This is the first installment in a column of sorts that I plan on writing; I'll be coming to you every Saturday, so long as my well of angry polemics does not run dry. I've decided to call it "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards," after the Billy Bragg song of the same name, concerning the mundanity of waiting for a revolution that may or may not arrive.
Pete Buttigieg is the new hot thing. He’s thirty-eight years old, young, dynamic, intelligent, a Washington outsider, and a consummate smooth talker; I can understand why many people tend to like him. He has more appeal on a purely cosmetic level than most of the Democratic candidates. But if he’s going to be president, cosmetic appeal probably needs to take a back seat to policy and conviction--and when you look below the surface, that is when things start looking bad for Pete Buttigieg. It rapidly becomes clear that if we want good leadership for this country and real, actual solutions to the problems facing America, Pete Buttigieg should not be allowed anywhere near the presidency.
I think it’s first important to explain that Pete Buttigieg doesn’t want you to think about policy. He wants to make your decision based on that cosmetic appeal, which, as even I can admit, is a strength of his. In an interview with Vice, Buttigieg said the following in response to a question about his lack of policy grounding for his campaign:
“Part of where the left and the center-left have gone wrong is that we’ve been so policy-led that we haven’t been as philosophical. We like to think of ourselves as the intellectual ones. But the truth is that the right has done a better job, in my lifetime, of connecting up its philosophy and its values to its politics. Right now I think we need to articulate the values, lay out our philosophical commitments and then develop policies off of that. And I’m working very hard not to put the cart before the horse.”
The fact that Buttigieg can say, with a straight face, that the problem with the Democratic Party is that it’s “too policy-led” concerns the hell out of me. Remember: the undisputed front runner for much of the primary race was Joe Biden, whose entire campaign is just various takes on “I’m not Trump and remember Obama,” hardly the most policy-oriented position. Buttigieg wants to be even less policy-oriented than the Democratic Party already is. He wants you to look at him and see an intelligent, young, energetic candidate, and be showered in the JFK and Obama comparisons that the media so enjoys making. But, of course, he's no Jack Kennedy. Nor does he have any genuine ideas worth fighting for.
So, who is Pete Buttigieg? Where did he come from? Is this thirty-something millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ready to be president? Should we want him to be?
Let’s take a look back at the Buttigieg story: his life, his work, the things he's done and wants to do. I believe that the more you look, the worse it gets.
Buttigieg was in the elite pipeline since the day he was born. Both his parents were Notre Dame professors; he grew up on campus, won the Profiles in Courage essay contest when he was 17, went to an expensive preparatory school named after a saint, and got accepted to Harvard. His campaign autobiography, Shortest Way Home, makes himself out to be some sort of aw-shucks midwestern farmboy, who was “excited by the new marvels of college life” and the big city, in spite of the fact that he was the son of two professors and had literally grown up on on a college campus in the suburbs.
When it comes to his time at Harvard, Buttigieg’s autobiography becomes less faux-country boy and more sneeringly elitist. A particularly revealing portion comes when Buttigieg encounters a group of students protesting for higher wages for the school’s janitors and grounds staff (despite the fact that Harvard sits on a multi-billion dollar endowment, it apparently doesn’t want to pay its groundskeeping staff a living wage). He dismisses them as “social justice warriors,” a common right-wing pejorative, and then saunters past them on his way to a “Pizza and Politics” session attended by visiting politicians and newspapermen. As if that wasn’t enough, Buttigieg has to make it clear that, in his mind, the “SJWs” aren’t going to be the ones making a change--but rather the “apolitical geeks” who were at Harvard at the same time, coding the first version of Facebook. It's concerning that Buttigieg or anyone else can say, without a hint of irony, that a few computer nerds who ended up creating a monstrous tech giant (which nowadays is mostly in the news for selling your personal information and refusing to delete false political propaganda) are somehow preferable to a group of activist students who recognized their privilege and demand better treatment for the less fortunate.
Buttigieg, as a Harvard graduate and later a Rhodes scholar, could have gone to work absolutely anywhere after leaving college. With his degrees in history or literature, he could’ve become a novelist writing fiction of slightly vintage flavor, or gone into academia at some liberal arts college. He could’ve become a journalist. He could’ve done literally anything good or harmless. Instead, with all the choices his extraordinary privilege could afford, he went to work for McKinsey.
