Mr. Buttigieg, writes Jonathan Compo, should examine what exactly he means when he argues for the importance of American morality.
Dear Mr. Buttigieg,
I hope you’re good. There is, I know, no easy path by which this open letter may reach you. Unless an extra attentive (or extra bored) intern of yours stumbles upon this article in the next couple days, it will be, most likely, lost in the growing mass of content tagged PETE2020 that will never reach your inbox. You are, FYI, rather popular these days. Still, I write, in the hope that this letter, fired into the void of the internet, will with time make it to you somehow, and that, as you’ve put it, the longest way round is the shortest way home.
I write assuming we share a goal. There is a need for hope and for change in America and in the world, and we want it filled. You think you can fill it, or at least work out how, and I’d like to believe you. I like you; I think. I like your campaign’s look, most of your plans, your mayoral vibe, your age and tax bracket. I like that you’re Christian, though I’m not. I like Chasten, though I’m jealous of him. I like that you’re concerned, or appear concerned, about people and their questions in a way more profound than a lot of your peers; there aren’t many politicians to whom I’d write.
But, this Monday, I was watching your interview with The Advocate, and I have questions. You, you said, would reassert America’s credibility on the international stage, and, too, you said America’s credibility, its ‘moral authority,’ is what makes it a world model and, moreover, is what will protect our queer interests abroad, in countries more homophobic than this. Regarding this ‘moral authority,’ I have three questions: one, whose morality is represented by this authority, and by what means was this authority first asserted? Two, even if you can, should you reassert it? And, three, if we shouldn’t or can’t restore our former place in the world order, how, then, are we to protect the interests of the vulnerable?
The Moral Majority’s Moral Authority
When American presidential candidates have appealed to moral authority, it has rarely been to protect LGBTQ+ Americans. Even the term, ‘moral authority,’ has a sinister rhyme with Jerry Falwell’s, Reagan-electing Moral Majority. Reverend Falwell appealed to God as his authority when he spoke of the moral threat he thought homosexuality posed to the US: “If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America! If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children who get in its way.” Yikes.
America has come a long way from Jerry Falwell, thank God. Still, the legacy of American morality as fundamentalist and fundamentally prudish and exclusionary remains. The Trump administration, in 2017, reinstated the Mexico City Policy, or global gag rule, blocking U.S. federal funding for non-governmental organizations offering abortion counseling or referrals, or advocating pro-choice policy. This is the morality America imposes abroad.
The credibility of this assertion is backed by America’s global economic and military domination. In the interview with The Advocate, you said, “one of the things that I think kept me safe when I was overseas is that there were more people in the countries I was in who wished they were American than the other way round.”
The reason people in other societies would wish themselves American is not because they agree with America’s morals. In the context of the question, the countries you referenced were explicitly those hostile to LGBTQ+ people, those with moralities different from ours. There is no ethical reason for them to adopt our beliefs; if the people in the countries you were in wanted to be American, it was because America is rich, not because America is good.
This desire you’ve described is slippery, too. Once the consent of those people in other societies is lost, it may be hard to regain, especially given the declining relative economic position of the United States with respect to the rest of the world. Important to you is that America is “unquestionably credible,” but questions have been asked: there is no way back, now.
There is, I believe, a just future humans innately desire. Hope is this desire’s fuel. Political campaigns have exploited to different degrees this hope and its opposite, fear of change. This exploitation is inevitable, the choice comes in when politicians decide either to bend themselves towards justice or bend the hope of justice towards them. You, Pete Buttigieg, are in the exceptional position to extensively harness both hope for positive change and fear for negative change in your upcoming presidential campaign. You are both the change candidate and the status quo candidate in that, as the respectable, young, anti-Trump, you can sell a return to something like the status quo as radical change. This, I assume, is why you talk about reasserting America’s credibility.
What I don’t understand, though, is how restoring the priority of the “American Way,” over what you called the “Russian Way,” or the “Chinese Way,” worldwide would mean something different than the fulfillment of the current administration’s directive: “America First.”
There was, not too long ago, a presidential candidate not too unlike yourself. His candidacy was similarly historic, and his speaking cadence was eerily similar. Barack Obama campaigned on hope. In the office, though, he was not the President the electorate had hoped for. The creep of federal executive power and the increase in drone strikes that occurred under his administration represent a victory for technocratic managerialism, not for humanity.
