The flurry of media interest in Pete Buttigieg, largely because of his recent eye-popping Iowa poll numbers, caused me to think about several things. Perhaps the most important was that Buttigieg supporters may want to control their Butti-giddiness. Around this time, fifteen years ago, then-Vermont governor Howard Dean led the polling in Iowa with 31% (his nearest competitors were polling at around 10%); and by January 5, Dean was still leading, with 22% of the vote. Two weeks later, when Iowa voters actually caucused, Dean came in a grisly third, behind John Kerry, the eventual nominee, and Richard Gephardt.

Many remember this loss because of Dean’s cowboy moment at the lectern. Masochists and political junkies can watch the famous “scream” that provoked endless media mockery here. But the swift collapse of the Dean campaign following Iowa also revealed other weaknesses that early polling had not: the excitement of this first Internet-driven campaign caused Deaniacs to believe that they were doing better than they were. The last minute television and direct mail ad buys in early primary states, necessary because of Dean’s low name recognition, drove the campaign’s burn rate through the roof (Buttigieg was at a prudent 55% in mid-October, but will be higher by the end of the year); and Dean, like Buttigieg today, had abysmally low polling numbers among African Americans in South Carolina.

My other thought was that in nearly every other category, Dean actually looked far better to the discerning caucus voter than Buttigieg does today, mostly because of Mayor Pete’s thin experience, even by the standards of local government. By the time he ran for president, Dean had been governor of Vermont for 12 years, and had chaired the National Governor’s Association; as of today, Buttigieg is in the middle of his second term as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Dean gathered an anti-war coalition around him, while Buttigieg, who touts his 6 months of active duty service in intelligence, doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to raise the military budget or not. But he does know, as he told The Military Times, that the United States must “maintain absolute military superiority.” It’s hard to think that this doesn’t mean continuing to spend money on interventionism that could be spent on health care, infrastructure and education.

I came into this campaign wanting to like Mayor Pete, and perhaps that is still possible, but right now I find myself irritable about several aspects of his candidacy. The first is that his rise in the polls seems to have triggered a sigh of relief from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party about the possibility of securing the nomination for candidate who will dial us back to the Clinton administration. The excitement over Buttigieg also reflects the not-so-secret fear that the fate of the Democratic party may not have to depend entirely on Joe Biden being able to speak a complete, grammatical sentence where he remembers all words and says nothing weird about his youthful hairy legs.

In addition to this, a bipartisan alliance of gay, white men have gone all gushy gooey over Pete. It was gay money, much of which came from former Clinton supporters, that put Buttigieg in contention to begin with. White gay men also have some powerful media perches. New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni has been a Buttigieg fan from the get-go. My colleague, progressive historian Jim Downs, hinting that criticism of Mayor Pete is inherently homophobic, issued an impassioned defense of the candidate as the “type of gay man American doesn’t understand.” (Slate, November 25 2019)

To the right of Bruni and Downs, conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan has called Buttigieg “transformational,” a candidate who is neither “too gay” or “too young,” but, as Goldilocks famously noted, just right. Buttigieg, Sullivan imagines, will be a perfect foil for Trump on the debate stage. “He can say he was man enough to serve his country in uniform, which should be man enough for any president,” Sullivan writes. “The contrast with the aged, spoiled draft-dodger brat could be deadly.” A contrast, of course, that a woman could never draw. And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the top metro areas Mayor Pete’s donors come from are (in this order) New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco; while the top zip code is mine (10011), a heavily white, wealthy, male gay neighborhood that is also home to Google and Twitter.

But isn’t this the gay presidential candidate that all the queer studies folks promised us back in the 1990s, when the gay marriage campaign gathered steam? The homonationalist who, as Jasbir K. Puar (who coined the term) put it, represents “a collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves?” 

Recognizing this about Mayor Pete is not homophobic: rather, it acknowledges that distinct forms of “gayness,” defined by the specific ideological positions a given homosexual has attached themselves to, have emerged across the political spectrum – and probably always existed.

Furthermore, Mayor Pete’s historic gay candidacy serves as a convenient fig leaf to not address the obvious truth: that thousands of people like him have no intention of voting for a true progressive, like Warren or Sanders; or a liberal woman like Amy Klobuchar. What they see in Buttigieg is that not-so-unusual type of gay man who is white, went to Harvard, won all the prizes, is super-smart, super-ambitious, super-calculating, and was so super-closeted for so long (see above, under “ambitious”) that, as Downs puts it, Buttigieg “can come off as strangely circumspect, seemingly distant from gay culture and history.”

But what if Buttigieg isn’t perceived as this person – but actually is a person who is so distanced from gay culture and history that he has learned none of its progressive lessons? What then? As someone who has read his campaign book, Shortest Way Home (2019), I’m here to tell you that he is exactly this person. More telling, perhaps, is that the part about Pete being gay starts about ¾ of the way through the book, and ends in a few pages, except for occasional references to domestic life with Chasten. Buttigieg has absolutely nothing to say about being gay. Furthermore, he and his staff are so untutored about racial politics that he compared the LGBT and Black civil rights movements, truly yesterday’s gaffe.

