clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The millennial left’s case against Pete Buttigieg, explained

Is Pete Buttigieg a force for generational change or a defender of the status quo? It depends who you ask.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a rally on February 10, 2020 in Milford, New Hampshire.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In March of 2019, then-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had yet to officially announce his run for president. He was virtually nowhere in national polls. He had taken few positions on key issues, but his rhetoric seemed to place him squarely in the progressive mainstream.

Yet, that same month, Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, a small but influential socialist-leaning magazine, decided to sound the alarm about the prospect of a Buttigieg presidency. In a searing 11,000 word review of Pete’s campaign memoir, Robinson wrote that the book “provides irrefutable evidence that no serious progressive should want Pete Buttigieg anywhere near national public office.”

It was a preview of the debate to come. Buttigieg elicits a special form of vitriol among the young, progressive left — at least among the segment that tends to dominate online discourse. Buttigieg is loathed in a way that former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — both of whom are more conservative than Buttigieg, on the merits — are not. In talking both to Buttigieg’s defenders and critics, the reason for this becomes clear: He really has sparked a debate over generational politics, but not necessarily in the way that he hoped.

“I think we see a lot of frustrations with Mayor Pete from the young left primarily because he talks about how he’s a millennial mayor and that we need generational change,” Jorden Giger, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in South Bend, told me. “But the actual political attitudes of millennials are far to the left of his own.”

The polling on Buttigieg among millennials and Gen Z-ers has been a bit more mixed. In the most recent national Quinnipiac poll, he holds a mere 6 percent support among the 18-34 age group (on par with Joe Biden). However, in Iowa, Buttigieg ran neck-in-neck with Elizabeth Warren on the youth vote, winning 23 percent of the millennial-heavy 30-39 age group (Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly won this demographic). And according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, similar percentages of voters aged 18-29 and 30-44 hold “favorable” and “unfavorable” views of the former mayor.

But the debate over Pete Buttigieg is a lot bigger than Buttigieg — or any single presidential candidate. It is really a debate over the sorts of institutions that produce and celebrate candidates like Buttigieg — and whether we want to continue allowing those institutions to dictate who is qualified to wield power in our society. It’s also a debate over who gets to define millennial politics as that generation begins to wield its political might.

Product of the meritocracy, ally of the powerful

Buttigieg’s actual governing experience — two terms as mayor of a mid-sized city — is unorthodox for a presidential candidate. But Buttigieg’s résumé tells a more conventional tale of meritocratic mastery: He’s a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar, a polylingual military veteran, and a former McKinsey consultant. For many, this résumé gave Buttigieg the allure of a political wunderkind — the “perfect Democratic candidate,” as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni put it.

For Nathan Robinson, though, this “glittering” résumé was a glaring red flag. As he wrote in the opening paragraphs of his Buttigieg critique:

Let me be up front about my bias. I don’t trust former McKinsey consultants. I don’t trust military intelligence officers. And I don’t trust the type of people likely to appear on “40 under 40” lists, the valedictorian-to-Harvard-to-Rhodes-Scholarship types who populate the American elite. I don’t trust people who get flattering reams of newspaper profiles and are pitched as the Next Big Thing That You Must Pay Attention To, and I don’t trust wunderkinds who become successful too early.

Here, already, you find the strange tensions of the millennial debate over Buttigieg. Robinson is, himself, a kind of meritocratic wunderkind — he went to Yale Law School, then joined Harvard to pursue a PhD in sociology, then started an influential political magazine, all before the age of 30.

But where Robinson feels himself — rightly or wrongly — to be a critic of the institutions he’s joined, Buttigieg comes across as a defender of them. “When you’re a leftist,” Robinson told me, “you realize that in order to improve the lives of the many people at the bottom, you’re going to have to piss off the people at the top who are going to try to stop you. And the kinds of people who amass résumés like this … are often simply unwilling to piss off the powerful.”

The very qualities that make Buttigieg “unacceptable” to his critics are cited by his supporters as key points of appeal. “Young people are supposed to be woke social justice warriors who are disgusted by their elders,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in an op-ed titled “Why You Love Pete Buttigieg.” “Buttigieg is the model young man who made his way impressing his elders — Harvard, Rhodes scholar, McKinsey, the Navy.”

