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The Carletonian

South Bend, Ind. student voices concerns over Mayor Pete’s presidential candidacy

< before has being from South Bend, Indiana carried the amount of cultural capital as it does in this moment. This perhaps isn’t fair— the Northern Indiana experience of adolescence was incredibly resonant, intellectually and emotionally, and I am kind of on a high, at the moment, that we are finally getting our due. I love my town. But the impetus for our recent national relevance disappointingly underscores South Bend’s uneasy straddling of rural and cosmopolitan, common and elite: our mayor is running for president.

You’ve heard of my mayor, even if you didn’t make the connection when I name-dropped South Bend. It’s Mayor Pete, the Democrat’s “last hope.” He’s the polyglot gay veteran who quotes scripture. He’s third in preliminary polling, according to a recent Emerson report, leading the cluster of mid-level contenders following in Bernie and Biden’s wake. He’s young and reasonable and left-ish—i.e. he has the wherewithal to see what Nancy Pelosi doesn’t, that the Democratic electorate wants policies like the Green New Deal, wants restrictions on capitalist excess, wants a livable wage (because why wouldn’t you!). And if my tone has been snarky it’s only because Pete Buttigieg is fine. I’ve had breakfast with him. He made our downtown pretty. He’s personable. He neutralizes subversive rhetoric into reformism. He’s even neutralized his innately subversive homosexuality! (Find me anyone other than white gay men and their mothers who feel terribly impassioned by Pete’s vision of “queerness.”) And yes, a Rust Belt gay millennial is like the perfect amalgam of the Democrat’s target demographics for 2020. But that’s just it. Mayor Pete is just… fine. His rhetoric inspires because it is Obama style rhetoric. It talks about hope but not grit. 

I don’t want the valedictorian of South Bend’s elite Catholic high school, St. Joseph’s, as my president. I don’t want a St. Joe liberal who espouses militarism and good Christian values. I grew up with this exact sort of person. Pete might mean well but he hasn’t divorced himself, as far as I can tell, from his elitist epistemology. It is crucial to me that my political leaders are social critics—how can Mayor Pete not have anything self-reflective to say about his alma-mater Harvard that he feels is important enough to share publicly? Why does he  speak highly about his time at McKinsey, a massive consulting firm whose former employee attested the firm’s  “only allegiance is to capital?” He raves about how cosmopolitan and worldly he felt as a student in  Boston, but cosmopolitanism alone can not be the foundation of a liberated ideology. This is the language of someone who likes to learn about the poor, but not engage with them. Which makes sense! His whole Rust Belt identity feels disingenuous—South Bend is multiple cities in one, most notably functioning as both a university town for Notre Dame (which in itself serves as a bastion of polite intellectual liberalism and virulently ignorant conservatism) and as a post-industrial working class city. And guess which circle Pete’s from…

The truth is, I also would have to identify myself as more socially aligned with South Bend’s Notre Dame class. But this is important: Notre Dame students or kids from privileged backgrounds (of which I would have to include myself) have to be able to affect true change. I can’t discredit Pete just because of how he grew up. But I can discredit him for his lack of self-reflection, his willingness to conform to exactly what the norm requires of him.

Elite liberals have to be relentlessly self-critical, prioritize the voices of those most affected by the cruelty of current politics. And if Mayor Pete was doing that, he’d be cranking out policy proposals like Lizzy Warren or stirring up the people’s hearts with rhetoric like Bernie.

But he hasn’t. He’s taken advantage of our polarized political moment to emerge as our only centrist hope. As if centrism is a hope at all.

In South Bend, American society writ small, all I’ve seen throughout his tenure is a city with a sustained insane wealth gap and a large people of color homeless population. We have a tapas bar now. If only every small town had such a thing!

I’ll close with an anecdote. I remember attending a Black Lives Matter protest two years ago. A black activist talked about the vicious policing practices of the  South Bend police, just as police practice everywhere.

He talked about the gentrification of our downtown, the displacement of people of color, the housing instability huge swaths of our South Bend community face. And he closed out his speech by saying: “just cuz we have a gay mayor doesn’t mean it’s all ok.”

All the white liberals at the rally paused. The air got thick with tension.

What in the world? Someone saying our Mayor Pete could be demanded of? In South Bend, we have become numb to keeping our government in check.

We really do think it’s all ok, because a white gay married man sits in the City Hall. But it’s not.

And we can’t go back to Obama-era, feel-good liberalism after Trump. That’s what Mayor Pete would offer in the Oval Office, and it’s no longer enough.

Civilization is crumbling (for the better, I think) and I want a visionary to emerge out of the rubble. 

Liz Warren 2020! I’m out.

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