Opinion | Which Way, Pete Buttigieg?

One of the central problems in Western politics is the impasse between a governing class that lacks legitimacy, and populist alternatives that are poorly led and unready to govern. This impasse reflects a deep trend of the last few decades — the working-out of meritocracy’s iron logic, in which the most talented young people (or at least the most talented résumé-builders) self-segregate in a small group of metropoles while the hinterland declines.

For a clinical rather than impressionistic assessment of this trend, you can turn to the new report from Senator Mike Lee’s Joint Economic Committee, which tracks “brain drain” trends across American states and finds a pattern, both longstanding and accelerating, in which the highly-educated cluster in “dynamic states” and “major metropolitan areas,” leaving less-educated Americans in “rural and post-industrial states” behind. The report describes this “geographic sorting” as one factor behind economic stagnation and social breakdown; it’s also clearly a factor driving the class-based polarization that’s given us Donald Trump, and in European politics the Brexiteers and gilets jaunes and more.

This background is part of what makes Pete Buttigieg, the bright young man of the Democratic field, such an interesting figure. In many ways Buttigieg is a kind of uber-meritocrat, a child of academic parents who made a swift climb up the meritocracy’s cursus honorum: a Harvard degree and then a Rhodes scholarship, a brief stint in D.C. followed by three years at McKinsey. And beyond the résumé, an obvious part of his appeal depends on his performative intelligence, his college-interview style of “humble” showing off.

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But another part of Buttigieg’s appeal rests on the fact that during and after the McKinsey stint, he did two very un-meritocratty things: First, he joined the Navy Reserve and was briefly deployed to Afghanistan, and then he moved back to the small, de-industrialized Midwestern city of his youth, not to join his parents in its academic enclave, but to run for mayor of South Bend and attempt to save a piece of the heartland from stagnation and decline.

These unusual steps away from elite self-segregation inform the way he sometimes seems to want to run for president: As a bridge-builder between the heartland and the coasts, as the Ivy League guy who takes Trump voters seriously as something more than just “deplorables,” as the first gay president who, like Nixon going to China, might be able to call a truce in the post-Obergefell culture wars and convince cultural liberals that they don’t need to bring every evangelical florist or Catholic adoption agency to heel.

But this bridge-building possibility coexists with another theory of Buttigieg, in which his unusual trajectory back homeward, far from a rejection of the meritocratic mentality, is actually just a clever meritocrat’s “hack” of the system of ascent — an advertisement for his own seriousness that, having served its purpose, can now be abandoned while he tries to vault insanely high, to return not only to Washington but to the Oval Office (or at least the Naval Observatory or a cabinet office).

This is the reading offered by Buttigieg’s pungent left-wing critics: I especially recommend a long takedown of the young mayor’s memoir by Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs, and a shorter critique by a scion of the Studebaker family (Studebakers being the cars whose manufacture once built South Bend’s blue-collar prosperity).

These anti-Buttigiegians look at his mayoral record and see a politician who never really escaped the mentality of Harvard and McKinsey, whose big idea for the city involved bulldozing poor people’s houses and encouraging internet companies to move in — a “creative class” theory of urban renewal that didn’t supply the jobs that working-class South Benders need.

From the right, one could offer a similarly skeptical reading of his cultural bridge-building, which has not cashed out in any actual culture-war moderation. He has the same maximalist pro-choice views as every other Democrat, and while he quips about finding common ground over the tastiness of Chick-fil-A, his official positions on the “gay rights versus religious liberty” questions cede zero ground to religious conservatives. No sooner had my colleague David Brooks praised him for the way he “deftly detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war” than he invented an unreciprocated theological feud with Mike Pence, as if to advertise to liberal donors that he would be fully committed to traditionalism’s rout.

As it happens, we have a striking example of an uber-meritocratic politician who ran as an outsider but turned out to just represent the elite from whence he came. His name is Emmanuel Macron, and his presidency in France has been something less than a success. What we badly need is something different: a meritocrat who can commit real treasons against his class, and discover economic and cultural alternatives that the elite ignores and the populists lack the capacity to implement.

I doubt Buttigieg is the man for this task. But I think he at least senses that the task exists. That’s a start; I hope he follows that sense further along, rather than just offering himself, appealingly but ultimately pointlessly, as the American Macron.


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