If America’s political circus ever offers a break from White House jostling, it’s during the first year of a President’s first term. Not so in 2021. On the Republican side, the great Trump will-he-won’t-he question has sensationalised what normally would have been a preliminary discussion about 2024. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s age, mental fugues and dire approval ratings have Democrats — and perhaps the President himself — wondering whether he is up to a second term. Throw in the fact that Kamala Harris is underperforming the low bar set by her boss, and the question of who might be fit to run in his place is unusually open.
So it is that Pete Buttigieg — mayor of South Bend, Indiana, turned surprisingly competitive, first openly gay presidential candidate, turned transportation secretary — finds himself a popular answer to Washington’s favourite guessing game.
But is Buttigieg 2024 really the answer?
If you squint, you can just about see the outlines of a case for President Pete. Viewed from his most flattering angle, Buttigieg might look like the perfect candidate to save the hopelessly out-of-touch Democrats. Hailing from a rust-belt city in a red state, he can construct a better claim to broad appeal than Harris, for example, who has never won an election outside California. His 2020 presidential pitch was more sympathetic to Trump voters than his rivals’; to liberal astonishment, he is even capable of appearing on Fox News. Indeed, Buttigieg’s appeal to “heartland values” has caused some on the Left to accuse him of deploying racially coded language.
But far from providing an answer to the Democrats’ succession quandary, the chatter surrounding Buttigieg only reveals the seriousness of the party’s talent crisis: the Democrats’ line up of top-tier politicians looks hopelessly thin. Yet this personnel problem — and the promotion of Buttigieg as the solution — points to a more profound shortcoming: the Democratic Party’s increasing inability to appeal to blue-collar voters.
First, let’s be clear about the problem. Educational polarisation — the process by which Democrats have been losing non-college-educated voters and gaining college-educated ones — is starting to look like a very bad electoral trade for Democrats. For years, the party has been haemorrhaging support among working-class whites. According to Pew, white voters without a college degree accounted for a quarter of Joe Biden’s support in 2020. In 1992, nearly 60% of Bill Clinton’s supporters were whites without a college degree.
A coalition of college-educated whites and non-white working class voters was supposed to more than make up for those losses. As the political scientist Ruy Teixeira has noted, this was always a questionable bargain for Democrats, with losses among white working-class voters outpacing the racial diversification of the electorate that the party has been banking on. But it now threatens to be a truly disastrous deal.
Why? Because the long-promised rainbow coalition is proving elusive. And the firewall of non-white non-college-educated voters that Democrats have relied on is crumbling. Since 2012, the Democrats have lost 18 points off their margin among non-white working-class voters. A recent Wall Street Journal poll put the parties on level pegging among latino voters. This all adds up to a significant blue-collar problem for Democrats. And if they fail to solve it, they face electoral disaster.
In this context, Buttigieg, the son of an English professor and a linguist, is a strange candidate to be the man who can reconnect his party to their traditional voting bloc. A bookish meritocrat who calls South Bend home because that is where his father had tenure at Notre Dame, Buttigieg is best understood as an elite credentialist who did all the things an ambitious early millennial was supposed to do: Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship, a stint working on John Kerry’s presidential campaign, a lucrative job as a consultant at McKinsey. All of this before 29, at which point he was elected mayor of his hometown.
While Buttigieg certainly eschews the Squad-style radicalism that is electoral kryptonite outside the bluest neighborhoods, the self-styled moderate is nonetheless an enthusiastic apostle of woke capitalism. He may not be the activist on the street who wants to defund the police. But he’s the suit in the boardroom insisting that everyone sign up for their DEI training.
For all his stated empathy for the Trump voter, Buttigieg oozes technocracy. In truth, he is made by and for the elite. As should be obvious by now, the idea that, armed with the right policy programmes, politicians can respond to the populist challenge by addressing “economic anxiety” misreads the moment. His is a trade-off free politics, all managerialism, no clear communication of the simple but essential message: I am on your side.
No wonder his brief moment as a contender in the Democratic primary was built on support among college-educated whites. He struggled with non-white voters, but also white, non-college-educated voters. In other words, he is uniquely ill-equipped to solve the Democrats’ two biggest demographic headaches.
To underscore just how bad an option Buttigieg would be, we need only contrast his Rhodes scholar slickness with a rising star in another midwestern state. Lucas Kunce isn’t a big beast; the 39-year-old former marine is running for the Democratic nomination in a US Senate race in Missouri, a red state. But he’s a curious species. He describes himself, first and foremost, as a populist.
Watch a recent TV ad for Kunce. It is strikingly different in tone to most Democratic politicians’ pitches, with the sort of soundtrack that makes you think you’re being sold a truck. He attacks Missouri Republicans for “stripping Missouri for parts, selling land to China and bowing down to Chinese state TV”; he promises to be a “warrior who will fight” for Missourians.
Or compare Buttigieg to Eric Adams, the Mayor-Elect of New York. The black working-class former cop won the keys to Gracie Mansion with an uncompromising pledge to crack down on law and order and resuscitate the New York economy after Covid. Adams is an ebullient, party-animal vegan. But in his own oddball way, he is authentic.
He stormed to victory in a crowded Democratic primary with huge margins among New York’s minority middle and working-class voters. On the pandemic, he sides with those for whom remote work isn’t an option, rather than a neurotic laptop class sheltering in place two years after the first lockdowns. And, unlike Buttigieg, Adams is unencumbered by the progressive speech manners — “faculty lounge bullshit,” as James Carville calls it — that have come to dominate the Democratic elite.
In their own ways, Kunce and Adams communicate something very simple: I am with you. On election night, Adams told New Yorkers: “I am you. The life I lived is the life many are living right now. We are the same.” Buttigieg cannot tell blue-collar Americans that — an unavoidable fact which will ultimately be his undoing.
The Democrats’ biggest problem isn’t a flyover-state problem, or a white-voter problem. It’s a class problem. Ordinary Americans look at the party in power and see politicians who talk a language they don’t recognise. If Democrats think Buttigieg is the answer, they don’t even understand the question.