In Pete Buttigieg, America Gets a Millennial Candidate for President
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Like many millennials, Pete Buttigieg created a Facebook account in college. He listened to the Dave Matthews Band in high school. And he met his future husband on the dating app Hinge.
So maybe it’s no surprise that Buttigieg — the first-ever serious millennial presidential candidate — has staked his 2020 campaign on defending his oft-ridiculed generation, advocating for a starkly different view of their virtues and place in the world.
In interviews, in speeches, and on the campaign trail, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., describes millennials not as lazy or narcissistic, but as a generation beset by a series of challenges beyond their control — who now face a decadeslong project of trying to right the mistakes of past generations.
“I understand what is in the eyes of young people who are calling an older generation to account for our failure to keep them safe,” Buttigieg told a few hundred New Hampshire politicos last week over breakfast-time eggs and coffee.
The millennial focus is part of a broader strategy for Buttigieg, who is using his youth to present himself as a candidate of generational change, including by calling for systemic alterations to the political process itself. He remains a long shot to win the Democratic nomination — indeed, he’s trying now to just earn a place on stage for the first debate. But it’s a message that distinguishes him in a crowded field where the two contenders at the top of the polls, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are more than twice his age.
And it puts him squarely in the middle of a larger ongoing public argument about millennials and their values.
“Part of what I’m trying to do is just help people understand the experience of this generation,” Buttigieg said during an interview.
On the trail, as he did in Manchester, Buttigieg likes to make a checklist of difficult issues confronting people his age or younger. He recalls being in high school when Columbine happened, calling himself part of the “school-shooting generation.”
He also says climate change is a personal issue for young people, argues that many in his generation are poised to make less than their parents, and points out that most of the troops sent to fight in post-9/11 conflicts were millennials.
“Being born when I was born has some specific implications,” he said.
Buttigieg — who is technically only exploring a bid for the presidency but has suggested he’ll soon become a full-fledged candidate — was speaking at the Politics & Eggs breakfast at St. Anselm College, a rite of passage for White House hopefuls in this state. A few hours later, he spoke with McClatchy at a coffee house in Portsmouth, N.H., where nobody appeared to recognize him while he sat and talked for a half-hour.
Buttigieg’s days of anonymity, however, might soon be over: He earned widespread praise during a CNN town hall Sunday night, exposure his campaign said helped fuel a surge in online donations. And even last week, after the interview, he attended what was supposed to a low-key meet-and-greet at a bar in Portsmouth that instead turned into a boisterous rally after several hundred voters turned out to see the mayor — more people than even his campaign expected.
Buttigieg, for the record, is barely a millennial. He was born in January 1982, a year after the Pew Research Center says the generation began.
But he nonetheless doesn’t hesitate to identify with a generation whose youngest members are now in their mid-20s, despite widespread characterizations of millennials as spoiled, entitled, overly sensitive men and women who grew up coddled by parents.
Research shows that widespread derision of the generation isn’t a myth, either. People of all ages, including youths, consider millennials to be narcissistic, according to Joshua Grubbs, assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University, who’s studied inter-generational attitudes.
“Despite the fact that scientists are very divided on whether narcissism is higher in younger generation, all of the generations thinks the younger people are narcissistic and entitled,” he said. (Grubbs added that although millennials are likely to label every generation as narcissistic, older generations do not see themselves that way.)
Buttigieg bristles at the generalization.
“We’re not a generation that feels sorry for itself,” Buttigieg said. “But I think when somebody says, ‘Gosh, why are you guys less likely to leave the home?’ It’s like, well, because college is unaffordable, most of the best opportunities are in cities that are unaffordable, and we graduated into a recession. So what do you expect?”
Buttigieg’s own life serves as a rebuttal to many millennial stereotypes. For a generation allegedly less interested in public service, he volunteered for the military in 2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 as part of the Navy Reserve. Even his age is a reminder that many in his generation are no longer in their 20s.
Buttigieg describes a set of experiences growing up similar to many in this generation. He used MySpace and Friendster and was, in his words, among the first few hundred people to sign up for Facebook. (He was attending Harvard University when Mark Zuckerberg created it.) He says he’s comfortable with most social media, except for Snapchat, and chatted with friends on AOL Instant Messenger in college, but he says he doesn’t remember what his screen name was.
Buttigieg shares a similar taste in TV with his fellow millennials, too. He calls the depiction of public meetings in “Parks and Recreation” (a show about small-town government in Indiana) “exquisitely accurate” and says “Veep” is the most realistic show about politics he’s seen. He also said “West Wing” was influential on him growing up, though he had a different impression when he re-watched it recently.
“The drama is laid on a little thicker than I remember,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because of the style changing or me just getting older, but some of it still holds.”
Other shared experiences are more serious: Buttigieg was a college sophomore on 9/11, writing in his book “Shortest Way Home” that his roommate woke him up to tell him about the attacks. He and others gathered around a nearby futon to watch TV coverage of the event.
“You get 9/11,” he said during the interview. “Our generation’s project gets reassigned in some way. Then we wind up graduating into this massive recession. We get sent off to war.”
Buttigieg’s appeal among young people is evident: During the question-and-answer portion of his event in Manchester, a freshman from Tufts University in Massachusetts told him that meeting him was “the best moment of my life.” (The student, Mallory Warner, had driven with friends more than an hour to see him in person.)
But Buttigieg says despite his message, he’s not sure young people will make up much of his base. Based on his experience as a mayor, at least, he said he actually receives more support among seniors, whom he suspects are most eager for a change in leadership style and values.
Buttigieg also has a lot of observations about millennial politics, including what he calls a missing “generational anger” despite the Iraq War’s unpopularity and subsequent Great Recession. Resistance to the Middle Eastern conflict, he argues, was driven mostly by older generations who remembered the Vietnam War.
But he says he thinks one issue might be about to mobilize his generation: climate change.
“This is an almost apocalyptic-level crisis,” Buttigieg said. “And we’ve witnessed a debate that treats it as though we were arguing over the fine-tuning of rate setting in the butter subsidy or something. And so I think it’s just that sense of urgency that’s different. And a sense of being done with idea we can quibble over ‘Gosh, can we really? it seems hard.’
“Yeah, it’s hard,” he said.
In his book, he recounted a speech Jon Stewart, then the host of “The Daily Show,” delivered during his graduation from Harvard, where he told the gathered students that his generation broke the country and it was up to them to fix it.
Buttigieg said that he mostly agreed with that.
“You don’t want to ignore these amazing advancements that have been made by those who came before us. In my mother’s lifetime, we’ve gone from — for all the problems we’ve had around race, we’ve gone from outright explicit segregation to the Voting Rights Amendment, and desegregation. It’s not like we haven’t made a lot of progress.
“But we’re definitely in a moment where a lot of the excesses or the kind of deferred decision-making of the last 30 or 40 years have caught up to us,” he continued. “And they’re coming down on our heads now, or they’re about to.”
©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
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