Let’s say you are out in public minding your own business when suddenly you are approached by a stranger. This person proceeds to get in your face and ask you personal questions. Perhaps they want to know about the sources of your income. They even bring up the private activities of members of your family. In short, they want to know about stuff that is none of their beeswax.
How would you react? No one would blame you for getting mad. At best, you might be curt and dismissive. But you would be justified in getting a bit more heated. It would be fair to respond by being slightly insulting about your interlocutor’s intelligence, integrity, or physical appearance. You could even challenge them to a physical altercation or feats of strength. You have a basic expectation of privacy, and are in no way obligated to humor someone who is being invasive, so these violations of decorum are understandable.
But there are cases where this standard doesn’t apply. You are not entitled to this kind of privacy if you are a public official, or if you are running for public office. If you are already a public official and are running for a higher office, forget about it. This is a truth that some people have failed to understand. In the past week, Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg got into tussles with members of the electorate who posed entirely reasonable questions to them at public appearances. When a retired Iowa farmer asked Biden about his son Hunter’s financial dealings in Ukraine, Biden called him “a damn liar,” made insinuations about his weight, and challenged him to a push-up contest.
But we expect this shit from Vice President Magoo. It’s Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the Democratic primary, who you’d think would be savvier. Yet at an event at Cornell College in Iowa, Buttigieg showed the same kind of contempt for a taxpayer with a legitimate question.
@PeteButtigieg said he wants to "take big money out of politics." We at @IAStudentAction asked him if that includes not taking money from billionaires and closed-door fundraisers, he said "NO." Well, then what counts as "big money" then Pete? pic.twitter.com/pIKkq3hBES— Greg Chung (@GregChung7) December 8, 2019
That question came from Greg Chung, a 19-year-old sophomore at Cornell College double majoring in international politics and history and an organizer with Iowa Student Action, who approached Buttigieg during a standard-issue handshaking and grinning session predictably set to strains of Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes.”
“I wanted to ask if you think that taking big money out of politics includes not taking money off of billionaires and closed-door fundraisers,” Chung asked. He wasn’t the first to raise this question — both reporters and competing candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have called on Buttigieg to demonstrate more transparency about his meetings with wealthy donors cut off from the public and the press.
Buttigieg responded with a single syllable: “No.”
It’s a common refrain for him, following a longstanding reluctance to disclose the details of his employment at the consulting firm McKinsey, a shadowy megacorporation with tentacles reaching across the globe — he has only recently consented to make relevant information public. “There are a lot of considerations,” he has said in the past, when asked about his more clandestine funding sources, secured at private events with guest lists including Clinton donors, Obama administration officials, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. He has held dozens of $2,800 ticket events — the maximum individual contribution allowed by federal law. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Buttigieg collected the most donations from the securities and investment industries of any candidate in the field during the first three quarters of the year. “No one should be left to wonder what kind of promises are being made to the people that then pony up big bucks to be in the room," Warren commented to the press.
There was a different kind of crowd in attendance at Cornell. Chung, a Korean-American Iowa resident who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Vietnam and South Korea, told The Outline that he describes himself as a democratic socialist. “I believe the government and economy should be run like a real democracy, where ordinary people’s voices matter, where people are put over profits and planet over pollution,” he said.
“When I volunteered with the Democratic party, it felt like I was being forced to support a candidate who wouldn't even commit to supporting a living wage.”
Chung was motivated to attend Buttigieg’s appearance at Cornell due to recent ads the candidate had released opposing universal free tuition — one of the issues around which Buttigieg has attempted to put distance between himself and the left flank of the Democratic party. For Chung, the potential hardship caused by the cost of tuition hits close to home, both for his own immigrant family and his peers.
“I have friends who are in Cornell because it's cheaper than public universities due to scholarships yet are still struggling,” Chung said. “One of my friends is dropping out because selling his plasma wasn’t enough. So for Pete Buttigieg to attack free college for all, means he's attacking my friends, it means he's attacking working students of color.”
Chung is one of many young millennials who wants to participate in the Democratic party, but has trouble seeing himself represented by an evasive and condescending party establishment. “When I volunteered with the Democratic party, it felt like I was being forced to support a candidate who wouldn't even commit to supporting a living wage,” he said. From his cohort’s perspective, the mainstream Democratic platform is “a lot of empty promises by out-of-touch elites who never had to worry about graduating with $10,000 in debt.”
From the perspective of traditional politicians like Biden, Chung’s idealism may be naive, but it’s arguably the most influential current in contemporary politics. The shift to the left represented not just by Bernie Sanders himself but his groundswell of youth support has given the primary election the quality of a grassroots movement. While Biden and Buttigieg persist in seeking positions of power through the usual Beltway channels, a growing set of politicians affiliated with left organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America have matched their advocacy for redistributive public spending with public transparency, running campaigns driven by small money donations from working-class constituents and volunteer canvassing.
For Chung’s part, he found participation in grassroots movements like Fight for 15 more fulfilling than party politics. “I want to change business as usual, and bring movements into politics, where ordinary people, not politicians, are in the saddle,” he said. “Instead of being told to support a candidate, I'm pressuring candidates to support us.”
It’s an ambitious goal, but he may already be fulfilling it. The day after Buttigieg’s confrontation with Chung, his campaign released a statement:
In a continued commitment to transparency, we are announcing today that our campaign will open fundraisers to reporters, and will release the names of people raising money for our campaign. Fundraising events with Pete will be open to press beginning tomorrow, and a list of people raising money for the campaign will be released within the week.
This is, to be frank, the least he can do — the bare minimum. It’s not the donors in closed rooms candidates are ultimately accountable to, it’s voters like Greg Chung. Lofty paeans to democracy are worth nothing if a citizen can’t ask a straight question. Instead of dismissing him, Buttigieg and Biden should expect people like Chung to be in the room, everywhere they go — and they had better have answers.