Will we ever be free of Pete Buttigieg?

The myth of electability has forced him on us all, and he’s going to have to be stopped over and over again.

Will we ever be free of Pete Buttigieg?

The myth of electability has forced him on us all, and he’s going to have to be stopped over and over again.

There is a series of tweets, by a user called @bagofmoons, that date back to 2013 — about a weird kid whose “last name was once mispronounced by a grown up as ‘Butt in gear,’” who is now “mayor of my hometown.”

“We grew up together,” @bagofmoons stated in a later tweet. “3 of our 4 parents were colleagues of sorts, we carpooled to every day of elementary school together, being president has been his sole focus literally since he was 2-year-old, he has no morals outside of that one goal.” This is a kid, we are told, who started going by “Pete” in 5th grade because he thought it sounded more “marketable,” who has (apparently) changed the pronunciation of his last name based on feedback from focus groups not once but twice, and who, it seems, used to lecture adults on the importance of maintaining an up-to-date resume, something he has done since the age of “5 or 6.”

“Pete Buttigieg doesn't want to change anything,” the @bagofmoons thread concludes, quoting The Root’s Michael Harriot. “He just wants to be something.”

This thread is powerful because it invites us to imagine being haunted by this weird rat-like boy your whole fucking life, watching on in horror as he actually comes somehow close to forcing the world into alignment with his wildest West Wing fantasies. But it also serves a more specific critical purpose: it gets to the heart of Mayor Pete's weirdness. Indeed, Buttigieg is perhaps the weirdest politician to emerge in U.S. politics since Donald Trump. Stilted and curiously empty, he is a man without qualities whose politics fall somewhere between the vague and the underwhelming and the obviously, callously brutal; whose motivations seem to be set back somehow at a remove from our own. Whose campaign platitudes often have the slightly otherworldly sense of something generated by an AI; who can “win” the Iowa caucus just by proclaiming that he has. Given everything, it is perhaps unsurprising just how much speculation there has been that Buttigieg is in the CIA.

And the most chilling thing of all? He is only 38! With drive like this, and his apparent establishment support, even if he's defeated this time, Buttigieg could be back for another 10 or so Democratic primary campaigns. This guy has been forced on us all, lurking in the collective elementary school carpool of our politics, and now he's going to have to be stopped over and over again.

It is possible to read the whole of Buttigieg's life as one giant attempt to prove himself to be a “Person With A Presidential Mindset.”

I thought of the @bagofmoons thread a couple of weeks ago, when I read this excellent piece on this website by Dan Brooks, about what he calls the “Type of Guy Theory” — an understanding of the self which is shaping discourse both online and offline, and is especially prevalent among adolescents. “The bedrock assumption of Type of Guy Theory,” Brooks writes, “is that identity exists independently from behavior; you are a type first, and you behave accordingly.” “This idea — that who you are abides somehow outside of what you do — is the defining fantasy of our culture,” and it is having various insidious effects, especially on Brooks’s 12-year-old son, who is given to thinking of himself in an ossified way as a “low-empathy person” or a “fuck-up” — facts about him that he can do nothing about. Apparently, his school tries to help students overcome this way of thinking by distributing pamphlets comparing “People With Growth Mindsets,” who are equipped to overcome their shortcomings, and “People With Fixed Mindsets,” who are not.

Buttigieg seems like someone well versed in fixed versus growth mindsets. On the evidence of the @bagofmoons thread, it is possible to read the whole of his life — from grade-school resume-padding to folksily admiring clocktowers at Harvard to attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to consultant at McKinsey to serving in the military in Afghanistan to running for president as a small town mayor — as one giant attempt to prove himself to be a “Person With A Presidential Mindset” or a “Presidential Type of Guy.”

Admittedly, people feel driven to prove Buttigieg wrong. As I write this, Buttigieg might technically be leading the primaries in delegates, but even his fellow presidential candidates find it hard to conceal their disdain for him. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both used the phrase “nibbling at (or around) the edges” to describe the lack of ambition of his policies, apparently savvy to the “Pete is a rat” meme. Sen. Amy Klobuchar came third in New Hampshire on the back of a bounce quite plausibly caused by her savaging Buttigieg in the pre-primary debate. Even former Vice President Joe Biden took time away from his campaign's long death-spiral to produce an ad lampooning Buttigieg's record as mayor of South Bend.

But the problem is, that we as a public are given to buying this sort of crap. Politicians really are seen, in our folk understanding of things, as “presidential” or “electable” people, quite outside of anything they have (in fact) achieved. Buttigieg must be electable, our minds think, because he looks a bit like he might be cast to play the president in a drama, and his biography reads like something cribbed together by an machine trained on the biographies of Democratic presidents and nominees past. This is quite despite the fact that Trump has completely overturned the rules of presidential politics and could probably beat Buttigieg in a debate just by saying the word “Peeettte” over and over in different tones of funny voice, before going off on one of the weird rants he’s started doing which seem pitched at the inchoate domestic grievances of the over-55s, like how toilets don’t flush properly any more. In this delusion, “electability” is posited as a real quality which inheres in politicians regardless of circumstance, which everyone can either simply Recognize or not, and which can swing elections on its own.

