Pete Buttigieg’s Millennial Good Faith
“This is the future liberals want,” proclaims the cover photo of ‘Pete Buttigieg’s Dank Meme Stash.’ The image, bannering a Facebook group that’s reached about 1,000 members in just over two months, shows Mr. Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, sitting with his husband Chasten and their big brown dog on the porch of their house. The joke is, of course, that the ‘liberal future’ much maligned in scary right-wing media is really just a benign, if banal, rehashing of white picket fence America, differing only in its quiet inclusivity. In fact, the whole Buttigieg campaign is a sort of reclaiming by the millennial left of goofy American values like faith, family and freedom.
Far from dismissing Buttigeig’s sincerity, young people — at least those represented on my social media feeds — have eaten it up and clamored for more. One of Mayor Pete’s many ‘breakout moments’ so far was when he was asked at a CNN town hall about his relationship with his former governor, Mike Pence. “His interpretation of scripture is pretty different from mine,” Pete said. “My understanding of scripture is that it’s about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner and the poor person. That’s what I get when I’m in church.”
My anti-religious, anti-institutional, Berniecrat generation is suddenly falling for a freedom-loving, army-enlisted Jesus freak. Why? I think Buttigieg is showing that we (and I use the ‘we’ form here, despite personally being on that weird borderline between tail-end millennials and front-end Gen Zs) were never quite the rabble-rousers everyone made us out to be. In fact, it was often our conservative disposition that had cause for concern. The biggest gripe millennials are confronted with is that we’re “snowflakes,” destroying free speech with our political correctness. In other words, we’re puritans — our offensiveness lies in our offendedness. Is there anything less radical than that?
And we don’t just talk like “holier-than-thou” prudes; studies show we act like them too. Millennials have been devastated, like the rest of America, by the opioid crisis, but when it comes to the ‘fun drugs’ that our parents did at our age, we’re much less interested; the same goes for alcohol. We have fewer sexual partners than previous generations, and we’re always accused of killing off industries with our antisocial thriftiness. This last one, it should be noted, probably has more to do with low wages and high student loans than with some natural disposition towards saving. But the overall picture is of a generation that, despite all its genderbending, socialist-voting antics actually looks at the world the way conservatives purport to: we keep our vices in check, but don’t judge others for indulging them. We live modest, committed lives, and we stick stubbornly to our cultural norms.
Perhaps our prudishness has to do with a slightly different virtue-orientation than that of our parents. In the ‘60s, young people wanted to change the world. We, knowing the unintended consequences of that change, wish only not to destroy it. We were born on a rapidly warming planet that no one seems motivated to cool. We are hypersensitive to how language affects people because the people affected share spaces with us online, spaces that speak freely of the gravity and ubiquity of mental illness. Hyper-aware of the footprint of carelessness, how could we not be a generation of neurotic vegetarians, literally boycotting plastic straws lest ours be the one to break the proverbial camel’s back?
This, I think, is what we want out of government: invest in climate solutions, so that we don’t have to crochet reusable bags out of single-use plastics in order to sleep at night. Fix our health care system, so that we don’t have to share yet another GoFundMe with our Facebook friends in a futile attempt to keep a loved one afloat. While you’re at it, reform institutions that act out of racial bias, so that our neighbors’ safety isn’t dependent on our personal projects of ‘un-learning.’ In short, take responsibility for the collective problems of our time so that every day isn’t some Zeno’s paradox of tiny battles and moral dilemmas presented to the individual by a society they have too much knowledge about to responsibly participate in, but not enough power to meaningfully change. This is what it means to be a public servant in the land of the free: not to rally troops for a grand revolution, just to to take some weight off our backs so we can live our lives without ruining others’.
Part of the weight to be taken off Americans’ backs is that placed on them because of who they are: the weights of racism, sexism, and all the other -isms that people under thirty so annoyingly bring up all the time. Mayor Pete knows that the ‘oppression olympics,’ so called, are divisive and unproductive. And it’s noteworthy that, despite the historic nature of his candidacy as an openly gay man, he rarely invokes his minority cred unless asked about it. Nevertheless, Pete is fluent in the real sort of identity politics that matter: not a checklist of demographic adjectives, but the very individual recognition of difference as a basis for political solidarity. “On my 33rd birthday,” Pete writes in his book, “I had absolutely no idea what it was like to be in love.”
Rather than condemn homophobic America as evil and irredeemable, Pete chooses to write with vulnerability about how prejudice affected his life, in a passage characterized by that graceful embrace of awkwardness emblematic of people our age. We who grew up in that weird, identity-obsessed stew of intersectionality that is the millennial internet never bought the fantasy that underneath the labels, we’re all “just people.” Our zeal for inclusivity comes from the recognition of the fact that nobody really fits in; by sharing his own out-of-place-ness, Buttigieg paradoxically makes himself relatable in a way no “normal person” ever could.
But the “normal person” is a central figure in American ideology, which means that equality politics, when taken to their logical conclusion, necessarily target the source code of American narrative; this is disorienting for those who can’t adjust to the change. (As we saw in the backlash to identity politics by the ‘normal people’ caucus in 2016.) But once the necessary updates are made to the American operating system, what you’re left with is still clearly recognizable as the “American Dream 2.0.”
The preliminary success of Buttigieg’s campaign among people of my generation shows that once our concerns are dealt with, our righteous cynicism melts away. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all; those of us who first got to vote in 2016 were so disenchanted by what happened, not least because our introduction to politics was the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Our Walter Cronkite was Jon Stewart, who mocked performative patriotism not because he didn’t believe in the real thing, but because of how much he did. We are Pete Buttigieg’s emerging constituency. What remains to be seen is whether, beyond our demographic, our vision is the future liberals want.