Pete Buttigieg & the Politics of Fitting In
Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay man, just won the first contest for the democratic nomination for the highest office in country. Ok, maybe an openly gay man just tied to win the first contest in Iowa. Ok, an openly gay man may have just won the majority of delegates in Iowa.
We remember Iowa, right? The place where 10 years ago a young man went viral in for his speech about his two mothers and the family they created together as the Iowa state house debated on banning same-sex marriage. Iowa of the fried whatever, soapbox meetings, and hot dish houses; It’s the place so maligned for being stubborn that a man was able to convince a town to buy uniforms for a band that didn’t exist and abscond with the town librarian. The place famous for electing Rick Santorum on the GOP side, and also Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean before the scream moment. That Iowa chose a gay man to represent them in a heavy contest for President of the United States in what will arguably be the most important election of my generation.
As I felt a surge of pride, excitement, and joy at the results I went on twitter to see what people were saying about this moment. Big mistake, huge. Going online I found a massive amount of vitriol, anger, displeasure, and disappointment at Pete’s performance. Instead of marveling how the mayor of a college town was able to upset the former vice president and multiple senators with higher name id, I found sour sentiments and unbridled anger. Sure primaries are about decisions and vetting the viability of folks to contend for the highest office in the land. It’s gonna get messy. But there’s something about the way online criticism has coalesced around Pete that feels unique. As though there isn’t just a preference for other candidates over Buttigieg, but shame at any who would dare consider him.
I’ll admit my facebook and twitter feeds are largely made up of current and former academics as well as passionate advocates for everything from racial justice to Queer rights, friends from college and graduate school who are all a great deal smarter than I am; plus a portion of the progressive left media base: your podcast hosts and former Obama administration people. Meanwhile when I talk to people in person I hear nothing but good things. However, to look online you’d think Pete Buttigieg represents enemy number one in democratic electoral politics. I couldn’t figure out why, and where this is coming from. I know that twitter is no where near real life, nor reflective of the electorate. I’m not saying that you can’t critique or criticize people in this process, and I even went back and forth about writing this at all. As the days settled I kept coming back to this question and why I was so impacted by it.
From my observation, the anger over Pete’s candidacy tends to fall into two categories. Those who look at his success as endemic of larger structural problems within democratic politics, and an interpretation of his actions as the work of an audacious figure punching well above his weight. To some a story of Pete doing anything is enough to set off a twitter firestorm. Tweets abound calling Pete a “neoliberal corporate shill.” He’s often framed online as the embodiment of a Machiavellian persona that at best evokes a Clinton establishment ruthlessness, and at worst speaks to the ideations of an audacious figure willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top. Conspiracy theories abound that Pete’s campaign paid for the app that foiled the Iowa caucus, so that he could not get the primetime coverage of winning? This is the argument that brought you the wine cave and other greatest hits of the previous debates. In this viewing, Pete is a Mayor who is clearly delusional in seeking the highest office.
Still others within LGBTQ social media reject him as the example of the failure of trying to appeal to a world built on a foundation of homo and trans phobia. A picture of him ringing bells for the salvation army in Southbend as mayor is proof of his betrayal of all gay people. He’s the legacy of what activists warned us about in seeking LGBTQ respectability, someone who is appealing to a heteronormative majority by virtue of reflecting their larger characteristics. Memes abound proclaiming LGBTQ — Let’s Get Buttigieg to Quit. As his campaign continues to succeed in New Hampshire the significance of his success is diminished because to some it appears to not be the right kind of progress.
For me, I struggle to understand it. When I look deeper I discovered that I’m biased. I might be incapable of looking at Pete objectively because when I look at him I see myself.
It’s not just the fact that he’s a gay man running for president that I identify with. It’s not just that he’s a gay man, or that he’s a gay man living in a college town in the middle of an extremely conservative area that makes me identify with him. It’s precisely that sense of audacious ambition, the desire to appeal to all folks and try to get along with anyone, that I relate to as a gay man because that is how I was taught to survive.
The irony of Pete’s audacity, unprecedented movement, and ambition being a weakness to his campaign ignores how, given his age and experience, the need to succeed might be part of the personality created to protect him. The critiques and coverage of his candidacy sets aside his gay identity to focus on either his political savvy & strategy without perhaps considering that the one drives the other.
