Why we can’t trust values without policies.
On April 22nd, CNN hosted a youth-oriented town hall with five candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination: Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. The featured clips on CNN’s homepage the following day showed Harris talking gun reform, Bernie hitting his usual notes of Medicare-for-All and policies to uplift working families, and Warren laying out ground-breaking proposal after ground-breaking proposal.
Buttigieg’s clips had a distinctly different flavor, with titles like, “God doesn’t have a political party,” or “I wouldn’t be running if I hadn’t come out,” and the priceless, “Mayor Pete’s weaknesses: Sci-fi movies and spy novels.” The inanity of these headlines and the lack of substance in most the coverage surrounding Pete Buttigieg has become nearly cartoonish. Trevor Noah of The Daily Show has begun taking notice, and The Onion recently penned its own satire of the hollow Buttigieg hoopla, with its piece, “Pete Buttigieg Releases Comprehensive List of Fun Personality Quirks to Include in Articles about Him.”
For his part, Anderson Cooper, during the town hall, pressed Buttigieg on his silence concerning substantive policy proposals. “Your campaign website, it has a lot about who you are, what you believe. It doesn’t have anything specific about policy, like nothing, there’s no policy section on it. At what point do you need to start actually presenting specific policies and a whole policy platform?”
And here, despite all the cutesy disclosures about his personal life and likes and dislikes up to this point, is where Buttigieg gave the most revealing statement of his campaign so far.
I also think it’s important that we not drown people in minutiae before we’ve vindicated the values that animate our policies. Because as Democrats, this is a habit that we have. We go right to the policy proposals, and we expect people to figure out what our values must be from them. I expect that it will be very easy and clear to tell where I stand on every specific policy challenge of our time, but I’m going to take the time to lay that out while also talking about values and every day impacts rather than competing strictly on the theoretical elegance of the proposals themselves.
Foremost, what is so revealing about this quote is just how circuitously unrevealing it is. Consider prolix like, “vindicated the values that animate our policies” or “the theoretical elegance of the proposals themselves.” The inflated language here convolutes meaning rather than clarifies it and almost manages to hide the absurd claim, phrased with the utmost pretension, that policies proposals are somehow more “theoretical” than hints of their underlying values.
But, indeed, there is a logic hidden here, and perhaps Buttigieg would prefer us not to follow it because it’s absolutely backwards. Buttigieg argues that, rather than deducing from policy proposals what a candidates’ priorities in governance would be, voters should listen to what they have to say about their values and then trust them to implement policies that align with those values.
This is the position of the political charlatan. This approach allows Trump to appeal to the working class while passing an enormous tax break that only benefits the wealthy. This is the approach that enabled Obama to trumpet “hope” and “change” only for his first action in office to be a massive bailout for Wall Street. Rhetoric alone is little more than empty appeal; policy proposals are actionable change. One denotes a wordsmith; the other denotes a champion of values. No one questions Bernie Sanders’ values or Elizabeth Warren’s values because their policies make them plain. A person could agree or disagree with those values, but at least he or she has the requisite information to make that judgment.
Buttigieg currently seeks to be as many things to as many people as possible, so he avoids specifics. Instead, he favors a rhetoric that addresses various positions and concerns in broad, sweeping analytical responses. By painting such a large rhetorical canvas, with multiple nodes of inflection, he allows viewers and listeners to isolate the pieces that appeal to them and project onto his responses a defense of their own values and priorities. In this way, he appeals to progressive voters without actually putting forth progressive policies, while at the same time not saying anything to scare off the supposed “moderates” of the party, or, more importantly, the wealthy donor class.
If it’s difficult to locate Buttigieg’s values through his policies (because he doesn’t have any), perhaps it’s less difficult to locate his values through his conspicuous lack of policies. The recent New York Times article outlining the urgent “Stop Sanders” movement within the establishment-wing of the Democratic Party firmly places Buttigieg as the presidential candidate in those meetings with Pelosi, Schumer, and longtime party financier Bernard Schwartz. He is also the only top-tier candidate, except Biden, currently taking campaign contributions from D.C. lobbyists. Perhaps a logic is forming behind the no-promises-progressivism Buttigieg presents.
But, what of the few actual policies Buttigieg has proposed? Well, he doesn’t support giving prisoners the right to vote. Can “no change” be considered a proposal? But he does support ending the electoral college and expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court. Neither of these proposals is original to him, and both do little but assert the value of partisanship. Whichever political party is likely to benefit from these changes (today it would be the Democrats) would support these policies. Both of these policies are completely inoffensive to the donor class of the party. They are policies that help a political party. As long as the wealthy can maintain influence over both political parties, these policies are just fine by them.
The most fleshy proposal Buttigieg has put forth concerns healthcare. Again, nothing new here: he’s adopted the former Obama position of having a public option compete alongside private insurers. He assumes that ultimately the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the public option will disrupt the insurance markets and move the country gradually toward a Medicare-for-All system.
Unfortunately, history does not bear out this assumption. What we have seen with the Affordable Care Act over the last few years and with our current Medicare system over the last few decades is that leaving health insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry with power and influence means we will constantly be playing defense on providing people with affordable health coverage. The ACA is in its death-throes, and our current Medicare system has been chipped away at so relentlessly little by little that it has been whittled down to near insignificance causing many recipients to have to purchase supplemental private insurance as well just to be effectively covered.
There are winds of change in the air, and the private insurers are hoping to wait it out and capitalize after the moment passes. Buttigieg’s proposal allows them that chance. We need to kick the insurance companies out of our doctors’ offices once and for all, and that requires courageous policies and steadfast values. Buttigieg has so far shown neither.
He has an impressive resume, but, as a testament to values, it is sorely lacking. After graduate school, he took a job with the McKinsey management consulting company, known for such well-publicized infamy as advising Purdue pharmaceutical on how to “turbocharge” Oxycontin sales and counseling authoritarian governments. In his autobiography, Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg spends no time wrestling with the ambivalences of serving such a company, separating out his values from the pure interests of capital that the firm represents. No, he amorally reflects on McKinsey as “a place to learn,” particularly “about the nature of data.” Well, at least he knows the value of numbers if nothing else.
Part of his learning at McKinsey was visiting Afghanistan as a civilian economic adviser, but that wouldn’t be his only trip to the war-torn country. He would volunteer for the naval reserves in 2009, long after the War on Terror had become a much maligned foreign policy blunder in progressive circles, and would be deployed overseas in 2014 as a naval intelligence officer. When I’m looking for progressive values in my candidate’s biography, I want to see him or her walking the picket line, not voluntarily carrying an assault rifle in an unjust war.
As a progressive, Buttigieg has so far given me more reason to be concerned than to be excited. But, let’s see what his policies have to say for him. Pete, we’re waiting…