearly indicate that he was planning for something big later on.
Working as Capital’s Willful Executioner
After finishing at Oxford in 2007, Buttigieg worked for three years at the worldwide consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. This might seem like a diversion, but McKinsey is a common option for talented graduates. The firm is not a household name, but this is by design. Such firms hiding in plain sight are crucial to how U.S. imperialism runs the world: through obscure agencies and subcontracts. Companies like Blackwater, for example, provide private armies when the U.S. government is in no position to deploy its regular forces without public opposition. In this context, McKinsey is a key player. McKinsey is a U.S.-based international management consulting firm, which provides advice and expertise to help organizations which contract their services. According to a former worker, the firm is “capital’s willful executioners,” reinforcing the capitalist status quo for 90 of the top 100 corporations worldwide, as well as for many heads of state.
McKinsey differs from other enforcers of imperialism in the sense that it provides only advice, and thus operates in a gray zone. But “only advice” is a misleading way to put it, especially if that advice includes advising the producers of OxyContin to hook more people on opioids or insurance companies to shortchange policy holders. McKinsey helped turn around Enron into the fraudulent energy marketplace that would collapse; it helped precipitate the 2008 economic crisis by advising banks to promote the securitisation of mortgage assets; it had a $20 million contract with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE); and it advised the Saudi government on how to control their public image and the conversation on Twitter, something that eventually led to the murder of Jamal Khashoogi. McKinsey’s whitepapers seem to be behind some of the most loathsome practices of U.S. corporations. Their “fingerprints can be found at the scene of some of the most spectacular corporate and financial debacles of recent decades.”
McKinsey’s main commodity is information, so Buttigieg’s duties at the company will forever remain unclear given its high confidentiality standards. He tries to frame his tasks at the company as research in “energy efficiency and grocery pricing.” Details on his international activities are extremely scarce. McKinsey employees are a crucial engine in running the American Empire, often providing the link between the military invasion and the capital invasion. Buttigieg’s tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, which concerned “war zone economic development to help grow private sector employment,” were funded by the Department of Defense. Rather than being appalled at what he saw, Buttigieg has called McKinsey “a place to learn.” After leaving the company, he used what he learned there about “the nature of data” when pursuing his political career.
Buttigieg first ran for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, losing the election to the Republican incumbent. Then in 2011 he went on to win the South Bend mayoral race, in which he employed “data-driven decision-making” techniques. His agenda included “renovating” poor neighborhoods through an aggressive plan of 1,000 houses in 1,000 days. Poor residents, generally of color, were pushed out to make space for wealthier residents, leaving many open wounds. Developers poised to take advantage of the project made significant campaign contributions to Buttigieg. In this case, “data-driven” politics was simply gentrification by another name.
Buttigieg wants to bring data-driven methods to the White House. But these methods are hardly objective, and they usually end up reinforcing the status quo. Nate Silver’s evolution from statistician to centrist pundit is an illustrative example. By using the word “data,” pundits create an aura of neutrality, but data scientists often cannot transcend the world they operate in. As Marxist philosophers of science have repeatedly shown, data can be easily twisted to confirm our cultural prejudices. The Los Angeles Police Department’s predictive policing builds on racist biases and criminalizes communities of color. Buttigieg’s technocratic approach is dangerous because it legitimizes inequality through the use of biased statistics.
Buttigieg has been described as the usual “ambitious white leader plowing ahead before addressing the concerns of communities of color”. Indeed, he has a substantial electoral weakness with people of color, one that will cost him dearly. He polls at 0% with Black voters. Instead of taking this sign seriously, he blamed the Black voters for not understanding his plans. This is not new. Buttigieg has a history of not addressing his serious missteps on the race front. His first days in office were marked by his dismissal of Darryl Boykins, South Bend’s first black police chief. Boykins was fired for recording white police officers making racist remarks. As of today, the city has paid over $2 million in out-of-court settlements to the police chief, the recorded officers and other actors.
During the 2020 primary campaign, Buttigieg was forced to return to South Bend after a white police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man. The police officer had deactivated his body camera. Buttigieg was confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters and chose to give a canned speech, even if there was evidence of previous racist remarks by the killer cop. A protester said Buttigieg has failed to “address the dire issues of race, lack of diversity, and poverty.” On the race front, Buttigieg is not that different from many other mayors. This just shows that “data-driven” neutral approaches are not a magic bullet for systemic change. Racism can never be “solved” with data generated in a structurally racist system.
Homosexuality and Heteronormativity
During Mike Pence’s tenure as governor of Indiana, he tried to pass a “religious freedom” act that viciously attacked the LGBTQ community. Buttigieg, as mayor of South Bend, came to be one of the leaders of the opposition to this bill. During the fight, he came out as gay in an article in the South Bend Tribune. That someone who is openly gay can be a viable presidential candidate for the first time in U.S. history is an expression of the on-the-ground struggles of LGBT people. It certainly shows how far we have come, but Buttigieg also shows us the fissures of race, class and gender identity. Experts in LGBTQ media studies pointed out that Buttigieg’s candidacy “will expose the major faultiness between white gay men and the rest of the LGBTQ community.” Buttigieg couldn’t be further from the sexually liberatory ideas of the Stonewall-era movement. He’s been called “Mayor Normal”, or the most palatable gay man in America. He is a poster child of how much of the gay liberation has been co-opted.
This domestication was best displayed during the corporate spectacle that was the 50th anniversary of Pride. A black trans woman disrupted a show in the Stonewall Inn to ask the LGBTQ community to advocate for murdered black trans women. She was heckled and almost had the police called on her by the white male gay patrons. While many white gay men have been able to ascend the corporate ladder by assimilating into heteronormativity, people of color and transgender and gender-nonconforming people still suffer overwhelming violence. Buttigieg has been repeatedly scrutinized or confronted by queer people of color. After committing to stand up for Black trans women, he did not show up at the Trans Day of Action march. He has even criticized the LGBTQ boycott against the arch-conservative owners of Chick-Fil-A as a form of “virtue signaling”. Buttigieg is a “one dimensional queer,” for whom the concept of “gay” is divorced from race and class. He believes Chelsea Manning should remain imprisoned. He is a devout Christian and frequently meets leaders of the religious right on their own terms. With so much at stake, it is no wonder that intersectional queer folks are unmoved by him.
An Uncertain Path to the Presidency
In almost every aspect Buttigieg’s campaign there is nothing new. His campaign’s website is simply “PeteForAmerica.com,” which promises “a fresh start for America.” He is running a conventional campaign in a saturated political space in which there is no need for more of these as long as Joe Biden is running. Policies like “Medicare for all … those who want it,” “affordable higher education” and “compassionate borders” are too mild to attract significant attention from voters looking for something different. His stance on Israel/Palestine is conventional Democratic support for Israel. Buttigieg could bank on being the youngest candidate to appeal to young voters in the Democratic primary, but his platform is insufficiently radical to address working-class concerns. His lack of appeal to voters of color is a terrible disadvantage in the primaries. As his record surfaces, more voices are saying that “he isn’t a progressive.” His appeal is reduced to those better-off millennials.
With an impressive CV that includes Harvard, Oxford, the army and McKinsey, Buttigieg has clear alliances. He is working hard and courting Obama’s donors, but it doesn’t look like he can significantly challenge Biden’s advantage. He has rarely broken 10% in a poll, and lags behind Harris, Warren, Sanders and Biden. His delegates could play a role in resolving the next Democratic National Convention, but it seems like Buttigieg will have to wait for a new election cycle to take his chances again. He can afford it, since he’s so young.