Pete Buttigieg: The Energizer Bunny of Hegemony

Pete Buttigieg’s father, Joseph Anthony Buttigieg II, who died in early 2019, was a prominent scholar of the works of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who opposed Mussolini’s fascist regime. In 1926, the prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial declared, “For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning.” Yet Gramsci continued thinking and writing in prison, and Joseph Buttigieg cotranslated and coedited the three-volume English edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.

The Gramscian concept of hegemony is considered a bit heretical by the more orthodox Marxists, because Gramsci examined official culture, including religion, radio broadcasts and newspapers, as extensions of state power and discipline. In this sense, Gramsci was fascinated by the same kind of capitalist character formation that Wilhelm Reich would later explore in the 1930s. For example, in his illegal and pseudonymous pamphlet titled What Is Class Consciousness? Reich’s concept of character armor was an attempt to trace the reach and stamp of authoritarian culture upon human minds and bodies. A similar concept appears in a sentence Luxemburg wrote in one her personal letters after she had moved to Berlin in 1898:

“Berlin has made the most unfavorable impression on me: cold, tasteless, massive – a real barracks; and the dear Prussians with their arrogance, as though every one of them had swallowed the cane with which one had once been beaten…”

We can only wonder about the evolution of Mayor Pete’s worldview and political ambitions. Any temptation to speculate about Oedipal dramas is, in my strong view, as illegitimate in the case of Pete Buttigieg as it would be in the case of Donald Trump. The nuclear family screws up so many people in so many ways that I doubt orthodox Freudianism is really enlightening. Nor do I find Marxist claims of “scientific socialism” finally persuasive.

To the degree social science may be considered a real science, the best we can do is follow evidence wherever it may lead. This would be, however, a more openly empirical project than orthodox Marxism, or specifically of Marx as interpreted by Lenin. Attention to present reality would include the study of irrational structures in personal and political life. Psychology, whatever else that field may be, must also and always have to be social psychology.

Pete Buttigieg has been racing in much the same political lane as Amy Klobuchar, both of them peddling heartland kitsch and capitalist realism. I am immune to the hyper-hygienic charisma Buttigieg projects upon his fans, not only because I am a socialist but also because I am the kind of queer who felt at home in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) but feels homeless in the ideological shelter Buttigieg is busy rebuilding from the ruins and debris of the bipartisan corporate consensus. Either Buttigieg was born with a strong genetic predisposition to conformism, or much more likely the surrounding culture impressed upon him the better career opportunities available in the truly big business of war and empire, and in what was once known, perhaps quaintly, as public service.

Buttigieg gives his husband a few decorous kisses in public, but his practiced persona is otherwise as asexual as that of an Eagle Scout circa 1950. I can’t imagine sharing a beer with him and talking about the mind-blowing experience of jazz, or swimming with sea turtles, or anal sex. Nothing about Buttigieg is too fierce, too faggy, too fucking much. He waited to come out until he was in his thirties, and then explained that he was worried that being gay might harm his career.

Too ironic, right, if I just end up saying that he is the wrong kind of homosexual? Fair enough. But not so fast. In private life I might shrug him off and fail miserably in Christian charity, while he is an upstanding member of the Episcopal Church. Really, to each their own and it takes all kinds to make a world. A common-sense response to the real diversity of sexual and political persuasions is fine, except that Buttigieg is not, in fact, the boy next door or the person making his own path through territory that can still be treacherous for many lesbians, gay men, transgender people, and queers of all kinds. He is a gay public figure fifty years after the Stonewall Rebellion, and twenty years into the twenty-first century.

Buttigieg’s notion of health care reform gives a wonky gloss to a retrograde proposal. His slogan is “Medicare for All Who Want It,” though his policy allows health insurance companies to continue putting corporate profit above public health. Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) is a health care reform group with a different view. Their mission is not the abolition of all private health options, but instead the creation of a single payer improved Medicare for all program that would provide a high standard of care at lower prices and with better health outcomes. In this sense, Medicare for all would be the public health equivalent of Social Security, so that health services become a matter of social solidarity.

In December of 2019, Buttigieg received over 200 endorsements from “foreign policy and national security professionals,” not unusual for a presidential candidate, including some former high-ranking CIA officials and national security professionals. More unusual were reports at the same time that the Buttigieg campaign had paid the highest sum among Democratic presidential candidates, nearly $600,000, to a military contractor for campaign security. In 2014, Buttigieg was deployed as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer to Afghanistan, which he often mentions on the campaign trail. Buttigieg rarely mentions other trips to Afghanistan and Iraq years before his military deployment, when he worked from 2007 to 2010 as a civilian contractor for McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, after post-graduate studies at Oxford.

