In March last year, we wrote a piece, “Buttigieg: Who is this guy, anyway?” We endured some joshing from colleagues who wondered why we were considering a presidential candidate with an unpronounceable name from a third-rate city. We thought he merited a look by “anyone who cares as much about governing well as the chimera of electability.” What if we could support another first-rate mind who had applied himself to what Jefferson would have called the science of governance?
He is not a long shot anymore, but as Buttigieg has performed well in debates and proven popular with Democrats, there has been the inevitable backlash, some of which comes from supporters of Bernie Sanders. They have tried to paint Buttigieg as an “oligarchical corporatist tool” and “a high-IQ husk who sycophantically shaped himself into the creature most craved by systems of power & capital.”
This is apparently nonsense. So let us reintroduce you to Buttigieg, by way of James T. Kloppenberg, a Harvard professor of American history and one of Buttigieg’s professors when Buttigieg was a Harvard undergraduate. Several weeks ago, Kloppenberg published a long and thoughtful piece, “Reading Buttigieg,” in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic journal. Kloppenberg, who identifies as an overeducated, left-leaning Democrat, traces Buttigieg’s intellectual and political development: The result, if you go in for that sort of thing, by which we mean intellect, is thrilling.
“Since Buttigieg launched his campaign for the presidency last year, I have read or reread much of what he has written, at Harvard and since,” Kloppenberg writes about “the college student I got to know ... and the budding political insurgent who, like many of his friends, was troubled by the acquiescence of the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and after in the so-called Reagan Revolution of tax cuts and deregulation.”
That is one of the most salient points now: Buttigieg the insurgent, Buttigieg, who rejects the status quo not just in the White House but in his own party. Sanders’ supporters claim their man is doing the same thing, and they are correct, but Sanders comes from a place of fairly rigid ideology – that there is nothing in the private sector that could not be improved by dragging it to the public sector; for example, where Buttigieg has tried to forge his own path.
As a student, Kloppenberg writes, Buttigieg was “ready to think hard about links between yesterday and today. On the campaign trail, when (he) differentiates positive freedom, or the freedom to act in order to realize one’s goals, from mere negative freedom, simple freedom from interference, he knows he is channeling the ideas of John Dewey.”
Perhaps it was from there he drew the confidence to confront Sanders about leadership in Las Vegas.
“Leadership,” Buttigieg explained, “is about what you draw out of people. It’s ... about how you inspire people to act.” Blessedly, he seemed to have given it some thought.
When the late Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 2003, Buttigieg, a junior, challenged him by asking “whether the Democrats had essentially become Republicans-lite or still offered a distinctive alternative to tax cuts and foreign wars,” Kloppenberg writes.
“Kennedy’s evasive answer, coming as it did from one of the most progressive members of the party, could only have confirmed the premise of Buttigieg’s question.” And that is partly, critically, why Buttigieg gets into politics.
“Despite his considerable strengths,” Kloppenberg writes near the end of the piece, “Buttigieg is, of course, highly unlikely to be elected president in 2020.”
We emailed Kloppenberg last week, before the Las Vegas debate, to ask what he thought after Iowa and New Hampshire and back came a prompt reply: “I’m surprised and delighted that Pete has done as well as he has so far. His success ... suggests that being thoughtful, well informed and articulate can still make a difference.”
Isn’t it pretty to think so?