Fighting for America’s Soul?: A Mirepoix of 2020 Presidential Candidates

(and the One Outsider Who’s Shaking up the Stage)

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve probably come across the burgeoning field of 2020 presidential candidates. This election cycle boasts a noticeably crowded Democratic arena, owing in part to the political turnover within the party. Unlike previous decades in history, Congress is witnessing an unprecedented surge in the number of minority representatives. Last year’s midterms, for example, placed many more female hopefuls in offices formerly held by old-guard male incumbents. A bottom-up shift in the composition of the Democratic Party has demonstrably skewed the pool of viable candidates toward a diverse mean. Thus far, this field involves a range of both prominent and obscure figures: former Cabinet secretary Julian Castro; New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand; New Jersey senator Cory Booker; Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar; former congressman Beto O’Rourke; and at least a dozen more, including the increasingly popular outsider Peter Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Before examining the stature of his platform, though, one must be broached to the basic categories governing the pool of standard Washingtonians; these schematic groupings measure the age, makeup, and policy of the national politicians.

At the “pinnacle” of the pyramid are elder statesmen who have executed years of public service or have been long exposed to the public eye. One such exemplar is Joe Biden, the former vice president who served from 2008-2017. Although Biden has only recently thrown his hat into the ring, supporters as well as critics already see a myriad of (dis)qualifying factors. As a six-term senator from Delaware, he holds a paper resume that epitomizes the hardworking, fastidious image of a legislator, though in some ways this persona is softened by his demonstrative air. Loyalists to Biden might reminisce about his brotherly concordance with President Obama, but members of the caucus seeking to shake off dried-up bureaucratic insiders will caution against him. At any rate, “Uncle Joe” carries a plurality among registered (left-wing) voters and leads in virtually every interest poll. This margin persists even as questions about Biden’s campaign style/conduct crop up on every other cable news show. Yet, if the prior election taught anything about a candidate’s personal comportment, it is that scandal means nothing if the real issues are concealed. People do not care about an act someone committed in their 20s; they care about their family, the economy, and a valid future.

Other contenders from Biden’s cohort include Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. Roughly a part of the Baby Boomer Generation, they also share a common New England constituency. This cadre of states, drawing from its Yankee roots and liberal history, has reliably voted blue for the better half of fifty years. Needless to say, neither Warren nor Sanders earned badges for hard-fought, highly-contested Senate campaigns. Though what seems to set them anew from younger, more tangential candidates is their economic policy. Sanders, on one hand, can be considered the more radical of the duo, since his stringent ideas to reduce income inequality align with the purported label “democratic socialist.” The revival of his 2016 platform means the same talk about “millionaires” and “billionaires” will likely enter the rhetoric. Interestingly enough, Sanders’ vehement and in some ways idiosyncratic shtick carved out a new foundation for the Party. In an era where political moderation has been eviscerated, the pioneering stance held by Sanders has paved the way for up-and-coming freshman representatives who evangelize the Progressivist mindset.

In what may be dubbed the “long middle” of the field is a series of mid-life politicians seeking the “next step” in their national career. Many, galvanized by the urge to run contrary to the President, view the office as the ultimate rebuff to a “corrupt” administration. Most, if not all of the group (which includes senators like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris) has adopted a somewhat reactionary air to what it perceives as the regression of the Trump era. In specific terms, they’ve repeatedly advocated for the nation’s moral reconstruction through virtues of inclusion and multiculturalism. However, a sheen of fiery words or righteous grandstanding can contain its faults, especially if substance is sacrificed for soundbytes. Gillibrand, for instance, has faced wide apprehension after her spirited ouster of colleague Al Franken. A former senator from Minnesota, the latter had been recently accused of impropriety around female coworkers. Gillibrand’s hasty move to excommunicate Franken played rather extreme and Draconian, a decision more apt to alienate the men of the Party than pull backers. Through the frame of harsh, divisionist language, the New York politician exposed her grasping ambition to make a statement on gender. Not all voters see value in political theater.

Entering into this fray of “speech over policy” is the concept of identity politics, a notion where potential officeholders feel that their race should be a deciding factor (other qualifications aside) for their election. Of course, the vision of a more diverse and integrated federal government is something America should always strive for; President Obama certainly made history as both the first African-American and biracial president, no matter how one frames it. Yet, he also won as a man of oratory scholarship, savvy, and charisma. Race was never the linchpin of the campaign. His ability to inspire hope instead of self-attraction ultimately energized a base of like-minded reformers over partisan groupies.

