Pete Buttigieg’s Elite-Friendly Politics Won’t Help the Marginalized

Pete Buttigieg is this election’s poster child for “progressive neoliberalism” — offering up platitudes about diversity while leaving untouched the very structures that oppress people. It’s time we left this kind of politics in the past.

Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event on January 31, 2020 in Clinton, Iowa. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The past decade was a momentous one for the LGBT movement in the United States. Among many other milestones, marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015, and trans students received vital protections under Barack Obama’s administration.

Yet the decade also revealed the shortcomings of mainstream LGBT politics. Not only were many Obama-era actions weak and relatively easy to repeal — Trump has already reversed many of these gains — they also tended to focus on well-off segments of the LGBT community. Radical activists calling for a broader, more ambitious queer politics focused on poor and working-class people — including the LGBT youth who disproportionately experience homelessness and incarceration — were rebuffed in favor of a blinkered politics of inclusion, representation, and accommodation.

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s emergence as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination serves as a fitting bookend to this decade of elite-centered LGBT politics. By framing himself as a progressive champion while vowing not to alienate voters on either side of the aisle (and hobnobbing with big-money donors), Buttigieg has sought to emulate Barack Obama in both style and substance.

As theorist Nancy Fraser has argued, the Obama/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has embodied and espoused “progressive neoliberalism” — fusing “mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end ‘symbolic’ and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other.” Through watchwords like diversity and inclusion, progressive neoliberalism has looked to incorporate historically subjugated groups into the mainstream while retaining the underlying economic and political system, built on exploitation and inequality.

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat seemed to signal the demise of progressive neoliberalism. Yet Buttigieg has breathed new life into it, positioning himself as Obama’s heir. For a time, Buttigieg’s move seemed like a smart bet. Obama and Obamaism remain popular among the Democratic electorate, and Buttigieg — buoyed by high-dollar fundraisers — polled well in Iowa and New Hampshire for many months. But we would do well to recognize the severe limits of progressive neoliberalism, which has harmed the very groups it purports to defend.

Progressive Neoliberalism From Obama to Pete

To many Democratic primary voters (especially those on the older end), Buttigieg comes off as a polished and poised progressive, a fresh face whose youth and sexual identity set him apart from the rest of the primary field.

It’s an image that owes much to Barack Obama and his advisers. “Obama’s unique gift,” Corey Robin writes, “was being able to turn soaring statements of principle into simple truths of politics, marrying a national inheritance of social movements from below to a plainspoken pragmatism from above.” In 2008 especially, Obama’s rhetorical flourishes, racial identity, and youthful visage encouraged voters to project upon him their own political aspirations.

Though Obama’s racial identity, elite academic credentials, and connection to far-flung locales like Indonesia and Kenya alarmed white supremacists, anti-intellectuals, and xenophobes, these characteristics served as a salve to progressives. As Jeremy Scahill observes, “people wanted to place onto him an identity that Obama himself never even claimed. But he did craft his identity . . . in such a way that a lot of things were open to interpretation. . . . Obama would allow people to think he was this thing but in reality, he was a pretty right-wing Democrat.”

Mayor Pete has followed suit, foregrounding his identity and his ostensibly bold policy proposals — which, in his words, “are not as extreme” as those of his competitors, but which “would still make [him] the most progressive president of [his] lifetime.” This kind of argument surely resonates with voters who imagine themselves to be progressive yet sensible, a formulation that boosted Obama to electoral success but ultimately proved insufficient.

In the face of Republican obstructionism, a festering economic crisis, and a series of cataclysmic wars, Obama suffered from a failure of imagination. His market-friendly politics hemmed in health care reform, the stimulus, and, most disastrously, foreclosure relief. (Right-wing detractors called him a socialist, anyway.) His and other Democrats’ deep-seated fear of appearing soft on national security prompted a string of counter-terrorism misadventures — most notably, the intervention in Libya. Obama portrayed himself as a transformative figure, all while fortifying an unconscionable deportation regime, eviscerating black wealth, and bombing the Middle East, South Asia, and Somalia.

Obama’s tepid response to the slayings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement and, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has noted, also fostered disappointment and disenchantment among many young African Americans. “When the president your generation selected does not condemn these attacks, you suddenly begin to believe that this system is a fraudulent hoax,” St. Louis hip-hop artist Tef Poe wrote to Obama in a 2014 letter. “Racism is very much alive in America, but as a president with so much melanin in his skin, you seem to address it very bashfully.” Such disillusionment contributed to the Democrats’ shocking defeat in 2016, as many working-class black voters stayed home. (The GOP’s draconian voter suppression laws didn’t help either.) By 2017, some 21 percent of black women indicated “that neither party supports them.”

