Columns, Opinions

Walsh ’23: Why Buttigieg is held to a higher standard

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 25, 2020

A year ago today, Pete Buttigieg was a progressive darling. Combining the folksy charm of a Midwestern small-city mayor, the intellect of a Rhodes Scholar and the youthful energy yearned for by those wanting new blood in the party, Buttigieg seemed to be a new hope for Democrats. Moreover, his nominal commitment to social democratic causes, particularly single-payer healthcare, courted progressive Democrats in the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders camp of the party. But today, many progressives have changed their tone, framing Buttigieg, or “Wall Street Pete,” as a classic resume-building, establishment Democrat content with normality and uncomfortable with structural change.

From a progressive point of view, these are valid, principled criticisms not only of Pete, but also of other moderates in the race, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the fact that critics from the left have levied these attacks so fiercely — and in such an ad hominem manner — on Mayor Pete suggests that something specific to Buttigieg has drawn the ire of progressives. His youth and identity as a gay man, both traits more often associated with progressives than with moderates, are the culprits. These attacks represent a toxic form of identity politics that could further polarize the party between its moderate and progressive wings.

Early in the race, the allure of Buttigieg came not from his policy proposals — as they were few and far between until spring of 2019 — but from the grace and poise with which he discussed how to take down Trump. While never the first choice of Sanders and Warren supporters, he appeared to earn their respect. Now, it is not uncommon on progressive Twitter — or the Brown campus —to hear the terms “rat” or “resume-builder” thrown around to refer to Pete.

Many critics take issue with Pete’s centrist positions, particularly because, early in the campaign, he appeared to identify with the left wing of the party. Now that he’s decidedly centrist, they frame him as an opportunist willing to shirk his progressive values for political expediency. Others cite his billionaire donors and his two years of employment with McKinsey, a consulting firm tainted by ties to brutal authoritarian regimes and the opioid crisis. Still others take issue with his questionable record with race relations and policing as mayor of South Bend .

Buttigieg’s complex record with race in South Bend merits criticism, particularly because of local Black leaders’ documented frustration with his handling of the city’s race issues. Progressives must continue to hold him accountable. But the other two criticisms — that he’s too moderate and too in touch with the corporate wing of the party — have been levied disproportionately on Buttigieg.

It appears that in the attacks on Buttigieg, criticism of fellow centrists Biden and Klobuchar has waned. Biden still has plenty of potentially unsavory features in his record that progressives have yet to pounce on, like his ostensibly cozy relationship with credit card companies. And Klobuchar’s history  as a “tough on crime” prosecutor is ripe for justified attacks from progressives. Moreover, Buttigieg’s platform resembles those of the other moderates in the race — not to mention most of the party. And yet, only Buttigieg has earned several ad hominem monikers for his centrist views. (Criticism of Bloomberg has increased, not due exclusively to his moderate platform, but because of alleged misogynistic and racist statements and his shortcomings as mayor of New York.)

Being young and gay, Pete is held to a higher standard than the other candidates. Progressives — many of whom are young and have longed for a queer oval office candidate — expect more of a left-wing platform out of a candidate with Pete’s identity. An open letter by Queers Against Pete explains this position, contending that because his positions do not recognize the intersectionality of LGBTQIA+ issues, he is not truly fighting for LGBTQIA+ justice. Without saying it, the open letter implies that Buttigieg, by not subscribing to the progressive politics of queerness, is a traitor to the community. Likewise, as a millenial, he is expected to match the progressivism of Democrats in his generation. A New Yorker thinkpiece puts it more succinctly, calling him “an old politician in a young man’s body, a straight politician in a gay man’s body.”

In essence, Buttigieg isn’t gay or millennial enough. Beyond being a moderate, he admits to remaining in the closet throughout college and while in the military to preserve a future political career. And after more than 30 years of passing as straight, Buttigieg has cultivated a persona that doesn’t present as queer. That Buttigieg pursued the traditional path of political hopefuls (which includes landing a low-level job at McKinsey) and happens to be a centrist puts him at odds with the more radical conception of queer politics. Hence, he’s a “rat” and a “resume-builder” to progressive critics.

It’s unfortunate that Buttigieg doesn’t comprehend the intersectionality to LGBTQIA+ issues, and it’s demoralizing that a queer candidate with a less traditional, more flamboyant persona would likely not be as palatable as the masculine, straight-passing Pete. But attacking him as a “rat” and a “resume-builder,” especially when these criticisms derive from a belief that he’s not gay enough, has dangerous implications.

It suggests that the only queer people worth electing are those in the left flank of the party, which excludes queer people who faithfully believe in their centrist convictions. Thus, it also implies that mainstream politics is reserved for cis, straight people and that queer people engaging with moderate ideologies are disingenuous and self-serving. As a result, more moderate queer people will face extra hurdles when seeking elected office.

Lastly, and most importantly, by holding queer candidates to such high standards, we will disregard the complexities of coming out journeys. Queer people come from all political and geographic backgrounds — and with LGBTQIA+ acceptance on the rise, more people will come out, exposing the diversity of the queer experience. Some queer political hopefuls will be centrists like Buttigieg — not because they seek power at all costs, but because their life experiences and political upbringing have made them so. They deserve the same shot at elected office as cisgender heterosexual people do.

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

One Comment

  1. Ok, Boomer

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