Buttigieg delivers nostrums and banalities with some of the same cadences of Barack Obama, and likewise hopes to leap over more entitled and experienced career politicians in his quest for the White House. But Obama was just a much better performance artist, and uncannily gifted in convincing voters of his sincerity. Buttigieg radiates an equal ambition, but he is drastically less adept at communicating across American racial fractures. Since those fractures also run through the foundation of a class divided country, Buttigieg’s campaign is unlikely to break out of a limited charmed circle.

Position is perspective, of course, and at a conservative Christian website titled The Resurgent, the beliefs and public statements of Buttigieg have been scrutinized by Erick Erickson, who wrote: “He has married another man, which runs contrary to scripture, and he not only thinks it is not sin, but thinks God made him that way, all of which is contrary to Christian orthodoxy.” The Episcopal Church is near schism over the issue of gay marriage, but Buttigieg has made his peace in the pews. Even as he has made his peace with the social gospel of the corporate state, including a capitalist command economy and the kind of imperialism the British ruling class once called the Great Game before, during, and after the First World War.

I was once a choirboy in the Episcopal church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and fondly recall the half-closeted queer teachers at the choir school. They introduced me to the Odes of John Keats and the operas of Richard Strauss. They knew I knew, and I knew they knew. One of them guided me on my first subway ride to classes at the New School for Social Research. To be that young in Manhattan in the 1960s was heaven on earth, even while we knew bomber pilots were creating hell on earth in Vietnam.

I was still wearing a corduroy jacket with a church insignia embroidered on the breast pocket when I encountered a gay pride march heading to Central Park. I took a deep breath on the curb and then stepped into the street, into a festive and angry crowd, and into another life. Then I won the lottery when I met Larry Gross in 1975, since we have been lovers, friends and comrades for over forty years. I met socialists in the women’s health care movement, and later became a cofounder of the ACT UP chapter in Philadelphia. This short story will not entirely explain my distant and puzzled regard of Pete Buttigieg, because every person is finally a mystery. But these events are small personal pieces in a much larger historical mosaic.

The youngest presidential candidate of the Democratic Party has demonstrated his appeal among its older members and among the kind of white progressives — I will use that last word here without scare quotes– who otherwise voted by rote for Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama. These career politicians opposed gay marriage until they started chasing gay voters at the opportune hour. These are the sort of facts that also vanish conveniently in the current campaign season.

A septuagenarian from Vermont has roused the loyalty of many people half his age and younger, a man who was regarded by most respectable Democrats as a wild haired prophet in the wilderness, a reminder of their own hopes for change before they settled for the campaign slogan of Hope and Change. Bernie was also a mensch decades ago when he defended gay marriage against bipartisan bigots, and when a sector of the reactionary left still reduced queers to footnotes or sick jokes.

In the recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates in Nevada, there was an electric exchange of views between Buttigieg and Sanders. And Sanders responded both with fighting spirit and sounder public policies. Sanders rightly reminds the public that Buttigieg is a darling of Wall Street and receives donations from the club of billionaires.

In 2000, Buttigieg won a Profiles in Courage student essay contest by lauding the courage of Bernie Sanders. “Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues,” wrote the student at St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg added, “Sanders’ courage is evident in the first word he uses to describe himself: ‘Socialist’. In a country where Communism is still the dirtiest of ideological dirty words, in a climate where even liberalism is considered radical, and Socialism is immediately and perhaps willfully confused with Communism, a politician dares to call himself a socialist? He does indeed.”

In 2020, Buttigieg says he admired Sanders in his youth, a sideways compliment on his way to delivering this scripted yellow line running straight down the middle of Main Street: “We cannot risk dividing Americans’ future further, saying that you must either be for a revolution or you must be for the status quo.”

No, on the contrary. We, the people, must take the risk of a political revolution so that the status quo of the corporate state does not deepen class divisions in this country as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. Do I wish Sanders would smile more and modulate his oratory with more grace notes? Sure, but Sanders may be too old to change habits of this kind, while his integrity over a lifetime speaks directly to a multiracial coalition of workers and young people. And who is Buttigieg by contrast? Buttigieg is the Energizer Bunny of Hegemony.