It seems that everyone has an opinion of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg these days. After ascending into the public spotlight out of virtually nowhere, “Mayor Pete” has skyrocketed to national recognition as a dark horse candidate for the 2020 race, having qualified for the next round of Democratic Primary debates just as the pecking order of the Democratic Party is growing intensely more peckish. His rise has been as meteoric as it’s been controversial, and many of us don’t yet know exactly what to make of the multilingual, baby-faced, gay-married veteran millennial outside of his dazzling charisma and regal credentials. I decided to read his bestselling memoir - Shortest Way Home - to garner a deeper understanding of the man whose rising star could change the orbit of our jumbled political galaxy.
Shortest Way Home is a story about South Bend, Indiana, the city from which the “mayor” in Mayor Pete is derived, where he was born and bred, telling the story of Buttigieg’s impressive journey — his time at Harvard, his failed run for state treasurer that laid the groundwork for his political career, his service in the military, and the gravitational pull back home where he came into his own as a man and became a presidential contender. Although concerned foremost with his experience in South Bend, the book is really about the country itself, and the post-industrial social and economic decline of the American experiment. The city is a microcosm of the nation.
You can tell a lot about someone based on how they write, writing being a good reflection of how we think. In which case, Buttigieg is concise, sharply detailed, exceptionally pragmatic, almost painfully earnest, with a mind that captures the underlying beauty in the seemingly mundane. In short, a born leader. Upon reading him, it’s hard not to fall in love with Mayor Pete’s eclectic blend of wit, charm, and tenacity. It is even harder not to harbor great respect for the man. And it is still loftier to stave off the aura that, as weird as it is to say in our era of media marketing and personal branding, the guy is undeniably special. That said, the vibrant qualities of every human being are invariably accompanied by a shadow side, which can be found in Buttigieg’s teeth-on-edge stiffness and that kind of erudite neurosis that coincides with being type A (I shudder to think what he’s like when he’s mad, on those rare occasions). In other words, he wants everyone to like him, and that can be a real deficit in a presidential race.
Mayor Pete loves his home, and the book reverberates that particular elan vital that rings of the American spirit: a nation of immigrants inventing our culture as we go along — with all of the messiness such a task would imply. His description of what those of us living in a coastal bubble have come to know as “flyover country” or corn country, the middle American Rust Belt so heavily discussed in the wake of the 2016 election, evokes a sense of familiar comfort. Take this passage about tending corn as illustration: “In the middle of the field under an August sun, it felt in the air conditioned cab like we were in some kind of vessel, gliding over the top of the corn as though sailing in an infinite sea of tasseled ears and husks.” This poetic description of everyday life is fairly typical of the book, applied to everything from county fairs to fixing potholes. It feels like he is trying to tell us something: Yes, things are bad in this country, but there is something beautiful here too. If we lose the crucial faith that our country can transcend its darkness, the American experiment may come to a bitter end. We have to make this work, here and now, and that sense of conviction and American can-doism is worn by Mayor Pete on his sleeve with pride.
But I worry that Buttigeig’s need to be liked will be used against him. In the first Democratic Primary debate, he was confronted on a recent police shooting in his city where a white cop killed a black man. Representative Eric Swalwell, who subsequently dropped out of the race, castigated Buttgeig for not firing his police chief directly after the incident. Mayor Pete seemed to react with shame to this remark, as though he should have done more. His answer to the original question on the nature of the shooting involved a diatribe testifying on the pervasiveness of racism in America, systemic or otherwise, where “a wall of mistrust” had been put up between the police and the African American community “one racist act at a time”. Meanwhile, rates of violence in South Bend are exceptionally high, one of the top 30 dangerous cities in the country, and the vast majority of those bodies are black. Police shootings of black men represent a tiny fraction of the death toll, and yet Mayor Pete still feels obligated to virtue-signal to social justice advocates for moral brownie points. Interestingly, Buttigieg has one of the lowest approval ratings from the black community of all the candidates, and he would go farther, in my humble opinion, to cut the white guilt schtick and call the problem by its name: inner-city violence, emanating largely from the cultural fallout of historical oppression and economic inertia but no longer driven by modern racism. The dishonesty, although well-intended, is palpable, and it is a huge weakness.