The Company That Shall Not Be Named
By technocratic managerialism, I mean the putting of faith in advancing technology and in an educated elite, in the brightest and in the best, to make decisions. The corollary to this position is a challenge to true democracy, in favor of running the nation like a business. Fear of this change was a weapon of Trump’s during his 2016 campaign. Your midwestern charm says it can calm this fear, but I’ve looked at your resume, and I have questions.
The first is about McKinsey and Company. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on McKinsey. It is, to me, the Lovecraftian entity which eats my smart socialist friends and shits centrists. But I’ve just read their fourteen values and they’re quite decent. Plus, you’ve worked for them, and you seem like a generally stand-up person. So, I’m sure my conception is blown out of proportion.
Regardless of the moral implications, though, McKinsey is another link between you and Obama. Though McKinsey never employed him, he enjoyed appointing its offspring “in much the same way,” the Economist notes, “as his predecessor seemed addicted to hiring alumni of Goldman Sachs.” Apparently infectious, Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney also caught the bug, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure McKinsey would guide me to put in place. I’m not kidding; I probably would bring in McKinsey.” The Economist’s writing team was hopeful about Obama’s hiring decisions: “move over, Goldman,” says the title of the Obama article, “it is McKinsey’s turn to try to sort out Uncle Sam.”
Of course, McKinsey has had a crack at Sam before, albeit on a smaller scale. The company worked in the establishment of NASA, setting it up as an organization largely dependent on outside contractors. According to Christopher McKenna’s The World’s Newest Profession, “the McKinsey consultants argued that America’s ‘free enterprise society dictates that industry should be given as extensive a role as possible.’”
You don’t believe, thankfully, that ‘industry should be given as extensive a role as possible.’ If you did, I wouldn’t even bother writing this letter. And that this belief was a dogma of a former employer of yours is no grounds for me to attack your current positions or disqualify you from the future employment you’re seeking. I don’t know if McKinsey changed your politics. I do know, though, that in highschool, you wrote about my town’s old mayor, Bernie Sanders, commending him for describing himself as a socialist, and I know you wouldn’t be so ardent today.
Sturm und Drang
Your strength as a candidate, according to David Brooks, is that you offer “change without Sturm und Drang.” I had to google Sturm und Drang. It means storm and stress and, used here, refers to the angry “culture war,” which Brooks believes the left is mistaken to engage in if it wants a viable candidate. This is the second time David Brooks has written about you. The first time was less direct. In 2001, your first year of college, he went to the Ivy League to “see what the young people who are going to be running our country in a few decades are like.” He went to Princeton, not your alma mater, Harvard, but I assume the trends he observed applied across the schools.
The Organization Kids, as he dubbed your class, “rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions as the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.” This clearly does not describe you. It is troubling, still, though, because it appears to describe how David Brooks sees you: “young people are supposed to be anti-institutional, but Buttigieg is very institutional – his life has been defined by this service to organizations, not his rebellion against them.” Brooks description here of you, which he means as a commendation, is identical to his criticism of the Organization Kid.
I don’t think he’s right. That’s really why I’m writing you Mr. Buttigieg. I don’t think you are an Organization Kid. I don’t think you are, at your core, McKinseyite or a Harvard man. Though you served our country in the Navy, and I’m grateful for your service, your potential service to the nation, as I think you know, goes above and beyond what you did for our military. You can be more.
You are, the internet indicates, opposed to ‘experimental’ or ‘radical’ sermons, prefer ‘traditional’ fare for your Sunday services—so I will not preach here, though I am tempted to climb atop my pulpit and shout out my twenty-year-old lungs: “Change! Change! Change!” I will only offer your own words on faith back to you: “When I think about where most of Scripture points me, it is toward defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works.”
I suggest to you that these people, towards which Scripture points, may be the people left out of America’s morality. They may be the mothers in the Global South who don’t have access to reproductive care because of U.S. healthcare policy. They may be the civilian casualties of drone strikes or children without water in Palestine. Their defense, to which you feel called, will require something more complex than reasserting America’s unquestionable credibility. It will require interrogating it, taking it apart, stress and storms and a person, a leader, who is willing to weather them for the belief that the “America” needn’t come first in “the American Way.”