A core component of the leftist worldview is what Robinson calls the “socialist ethic”: a deep sense of moral outrage in the face of injustice that compels one to take action. In Robinson’s view, Pete Buttigieg simply doesn’t share that ethic. As evidence, he points to the way Buttigieg describes an experience encountering labor protests at Harvard:

In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure — Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another — had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.

Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]

“When I read [this passage], I thought to myself: that’s it,” Robinson told me. “That’s the problem. [Buttigieg] thought making friends with a governor or journalist was more important than standing up for the Harvard workers who don’t make a living wage.”

This critique is echoed among a lot of left-leaning writers. “You can tell a lot about a candidate from the company they keep,” Sarah Jones, a staff writer at New York Magazine, told me. She points out that Buttigieg hired a former Goldman Sachs and Google executive to run his policy shop. He held a now-infamous fundraiser in a wine-cave hosted by Silicon Valley billionaires. He reportedly received advice on campaign hires from Mark Zuckerberg. He initially refused to release his McKinsey record, and when he finally did, it showed he advised a company that went on to introduce massive layoffs. His billionaire donor list reads like a who’s who of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

“He seems to be very popular with the intelligence community and the tech community,” Liza Featherstone, a contributing writer at the Nation and Jacobin, who teaches at NYU’s journalism school, said to me, “and those people are very aware of who is going to enact their agenda.”

Buttigieg’s supporters simply disagree that these experiences and connections are liabilities. The left may loathe management consultants and corporations, but the president needs to understand how the modern economy works. “I think working for McKinsey was a really valuable piece of experience for somebody that had otherwise grown up in a small Midwestern town, just like Harvard and Oxford were,” Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler, one of Buttigieg’s most vocal supporters, told me. Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, added that McKinsey, in particular, gave Buttigieg “a very good perspective on what could be done better in corporate America.”

They also directed me to Buttigieg policy proposals. He’s put forward plans for universal child care, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all-who-want-it, and decarbonizing the economy. My colleague Dylan Matthews sums up this point well:

Taken as a whole, [Buttigieg’s] agenda isn’t as ambitious as that of Sanders or Warren. But make no mistake: This is a bold wish list, full of items that either the Obama administration struggled to pass even with 59 senators (like immigration reform and a price on carbon emissions) or that would’ve been too radical for Obama to begin with (like a $15 minimum wage, universal child care, a Medicare buy-in not limited to the elderly, and sectoral bargaining).

The progressives I spoke with had plenty of issues with Buttigieg’s policy agenda (more on that later), but their overriding concern was whether Buttigieg could be trusted to actually implement that agenda. And that gets to the deeper debate about Buttigieg — and the threat the left senses from him — which is less about what he’s proposed, than how he’s proposed it.

A force for generational change — or a defender of the status quo?

The core fault line of the 2020 Democratic primary is not policy — it’s systems. Specifically, whether you think America’s political and economic systems are fundamentally sound — but temporarily damaged — or fundamentally and irredeemably broken.

Those who take the former view, like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden, believe in a politics of restoration. This approach is primarily supported by a cohort of older voters who remember a time when American institutions served them well. It presupposes the existence of social and economic systems that are functional and inclusive at their core, and merely need to be reformed to work well again. As purveyors of restorative politics, candidates like Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar aim to make student debt more manageable, higher education more accessible, child care more affordable, and health insurance less volatile — but without upending the core institutions and ideals that those systems are built upon.

Those who take the latter view, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, believe in a politics of transformation. This approach is primarily supported by a cohort of younger voters who, over the course of their lifetimes, have watched system after system — the financial markets, the health care system, the national security apparatus, higher education — fail them in profound ways.

For them, our society’s most important institutions aren’t just frayed at the edges but broken at their cores — and thus need to be torn down and rebuilt. As the voices of transformational politics, candidates like Sanders and Warren aim to create a new single-payer health care system, reimagine America’s role in the world, restructure how the economy works, and transform the role of higher education in public life.

