For several years, Pete Buttigieg has asked for our attention, and at last he has it. In 2017, the two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, campaigned to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee. (He lost his only other non-mayoral race, to become Indiana state treasurer, in 2010.) Now he wants to be president. Buttigieg has generally struggled to distinguish himself from other mid-tier Democratic candidates, but after a pugnacious performance at the most recent Democratic debate, a new poll of Iowa primary voters showed the mayor in third place behind Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.
The poll was good news for Buttigieg, though he still faces a long and unlikely path to the nomination. The Buttigieg bump, if indeed it exists, may have happened for reasons that have nothing to do with the mayor’s platform or rhetoric. Bernie Sanders recently suffered a heart attack, and Joe Biden’s capacity to govern looks more dubious with each befuddling speech. Buttigieg is young and of sound mind, and for Iowa voters who aren’t persuaded by Biden or the more progressive candidates, he might look like a safe alternative. “My lane has never been clearer,” he told the press last week.
But attention invites scrutiny, and upon closer inspection the mayor’s ambitions look cynical. Buttigieg appears determined to keep running for higher office until he wins something, anything at all — a blunt grab for power, even by the usual standards of politicians. But professional thirst isn’t really what distinguishes Buttigieg from the pack. It’s his branding. The mayor says he offers voters a fresh perspective on Democratic politics as usual. “Such a moment calls for hopeful and audacious voices from communities like ours,” he said when he launched his presidential campaign. “And yes, it calls for a new generation of leadership.”
The Buttigieg brand isn’t a recent invention. He’s pitched himself as an alternative to bigger party names since at least the 2017 DNC-chair campaign. “Reliving 2016 is not really good for business for the Democratic Party,” he told CNN at the time. Buttigieg spoke as if he occupied a third position in relation to progressive Keith Ellison and the more centrist Tom Perez. But it wasn’t obvious then — or now — that Buttigieg is any different from many of the Democrats he wants to defeat. Until he ran for president, his ideology looked relatively opaque; he never divulged it in much detail to the public. Whenever he did stake out a position, it was to establish himself as a pragmatist, a progressive too caught up in the realities of governing to spend much time talking about grand theories of change.
But running for president tends to clarify a person’s ideology, and Buttigieg has recently encouraged speculation that he is pivoting to the right. He no longer supports Medicare for All and is even running ads against it. In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan, he said he still supports a proposal to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court — and that he would appoint more judges like Anthony Kennedy, who ruled against the Affordable Care Act and in favor of Citizens United, then stepped down to make way for a Trump nominee. While his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan is a definitive reversal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Buttigieg has changed his overall ideology. The Buttigieg who admires the conservative Anthony Kennedy is the same Buttigieg who ran for DNC chair and for mayor. He is a technocratic liberal. He tried on Medicare for All for size and when it didn’t fit, he recalibrated. The generational change he promised was never a political revolution.
Buttigieg is in no respect significantly out of step with the rest of his party. Even his résumé is impeccable. Harvard, Oxford, military service, a stint at McKinsey: Buttigieg didn’t miss a beat. His father may have driven him around Indiana in a Chevy Cavalier, as he said at the debate, but his father was Joseph Buttigieg, a lauded professor at the University of Notre Dame, and Buttigieg attended private schools. It’s not exactly the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song. Instead, Buttigieg’s background is relatively common for party leaders.
This also leaves him few ways to distinguish himself from his competitors. The Democratic Party has no shortage of middle-class white men with elite educations, even in the Midwest. If he’s going to make sense as a meaningful alternative to his competitors, he has to distinguish himself politically — somehow. His mayoral record is all he has, and nothing in it suggests that he diverges significantly from elder Democrats like Biden. He is socially liberal and comfortable with corporate interests, namely, the tech industry. He seems to believe experts can save the world, or at least his city. He demolished abandoned homes to make way for development, tried to bring new tech jobs to the city, and enthusiastically embraced the Obama administration’s Smart Cities Initiative, which set aside federal funding for municipal governments to collaborate with universities and tech companies. “The dream is to actually have a real-life version of SimCity at my fingertips,” Buttigieg said in 2015. He repeated a version of the SimCity comment earlier this year in an interview with Wired. That time, the context wasn’t the Smart Cities Initiative but SBStat, his own creation; Wired described it as “a data-driven model of troubleshooting city services informed by Baltimore’s CitiStat.”