I was taught through bitter experience that ambition would keep me alive. Ambition would raise me out of the misery I was in in my midwestern suburb and get me to a better more open-minded place. If you grew up LGBTQ in the 90s and early 2000’s you had two choices, you either were unable to conform to the merciless boundaries of gender standards at the time, we’re talking boot cut jeans people, or you spent every waking ounce of your energy in hiding trying to do just that.
When I was in middle school and junior high I was tormented because I failed to adhere to the normalcies of what boys were supposed to do. I was in dance classes, I was in local theater, and I would be written about in newspapers for being in big professional productions. As such I was bullied, called a faggot on a daily basis, humiliated when presenting in front of classmates, spit on, and pushed down stairs and more. I didn’t play football, baseball, or soccer. I apparently broke an unwritten rule.
When faced with such a clear disciplining of the core of who I was, when faced with the idea that I might not survive the experience, I knew I had one option: excel at everything to make people love me. I got good at school, really good. I spent more time with the teachers than I did with my fellow students. At the advice of my 8th grade English teacher who saved me from suicide, I joined the high school speech and debate team. Suddenly my ability to perform wasn’t artistic or signs of abnormality, it brought competitive acclaim. I wasn’t the weird kid in dance class, I was a champion. State champion was a word people could understand, it evoked the pictures of the kids on the track team or the kids who watched football could understand and relate when someone said he “won state”. Coached by a brilliant teacher and a better human I filled out every scholarship essay, auditioned and earned a scholarship from my favorite college speech team, and ended my senior year of high school a national champion in speech. Everyone at my school celebrated. My ambition was rewarded, I was getting out of Missouri.
I understand that I benefitted from the politics of passing that allowed me to feel like I could hide who I was from others. Others aren’t/weren’t so lucky. I’ve written about my experiences of seeing those kids grow up without the same protections and privileges of hiding and knowing that they were doing the work for me. I bargained if I played by all the other rules, that if I proved myself above reproach in all other aspects that maybe it wouldn’t matter that I was attracted to other men.
When I look at Pete’s accomplishment, accepted into an Ivy League college from a humble midwestern upbringing, a Rhodes scholar, hired out of college at a prestigious consulting firm, only to feel isolated and longing for home. He returned home to run as an impossibly young mayor, joined the navy reserves as an intelligence officer, and ran for re-election, I see so much of me. I relate so strongly with the underlying desire to prove oneself exemplary, to prove that as a gay person we are capable of great things and that if we can get ourselves to the rooms where things happen, we can prove that our sexuality is secondary to our qualities of being. It’s why so many of us became workaholics, why we all seem to be eneagram 3's
Being in the closet changes you. A recent viral tweet from Alexander Leon explains it best:
“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.” — Alexander Leon
As people shared this over and over, it resonated with so many people in the LGBTQ population, especially those of us who grew up in two different social conditions. I was brought up in a world of transition between gay as a death sentence and the world we find ourselves in now where LGBTQ youth are celebrating their identity in high school and wearing whatever the hell they want. Yes, we are not finished, and this isn’t true all over, but we can surely claim that things have gotten a hell of lot better. As I’ve grown older I too have had to unpack the part of myself designed to please others and make others more comfortable.
In this Pete is no different than any other white gay man in his late 30s. We were the generation that came of age during Will and Grace, those who remember the reality shows where soldiers had to blur their faces because of don’t ask don’t tell. We were seen as distant, yet gradually, acceptable. It is no surprise that Pete came out later in life, that he was perpetually single for years before the fear of death at war caused him to confront himself. I’ve seen statements online that suggest his entire career was built upon the eventuality of becoming President. As though someone in 2001 would have thought, while our politicians couldn’t even bring themselves to say they supported gay marriage during an election year, “ok I’m gonna become a consultant, then give up my 6 figure salary to become mayor of a medium-size college town, and then run for president”.
Why we do not view Pete in this light, in understanding someone who lived their life hidden and whose accomplishments might be seen as a desire to fit in?
I also identify so strongly with Pete’s experience becoming a leader in a college town in a red state. I moved from Illinois to Alabama, the state where a large portion of the electorate voted for Roy Moore in 2017. That Roy Moore. Over the past 10 years operating throughout the state I am used to dealing with people on a human level, on understanding that building community usually means not questing out the labels or ideologies of people when you first meet them. We want our politics to be a clear cut and clean matter of math. Pick a side and outnumber the other. We assume that all people operate from a perfectly aligned vision of policy that hangs together in a consistent way. We don’t. Politics is as messy as people are, and people are complex.
