In 1972, I cast my first ballot in a presidential election, with pride and conviction, for George McGovern. To me and to many of his enthusiastic young supporters, McGovern embodied the once-vibrant progressive farm-labor tradition of the upper Midwest. His embrace of ideas championed by Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy four years earlier, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and his support of proposals such as a guaranteed annual income and a dramatic increase in the estate tax endeared him to many student radicals—at least those who had not abandoned mainstream politics for other alternatives. McGovern of course was buried by Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history, winning less than 38 percent of the popular vote and losing the Electoral College 520 to 17. The bumper stickers that appeared when the Watergate scandal broke—“Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts”—provided comic relief at a moment when American democracy seemed to many on the left mired in muck.
Like many members of my generation, I have been unable to forget the lesson I learned in 1972. In the eleven subsequent presidential elections, I have worried that no candidate I could support with pride and conviction could be elected to national office. I was anxious that even Barack Obama, whom many of us left-leaning Democrats admired for his character and his intelligence as much as for his political skills, might have trouble balancing his commitments to deliberation and compromise with the steps required to advance the core ideals of American democracy, autonomy, and equality. The same fears plague me now.
The contest for this year’s Democratic Party presidential nomination began promisingly enough. A raft of able and experienced candidates, including Obama’s vice president Joe Biden and U.S. senators Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders, offered the prospect of a lively and unpredictable race for the nomination. Like many overeducated people toward the left end of the political spectrum, I consider Elizabeth Warren, from my own state of Massachusetts, one of the strongest candidates in my lifetime. My enthusiasm for her, predictably, makes me uneasy. Following the disaster of 2016, the Democratic Party came into this electoral cycle with a battle-tested first team and a deep bench of veterans. Surely one of them would emerge to unite the party and counter the forces that propelled the least qualified and most dishonest candidate in American history into the White House.
But it hasn’t happened. Instead the race has remained inchoate. Even the New York Times editorial board couldn’t decide: it endorsed both the more progressive Warren and the more moderate Klobuchar, an option that will not be available to any voters. Granted, American democracy is a mess. Sophisticated gerrymandering, a 24/7 news cycle in which echo chambers and confirmation bias undercut the very idea of nonpartisan fact-finding, the declining engagement of an increasingly cynical and poorly informed electorate, and the infusion of enormous amounts of invisible money into public life all endanger the lifeblood of popular government, the integrity of our electoral politics. The president’s likely acquittal in his impeachment trial, despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating his corruption and obstruction of justice, shows how low the Republican Party has sunk into the swamp of hyper-partisanship.
Of course character assassination, misdirection, and simple skullduggery are as old as the 1790s, when party politics emerged in the new nation. Yet the depth, scope, and sheer number of President Trump’s lies (currently approaching 16,000, according to the Washington Post) is without precedent in U.S. history. So is the bewildering fidelity of the president’s supporters, who seem to have become oddly immune to his deceit, self-dealing, vulgarity, and venality. All the Democratic frontrunners have scrambled to demonstrate that they can win the crucial states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016—and to distance themselves from each other. So far, none has been able to separate herself or himself decisively from the pack. Instead, the big surprise has been the meteoric rise of a formerly unknown newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who seemed to come out of nowhere.
Except that he did not. I have known Buttigieg since he was an undergraduate at Harvard. I taught Peter, as he was known then, in two classes during his senior year, 2003–2004. He was a frequent visitor to office hours, and seeing him two or three times a week during nine months meant that we became pretty well acquainted. We stayed in touch after he graduated. Although his transcript showed that I was one of the few Harvard professors to give him anything less than an A grade, he asked me to write one of the letters of recommendation for the Rhodes scholarship that took him to Oxford. A few years after he returned from England, I met with him, and with a couple dozen of his politically active peers, to talk about my book Reading Obama at a gathering he helped organize. When Buttigieg was elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and he returned to Cambridge for conferences at the Kennedy School of Government, we got together to discuss everything from the details of smart sewers and street paving to the intractable, perennial challenges of urban renewal and race relations in a once-prosperous city struggling with deindustrialization.
Since Buttigieg launched his campaign for the presidency last year, I have read or reread much of what he has written, at Harvard and since. Most notable is his excellent memoir Shortest Way Home, with its lyrical evocations of the Indiana landscape, its vivid account of military life in Afghanistan, its rollicking tales of campaign stops featuring Deep Fried Turkey Testicles and peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches dusted with powdered sugar, and its incisive analysis of the rewards and frustrations of life as mayor of a small city. I have spoken with a number of his friends, former classmates, and people active in his campaign. I had a very good meeting with him, after one of his recent fundraising events in Boston, about the experiences that have shaped his sensibility. I wanted to discuss with him the ideas that had mattered most to him, and to find out more about the relation between his religious faith and his political convictions. This article profiles the college student I got to know at Harvard and the budding political insurgent who, like many of his friends, was troubled by the acquiescence of the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and after in the so-called Reagan Revolution of tax cuts and deregulation. I pay less attention to Buttigieg the savvy and agile presidential candidate. Because he has made himself available to countless audiences, readers with access to YouTube can view hundreds of videos of Mayor Pete giving stump speeches or participating in debates, doing television or radio interviews, and meeting in town halls with the curious and the skeptical, with adoring fans and hate-filled hecklers. Of the people I have spoken with who knew Peter twenty years ago, few expected he would be running for president in 2020. Fewer are surprised to see him performing so well.