In SimCity, there are no living people, just data points assigned to neat little houses and urban-planning projects to game out and complete. Destroy the city and nobody real gets hurt. The player can simply start everything all over again. Buttigieg isn’t delusional — he does not actually think that the people of South Bend are simulations — and tech could indeed make some city services more efficient. It’s bizarre, though, for Buttigieg to repeatedly invoke SimCity as some sort of ideal. It is a computer game, not a realistic model for municipal government.
But the analogy usefully illustrates a crucial facet of the Buttigieg mind-set. On the subject of Silicon Valley and its promises of innovation, Buttigieg is a true believer, and donors know it. Bloomberg reported this week that Mark Zuckerberg has advised Buttigieg on key campaign hires, and the mayor previously brought Zuckerberg to South Bend for a chummy tour of the city. Buttigieg maintains those links to Zuckerberg even though the Facebook founder arguably represents Silicon Valley hubris at its most dangerous extreme. Facebook’s sins are manifold, and since Zuckerberg controls 60 percent of the company’s shares, he bears most of the blame. On his watch, Facebook heedlessly spread right-wing hate speech around the world, lied about the reach of its video ads, and violated the privacy of its users while claiming publicly to protect them. Zuckerberg himself considered giving away user data to reward some corporate partners and Zuckerberg’s personal friends, as NBC News reported in 2018.
If Zuckerberg’s actions bother Buttigieg, he doesn’t show it. Instead, Zuckerberg and other corporate executives know they can count on the mayor’s selective concern for the public good. It’s a reciprocal arrangement. While candidates like Sanders and Warren tout the power of small donors and swear off big-money fundraisers, Buttigieg embraces them. Democrats won’t defeat Trump with “pocket change,” he said derisively last week. A Guardian analysis published on Monday shows that the mayor pulls much of his financial support from business executives.
So much for the man-of-the-people act. Buttigieg’s posture toward power is that of a supplicant, not a skeptic. It shows in his mayoral record, in its areas of inertia. Based on what residents themselves have told news outlets, it doesn’t seem that Buttigieg has changed anything fundamental about the way South Bend actually works — about who holds power there and who does not. After a white police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man, Buttigieg went home to face residents furious over years of police violence and over his earlier decision to demote the city’s first black police chief. Other residents say that while his development push accomplished some good, its benefits do not always trickle down to the city’s most vulnerable communities. Buttigieg may have torn down ramshackle old houses, but residents reportedly fear asbestos and lead poisoning from the demolitions, and many lots now stand empty.
“Ain’t shit changed,” one resident told CNBC in April. That may be what Mark Zuckerberg wants to hear, but it’s at odds with the story Buttigieg tells about himself. There’s a chasm between his brand and his record, and another between his brand and his platform, which for the most part rehashes familiar centrist policy. On health care, Buttigieg lauds choice as though choice by itself were a social good. Instead of Medicare for All, voters will get Medicare for All Who Want It, which leaves private insurance intact. In this way it resembles other policies put forward by other moderates. Rather than cancel student-loan debt for everyone, as Sanders has suggested, or for most people, as Warren has proposed, Buttigieg would limit relief. Graduates of programs that failed the federal government’s gainful-employment rule would qualify, as would participants in his mooted expansion of national-service programs. But that’s it. Buttigieg is relatively consistent. He hews closely to the technocratic wonkery he knows best and keeps raking in cash from the insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical industries.
In Buttigieg, voters get a candidate who can define neoliberalism in a sentence, who will even say that he thinks it’s a negative force in the world. But he has never explained what alternative he offers. Generational change, in the mayor’s case, doesn’t mean much. Voters will just get a younger version of a Democratic Party they already know.