When you don’t begin from a place of liberal or conservative you find that you have a great deal to agree on and build with before you get hemmed in. I’ve met liberal voices in surprising places, and been surprised to find ardent conservatives among gay people. Living in Alabama you learn to get along with anyone, or you won’t get very far at all. It’s why when the attack that Pete rang bells for the salvation army went viral I understood what was happening. He was Mayor, as mayor you have symbolic duties to perform part of legacy including ringing bells for organizations that don’t support you. He was after all in the closet at the time and I imagine that the choice to support that organization is/was a complicated one. As any southerner whose been on a school trip knows, you will eventually stop at a chic fil a. It’s his duty to his constituents to represent them even if he disagrees with them.
When I first saw Pete’s campaign announcement I was stunned. Wait a minute, there’s a midwestern gay guy running for president? I was thrilled, I couldn’t believe it. It was historic for me to see and hear someone who talked about his husband as part of mainstream politics. I read his biography that he wrote two years before running for president and I found his insights and explanations to be relevant to my life. Was he the most progressive or the most queer oriented individual? No. Still, the politics of being the first means that you often have to figure out your way of doing things. Maybe that’s why other candidates seemed more comfortable talking about LGBTQ issues than he does, why younger LGBTQ people feel disappointed that he has not done more to center debate conversations about LGTQ issues. Maybe you go for more moderation because when you are the first you don’t want to be the only.
When I first started teaching in Alabama I worried, needlessly, that my sexuality would be something I’d have to work against and not something I could work with. I worried about my identity being a barrier to what I thought was the most important part of my job — to teach and impart knowledge to my college students. Given the backgrounds of my students, I was worried that if I brought my full self to the classroom it would cause them to not receive the information I had been tasked with giving them. I had colleagues at other institutions tell me to be careful and to remember to consider always what this has to do with the subject you are teaching. When I would get nervous in the first big lecture of the year I found myself using the word “spouse” in-class examples or never quite using gendered language when describing home. It’s not that I was in the closet, if you searched me on Facebook you can tell I’m gay. I just learned that sometimes it's better to not raise the issue in favor of moving the lesson along. As time went on I got more comfortable dropping who I was early in a class, this way if students had problems they had time to find another instructor. When I realized that no one really cared, it got easier for me and now I drop husband in conversations with abandon with other people and with students. But there’s always a pause. I brief moment after it comes out of my mouth, or I finish the sentence, where I wonder — “What just shifted in their minds”. No matter how old I get or far I advance in my career there’s still part of me that is that boy who wonders, did I do enough to prove my worth?
It’s this that makes me identify so strongly with Pete and his historic candidacy. Humans do not make rational decisions. We make emotional ones and seek out the rationality to justify our initial emotional response. Is it perfect? No. But there’s still something to be celebrated that we have a gay man running for president who won an election in the first state to cast votes. Still Pete has not had his big identity speech, it’s sprinkled here and there, but I long for his moment when his candidacy, his campaign, and his identity are unified in a singular moment the way Obama had to address race through a brilliant speech after the controversy of Jeremiah Wright. But I also understand why we haven’t gotten that yet; he’s hoping we don’t have to.
This is why there’s an inherent tension between the political strategies of Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. One is based on a theory of the case driven by consistent solution-oriented policy; a view that our system is and was broken and we gain nothing by attempting to return to it. A theory of the electorate that the best policy is what wins out. Warren does in fact have a plan for everything. The other is based on driving to appeal to repair hearts and feelings, rhetoric designed to explain our current system and attempt to heal it; a theory that people are driven less by policy than by personality.
In a way, the tension in the primary is a theory of two different responses to the Trump presidency. I don’t believe it is a tension between left and center-left political ideologies but a tension between two different outcomes and responses to the last 4 years. Rather there are those who look at the ascendency and bombasity of Donald Trump as an exemplar of how the right will always push towards extremes without ever having to appeal to others. Trump ran on building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. He ran on the most extreme principle but to so many of his supporters. There are those who look to his candidacy as an example of how someone was willing to fight for the principles and beliefs of the people who supported him. This is the appeal of a Bernie, someone who is willing to fight as hard for progressive principles as the right fights for immigration restrictions and denying access to abortion.
