Last month, after polls showed Pete Buttigieg vaulting unexpectedly to the lead in Iowa’s Democratic caucus, he aired an ad introducing his plan for higher-education reform: a proposal to make public-college tuition free for households earning up to $100,000 a year and reduce it on a sliding scale for those making up to $150,000. “Some voices,” he says in the ad, want to make college “free, even for the kids of millionaires” — a swipe at his rivals to the left, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who had each called for free college for all.
The following week, a video circulated in which the NBC reporter Priscilla Thompson questioned Buttigieg on his position. “I just think rich people ought to be able to pay their own tuition,” he said, before adding that “college is not for everybody.” Everyone who wants to attend college should be able to afford it, he went on. “But where I come from, three out of four people don’t have a college degree. And if the message we’re sending to them is that you need a college degree in order to get by in life, in order to prosper, in order to succeed, we’re leaving most Americans out.”
I asked Pete Buttigieg about criticism from AOC & Sanders of his college affordability plan. Buttigieg told me he was “concerned about a narrative emerging, that ignores the fact that not everybody goes to college.” He argues, it’s not the same as K-12 ed or Social Security. pic.twitter.com/FCwQn6r2mJ
— Priscilla Thompson (@PriscillaWT) December 3, 2019
Buttigieg, like Barack Obama before him, speaks in orderly paragraphs that seem to exist primarily to advertise a calm, deliberate temperament. But as his campaign has become an unexpected obstacle to the left’s favored candidates, these deliberate paragraphs have become reliable rage objects. Excoriating Buttigieg’s comments, a Vice headline cried that “Buttigieg’s Version of America Is Basically a Caste System.” Days later, addressing students at Grinnell College, Buttigieg was assailed
The front-runner of the month always gets kicked around, but what has been interesting about the criticism Buttigieg faces is the way it always seems to be about the totality of Mayor Pete, in all his best-and-brightest-ness — how, in the absence of much of a record to scrutinize, he has been cast as a human indictment of the system that would deliver a precocious mayor without much of a record to the top tier of a presidential primary. “College was always for a kid like Peter,” the political commentator Krystal Ball said — “he and the other special flowers who get tracked onto the smart-kid path, which so often just happens to coincide with being white and being affluent.”
But that would describe many of Buttigieg’s critics, too. The Buttigieg backlash, just like this spring’s first flush of Buttigieg mania, has a dorm-room atmosphere about it; it is most intense within his own cohort of young, mostly white, college-educated liberals, who are torn between a mounting discomfort with their own privilege and an instinctive comfort with their own class. Buttigieg is his demographic’s most natural avatar in the 2020 race, and that is precisely his problem.
Buttigieg has occasionally reached for Obama’s mantle, but what he more readily calls to mind is a type of young person who flooded eagerly into politics in the early Obama years: the emotive, irony-deficient millennial, shaped by generational traumas (the financial crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan) but not embittered or radicalized by them, excited by abstractions like hope and change. To see Buttigieg on the stump, evoking the spirit of that moment, is to realize with a shock just how far away it feels now. In the intervening decade, his demographic has undergone a pair of profound shifts. One is the emergence of a vigorous left-wing policy vision informed by the perceived failures of the Obama presidency: its misplaced trust in compromise, its deference to Wall Street, its faith in the system. The other is a radical leap in how the same cohort thinks about race, social justice and immigration.
This new left didn’t rise up in opposition to the old Obama base; it evolved out of it. And this has placed it in direct conflict with Mayor Pete, one of their own who seems not to have evolved much at all. He is weirder, in this respect, than a candidate like Joe Biden, who is very clearly a man of another era. Buttigieg, by contrast, often seems as if he fell into a crevasse on his way to vote in the 2010 midterms and climbed out recently to find that his old friends had forgotten Panic! At the Disco and discovered socialism.
He is doing all the right stuff for 10 years ago, but it’s all wrong now. His college plan is more ambitious than Biden’s or anything Obama advocated, but those gradations don’t matter anymore; either you want to root out every last driver of inequality or you are, as Teen Vogue called him, “ ‘Petey’ Bourgeois.” Having worked for McKinsey is a Kissinger-grade war crime, as opposed to something all Harvard kids seem to do after graduating. When Buttigieg says that “sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country” as a gay man might give him insight into the experience of black Americans, one gay rights advocate is quick to clarify
What unites Buttigieg’s heresies is how recently they would not have been heresies. Even five years ago they would have been, for better or worse, unremarkable — and it’s possible they still are. The gravitational center of the rage against Buttigieg has been Very Online, as has the maximalism of its tone — its insistence that Buttigieg, by thriving within the American architecture of capitalism and privilege, must personally embody all its worst qualities. On left Twitter, it is axiomatic that Buttigieg is not merely a relentlessly ambitious striver but an actual “sociopath.” But offline, in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is gaining in the polls, at the expense of an online-left favorite, Warren. He has been confronted with legitimate questions about his mayoral record on race and policing and has struggled with black voters. But so far, those voters aren’t backing a candidate with a stronger record on racial justice; they are, by a vast margin, supporting Biden.
The same internet ecosystem that has accelerated the shifts within Buttigieg’s own demographic can also distort the extent of those changes’ impact. A survey conducted this year by the Hidden Tribes project found that Democrats who were politically active on social media were far more likely to be white, college-educated and leftward-moving than Democrats who weren’t. The intensity of the Buttigieg backlash feels like a response to the vast gulf that lies between the internet and the Iowa caucuses. It is a disorienting moment: one in which Democratic politics seem at once to have changed completely and to have not changed at all.