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I believe that if I ask Democrats on campus who their presidential candidate of choice is, they won’t answer “Pete Buttigieg.” At least not in a heartbeat.
If push comes to shove, my classmates might tick the box next to the South Bend mayor’s name when the election rolls around. But from conversations in the dining halls and on Low Steps, I’ve learned that it isn’t “cool” to say you’re supporting the former McKinsey consultant.
There is a gap in the national news media’s seemingly sprawling—and frankly exhausting—coverage of Mayor Pete’s problem with Generation Z. Despite the breadth of coverage, it fails to acknowledge why Mayor Pete is so unpopular with this group. These young voters scorn Mayor Pete precisely because they recognize themselves in him.
Much like Mayor Pete, Columbia students successfully jump through life’s hoops: graduate school applications, fellowships, the next big job. Whenever I set foot in Butler Library, I see them tinkering with their resumes, perfecting them into a palatable ideal. My high school friends are the same. I think it’s a Gen Z thing to want to be digestible above all else.
Mayor Pete is a high achiever; in 2019, U.S. publications mentioned Buttigieg’s Rhodes Scholarship 596 times. Older voters might see this as evidence of Mayor Pete’s lofty achievements, but I think Gen-Z voters see something else. They see it as a sign that Mayor Pete is like them, that he seeks to be palatable to others—not necessarily truthful.
From their own self-cultivation, Gen Z voters know that pleasing others is often a form of deception. It’s a form of obscuring the truth for personal gain. And they find Mayor Pete not preferable because they know the cost of being sneaky: integrity. Sometimes, it takes one to know one.
Despite our want to be more palatable, I don’t think Gen Z voters dream of being palatable. Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I think most of my friends would prefer a life of integrity, whole and undivided. Being palatable is just a safe bet, not a life goal.
This could be why, in a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll, Democratic voters aged 18 to 29 described integrity as their most valued attribute in a presidential candidate.
Personally, I can’t tell if Mayor Pete really believes in anything beyond his poll numbers. Would a candidate with his own sense of right and wrong open his bundler fundraisers to the press only after suspicions about his time at McKinsey spiked?
I recently spoke to a friend who became acquainted with Mayor Pete during his time as an intern at the South Bend Mayor’s Office in 2015. He is white, grew up in South Bend, and is the son of educated parents like Mayor Pete. Coincidentally, he also wants to go into management consulting. He and Mayor Pete seem alike, but he isn’t over the moon about the candidate. He told me that Mayor Pete’s office runs like a corporate office separate from the city of South Bend. He feels the people that flock to his campaign seem to be just like him and that they’re all progressive only to a point.
The areas that struggled when Mayor Pete took office in 2012 remain the same. Only the neighborhoods that were affluent to begin with are wealthier now. Like many 2020 Gen Z voters, my friend distrusts “progressive to a point” because it seems to mean progressive for some, but not for all. If we’re to refer to Mayor Pete’s tenure in South Bend, the evidence seems to suggest that the “point” is reached when policies become unpalatable to more prosperous Americans.
It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of Americans would benefit from a fiscally progressive candidate. Since 2008, economic growth at the national level has mirrored South Bend’s economic stratification, with the 53 largest metropolitan areas accounting for nearly three quarters of employment growth.
Nothing about Mayor Pete’s political track record suggests he would offset these trends. I trust Gen Z voters can examine their own lives, their disassociation between self and ambition, and recognize Mayor Pete is not a progressive candidate.
The author is a junior in the School of General Studies majoring in political science. He is from Chicago.
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