For critics like Taylor and Tef Poe, Obama seemed only to marshal his racial identity when it was politically expedient. There’s ample evidence that Mayor Pete is operating in a similar vein, on occasion deploying his identity as a gay man in order to sugarcoat policy proposals that would benefit the ruling class.

When asked during November’s Democratic primary debate about his failure to connect with African-American voters, for example, Buttigieg responded with progressive neoliberal pablum, championing the nationwide adoption of same-sex marriage while downplaying the vast power imbalances between an affluent, Ivy League–educated person like himself and the overwhelming majority of people of color:

[W]hile I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country. Turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago, lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day even if they are nothing like me in their experience.

This Pollyannaish, triumphalist spiel also obscured the folly of rights without enforcement or redistribution (as Taylor and Samuel Moyn have pointed out). Over a half-century since the civil rights bills of the 1960s, racial segregation and discrimination remain firmly entrenched. When Buttigieg claimed to have “worked for years” as South Bend mayor “under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated . . . [b]ecause they had to be, because of a court order” — and then contradicted himself by insisting that the city’s schools were, in fact, meaningfully desegregated — he was, consciously or not, doubling down on the legalistic liberalism that has failed poor and working-class black people in South Bend and beyond for generations.

Pete’s policy platform reflects not only this rights-based liberalism, but also the “woke” market-centric technocracy at the heart of progressive neoliberalism. His policies demonstrate a keen awareness of racial, gender, and sexual inequality but not the ways that capitalism produces and widens those disparities. In fact, Buttigieg locates solutions to these injustices in the very systems that sustain them.

Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” (presumptuously named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass) seeks to reverse the damage done by centuries of capitalism and racism through “entrepreneurship and job creation in underserved communities.” “Entrepreneurship is an engine of economic growth and employment,” Buttigieg’s campaign website reads. “However, people of color face unique challenges to starting their own businesses.” This fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of racial oppression in the United States — prescribing black capitalism when exploitation and corporate power are at the center of the problem.

Buttigieg takes a similar approach to women’s issues. In his insistence that “ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment,” “appointing at least 50 percent women to the Cabinet and judiciary,” and “investing over $50 billion to grow women-owned business” will help improve the lives of US women, Buttigieg simply hopes to diversify, rather than dismantle, oppressive hierarchies.

Given Buttigieg’s dismal record on race as South Bend mayor and as a presidential candidate, his eagerness to project US power around the world, his clear popularity among billionaire donors (forty of whom have contributed to his campaign), his volleys against universal social programs like Medicare for All and tuition-free public college, and his consulting history at McKinsey & Company, there’s plenty of reason to suspect a Buttigieg presidency would be bad for the non-rich and the marginalized. And his sexual identity doesn’t change any of that.

Against Progressive Neoliberalism

Writing in the New York Times last year, Barbara Smith — cofounder of the black feminist Combahee River Collective and an early analyst of “identity politics” — noted that she left the mainstream LGBT movement because it has generally privileged rich, gay white men. “Gaining rights for some while ignoring the violation and suffering of others does not lead to justice,” she cautioned. “Unless we eradicate the systemic oppressions that undermine the lives of the majority of LGBTQ people, we will never achieve queer liberation.”

Smith — who endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and is backing him again — may as well have been declaiming against Buttigieg. As a moderately unconventional meritocrat seeking to diversify “the winner-takes-all corporate hierarchy,” Buttigieg is following the progressive neoliberal playbook refined by the Democratic Leadership Council, the Clintons, and Obama. His predecessors’ failures to envision or fight for antiracist, antipoverty, feminist, pro-LGBT policy measures beyond the boundaries of the corporate plutocracy helped sow the economic misery and anti-elitism from which Trumpism grew. The progressive neoliberalism that Pete hopes to revive ought to be left in 2016.

None of this is to say that representation does not matter. Notions of citizenship, belonging, and “deservingness” — always freighted with racial, gender, sexual, religious, and class meaning — are partially forged through policy and political discourse. But we should pursue a more ambitious policy program that addresses the oppressive structures that have withstood progressive neoliberal reform. Decommodification, universal policies, and redistribution will not only mobilize the Rainbow Coalition disillusioned by the Third Way politics of Obama and Buttigieg — they will go a long way toward improving the lives of poor and working-class people of all stripes.