Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is attracting support from across the political establishment — the mainstream media, NeverTrump pundits like Bill Kristol, and Silicon Valley CEOs have all rallied to the South Bend mayor’s campaign. But why?
On the face of it, there’s nothing that distinguishes Buttigieg in terms of policy. In fact, he seems to eschew policy statements in favor of glib, media-friendly remarks like “it’s not just about winning an election, it’s about winning an era” and “think of something really gay — that’s how gay I am.”
Given that the establishment wants to preserve the pre-Trump status quo, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s fallen in love with a candidate who prefers soundbites over policy. That’s what the establishment wants a candidate to be — inoffensive, un-radical, perhaps with a few nods to fashionable identity politics.
Silicon Valley CEOs also seem to have been interested in Buttigieg even before he became a candidate. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited South Bend in 2017, long before the mayor announced his candidacy.
Zuckerberg did a casual ride-along with Buttigieg, praised the mayor as a “very humble guy” and politely listened to his stories about the decline of South Bend and the wider industrial midwest.
This is probably less about Buttigieg himself as it is about Silicon Valley’s guilt over its role in the rust belt’s decline. In 2018, venture capitalists toured the midwest — stopping at South Bend — as part of what they called a “comeback cities tour.” The tour’s purported aim was to encourage big tech investment in the midwest, but it was also plainly a PR stunt — big tech demonstrating how much they care about the lost jobs its industry has “disrupted.”
Visits from Zuckerberg and others might be as much due to Buttigieg courting big tech as it is about big tech courting Buttigieg. Buttigieg is one of the few midwestern mayors who has successfully attracted tech startups to his town, and the media never tires of talking about it.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the miraculous South Bend revival isn’t quite so miraculous. The Indiana town has two key advantages that comparable locations lack. First, how many declining rust belt towns have an international airport within their boundaries? South Bend does. Second, how many declining rust belt towns are situated on the doorstep of a renowned research university like Notre Dame? South Bend is.
Easy international transportation, low rent, and access to a pool of graduates are all highly tempting for startups. Taking this into account, the fact that Buttigieg has managed to attract a few tech startups to his town is less impressive than it seems.
It’s also no surprise that the establishment media likes a moderate neoliberal who plays up his gay identity. If there’s one thing the mainstream media believes in, it’s moderate neoliberalism and progressive identity politics. Rupert Murdoch’s son, known for his support of Democratic candidates, has already thrown in for Buttigieg.
A third establishment faction is also in the midst of a love affair with the South Bend mayor — neoconservative NeverTrump pundits. This is harder to figure out, because as far as I know, Buttigieg hasn’t pledged to invade Iran if he wins the presidency. National Interest has questioned whether he even has a foreign policy. Maybe the neocons know something we don’t?
Whatever the reason, every NeverTrump talking head appears to be giddy for Buttigieg. Here’s Ana Navarro gushing over how many languages the South Bend Mayor knows (strange, I don’t remember similar comments about Melania Trump). And here’s Jennifer Rubin praising him as “light years ahead” of other young Democrats “in substance and seriousness.” Speaking of substance and seriousness, here’s NeverTrump pundit Nicole Wallace calling Buttigieg “chicken soup for my soul.”
Former Jeb! campaign staffer Tim Miller, who declares his allegiance to “NevereverTrump” in his Twitter bio, wrote a piece for Bill Kristol’s new website, The Bulwark, praising Buttigieg for the apparently bold, radical step of being publicly gay. Kristol himself says that President Trump is “scared to run against Buttigieg.” And The Bulwark has even published a piece hailing the South Bend mayor for… his campaign logos.
Perhaps the establishment’s longing for Buttigieg says less about Buttigieg than it does about the establishment. From Ukraine to the Brexit party, populism continues its worldwide surge, leaving mainstream media pundits longing for the days of the neoliberal status quo, when a candidate could win on the basis of cutesy soundbites, campaign logos, and not much else.