I think Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate who has thought through how to change politics in this country.
At first I was surprised that he infuriated many on the left to such an extent that they go into a frenzy of making up reasons to hate him. After all, his mission originally was just to model to Democrats how to frame their issues and values in ways that would win new people to support progressive policies.
He has spent 15 years thinking about why Republicans have been so successful in pulling the political center to the Right, despite how clearly the Left has articulated the problems of climate change, income inequality, criminal injustice, systemic racism, big money in government and lack of universal medical care. He sees that the two methods Democrats have used – reaching across the aisle to compromise and mobilizing the left with outrage have both failed, while Republicans have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
It is obvious that what has happened is that big money interests have co-opted federal government, but while Leftists such as Sanders continue to just point this out and rail about it, Buttigieg has asked how big money interests were able to get enough of the public to vote for legislators who would bow to corporate interests. In other words, he has noticed that we are in a propaganda war, not a policy war.
He noticed that Democrats never talk about basic values. Instead they point out (rightly) injustice and try to educate people about why their policies are right. This has failed. It does work to energize people who already agree about progressive values but it has failed to counter the Republican narrative, and in fact it buys into many aspects of the Republican narrative about Democrats – That they want to give away free stuff, that they think everyone else is stupid, that they just want to fight, that they have no values.
What Buttigieg is doing is leading with values. He is using the results of 20 years of cognitive science about the psychology of decision making, and communicating in a way that makes people who didn’t think they were progressive say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.”
As I said, I was surprised at first at the vitriol against Buttigieg from a subset of the Left. I’m still surprised at the degree to which the Left is willing to fabricate fictional reasons to cast Buttigieg as bought off by corporations or not progressive. But I think what makes them furious is really that he is showing that their method of achieving change is a failure. Buttigieg is modeling a way that will work to achieve progressive goals.
This is infuriating because many of us on the left don’t like it that people are irrational. We don’t like it that people make decisions about public policy based on what emotions their choice evokes in them. We don’t like it that those we are outraged at believe deeply that they are good people. We don’t like it that pointing out in detail the network of factors from which outrages arise does not cause behavioral changes. Unfortunately, denying or simply decrying these facts about human psychology cannot change them. And progressives can never increase their power unless they accept these facts.
It is interesting, as someone who interacts regularly with both Sanders (and Warren) supporters and Buttigieg supporters, to note how off base Sanders and Warren supporters are when they speculate about why Buttigieg has risen so quickly despite his thin resume. They think Buttigieg supporters are all moderates who are scared of structural change or just want everyone to get along or love incremental change.
In fact, the Buttigieg supporters I know are mostly strong progressives who are tired of the failed methods of compromise or outrage. They hear how Buttigieg manages to disrupt Right-wing narratives about progressives, how he re-frames talk about values in ways that can change how people feel about the role of good government. He is addressing the people who do not yet agree with him in ways that effectively persuade them to sign onto progressive goals.
Sanders and Warren communicate in ways that effectively mobilize those who already agree with them but actively alienate anyone who disagrees in even the slightest way.
As someone who has been relatively far to the Left since the 1960s, I am tired of hearing the same calls to action based on the same “if you aren’t outraged you aren’t paying attention” that I have heard for 50 years while Republicans were persuading voters that taxes are bad, government is the problem, immigrants are taking your jobs, Democrats are unpatriotic, social programs are handouts, etc. etc. Yes, these claims are outrageous. We have known what is outrageous for 50 years.
While Sanders and Warren continue to just assert that they’re outrageous and assert what plans we need, Buttigieg is showing that we can actually persuade people that public service is noble, social justice is good for everyone, Democrats are patriotic, immigrants are part of the solution for dying rural areas, etc.
Before hearing Buttigieg, I would have thought such persuasion was impossible, too bold to even contemplate.
Listen to him. He is showing that it is possible.