Pete Buttigieg makes the case for “democratic capitalism”

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Washington, DC, in January.

The rising Democratic candidate on everything from his vision for the economy, military interventionism, and the role of gender in the 2020 campaign.

In the past few weeks, Pete Buttigieg — the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana — has become a surprising standout in the crowded 2020 Democratic field.

Riding a wave of good press stemming from his charismatic performance in a March 12 CNN town hall, Buttigieg appears to be raking in donations and going up in the polls. One recent national survey had him tied with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and ahead of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Media figures have widely praised his intelligence and command of policy; MSNBC host Joe Scarborough compared him, after an interview, to Barack Obama.

But as popular as Buttigieg is right now, there are still a lot of questions swirling around his candidacy. Can a mayor of a moderately sized city really make the leap to be president? Why is he getting so much media attention when female candidates with similar policy chops, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), aren’t? And where does Buttigieg fit in the big questions dividing the Democratic Party, from the rise of socialism to the direction of foreign policy?

Curious for answers, I reached out to Buttigieg while I was reporting a piece on his campaign. During our conversation, he dug into big ideas in a way that I found refreshing, giving me a series of interesting answers without many talking points or much deflection. The conversation helped me understand why he’s taken off so quickly: He seems to be genuinely thinking things over and giving genuine answers. That’s a luxury of a candidate who doesn’t have to worry about electability, and it’s somehow morphed into the very case for Buttigieg’s candidacy.

A question about the debate in the Democratic Party over “socialism,” for example, birthed an interesting conversation about why Buttigieg — and millennials more broadly — seem to have a dimmer view of capitalism than the generations before them.

“You have one generation that grew up associating socialism with communism like they’re the same thing, and therefore also assuming that capitalism and democracy were inseparable,” Buttigieg, who was born in 1982, told me. “I’ve grown up in a time when you can pretty much tell that there’s tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now.”

What follows is a transcript of the whole conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

There are a lot of candidates in the race. Most of them have more national experience than you do. Make the case for yourself over those people: Tell me why I should vote for you despite the experience gap.

Pete Buttigieg

Part of it’s rooted in my experience. First, I’d argue that being a mayor of a city of any size — especially in a strong mayor system like the one we have — means that you have the on-the-ground, day-to-day, executive experience of government at its core.

Nobody walks into the Oval Office knowing what it’s like to be president. But everybody who’s arrived there has some combination of experience and aptitude that prepared them for the job. My experience can vary hour by hour: from putting together an infrastructure program to dealing with an economic development puzzle to responding to a serious emergency, which could range from a river flood to a racially sensitive officer-involved shooting. You have to figure out bring the community together to get things done.

I also think the experience of somebody who comes from the American interior, from the kind of community where people grew up being told that success had to do with getting out — as is true not just in industrial Midwestern cities like mine, but also a lot of rural cities — is an experience we need more of in our national leadership. And especially in the Democratic Party, because losing touch with that kind of experience is something that’s really set us back as a party.

Zack Beauchamp

That last bit raises an interesting question about a big debate inside the party: the extent to which we can speak about Trump’s support in the American interior, as you put it, stemming from racial anxieties versus economic anxieties. I assume you’ve followed this debate; how do you feel about it?

Pete Buttigieg

I think the debate kind of misses the mark, especially if it winds up using economic anxiety to excuse racist behavior.

But the reality is that when people are economically or socially dislocated, they are always more vulnerable to being radicalized. And I think a lot of Americans are being radicalized by this administration. The experience of disruption that’s gone on, especially in the interior, has obviously made it more fertile to being taken advantage of by people like this president.

At the same time, my experience leading a turnaround in an industrial Midwestern city that’s also very racially diverse — where we had to work hard to keep everybody together and make sure what we do is inclusive — demonstrates that these things go hand-in-hand when it comes to improving our economic condition and making good on our commitments to racial and social justice.

Zack Beauchamp

I want to ask you about another controversial thing about your experience — one of the things that’s been swirling around your candidacy recently. I’ve seen some prominent feminist critics argue that you’ve had a bit of an easier time of it than a woman would.

The comparison is explicitly drawn to Sen. Warren, who has a similar reputation for being smart and conversant with policy details. In their view, you’re getting a sort of unfair free pass and level of attention from the media based on your identity, specifically gender and racial identity. How do you feel about this?