So how can we defeat the (political) elision of being and doing? In his piece, Brooks invokes Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existentialist maxim”: “existence before essence.” For Sartre, there is no such thing as a fixed human nature: human beings are radically free, and we determine ourselves through our actions. To cite one famous example, a soldier does not desert from war because he is a coward, he is a coward because he deserts from war. “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” For Sartre, any attempt to flee from this fact is a way of shirking our responsibility as ethical agents.

Sartre’s view of human freedom does indeed stand starkly opposed to the Type of Guy Theory, but I worry that it can't actually do the work we need it to here. The Type of Guy Theory, after all, has not come to be in a vacuum: it is plausibly a response to a world in which we really do feel our actions are somehow fated by accident of birth; in which our agency is restricted by a politics which confronts us, viscerally now in the age of climate disaster, as a blindly natural order.

The problem with the Type of Guy Theory is that it invites us to see ourselves in speculative terms.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre counters this thought by insisting we are free even in relation to very profound obstacles: often, all we need is a change of perspective. “A particular crag,” he says at one point, “which manifests a profound resistance if I wish to displace it, will be on the contrary a valuable aid if I want to claim upon it in order to look over the countryside.” This might sound fair enough — until, of course, you realize that Sartre also takes this argument to extend to a prisoner who, while not “always free to go out of prison,” is nevertheless “always free to try to escape.” Presumably, the prisoner's cell and all the guards need not be experienced as obstacles if the prisoner takes them to be enabling his free attempt to escape. At a certain point, presented with this, most people are going to be tempted to resort to fatalistic common sense.

A more coherent understanding of how human freedom relates to external necessity can be found in a different mid-20th century source: the moral philosophy of G.E.M. Anscombe. In many ways, Anscombe’s moral philosophy takes its cues from an incident in 1956, when — as a junior member of the philosophy faculty — she spoke out against Oxford University's decision to award former President Truman an honorary degree. The reason being that Truman was (ultimately) responsible for the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, achieving the goal of getting Japan to surrender but destroying two cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process. As Anscombe put it in the speech she gave objecting to the award at Oxford University's Convocation: “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions” — and this applies even if the killing took place in the context of war.

The Truman incident suggests that the Type of Guy Theory has been with us for a long time. In short, what Anscombe was objecting to, was the insistence of her colleagues that while Truman may have been responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, that did not make him a murderer — his actions did not make him the sort of person who would be responsible for killing the innocent (on the contrary, perhaps: his decision had positive consequences, and thus should be considered a courageous one). For Anscombe, however, honoring Truman in this way was just as sycophantic as if they had all decided to give a degree to Genghis Khan, or Nero. He was a murderer, he had done a lot of murder — and that was all there was to it.

Anscombe's campaign against Truman helped bring her into a full-scale confrontation with establishment moral philosophy in general. At the end of her convocation speech, she described how dominant trends in Oxford moral philosophy could quite easily be used to justify Truman's actions, in terms either of their consequences, or how he perceived his role; early the next year, Anscombe gave a radio address in which she described such philosophy as the product of a wholly corrupt world — a way of granting official justification for allowing the wicked to dodge responsibility for the terrible things they do.

For Anscombe, the way out of this is for philosophers to stop arguing over the meaning of terms they patently don't understand (and perhaps don't even need!), like “moral duty” or “moral obligation,” and instead think in much more basic terms about what it is that we are doing, when we (choose to) do anything at all. “It is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology.”

This led Anscombe to develop a novel theory of the concept of “intention.” And it is with the theory of intention that we can really defeat the Type of Guy Theory. In her book Intention, Anscombe distinguishes between “speculative” and “practical” knowledge. “Speculative” knowledge is the sort of knowledge involved in the hard sciences — knowledge of external objects. But “practical” knowledge is the sort knowledge we have when we do something intentionally — it is knowledge “from within” — “the cause of what it understands.” When we do something as agents, we have knowledge of something we sustain in and through our own doing. There is no “being” without this “doing” (one is not, for instance, “charitable,” except by performing actions which might appropriately be described in this way).

The problem with the Type of Guy Theory, then, is that it invites us to see ourselves in speculative terms — as if our very personalities were suitable material for scientific investigation, our character traits waiting somehow objectively “in” us, to be discovered. But in fact, we ought to see ourselves in practical terms: as necessarily acting within the world in creative, transformative ways. Reality acts upon us, and conditions us, and we are not always free in relation towards it. But it is nevertheless something that we can, at times, manage to take by the scruff of the neck.

Which brings us back to likes of Buttigieg, and his attempt to prove himself to be a “presidential” kind of guy. “presidential,” or “electable,” are not things one can at all abstractly be — and it is a dangerous fallacy to separate these sorts of things from what politicians in fact do. We do not need to fatalistically accept what the likes of Buttigieg appear to conceive as their inherent nature. They might, instead, be practically booted out of political reality.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.