On the other side, there’s the theory of people longing for the fighting to stop, wishing we could somehow return to a place where the antics and battles of politics did not dominate our every waking hour. The differences in policy, with a few exceptions, are not that distinct; but in the discourse in the theory for America is where we find the greatest divide. Yet, why then do we shame and diminish the competing view. If you like your candidate — say so. Convince others, but let’s not pretend like anyone who is not your candidate is the exemplar of everything wrong and terrible.
As I try to make sense of, and grapple with, the anti-Pete sentiments online I gather the arguments in two camps.
To the first, the argument goes that any of his actions would not be possible if he were anything but a comparatively young, white, male. In this Pete’s campaign represents some of the injustices that force women candidates to different and unreasonable standards. Pete can come from nowhere with no national experience and be heralded, while the women of democratic politics must seemingly work their way up from the bottom and still never given full consideration. We are encouraged to view any act of his campaign through a reflecting lens of those same actions performed by a female or non-white candidate.
In addition in this group, we also are brought to contend with very real low favorability of African American support. In poll after poll in December and January, Pete’s numbers of favorability, unfavourability, and his name id with black voters is, well not good. Compared to Biden’s 51% support among black voters and Bernies 15%, the support and name recognition for Pete among black voters at 30% and an unfavorability rating of 21% as of January. Oddly enough his low numbers of support from black voters is equal to Amy Klobuchar’s, Andrew Yang’s, and some of the other candidates. The argument here is, rightly, centered on the fact that people of color make up the largest and most consistent constituency in democratic politics; the nominee cannot and should not be someone that this constituency does not support. While Pete certainly has a ways to go with proving himself to black voters, his policies are ranked by the Center for Urban and Racial Equity at a B+, or third behind Warren and Bernie in addressing racial equity. Next comes Klobuchar with a C, Steyer with a D, and Biden ranked 5th with an F. Yet the narrative on lack of black voter support feels constructed as uniquely his. He is often the only one who is asked to address a lack of black voter support, he is the only one asked how he would reach out to the black community as though we do not have racial injustice in Massachusetts, Minnesota, or other places; as though this issue is not similar to the issues faced by other candidates now and in the past; albeit none of them the current “front runner”.
The second group of arguments is a little harder for me to understand.
Here political social media also find the problem with what I’m going to call the pivot. When Pete first announced his candidacy he positioned himself as a champion of progressive change. His policies reflected this in terms of calling for radical shifts in the supreme court, ending the filibuster, and other ways of larger democratic voting and governing reforms. His rhetoric was similar to that of Warren and Sanders, just in a newer younger package without the baggage that comes with national targeting by GOP super PACs and presidential tweets. That didn’t get him very far. In a crowded field in which no one is gonna out-purity Bernie, or out-policy Warren, Pete made a choice. Pivot his message toward the middle.
Suddenly his rhetoric sought out those who were angered or terrified by Trump but disappointed in the sleepy campaign of Joe Biden. Around the second debate Pete’s rhetoric did a hard pivot toward reaching beyond a progressive base and into the so-called moderate lane. He came out with a healthcare plan, while more progressive than where we were with Obama or Clinton, appealed toward a more gradual shift than a complete overall of the American Healthcare system. He sought to differentiate himself on education from Warren and Sanders’ free college plan by staking out an income limit. This kind of change seems to evoke the bait and switch fears of a lot of progressive voters. The fear that they elect someone to fight for them, but then the eventually compromise to the uncompromising will of GOP maniacal cynicism brandished by Mitch McConnell.
Yet here the anger towards Pete is framed as a kind of terrible cynicism, how dare he change rhetorical strategies to win. Despite the fact that he does not accept funds from super PACS, he does accept funds from Billionaires, and to read online it’s like the fact that the 1% wants to throw their support behind him is enough to prove his inability to represent a working class. Remember the scandal when Hillary Clinton got paid to speak at Goldman Sachs despite having laid out the most aggressively anti-Wall Street agenda to be put forth by a democratic president?
I’m not sure how Pete will fare out in the long run. My feelings on him are complicated, made more so when we frame it in the soul searching we are facing as a country related to sexism and whiteness. Do I find his healing rhetoric appealing because I believe that there’s a place of optimistic safety we can go back to? Would a female mayor, or a lesbian, be as palpable to the American electorate? These are tough questions. I hope that he has the momentum to keep him going because a gay man being the front runner of a political party is a huge deal to me. Even if it means something much more complicated.