Pete Buttigieg

Well, if somebody is pointing out that there are advantages — many of them unfair — that go along with being male in our society and in our politics, then I completely agree.

If somebody is saying that I should not compete because I’m a man, I don’t know what to say to that. And if somebody is saying that I had it easy, I would invite them to join the military and enter Indiana politics in 2010 as a gay person. See how easy they find it.

Zack Beauchamp

Fair enough.

I want to pivot a bit and talk about your view on the big “socialism versus capitalism” debate happening in the Democratic Party right now. How do you identify yourself in terms of the broad spectrum of thinking about the American economic system?

Pete Buttigieg

I think the word “socialism” has largely lost its meaning in American politics because it has been used by the right to describe pretty much anything they disagree with. To the extent there’s a conversation around democratic socialism — even that seems to be a little squishy in terms of what it actually means.

I think of myself as progressive. But I also believe in capitalism, but it has to be democratic capitalism.

Part of the problem here is that you have one generation that grew up associating socialism with communism like they’re the same thing, and therefore also assuming that capitalism and democracy were inseparable. I’ve grown up in a time when you can pretty much tell that there’s tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now.

You don’t have to look that hard to find examples of capitalism without democracy — Russia leaps to mind. And when you have capitalism without democracy, you get crony capitalism and eventually oligarchy. So a healthy capitalist system, working within the rule of law, is the stuff of American growth and can be the stuff of equitable growth. But we don’t have that right now.

Zack Beauchamp

Talk to me more about that tension and how you see the concept of “rule of law” playing into it.

Pete Buttigieg

The big issue we have right now is regulatory capture.

When you’re in a system where money can equate to power, even more than it has historically, through the ability to purchase influence in politics, what starts to happen is the bigger you are and the more resources you command, the more you can bend the system to your advantage.

I think that structure helps to explain why our society has become more and more unequal. And all sorts of horrible side effects happen when you have that inequality, in addition to it just being morally upsetting. Look at the way that a lot of powerful businesses get their way in Washington. In statehouses it’s even more pronounced, because there’s less scrutiny.

It also leads to much greater concentration and consolidation in our economy. People are usually talking about that right now in the context of the tech sector, but it’s just as big a problem or bigger in the agricultural sector. This is a nation-wide illness that winds up threatening both democracy and capitalism.

Zack Beauchamp

See, that doesn’t sound very different to me than what Bernie Sanders would say if I asked him the same kind of question. So to go back to the word “socialism,” why do you shy away from using it to describe your own views? Why do prefer to see and describe yourself as a capitalist?

Pete Buttigieg

I don’t shy away from anything. I just think that the pressure to align yourself on a fixed ideological line has a tendency to play into a construction that’s mostly there for the benefit of conservative politicians. And I think it’s less and less relevant right now.

A lot of positions that used to be embraced strictly by progressives are being embraced by libertarians and conservatives on things like criminal justice reform. The idea of higher wages, or for that matter background checks on guns, is now a centrist position — if you measure the center based on where the American people are rather than where the commentariat thinks the left-right spectrum goes.

So I’m deliberately resistant to some of these spectrum analyses, because I think they’re more useful to political creatures than they are to voters or to people like me trying to make a case for certain ideas.

And part of how I think of it also is just how non-ideologically voters behave. You think about the number of voters who narrowed down their answers either to Sanders or to Trump. Or the number of voters in my county who must have voted for Obama and Trump and [former Indiana Gov.] Mike Pence and me. It becomes clear quickly that the labels to more to arouse certain tribal loyalties than to explain what your ideas are.

Zack Beauchamp

But there are a group of people who embrace one of those labels: The broader left, or socialist left, that you see in the Democratic Party today. How do you see that left flank’s role in the overall party?

Pete Buttigieg

I think it’s positive and important.

We need to actually see the farthest boundaries of our idea space. If the debate is just between a center-left and a center-center-left, then we’re not really exploring all of the different possibilities right now. I wrote about this in my high school essay on Bernie Sanders; what’s exciting about people who claim the label of “socialist” is that it weakens the ability of others to use it as a kind of spell to stop something from being debated.

