How Pete Buttigieg’s Meaningless Erudition Made Him the ‘Smart’ Candidate

Late this March, a Norwegian news outlet sprang a surprise question on Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and candidate for president. The previous week, the writer Anand Giridharadas, who has close to half a million Twitter followers, tweeted that he met Buttigieg and introduced him to a Norwegian friend. “Instantaneously,” he wrote, “Mayor Pete starts talking to her in Norwegian, like a magic trick.” Apparently Buttigieg had read a Norwegian novel in translation and been so taken by it that he learned the language just to finish the author’s untranslated works.

The Norwegian crew wanted to hear it for themselves. In a video that circulated on social media, the reporters smile like proud parents as Buttigieg haltingly says, in Norwegian, “I’ve forgotten so much Norwegian,” followed by a few words about a book and a Norwegian pastor and then an apology, in English: “Sorry, I just ran out of Norwegian.”

The footage, shot by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, meets all the demands of social-media authenticity — it was shot on a phone, with the terrible audio, pixelation and skewed perspective that assure you a real human has captured a spontaneous moment. It traveled the same viral routes as Giridharadas’s tweet, acting as evidence that Buttigieg was the cleverest man ever to run for president. It hardly mattered that the main thing Buttigieg seemed able to say in Norwegian was that he had forgotten a lot of Norwegian.

As these stories spread, accompanied by more video evidence, Buttigieg became a case study in what a friend of mine calls “internetty smarts” — intelligence reduced down to a collection of references and images. Like all internetty things, this type of intelligence plays to the viewer’s vanities and prejudices. In this case, it seemed driven by the sorts of people who study literature, read magazines like this one and wring their hands about public-school segregation while quietly sending their kids to elite private schools. Did you know Mayor Pete can speak eight languages? (At least enough, according to his memoir, to order a sandwich.) Did you know he was a Rhodes scholar? Journalists leaned into the image. Ryan Lizza of Esquire asked Buttigieg if running for president was more like “Ulysses” or “Finnegans Wake”; Buttigieg’s answer was mostly incoherent, but to be fair, the question didn’t make much sense either. After watching Buttigieg speak, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik gushed: “Damned if he isn’t just as impressive as people say: people-smart and policy-smart and funny and eloquent and can cite Joyce without reaching. … The Harry Potter for our Voldemort? Ah! Hope.”

In his weeks on the national scene, Buttigieg has built a brand squarely aimed at a certain kind of liberal intellectual — the type whose prose-driven, subjective, humanist view of the world has lately fallen out of style, replaced by data analysis and ideology. His unassuming face now seems to be everywhere. The blitz has felt less like a presidential campaign than a liberal-arts variety show — a best-case scenario for what happened to Max Fischer from “Rushmore.” A few weeks after the musician Ben Folds told a story about playing a duet with the candidate, a Buttigieg adviser tweeted a video of Mayor Pete “tickling the ivories” before a talk at Scripps College. Even his choice of song — Spoon’s “The Way We Get By” — fit the brand, nailing a demographic of upper-middle-class dads who wax nostalgic about their college radio shows and the professors who taught them to love James Joyce. As Notre-Dame burned, Buttigieg offered his sympathies in French.

I don’t doubt that Mayor Pete, a Harvard graduate and the son of two professors, is genuinely smart. Nor do I think the excitement about his candidacy has been driven entirely by the polyglot fetishes of my media colleagues. He speaks in a calm, thoughtful manner with a touch of a young Dustin Hoffman’s charm. The candidacy of an openly gay man has genuine symbolic importance. And while he has yet to produce meaningful policy ideas, he has drawn some cultural lines by playing up his Midwestern roots, gently scolding “coastal elites” and the left’s obsession with “identitarianism.”

But “internetty” intelligence, like all memes, turns a human being and a lifetime of experiences into a matching game: You see a photo of a bookshelf, recognize the titles of books you wished you had read and conclude that the man standing in front of them must be smart in the way you want to be smart. This connection is not about politics or electoral outcomes; it lies in a more personal space. Imagining yourself in a book club with Pete Buttigieg becomes this election’s having a beer with George W. Bush. If the news media has an “identitarianism” problem, it’s not so much that people bunker down into racial, gender or sexual groups, but that a whole class of journalists and thinkers never seems to be able to wander out past its own pool of references — all so admiring of the same things that some are blinded to the similar backgrounds of almost every other Democratic candidate for president.

Julián Castro — a former mayor of San Antonio, a city roughly 15 times the population of South Bend — went to Stanford and Harvard Law School. Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, too. Amy Klobuchar went to Yale, and Kirsten Gillibrand, another Ivy Leaguer, speaks Mandarin much better than Buttigieg speaks Norwegian. (For all the Buttigieg fans gushing about Harvard, it seems worth pointing out that our current president also attended an Ivy League institution, as did Bush.) But to a certain kind of liberal, none of those bona fides seem to matter quite like a casual reference to “Ulysses” and a few words in an unexpected language. Gillibrand’s Mandarin can be written off as the résumé-building accomplishment of a striver, while Norwegian, which has no practical value for an American president, is taken as a sign of intellectual curiosity and authenticity — the sort of whimsical surplus achievement that often upstages workaday accomplishments.

Elections, of course, aren’t about qualifications. Each of our last two presidents spoke to some furtive aspiration among the electorate, embodying a general style voters were eager to identify with. Buttigieg does this for a narrower audience: With his air of decency and grab bag of gifted-and-talented party tricks, he doesn’t so much represent the will of the Democratic electorate but rather the aspirations of its educated elite, maybe especially those who see a shrinking market for their erudition.

This form of identity politics has its consequences. We are constantly arguing over the workings of American meritocracy, in schools and then colleges and then jobs: How do we get past the old networks of privilege and prejudice and accurately evaluate people’s abilities? Is the answer hard numbers and standardized tests? Or is it some “holistic” view of each person, which scrutinizes their spark and talent the same way a college applicant’s extracurricular activities are evaluated for sincerity? Who gets to make those calls?

My fear is that such a system might look a bit like Buttigieg mania: an insidious game in which entire lives of experience, or even exactly matching credentials, get overshadowed by the dilettantish longing of the upper middle class. The Mayor Pete bubble should serve as a portent of what might happen if we strip away every objective measure of merit, however problematic or biased, in favor of how someone’s idiosyncratic talents make us feel. Consider that the person Giridharadas and others have described as the opposite of Donald Trump isn’t Elizabeth Warren, a self-made public intellectual and policy expert from a more rural and blue-collar background than Buttigieg’s campus roots, but an erudite 37-year-old mayor who seems most intent on dazzling the country with his academic feats of strength.




Source link