Most Americans probably have never heard of McKinsey & Company, which, I think, is a testament to its success. One of the world’s largest management consulting firms, it sounds thoroughly innocuous when taken at face value--but looking behind the facade of professional white-collar respectability, one sees a truly amoral organization dedicated to telling oppressors how to best exploit and control the oppressed. McKinsey did consulting work for ICE, helping them better organize the efforts to find and deport undocumented people. They consulted for Purdue Pharmaceuticals on how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin, the opioid whose indiscriminate distribution has led to mass addiction and death. McKinsey also has deep consulting ties with the violent, absolutist monarchy of Saudi Arabia, advising the Kingdom on how to privatize the oil industry which sustains its repressive activities (it has been estimated, as best as McKinsey secrecy allows, that the Saudi Arabian monarchy might actually be McKinsey’s largest client). McKinsey pioneered the business strategy of telling their clients to lay off workers even in good economic times, making their organization “leaner” to juice profits. McKinsey have "streamlined" dozens of organizations in this way, dispensing wisdom on how to best undertake mass firings, mass distribution of highly addictive drugs, and mass deportations. McKinsey claims that they just help their clients better organize their operations, without concerning themselves with what those clients get up to--which isn’t much of an excuse, as well as being the definition of amorality. McKinsey isn’t out there forcing people to overdose on oxycontin, but they don’t concern themselves with the ethical implications of telling people how to excessively distribute a drug whose excessive distribution has resulted in thousands of deaths--and since loss of human life can’t be reflected in the stock market, nor human misery quantified on a balance sheet, they don’t particularly care. A former McKinsey consultant, writing anonymously for Current Affairs, put it well:
"McKinsey is capitalism distilled. It is global, mobile, flexible, and unabashedly pro-market and pro-management. The firm has an enormous stake in things continuing more or less as they are. Working for all sides, McKinsey’s only allegiance is to capital. As capital’s most effective messenger, McKinsey has done direct harm to the world in ways that, thanks to its lack of final decision-making power, are hard to measure and, thanks to its intense secrecy, are hard to know."
It’s a very banal sort of evil, poring over spreadsheets and “redirecting workflow,” without any of the dopamine-juicing qualities that lead some people to enjoy causing human suffering. It’s boring and malevolent simultaneously, which makes it all the more confusing as to why Pete Buttigieg would voluntarily go to work there, out of all the places he could’ve gone. We don’t know exactly what Buttigieg got up to during his time and McKinsey and what clients he worked for, seeing as he signed a non-disclosure agreement and refuses to break it, but given McKinsey’s track record we can assume that he wasn’t telling Doctors Without Borders how to better organize AIDS treatment centers in the Congo.
Leaving McKinsey in 2010, Buttigieg immediately decided that he needed to be elected to political office. The year he left McKinsey he launched a campaign for Indiana state treasurer, and lost. It was also around this time that he may have created his own Wikipedia page (an accusation Buttigieg strenuously denies, but which appears to be at least somewhat likely). He also joined the Navy reserve, where he served uneventfully in naval intelligence (his service included a six-month tour in Afghanistan, in which, contrary to the picture he likes to paint of it, he did very little besides sit in front of a computer). In 2010 he ran for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of 100,000 people on the banks of the St. Joseph River, and, after securing the Democratic nomination, became the city’s chief executive at the age of 29.
If there are a few things Pete Buttigieg wants you to know about what he did as mayor, it would probably be about his technocratic exploits in harnessing the power of the cloud (like the time his administration developed an app for people to report potholes), or how he orchestrated the festivities in honor of South Bend’s 150 anniversary. If there’s a few things that Pete Buttigieg probably doesn’t want you to know about what he did as mayor, the list is a whole lot longer.
Even his data-driven approach to governing, which he likes to talk about quite a lot, is full of unsavory aspects: after the data showed that automation would save money, Buttigieg laid off human trash collectors and replaced them with robot arms. His numbers obsession led an acquaintance to compare him to Robert MacNamara, the data-driven architect of the Vietnam War, which is probably not a comparison anyone would want to be made about them; though Buttigieg took it in stride and digressed in his autobiography into a ramble about how MacNamara was a well-intentioned planner.
From Buttigieg’s own narrative of his time in city government, one would get the impression that everyone in South Bend wears a white collar and lives in a box-shaped smart home with a fully wifi-optimized sewage system. In fact, a quarter of South Bend’s population lives in poverty; African American residents make, on average, half as much as a white residents do. The eviction rate in South Bend is three times the national average. While all may have been happy in Buttigieg’s app-based fantasy land, in real life, things were often very dire indeed. The crippling inequality in South Bend is something that Buttigieg did nothing to address during his time in office; nor does it even merit a mention in his autobiography.
Buttigieg almost immediately invoked the ire of many of his constituents when he fired the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, in 2012. The controversy began when Buttigieg found out that the chief possessed recordings of white officers using racist slurs and other abusive language on police phone lines; even though the recording system that taped these conversations long predated Boykins, Buttigieg declared that the recordings were illegal, blamed Boykins for their existence, and demanded his resignation. This outraged much of South Bend’s black community, who felt that Boykins was an ally in a policing system that otherwise tends to stop, search, and kill African Americans at a disturbingly high rate. Buttigieg’s relationship with many of his African American constituents never recovered.
Things didn’t get much better. Buttigieg soon began decrying the large numbers of vacant homes in South Bend, saying that when he took office there were “too many houses,” and that the empty residences were a lingering trace of South Bend's unattractive "blight." He announced a sort of demolition crusade, in which the city would repair or destroy 1000 houses in 1000 days. Buttigieg pitched this as a campaign to make the city both prettier and better fitted to its number of inhabitants, though it soon became clear that Buttigieg wouldn’t stop at homes without people in them: the city began sending threatening letters to residents whose houses violated city building codes, demanding that they either pay for repairs or have their houses demolished. Predictably, many of the city’s poorest residents couldn’t pay. The bulldozed houses were, in Buttigieg’s vision for the future, to be replaced with gentrified living quarters for the startup employees and entrepreneurs who would soon be repopulating South Bend.