At a moment like this, if anything we’re still underreacting to the kind of social and political change happening in the country. And so you’d expect to see a big range of bold ideas. But most of the boldness in American politics in my lifetime has come only on the right, and it’s refreshing to see that change — even if some of what’s coming on the left leads to policies that I would approach differently.

Zack Beauchamp

That’s interesting, because there’s this tension between embracing boldness and a traditional Democratic approach that sees Republicans as potential allies and people to cooperate with.

Now to my mind, the first Obama term embodied that kind of approach — and some of the outreach they tried didn’t go so well for the president. I’m thinking about the Grand Bargain and stuff like that.

Pete Buttigieg

In recent times, appealing to Republican legislators has been wasteful because they’ve mostly been acting in bad faith. But appealing to Republican Americans — voters — I think is absolutely worth doing. I’ve done it here in South Bend, not by being more conservative than I am but by focusing on results and making common-sense arguments and making it clear that I was motivated by values even if those values were a little bit different from theirs.

Appealing to independents, in particular, has never been more important. It has also never been less connected to ideological centrism, which was the formula in the 90s when we thought of everything ideologically. It seemed very natural that, if you want to appeal to independents, they must be in some middle — and if you’re on the left you just move to the right.

Zack Beauchamp

I was about to say — the Howard Schultz theory of the case, that there’s this huge number of social liberals and economic conservatives sitting in the independent spectrum — all the political science says that’s just not true.

Pete Buttigieg

Independents are often not so much committed centrists as they are unusual cocktails of right- and left-wing positions. Or they’re not that ideological at all and they want a feel for a kind of person who would step forward and be a leader. Either way, it does not point to there being some huge market for that kind of split-the-difference politics.

Zack Beauchamp

So how do you see foreign policy playing into your new ideological vision for the Democratic Party?

Pete Buttigieg

The interesting thing there is [that] the ideological prism on foreign policy has been kind of shattered, I would say, since 2000 — or 2003, when a Republican administration got into democracy promotion and then gave intervention a bad name. Now you have a Republican White House at least saying that it wants to get us out of the forever wars, which is largely good.

It’s been amazing for me to watch the evolution from 2002, when Democrats would lie and say they were in favor of the Iraq conflict, to 2016, when Republicans would lie and say they’re against it.

What’s happening now is a moment that’s going to call for a true realignment around some central questions, the biggest of which is when you use American force. The other big ones being “what is the level of our commitment to human rights and other American and universal values?” and “how is America going to relate to other countries and institutions?”

To me, the way you ground all of this is you start with core, life-and-death American interests as the threshold for the commitment of force. But you also vet anything we think we’re going to do that’s in our interests against American values, because so much of the original sin of American foreign policy has to do with moments where we thought it was in our interests to act against our values. In the long run, that’s almost always turned out to be wrong.

So American interests, American values, and also American alliances. Any action we’re contemplating, as much as we responsibly can, should be something we consult with our allies on and try to do with and/or through alliances and international institutions. But the next president is going to have to act, right away, to reestablish the parameters for things like the use of force. And to build American credibility, among allies and adversaries, that used to regard us as a country that would generally keep its word — and probably no longer do.

Zack Beauchamp

One of the big underlying ideological questions here is how you see America’s posture towards the world. Not just in terms of moral obligations or intervention in particular countries, but whether you think it’s America’s responsibility to be managing global affairs — to, for example, maintain a dominant military that’s aimed at keeping the peace internationally.

Broadly speaking, I’m asking whether you think America should be playing a hegemonic role in global politics or not.

Pete Buttigieg

I think we play a special role. I think that we should play a leading role.

That’s because I believe in the American model. I believe in American values, including American values as spread in the world — not necessarily at gunpoint, but through different means that we have. And I think that matters more than ever, because the Chinese model is being held up as a viable or even preferred alternative to some, and it includes far less room for freedom and rights that we believe are universal.

And there’s a Russian model that isn’t pretty that’s flexing its muscle. There’s a Saudi model. And, among all of these, I think the American model remains most attractive in our commitment to liberty. And so we need to regard ourselves not only as protecting the interests of one state, our own, but also providing a leadership role.

By the way, that’s an example of where American interests and values really reinforce each other. We can either resent the rest of the world or we can lead the rest of the world, but we can’t do both.


Listen: Pete Buttigieg’s interview with Vox’s The Weeds at SXSW