It’s also important to note that Buttigieg is also running a very traditional campaign, powered by big money, not long-term grassroots organizing and small donations. His Iowa poll bump has come on the heels of huge television ad buys; two days ago, the campaign invested $2 million in South Carolina. Until this week, when latecomer Michael Bloomberg dumped $30 million into TV ads, Buttigieg has consistently been at the top of the chart in media spending, even though it may be accomplishing very little. Despite the flurry in the Iowa, and now the New Hampshire, polls, as of the week of November 26, the Quinnipiac poll had Buttigieg running at 16% nationally: his closest competitor was Biden, at 24%, while Warren had slipped to 14%.

But polling numbers beg what I think is the larger question here about Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy: have we, as Democrats, really come this far, under an inept, inexperienced, and corrupt President, to elect an equally inexperienced President whose history and positions are to the right of Joe Biden? Is going back to the transactional politics of Clintonism, where civil rights became a cultural thing but were traded away in Congress, and McKinsey-like policy proposals put profits over people, really what we have organized around the last three years?

I don’t think so. And all queer people need to ask themselves this question as we approach the primary season.

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The new School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.

17 thoughts on “I Would Love to Vote for a Gay President

  1. A compelling argument against Buttigieg for President, Claire. The argument against Buttigieg also extends to the military-style policing of South Bend which he has supported and reinforced. I don’t think African Americans are buying what he’s selling, either.

  2. But he has a bigger base among white, gay men than even I knew — there seem to be a bunch of htem who re particularly chuffed that I think a more accomplished, moderate woman like Klobuchar is a better pick.

  3. Buttigieg “can come off as strangely circumspect, seemingly distant from gay culture and history”?

    What history? Hasn’t our struggle been about the liberation of love? Are we about affection, or affectation? And what’s so imperative about (self-)marginalization, anyway?

    All (self-branded) “queer” people — especially the queerer-than-thou contingent — need to ask themselves these questions.

    The one thing the queerer-than-thou contingent hates most is the normalization of gay people. Self-marginalization is the name of the game — a protection racket designed to keep us beholden to the cockroach left — as if the only alternative is to align ourselves with the 1%.

    Ms. Potter raises some worthwhile ideological distinctions — but she’s wrong to link them to sexual orientation. Not all of us take the same lessons from history.

    1. The quote is from Jim Downs’ article — it isn’t my writing. I do think Downs is right about this, although I disagree with his interpretation. More importantly, we can’t have it both ways: electing Mayor Pete is being sold to us as a historically progressive moment because he is gay; and yet, he is far *less* progressive than not just Warren and Sanders, but Biden and Booker.

      1. The quote was from Jim Downs, of course — but you reassert the same trope yourself (in almost exactly the same words) in the very next sentence, referencing “a person who is so distanced from gay culture and history that he has learned none of its progressive lessons.”

        I addressing this as not merely about Buttigieg; as a gay male (and a lifelong activist), I was taking issue with your entire frame of reference. (I focus more on the uniqueness of every individual, and might even largely agree with you on economics).

        As I wrote, not all of us (“progressive” or otherwise) take the same lessons from history.

        1. I appreciate this comment because it points out our central difference, which is not about Mayor Pete himself, but about “the uniqueness of every individual.” No one who studies history, or any form of social theory, would agree with that. None of us inhabit “gay identity” in a way that is unique to us: it is constructed through forms of gender, cultural forms, and a menu of choices that have been made for us. We are all embedded in social formations, and to the extend that Jim and I disagree about the potential harm from a successful Buttigieg candidacy (not because of his gayness, but because he has proved himself to be clueless about key issues and problems he would be in charge of as presidency), we do agree that there are “types.” And yes, Pete is one of them: a guy who thinks he is special, and unsuccessful people are not.

          1. Thanks for acknowledging our disagreement — but no thanks for the presumption that “no one who studies history, or any form of social theory” could agree with me.

            Though we can quibble about details and respective legacies, off the top of my head I could counterpose a range of figures from Allen Ginsberg (my own mentor and role model) and perhaps Paul Goodman, to Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill.

            One can certainly recognize patterns without repudiating a core conviction foregrounding respect for personal uniqueness — and its centrality both as an ethical principle and in setting political goals. Indeed, I believe that each of us inhabits “gay identity” (and is sexual) in ways that are unique. Liberating that uniqueness has always been at the heart of my struggle.

            On the other hand, I have low regard for those who invoke “science” or “history” (let alone the “critical theory” du jour) in attempts to legitimize their Authority (and that of their chosen institutions), promulgating their notions of “social justice” with much the same certainty as those who once promulgated the Divine Right of Kings. After all, that shoe can all-too-easily end up on the other foot.

            Yet again, not all of us take the same lessons from history — and it’s insulting to suggest that those who disagree haven’t studied history, or that those whose analytical framework differs from one’s own simply “lack any analysis” at all.

