Okay, yes, there’s the obvious explanation: ideology. Young folks generally skew further to the left, so they like candidates who are further to the left, too — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, leaders whose radical platforms belie their septuagenarian status.
But when has politics been only about what people believe?
Maybe the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s aesthetic is off. This guy looks like the kind of boy your mom would call a “nice young man,” and that doofy “High Hopes” Panic! at the Disco dance his supporters insist on doing all over the state of Iowa doesn’t exactly scream “cool.”
Or perhaps the selling out is the thing. The latest word on the lips of Buttigieg detractors is “pivot,” which refers to his move toward moderation in an effort to seduce his party’s reluctant center — and fashion himself into a bespoke alternative for fans of Bidenism who aren’t fans of former vice president Joe Biden. Now-former Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke probably said it best: “I think he represents a kind of politics that is focused on poll-testing and focus-group-driving and triangulating and listening to consultants.”
Then again, at the moment, O’Rourke seems to represent a kind of politics that is focused on losing.
Buttigieg’s campaign has had its hiccups in recent weeks, though many have been cause more for eye-rolling than for outrage — such as the photo posted on Instagram by husband Chasten of the mayor posing at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, captioned, “This guy.” Worth more attention was the list his team promoted as an endorsement of his Frederick Douglass “agenda for black America” by more than 400 South Carolinians.
The Intercept reported that more than 40 percent of these South Carolinians were, well, white. And some signees who actually are black didn’t support Buttigieg, or even his plan, after all. The email seeking endorsements was “opt out,” not opt in. To cap it off, a photo accompanying the plan on Buttigieg’s website pictured not an African American woman and her son, but an African woman and her son. It was a stock picture taken in Kenya, cropped to remove the dirt ground. The campaign said it was the fault of a contractor.
Buttigieg himself can seem photoshopped, too — airbrushed into the perfect president for the 21st century, at least when he grows up. Or else he was concocted in a test tube in a lab somewhere and, remarkably, he was the one who concocted himself. Harvard College, Rhodes scholarship, McKinsey & Company, officer in the Navy Reserve. You can’t argue with the credentials, and maybe that’s the problem.
Buttigieg is a smart guy who has amassed a series of genuinely impressive accolades. But he radiates leadership and qualification beyond his years because he has picked up all the right badges, according to the badge-awarding powers that be. And when your appeal rests, in part, on having garnered the highest honors from the most venerable institutions of tradition, it’s hard to argue that you’re an agent of transformation. Buttigieg claims he will deliver something different, but he got the country’s ear in the first place through devotion to the same old, same old.
But there’s another reason Buttigieg’s page-spilling résumé might rub the rising generation the wrong way. We’ve all been taught to do what Buttigieg did: scramble toward success through accumulation — of degrees and other bona fides but also of money, of homes and other items, of anything that we can hold up to prove that we lived up to the high hopes of our own parents. And we’re afraid that once we make it, there will be no there there — that the whole thing is empty.
Buttigieg hasn’t managed to convince many young Americans that he stands for anything other than ambition, with a stale side of duty, and until he does, those Americans will see in him the scariest thing of all: the hollowness of our own achievement culture staring back at us from the mirror.