The left’s problem with Pete Buttigieg is that he practices a politics of restoration while framing himself as a candidate for transformation. “Professional thirst isn’t really what distinguishes Buttigieg from the pack,” writes Sarah Jones. “It’s his branding.”

When asked to describe the core message of his campaign, Buttigieg once replied, “The reality is: When you take one look at me, my face is my message. A lot of this is simply the idea that we need generational change, that we need more voices stepping up from a generation that has so much at stake in the decisions that are being made right now.”

Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden fit the mold of restorative politicians: They are older, longtime members of the Democratic establishment running as insiders. Meanwhile, Buttigieg is the most prominent millennial politician in the country. He is running as the outsider who can bring the change Washington needs. He is seen not as a politician representing the past but a politician signaling the future.

The Buttigieg campaign, then, represents intra-generational warfare at its sharpest. At a moment when leftist millennials (and Gen Z-ers, for that matter) finally feel they have the chance to transform the political and economic systems they loathe, Buttigieg has co-opted their message while pursuing a more moderate, restorative agenda.

“Buttigieg frames himself as a candidate of generational change,” Jones told me. “But, when it comes to the most serious issues facing millennials right now ... he’s exactly in line with where the Democratic Party has been for a really long time.”

For many of the people I talked to, Buttigieg’s brand of generational politics felt all too familiar. “I think the Obama presidency is a foundational experience for millennials on the left that makes people reluctant to jump on board with these kinds of figures,” Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer at the New Republic, says. “You had people in 2008 very energized to vote for a person who talked broadly about transforming American politics … and they were very disappointed by how the Obama presidency turned out.”

According to Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, the notion of elites like Buttigieg co-opting a message of transformational change isn’t a novel phenomenon. “Elite institutions that [Buttigieg] is a part of have always functioned by co-opting the ‘best’ of their opponents as a kind of a pressure release valve,” Markovits told me. For instance, when they came under fire for being too aristocratic, “elite universities began to let in the most successful, highest performing working-class kids.” To many on the left, that’s what Buttigieg feels like: a co-option of their generational critique and political energy, by a representative of the very institutions they see as the problem.

This comment made me think back to something Jorden Giger, the Black Lives Matter activist in South Bend, told me about Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor. “I’ve been organizing here for three and a half years,” Giger said, “and based on my experience I would say that he didn’t do all that he could have to address racial and economic inequality in the city.”

Of course, Buttigieg did plenty to help South Bend become more investment-friendly, efficient, and technologically advanced. He even commissioned a report to be published on the racial wealth gap in the city. However, according to Giger, Buttigieg was less concerned with actual systemic change — and as a result, he left South Bend’s existing inequalities largely intact.

Buttigieg’s supporters think this critique conflates political pragmatism with insufficient progressivism. “The other folks running have pretty liberal positions, but they don’t provide the best chance of actually getting these things done,” Adler told me. “Pete has proposed some pretty dramatic stuff with respect to our political institutions, like reforming the Supreme Court and eliminating the filibuster. That’s how you make change happen.”

In this telling, Buttigieg understands something about American politics that his young critics don’t: The American political system is built to make radical change nearly impossible. Reformers who know how to wield power within the system can sometimes succeed — revolutionaries almost always fail.

But the left’s core frustration with Buttigieg extends even deeper. They view him not only as a faux progressive who refuses to tear down a broken system but the living embodiment of what is wrong with the system.

The American meritocracy ostensibly rewards intelligence and hard work, but it also seems to favor those who cozy up to power, who flatter their elders, who inflate their accomplishments, and who claim to represent what they aren’t. In other words, for the left, meritocracy always seems to favor people just like Pete Buttigieg. To trust that such a person would be willing to dismantle and transform the very system that placed him on top — and others like it — is wishful thinking.

Whether Buttigieg will win the 2020 Democratic primary is uncertain. But the restorative-transformational fissure in the Democratic Party isn’t going away anytime soon; in fact, it is only just beginning to break open.

Listen to The Ezra Klein Show

Back in April 2019, former South Bend mayor turned 2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg talked to Ezra Klein about how being a mayor has prepared him for national office and his vision for the country.

Subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.