            We obviously have a profound philosophical disagreement. Perhaps we should simply agree to disagree — with a full measure of the respect I’ve discussed above.

            PS: I don’t presume to know whether Buttigieg is “a guy who thinks he is special, and unsuccessful people are not” — or whether he believes that everyone is special.

            FWIW (given the contradictions in his history and rhetoric, and my own inability to read his mind), I have mixed feelings (and would thus be reluctant to make such vituperative pronouncements) about what (or how) he thinks.

          2. PARENTHETICAL NOTE: Downs’s article is interesting, but (by merely adding complexity to a stereotype) it falls a step short (unfortunately, leaving Potter an opening to hijack his argument)…

            Recognizing uniqueness isn’t a matter of essentialism; it’s about avoiding a “vulgar” social constructionism (or a crude “intersectionality” that relies on a laundry-list of Certified Oppressions®).

            Meanwhile, Potter could have written an article titled “I’d Love to Vote for a President Whose Father Was America’s Foremost Gramsci Scholar — But Pete Buttigieg is not my guy.”

            Many of the arguments in such an article could be the same as those in this piece — and most of them might well be valid. The primary difference would be that said article wouldn’t need to be patronizing toward gays.

          3. Mitchell, the idea that i am patronizing gays is absurd. Here’s some essentialism for you: I am gay. All thing being equal, I would love to vote for the man. But he is not a progressive, and no marketin gof his gay identity makes him one. Full stop

          4. Mitchell, I am not patronizing gays. Here’s some essentialism for you: I am gay. I would love to vote for someone gay, an identity that has, in many cases been associated with progressive activism (unlike Gramsci scholars. But Pete is not a progressive, and no amount of marketing his gayness, or his cute as a button husband, makes him progressive.

  4. The point about no woman being able to make the same contrast about military service is an unfair critique. Gabbard is one of my least favorite candidates and her entire political career is premised on her military background so she can talk down to those of us who have not served from a high perch. Anyhow, she milks her military background for cheap political points more than Pete so it is not a sexist advantage for him to point out that he served in the failed war in Afghanistan and that it influences his views on foreign policy and public service.

    1. Here’s the full quote from Sullivan: ““He can say he was man enough to serve his country in uniform, which should be man enough for any president. The contrast with the aged, spoiled draft-dodger brat could be deadly.” Under what conditions is it a cheap shot to say that the contest for the presidency is being depicted as a masculinity contest? It is. And women lose masculinity contests — worse than insufficiently masculine men do.

  5. My understanding is that Pete’s father wasn’t merely a Gramsci scholar, but something of an adherent. In any event, such an upbringing could (arguably) be far more significant (than sexual orientation) in informing Pete’s perspective on progressive politics.

    As for my characterizing Potter’s article as “patronizing toward gays” (despite Potter’s acknowledgment that SHE’s “gay”)? After posting my remark, I’d immediately wished I’d written “patronizing toward gay guys.”

    This, in fact, is the very sort of instance that makes me wary of the term “queer” (or even an acronym like “LGBTQIA+”) — and ultimately, centering respect for personal uniqueness as an ethical and political value.

    One great irony: I’ve already noted that I believe Potter’s criticisms of Buttigieg’s politics might themselves be “entirely valid.” For instance, I’m certainly disturbed by Pete’s involvement with McKinsey. (I have similarly mixed feelings about Booker and Klobuchar — either of whom, I believe, might actually be a stronger “moderate” candidate than Pete in the general election.)

    Meanwhile, I’ve derided the sort of self-marginalization that operates as “a protection racket designed to keep us [forever] beholden to the cockroach left — as if the only alternative is to align ourselves with the 1%.”

    As I wrote at the outset, “Potter raises some worthwhile ideological distinctions — but she’s wrong to link them to sexual orientation.”

    As for my own ideology? I’ve been called a “petty-bourgeois sentimentalist,” and I’m certainly a quirky romantic — but maybe I’m onto something, “petty” as my hard-bitten caveat might seem…

    No matter which side it comes from, don’t believe the hype!

    1. Lest I otherwise seem like a pointless curmudgeon (or merely a cynic), here’s a far more nuanced assessment than Potter’s — one that addresses many of her points (and mine):

      https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/23/pete-buttigiegs-high-hopes

      Buttigieg is quoted: “You can tell a lot of Republicans ready to cross over didn’t suddenly become liberal. They just feel that exhaustion from fighting. Which is why we’ve got to make sure that our answer is not some kind of equal-and-opposite meanness.”

      This attitude is more important to me than whether he’s a party-line “progressive.” I don’t believe the hype; I continue to reserve judgment — but notwithstanding my reservations, it simply doesn’t hurt that he also happens to be gay.

  6. I don’t care to belabor this, but one final observation…

    Consider the possibility of a parallel piece about Barack Obama, at a similar point in his candidacy.

    Then, consider the range of reactions.

    I miss Obama. Just sayin’…

    PS: This is not merely an exercise in imagination, of course. Here’s one relatively mild (and rather famous) example:

    https://www.latimes.com/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19-story.html

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