In 2019, the last year of his second term as mayor and well into his presidential run, Buttigieg was again put in the awkward position of having to face the tremendous racial inequality in his city after years of pretending it wasn’t real. A white South Bend police officer had killed Eric Logan, a black resident, and the community was up in arms: the deadly and seemingly-endless string of unjustified police killings had reached their doorstep. Buttigieg, predictably, did very little. While the officer who shot Logan had been wearing a body camera, he had switched it off; a common problem that Buttigieg’s administration had done nothing to prevent. Nor had they made any effort to recruit more black police officers--despite making up 26% of the population, only 6% of South Bend police officers are black. The Logan shooting only increased distrust of the police department, and the mayor who oversaw it. Buttigieg paused his presidential campaign and went back home, where he was met by angry crowds at a tense town hall meeting. People interrupted Buttigieg’s answers to residents’ questions by shouting things like “We don’t trust you!”
The people who know Pete Buttigieg the best don’t trust him, something which makes perfect sense: he bulldozed their homes, automated away their jobs, fired their well-respected police chief, and did nothing when one of their own was gunned down by a policeman in suspicious circumstances. The more you know about him, the less you tend to want to trust him.
If you look at his presidential campaign, it has been vacuously short on ideas. Talking all the while about “values” and “philosophy,” and criticizing other candidates’ plans as too ambitious or too expensive, Buttigieg contributes almost nothing concrete himself. It makes perfect sense that he doesn’t: that is not what he’s here to do. He’s here to smooth-talk his way into the White House and continue the corporate, technocratic reign of terror that he perpetrated on South Bend. And most of all Pete Buttigieg is here to advance the career fortunes of Pete Buttigieg.
Pete has been ticking off boxes for all his life: perfect student, Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar, McKinsey consultant, mayor. A decent example of Buttigieg's pitch to voters is what he called his "alignment of attributes," saying the following in an interview with New York Magazine:
"You have a handful of candidates from the middle of the country, but very few of them are young. You have a handful of young candidates, but very few of them are executives. We have a handful of executives but none of them are veterans, and so it’s a question of: What alignment of attributes do you want to have?"
Here Buttigieg is telling us that we shouldn't choose a candidate based on their policies or what they say they'll do, but on an "alignment of attributes," a person who ticks a certain number of boxes. Buttigieg says that since he's young, midwestern, and a veteran with executive experience, him having all the attributes that other candidates only have a few of--not his beliefs--is what makes him the best candidate. It's a shallow, management consultant argument--and I sincerely hope it doesn't work.
But why is he here? If not to advance an agenda or idea or set of policies, what is he doing?
Pete Buttigieg is, undeniably, a very intelligent man. He knows that the order has been upended. Trump has made the nation both jaded and willing to accept the candidacies of people who would previously have been denied even the thought of high office: if the host of The Apprentice can be president, why can’t the management consultant mayor of South Bend? He isn’t doing this because he thinks the US needs a Midwestern millennial president. He’s doing this because he thinks the chaos of the Trump era may allow him to leapfrog over the usual series of steps one normally has to take to become president. If Hillary Clinton were president instead of Trump, he would probably have to wait around for ten years, getting himself elected governor or senator or climbing up to some other rung of the ladder that every president had followed before The Donald. But Buttigieg knows that now he can exploit people’s weariness and their desire for anything but more of the same; Pete is probably the most ruthless and opportunistic careerist to run for president in my lifetime. He’s doing this for himself, and for no one else--just like he governed South Bend without sparing a thought for the vast majority of his constituents. He’s running because he has always wanted to be president and thinks that the insanity and disorder and upheaval of the times in which we live will give him the opportunity to do it. He has no policies--and pretty much dismissed the need for any--because his candidacy isn’t about policy: it’s about him, and him obtaining power.
Pete Buttigieg’s brand of management consultant technocracy will not fix anything. It is a deeply amoral, clinically savage, business friendly pseudo-ideology, reducing people to numbers in a McKinsey spreadsheets and enormously destructive problems to hindrances to be ignored, or maybe impotently addressed by an app. Nothing that Pete Buttigieg has ever done has indicated that he cares a single wit about the vast majority of Americans, or anyone besides himself and the type of people that management consultants optimize profits for.
Pete Buttigieg doesn’t talk about what he’s going to do to make Americans’ lives less of a struggle, or attack any of the systemic problems that plague this country. That isn’t surprising, of course: management consultants don’t believe in revolutions. Look past the pretty language, the impressive resume, and the "alignment of attributes." Look at what he's done, and the complete lack of any concrete vision at all. Ask: is this man, whose appeal is purely cosmetic, going to be the leader we need to face down the awful challenges of our age? I think it is clear that he isn't. If Pete Buttigieg becomes President Pete Buttigieg, he will set about making spreadsheets to optimize the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic, and the icy deep will be coming ever closer, and he will smile and do nothing at all.