The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pete Buttigieg’s bad take on Bernie Sanders

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for president, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on April 16. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The other day, Pete Buttigieg took heat for seeming to compare supporters of Bernie Sanders with supporters of President Trump. Buttigieg noted that in many places left behind by the recovery, the sense of anger and abandonment turned people “against the system in general."

“Then you’re more likely to want to vote to blow up the system,” Buttigieg continued. “Which could lead you to somebody like Bernie, and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”

Naturally, this angered some prominent Sanders supporters. Now Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is trying to clean up his remarks, but in so doing, he lodged a new set of criticisms. The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin caught up with Buttigieg and came away with this:

In an interview, Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’s left-wing proposals were no longer as provocative as in 2016 — “people were refreshed by the novelty of that boldness” — and expressed skepticism that a self-described democratic socialist in his late 70s could win a general election.
“I have a hard time seeing the coalition ultimately coming together there,” he said.

There are two separate claims here. The first is that Sanders’ success in the 2016 Democratic primaries was driven by the “novelty" of his agenda’s general “boldness.”

This seems off. There are generally several theories about why Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, did so well. The first is that he occupied a niche among the Democratic primary electorate that many previous insurgents have occupied — Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004 — winning young, educated progressives who always want a movement-style candidate who conveys an aura of generational change.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The second is that Sanders tapped into genuine discontent with the Democratic establishment and unhappiness with Hillary Clinton as the standard-bearer of that establishment. The third is that Sanders voters genuinely backed his far more robust social democratic policy agenda and far more dire reading of the threat that the plutocracy poses to the middle class, our democracy and our future.

There is probably some truth to all of those explanations — obviously, they can overlap in various ways — and it’s clear that the “novelty” theory is far less convincing. Right now, Sanders seems to command the support on average of slightly more than 20 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally. That’s down from the 43 percent he ended up winning in 2016, but as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver points out, you’d expect that to be down, given how much more crowded the field is.

Plainly, even though this is his second presidential run, Sanders still has a great deal of passionate, committed supporters, and it’s obvious he continues to tap into genuine and enduring political sentiments. Buttigieg’s analysis trivializes the political aspirations of large numbers of voters, in terms of their embrace of Sanders’ diagnosis of our current problems, and of the solutions the senator is offering.

The second claim that Buttigieg makes here is that Sanders is probably unelectable in the general election. Without more of Buttigieg’s quote, it’s hard to say what his reasoning is, but it seems likely that he’s suggesting that Sanders cannot win over enough moderate voters — either because of his association with socialism, his more robust progressive agenda, or both.

Buttigieg has sometimes suggested that he has a better understanding of voters from left-behind rural and industrial areas than other Democrats. Like other candidates from the industrial Midwest, he sometimes treats winning those voters as mainly a matter of refraining from sneering at them the way those other (unnamed) coastal elitist candidates do.

But if Democrats do have a debate over who is more electable against Trump, as they should, they owe it to voters to be clear on what they’re really arguing. It’s often said that the more “moderate” candidates will play better among non-college-educated whites. But this is an unexamined premise, since the more progressive ones are speaking more directly to the idea that the economy is “rigged” by the wealthy — a populist message Trump (fraudulently) used to appeal to them.

Buttigieg is more moderate than Sanders — he generally favors Medicare-for-all, but is fine with keeping the private insurance system in place, and is plainly less focused on major redistributive policy, structural economic reform, or breaking the power of the plutocracy. If he thinks economic moderation is what blue-collar white voters want, let’s hear him explain this. And let’s hear him square it with his own contention that those who voted for Trump did so because they were so enraged after getting abandoned by the recovery that they want to “blow up the system.”

Buttigieg is an intelligent and nuanced communicator; he is a remarkable political talent; and in many ways, he defies ideological pigeonholing. But these types of assessments fall short of his usual standards, and don’t serve him well.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Buttigieg might save the Democratic Party from Sanders

Bob Moser: Could Pete Buttigieg become the first millennial president?

Greg Sargent: How Democrats can defeat Trump and his ugly ideas, according to Pete Buttigieg

Jennifer Rubin: Pete Buttigieg shows how to campaign on values in the age of Trump