Pete Buttigieg’s high class problems

16 October 2021

9:44 AM

16 October 2021

9:44 AM

It’s time for Pete Buttigieg to truck off down the road from the Department of Transportation — if, that is, he turns up for work again and can find a driver. It’s shameful even by the standards of the federal government for the head of a department to disappear during an emergency. It’s ludicrous for a technocratic Democrat in a technocratic administration.

The smart set are explaining away the supply-chain fiasco as middle-class false consciousness. ‘Most of the economic problems we’re facing (inflation, supply chains, etc.) are high class problems,’ says Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff.

That’s right, Ron: if the peasants can’t find vegetables on the shelves, let them eat the rich. Because only the rich worry about commodity prices rising faster than at any time since 2008. Only the rich notice when the price of gasoline, vegetables and baby formula rises and rises. And only the rich — or at least the expensively-educated, which tends to mean the same thing these days — are literate enough to worry about the increasingly probable knock-on effect on inflation.

It is part of the amateurishness of those who rule us that, every now and then, they let their manners slip and show the contempt in which they hold the governed. This has never gone down well in other societies in the past. It didn’t go down well under mad King George. There is no reason to think that Americans will swallow this stuff indefinitely now.

As smart goes, Klain’s play is almost as dumb as appointing Buttigieg to Transportation in the first place. Why, after all, would an administration that claims to value infrastructure give an $87-billion budget to someone whose prior experience — mayor of that major transport hub, South Bend, Indiana — didn’t even extend to control over South Bend Transpo and its 18 bus routes?

The obvious answer is that Buttigieg might not know a rotary system from a refrigerated container, but he did, eventually, endorse Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020. This reflects the uniquely American custom of ambassadors’ spots going not to professional diplomats who’ve spent years studying the local lingo and even living in post, but to donors and supporters.

By ‘unique’, I mean unique among liberal democracies. Plenty of banana republics, kleptocracies and dictatorships work by the brown envelope and the mutual back-scratch. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, aspires to a new low in public ethics when it imports this kind of practice into domestic politics. We don’t need a lecture from Michael Sandel to know that ‘meritocracy’ has badly misfired. A new ruling class is hardening its defenses and pulling up the ladders in plains sight.

Twenty years ago, American politicians sold globalization to their voters by promising that Brazil would become like us. Today, we are becoming like Brazil: a low-trust society with apparently insurmountable differences of class and race, in which the rich live in private spaces defended by a militarized police force, and politics has deteriorated into a theatrical.

Which brings us to another reason Biden’s team might have appointed Buttigieg to Transportation. Buttigieg may be deeply pale and stale, but he is also gay. When he was appointed in February 2021, the media didn’t acclaim him as an expert. They acclaimed him as a civil rights hero.

‘Pete Buttigieg makes history as 1st openly gay cabinet member,’ ABC News said. Of course, the word ‘openly’ here carries more freight than an 18-wheeler. But that is the point, just like the superfluous listing of personal pronouns is the point. It’s politics as symbolism, as a theater of the virtues.

The same goes for the images that would have defined Buttigieg’s time at Transportation, were it not that the defining images of that time are now the imminent shot of a chastened Buttigieg going back to South Bend, and the aerial shots of the Port of Los Angeles showing acres of containers going nowhere at all.

The first of these images, caught by CNN, show a security man helping Buttigieg unload his bike from an SUV, and Buttigieg cycling off to a cabinet meeting. It looks so much like a theatrical that the Department of Transportation had to issue a denial.

The second of these images is the one of Buttigieg and his husband Chasten with their new twins. This was truly a medical miracle, as neither Pete not Chasten is what we are now supposed to call a ‘womb-owner’.

We will probably never know how the actual womb-owner feels about surrendering her children. The Buttigiegs claim they adopted the twins in the usual way. Perhaps they did. We have their word, and each of us must decide whether we should take politicians at their word.

These things — performative biking, performative politics, performative procreation — really are ‘high-class problems’. But the gentry liberals who rule us think this is the important stuff, rather than, say, the performance of high office. As for the rest? Let them eat cake and opioids.

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