Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Man of Destiny

So I've been trying to find the context of Pete Buttigieg's remarks, delivered in Nashua, New Hampshire last week, which have been interpreted as a comparison, if not an equation, of Donald Trump voters and Bernie Sanders voters. It's not an entirely unfair reading, but what Buttigieg said appears to be worse than that.

As I say, it's been hard to find the context.  What I first saw was a 20-second video clip that obviously needed filling out.  The most I've found is this New York Post article, drawing on reporting by the Washington Examiner, which quotes Buttigieg at greater length.
“I think the sense of anger and disaffection that comes from seeing that the numbers are fine, like unemployment’s low, like all that, like you said GDP is growing and yet a lot of neighborhoods and families are living like this recovery never even happened. They’re stuck,” Buttigieg told high school students in in Nashua, N.H.

“It just kind of turns you against the system in general and then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system, which could lead you to somebody like Bernie and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”
Buttigieg has just about everything wrong here, which is a minor achievement in itself but not a reason to vote for him.

First, while some of his younger and more excitable fans might have mistaken his "Revolution" slogan for a promise to "blow up the system," Bernie Sanders is a thoroughgoing reformist in the mainstream New Deal tradition.  Far from blowing up the system, he has worked for decades within the system, in elected office, and seeks to bring about his goals through legislation, not revolution.  Medicare For All, student debt forgiveness, tuition-free education through college, raising the Federal minimum wage to $15/hr., extending Social Security, raising taxes on the richest, even withdrawing support for the US-Saudi war in Yemen, all are either extensions or returns to established American practices associated with the post-WWII period viewed by many people as the fulfillment of the American dream.  They are also very popular with voters as far as we can tell, and I don't believe Buttigieg is unaware of that.  As with so many centrist hacks, I wonder if he is unaware, in which case he's incompetent, or trying to persuade voters that they don't want what they do want, in which case he's trying to mislead them.  Trump and his fans were more likely by all accounts to really want to blow up the system, which is typical of American conservatives of the Goldwater-Buckley-Reagan stripe.

Second, if you're going to compare Trump to anyone, Pete Buttigieg himself is a better choice.  He has only slightly more political experience (mayor of a small midwestern city) than Trump, and part of his appeal, like Trump's, is the image of outsiderness.  (The same was true of Barack Obama.)  Buttigieg wants to be the (white) man on a white horse, riding into town from nowhere to fix everything.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has worked for decades in political institutions, and he's been fairly consistent in his positions and policies.  The attempt to cast him as a long-shot dark-horse outsider makes more sense about his 2016 run, and indicates that someone is still stuck refighting a lost battle.  Trump also had a long, well-documented history, and his actions as President haven't been very surprising to anyone who knew anything about his career.  For what it's worth, though, the more time Buttigieg spends in the glare of national publicity, the worse he looks.  He's also ready and eager to work within the system that brought us to "where we are", as shown by his participation in a private meeting of Democratic insiders seeking to block Sanders from getting the nomination.  He's not in the elites yet, but that's clearly how he sees himself and what he wants to be.  To paraphrase Huckleberry Finn, we been there before.  Even if Buttigieg were to win the nomination, and against all likelihood the election, we'd be back in 2016, only worse off.

I rather think that Buttigieg is projecting.  He himself has said he favors expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and over the weekend he endorsed impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.  These may be worthy goals, but they're more of an attack on the system than Medicare for All.

Third, the rhetorical strategy in Buttigieg's remarks is reprehensible.  My first response was to substitute some other terms for "Trump" and "Sanders."  People are upset about racism.  Their anger could lead them to support the White Citizens Councils, or it could lead them to support Martin Luther King.  This is not an unfair analogy, I think, because Martin Luther King was demonized by white self-styled moderates as an extremist from the beginning of his public career, a label he ambivalently embraced in his letter from Birmingham Jail.  Perhaps I'm unfair to the White Citizens Councils, who no doubt presented themselves as the middle road between the extremes of the Klan on one side, and Martin Luther King on the other; if so, I can live with it.  On a strictly literal level, Buttigieg didn't actually say that Trump and Sanders, or their fans, were alike, but he certainly wants to be viewed as a reasonable voice of civility and unity in our troubled times compared to those emotional, misguided souls who want to blow up the system.

Buttigieg isn't alone in working this line; most establishment Democrats have used it against Sanders (and now Elizabeth Warren, who as Doug Henwood says is a liberal but has good ideas and is making the right enemies), and will again in the coming year.  By using it, though, he shows where he stands.  He sees himself as entitled not only to prominence but to the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, despite his lack of qualification and experience.  I hate to be so negative about anyone, but these are perilous times, so I wish a decisive and humiliating defeat for Mayor Pete.