The fact is, Buttigieg does share quite a bit in common with Macron — but, contrary to what he may believe, that is not such a good thing.
It’s true that the two politicians have similar life trajectories. In addition to their relative youth, both hail from upper-middle-class neighborhoods in former industrial hotbeds. Both excelled in their studies and graduated from elite universities, enjoying lucrative private-sector careers before turning to the public sector. Macron worked his way up to economy minister while Buttigieg — admittedly less impressively — landed at the helm of a medium-size Midwestern city.
Far more interesting, though, is what they share in common politically. Buttigieg’s surprisingly fruitful campaign recalls Macron’s own success on the campaign trail. The French president began his bid for the Élysée Palace well behind his opponents in the polls, written off by many as a dreamer with an oversize ego.
Of course, there are myriad differences between French and American politics, from campaign spending and the nature of the media to the very issues that motivate voters. Still, one cannot help but wonder if the polyglot from Indiana has spent some time studying the playbook of Macron’s party, En Marche.
Like Macron during his long-shot bid, Buttigieg practices a form of anti-politics, offering a heavy dose of vague, feel-good rhetoric designed to appeal to disillusioned people across the political spectrum. This presents the dual advantage of acknowledging popular frustrations with the establishment while making few explicit promises to address them.
Much like with Macron, Buttigieg’s policies either aren’t emphasized by his campaign or are hard to nail down. At one point, Buttigieg said he supported both Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, two planks of the Democratic Party’s energized left-wing base. He’s since backed off, settling instead for “Medicare for all who want it” and a boilerplate call for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Macron, too, was infamously vague about what he’d actually do in office, not releasing his full platform until March 2017, less than eight weeks before the first round of the election.
Both also found heavy support from wealthy donors, who appear to believe that the politicians’ interests align with their own priorities. Of the roughly 16 million euros Macron’s party raised between March 2016 and the end of 2017, nearly half came from contributions that were between 4,500 and 4,600 euros, France’s legal maximum. Buttigieg, meanwhile, has hauled in cash from 40 different billionaires, with more than half his contributions topping $200.
No matter the polling at this stage, Buttigieg shouldn’t be written off. As Macron’s improbable victory showed, solid support from business elites, intelligent sloganeering and an aura of youthful energy can be a deadly combination on the campaign trail — especially when one’s opponent is considered by many to be downright offensive and unfit for office.
The much trickier question is what comes next. While he made for a slick campaigner, France’s president has paid a hefty price for ignoring the sources of political disenchantment that made his rise possible in the first place. Like his recent predecessors, Macron has sought to cap spending on the country’s popular public services — something the Yellow Vest movement helped bring, among other things, to the attention of the world. Meanwhile, his administration has continued to oppose demands to significantly hike the minimum wage or to address the problem of employment insecurity, both of which hit young people particularly hard. These issues are the same ones that have fueled support for the extreme right and, ironically, paved the way for Macron to swoop in as a palatable alternative.
It should be obvious that things are not normal when an inexperienced mayor is leading the delegate count to be a major party’s nominee for president of the United States. And yet, Buttigieg, like Macron, seems unwilling or uninterested in grappling with the underlying factors that have upended his country’s politics in recent years. He essentially sees President Trump as an anomaly — a glitch in the system — rather than as the product of an increasingly unhealthy and dissatisfied body politic. True to that vision, Buttigieg hasn’t revealed much interest in seriously tackling economic inequality or structural racism, the twin evils of American society today.
Macron has shown the limits of a campaign whose chief quality was to act as an escape valve: a promise to avoid catastrophe at a time of mounting discontent. As Buttigieg ought to know, this doesn’t stop the pressure from building up again.