In this strange and unsettled political moment, one of the most unlikely Democratic presidential candidates of all is Pete Buttigieg. He’s the mayor of a midsize city — South Bend, Ind. — checks in at a ripe 37 years of age, and is also openly gay.
Yet in recent days, Buttigieg has had surprising success breaking through the din as the presidential field’s voice of the millennial generation. Buttigieg has struck an earnest and authentic tone on big policy and moral questions, defending the Green New Deal as correct in the scale of its ambitions, and claiming that the way to win moderate voters isn’t to project squishy centrism but rather to offer progressive solutions to real-world problems.
Buttigieg recently had a big viral moment in the wake of the New Zealand mosque massacre, when he released a brief but powerful letter to his city’s Muslim residents, informing them that the city supports and loves them, and that they have an “equal claim on the blessings of life in this community.”
I interviewed Buttigieg this week, and while there’s a lot to say about his unlikely odds, I kept the focus on policy and values. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length, follows.
The Plum Line: What’s the reaction been in your city to the letter you sent to the Muslim community?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Very positive. People in any community at a difficult time are looking for an expression of solidarity. The community really wants to wrap its arms around those who are hurting and make sure they feel welcome and supported.
A couple of members of our congregation had relatives in the shooting. People here felt afraid and harmed.
Plum Line: There’s a genre of half-baked punditry which holds that working-class whites supported Trump in part because they perceive immigrants as a threat to them, economically or culturally. Indiana is a major Trump state. What’s your perception of the view of immigrants in Trump country?
Buttigieg: You might have followed this widely publicized case involving a small-business owner from Granger, the next community over, very conservative. This guy was an important part of the community, undocumented, went in for an annual ICE visit and didn’t come back out.
The fiercely protective response came mostly from white members of the community who were conservative and largely voted for Trump, but did not view what he was talking about as going against somebody like Roberto, who they loved.
Yes, you have a lot of people in my part of the country who feel we’re spending too many resources on immigrants, even though that’s inaccurate and immigration subsidizes us. But it doesn’t necessarily apply to people you actually know and meet and see.
Plum Line: We’re seeing a rise in white nationalism and serious anti-immigrant fervor in some parts of the country, and also globally. Are you going to be addressing this in a comprehensive way? It occurs to me that the 2020 Democrats should go bigger on these issues.
Buttigieg: Absolutely. We need to recognize 21st-century threats. Cybersecurity, climate security and security in the face of white nationalism are all clear and present security threats that folks on the other side of the aisle either refuse to acknowledge or decline to do anything about. It’s extremely important for Democrats to very vocally talk about those threats.
Plum Line: How do you view white nationalism as a policy problem?
Buttigieg: In the narrow tactical sense, it’s something we need to stay ahead of and monitor the way you would any kind of violent radical movement from abroad.
There’s a deeper phenomenon going on. As we see dislocation and disruption in certain parts of the country, from rural areas to my home in the industrial Midwest, and in the economy, this leads to a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity. That void can be filled through constructive and positive things, like community involvement or family. And it can be filled by destructive things, like white identity politics.
This is one thing well-intentioned job training programs often miss: If we’re not attending to that, then making sure somebody’s income is steady or replaced after their place in the economy is disrupted, that’s not really enough.
Plum Line: Can you talk about your broader sense of the role that this type of economic vulnerability plays in creating the conditions for the kind of communitarian collapse that creates an opening for sentiments like white nationalism to flourish?
Buttigieg: I don’t want this to slide into the idea that some of these racist behaviors can be excused because they can be connected to economic issues. But I do think it’s easier to fall into these forms of extremism when you don’t know where your place is.
There’s this very basic human desire for belonging that historically has often been supplied by the workplace. It’s been based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer. This isn’t just a blue-collar phenomenon.
We’ve come to be pretty reliant on the way that your workplace explains who you are. That’s breaking down. That doesn’t have to be a soul-crushing thing, provided that there are alternate sources for community, identity, and purpose. In South Bend, we focus a lot on enlisting people in the project of the city itself.