Much has been made about the role of Mayor Pete’s sexuality in his candidacy, both in terms of what it means for the nation at large and what it means for him personally. It has been unclear whether being gay is an asset to his campaign, symbolic of a positive change in the culture much as being black was for Barack Obama, or whether it will be touted against him. But, in what was a surprise to many (and not at all surprising to me), much of Buttigieg’s criticism involving his sexuality has come from the far-left. A couple of weeks ago, an atrocious hit piece was written on Buttigieg by Dale Peck for the New Republic that tried to insert “Mary Pete” as an epithetic stigma for a straight-edged gay man, tantamount to “Uncle Tom” for blacks, which was subsequently removed from the site after being skewered on social media for the vile that it was. As Andrew Sullivan sums up the piece in his column at New York Mag, “That’s why the hard left hates Buttigieg. Because he is a gay man who does not have what they believe is the correct “queer voice.” Because he represents an individual success story, who has entered public life to serve everyone — including Republicans — and because he has made choices in his life that are not compatible with being a proud countercultural subversive. Dale Peck has done us all a favor and made this crystal clear. It’s made my support of Buttigieg firmer than ever. With enemies like this, on far-right and far-left, he is doing something right.”
The “Mary Pete” episode was a low moment, but a telling one. The fact that Buttigieg has made part of his moniker someone who wants to bring the country together, specifically targeting people that feel left behind by the liberal establishment who voted for Trump, has elicited contempt from culture warriors and political pundits alike. It need not be stressed that we lived in a politically, culturally, and socially divided country right now, and I am very much of the opinion that this is one of the most toxic elements of our current situation. One of the downfalls of this scenario is that anyone who attempts to bridge that widening gap, to make a compromise in order to generate a bipartisan coalition to tackle our biggest problems, is seen as a highly suspect do-gooder — willing to forgo their convictions in order to maintain the status quo. This line of attack, to be blunt, is complete dogshit. It is by no means a compromise of principle to seek out the best of both major political ideologies, nor does being a centrist in the modern era imply a kind of pussy-footed ooey gooey “go slow” approach to political change. We can absolutely maintain deep convictions while simultaneously attempting to make enough sense that people who don’t necessarily identify with our party will vote for us. This is a wiser approach than further enhancing partisan alliances, in my view, and it’s part of the reason I appreciate what Mayor Pete is doing. At the risk of sounding horribly cliché, the most important things in life are nonpartisan, and, at the end of the day, we all more or less want the same things: health, wealth, and happiness for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. There is nothing soft about recognizing our common values — in fact it often takes a hardened character to acknowledge our political blind spots in order to recognize what we have in common. It’s the high road.
We have no way of knowing how this upcoming election is going to play out, but it is not hyperbolic to say that the soul of our nation could very well be on the line. Things are heating up, and we can all feel it. Week after week, news cycle after news cycle, the seismic cracks in our world continue to expand. The center is not holding. Of course, most all of us lean more towards one side of the political aisle than the other, we all have an in-group bias, but it doesn’t take a moral genius to recognize that polarization is bad for our polity en masse. We need to ask ourselves, regardless of what happens in 2020, what is going to happen in this country post-Trump? Is a far-leftist going to come in and run the show, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez type looking to dredge up historical grievance for political power — while on the other end a Trump-style populism counters with false promises to return to an idealized past? Are we going to keep playing this endless game of good versus evil on the political battleground, as the pendulum just keeps swinging from one extreme to the other? Or are we going to come together as a nation and decide, despite our own differences and the many flaws in our system, that this country is worth fighting for? Pete Buttigieg is a great representation of that ideal, and although I’m leaning heavily towards another candidate, his ascendency is meaningful in regards to what it says about what’s possible here and where the country is headed. We can do better, much much better, and Mayor Pete shows that potential through his words and actions.