The sense of belonging can be very powerful, and we’re very fragile without it. It’s not accidental that some areas that have seen the most disruption in our social and economic life are those that are most likely to produce a lot of domestic extremists.
Plum Line: Don’t Democrats have to go bigger in rebutting Trump’s arguments about immigration? I was struck by the phrase in your letter that said, whether you’ve been here all your life or for a year, you have an equal entitlement to the blessings of the community. That’s a very robust pro-immigrant statement.
Are the other Democrats meeting the challenge of the moment? How do you intend to meet the challenge of rebutting Trump on these very big topics?
Buttigieg: One thing that’s on my mind is: How does our rhetoric make people feel about themselves? In many ways, Trump appeals to people’s smallness, their fears, whatever part of them wants to look backward. We need to be careful that our necessary rebukes of the president don’t corner people into the kind of defensiveness that makes them even more vulnerable to those kinds of appeals.
What we really need to do in some ways is talk past Trump and his sins, and generate a different nationalism that does the harder task of political rhetoric, which is to make people feel bighearted and secure.
There are ways we can psychologically lift people up. We need to present a different account of American greatness, that doesn’t situate it in the past, that’s really about how we become bigger and greater when we open our country.
Plum Line: That’s civic nationalism, a traditional rebuttal to racial nationalism throughout our history. You would reverse Trump’s efforts to restrict asylum seeking, and raise the cap he’s imposed on refugees? On deportations, should all Democrats stand for reversing what he’s done — making it open season on everybody?
Buttigieg: The beginning and end of this conversation has to be comprehensive immigration reform: a balance of border security, tune-ups to the lawful immigration framework, a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
We should be able to not only accommodate, but also benefit from, the fact that we’re the place refugees turn to. A reasonable debate over what the manageable number is probably points to something more expansive than what we’re doing right now.
The current cap that the president has put in is the lowest in my lifetime. Given that our country has grown, given that we’re a strong country, and given that at the right level, it’s beneficial to us, it’s natural to say that it’s been brought too low, and that the level would have to go back up.
Plum Line: On asylum, I take it you’d reverse all his efforts to restrict the ways in which people can apply and so forth?
Buttigieg: Policy-wise, we can look at whether there are any measures we need to take to better keep track of people who come through. But the sort of vetting that goes on is not trivial.
The greatest nation in the world should not have much to fear from a family, especially children, fleeing violence. More importantly, children fleeing violence ought to have nothing to fear from the greatest country in the world.
Plum Line: Should the 2020 Democrats all pledge not to go into war without congressional authorization? Should they all forthrightly acknowledge Barack Obama’s role in abusing that specifically, and empowering the imperial presidency more generally?
Buttigieg: I don’t know that there’s much to be gained in relitigating that. It’s certainly the case that Obama did many things that just followed from the approach of presidents before.
I don’t know if you ever want to tie your hands completely. But I think we’ve all learned the cost of Congress abdicating its responsibility.
Plum Line: But should the 2020 Democrats in some form pledge not to abuse this anymore?
Buttigieg: I think that’s appropriate. Probably the single biggest thing in foreign policy and security the next president has to do is clarify what the standard will be for the commitment of U.S. troops. It’s frighteningly vague right now.
Plum Line: Do you have a voting rights agenda?
Buttigieg: My voting rights agenda is not that different from what you’d see in H.R. 1. I would add to it openness to constitutional reforms — potentially measures to reinforce the Voting Rights Act, if we can’t get it right with statute alone, but also revisiting the electoral college.
Plum Line: Electoral college reform — what does that look like?
Buttigieg: It’s gotta go. We need a national popular vote. It would be reassuring from the perspective of believing that we’re a democracy. But I also think it would be highly encouraging of voter participation on the national level.
Plum Line: That sounds like as president, you would try to rally support for a constitutional amendment to do away with the electoral college?
Buttigieg: Absolutely. It wouldn’t be easy to do overnight, but it would also have the function of reminding everybody that structural reforms are an option, and encouraging us to have that level of intellectual ambition.