In this age of incivility, many might wonder if calm, reasoned speech has a place on the American debate stage. The 2016 Democratic loss seemed to prove that stale personalities (whether they were backed by experience or not) flailed under the juggernaut of opposing bombast. In the end, many level-headed but conflicted voters skipped the polls altogether, allowing the current president to seize the office on slim electoral margins. If those same absentee constituents felt abandoned by the Left’s moderate platform, then surely that party’s nominee failed to mobilize people. Voter apathy can make dire inroads if a traditional ticket presents worse than the extreme. Here the doomed fate of the Democratic campaign lay connected to a complacent air of “righteous” incumbency. Presuming a strong turnout in any event, campaign officials failed to discern the vital pulse that had been feeding people’s fears.

Indeed, heading into the last election cycle, the latent inklings of a blue collar revolt were already in play. Heartland workers who had bore the brunt of a devastating financial meltdown still fingered an uneasy grip on the platitudes of the American Dream. The truth is that derisory wage growth–regardless of overall economic productivity–remained a stubborn constant in the way of social realization. In spite of reforms such as Dodd-Frank, the quiet recalibration of corporate wealth resumed its bloodlet on the long distorted, increasingly nebulous “middle class.” The label itself has strayed quite a bit from an idealistic, 1950s vision of economic modernity. In those times, single-earner families, whether composed of doctors, teachers, or architects, found a spot within the mecca of suburban home ownership. It was an era where everyone drove two cars and fostered their own special claim to Mayberry (save African Americans, of course). However, the later 20th and early 21st centuries saw the hollowing out of the middle class, as the financial parameters needed to maintain a copacetic lifestyle trended higher and higher. The fiasco of 2008 was merely a head to the long-culminating trap of unchecked capitalism, and, by association, monetary squeezing. As this systematic issue ingrained itself to the quotidian concerns of common Americans, the Democratic Party gradually shifted away from it. In the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “all the energy and activity and creativity in the Democratic coalition has been with people pushing the party away from any kind of centrism…with the activists trying to impose the college-campus style of cultural liberalism on the wider country.” Thus perceptions of coastal elitism drew animus within the Heartland, a locale that now felt constricted by financial plights deemed invisible by cultural theorists in ivory towers. At worst, this cultural tilt on the Democratic caucus gave a wide opening to right-wing fanaticism and demagoguery, a bloc that embraced the most incendiary of all language in order to communicate with Middle Americans. Though it had scarcely held credence in any prior Western political forum, this same language won on a fluke.

Two-and-half years later and the nation still pitches back and forth on the ethical soundness of a president known to lie forty-nine percent of the time (Politifact). Unfiltered factions on both sides of the aisle continually spew hate-filled missives, but never seek shared ground as Americans. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of “a house divided against itself,” he must have sensed the danger that a compromised state faces with regard to foreign powers. Russian interference, as seen today, merely deepens the dearth of faith left for governmental institutions. In this light, a theme as pernicious as a “lack of trust” in our vital bodies signals the decay of America’s collective soul. The fact is that neither Democrat nor Republican politicians have truly portrayed the body politic in quite some time. Whether it is Obama who encountered backlash from the Tea Party Movement or Trump who is abhorred by African-Americans, you can probably notice the throughline here: We are more divided than ever. Most folks agree that the crux to any red-blue debate lies around the geography, since regionalism carries with it differing historical and ideological mindsets. On one hand, there is the metaphysics of existing in either a rural or urban milieu. Cosmopolitan voters are used to embracing change and feel an affinity for the melting pot of an eclectic landscape. On the other hand, small-town voters cling to time-honored tradition, eschewing the “avant-garde” cultural forms of the city for homogeneity. Liberal and conservative viewpoints quickly follow. Yet, for a country like America, whose very roots constituted a social experiment of free citizens and non-monarchical democracy, centuries old “nation-building” issues still claim a latent grip on the People. A much-palpable North and South chasm continues to stew as the latter expresses extant hostility over the perceived classism and anti-Americanism of the former. Some of the South’s more radical denizens still hold that the Civil War should have irrevocably split each region for good. As bad actors in the current administration pit families and neighbors against each other, the search for commonality demands to be heard.

In short, the nation needs a government that can channel the will of all its people at the highest strata. The challenge of our republic is that executives and legislators have to interpret the needs of constituents indirectly–in shadier cases, the popular will may be overshadowed by corporate or personal interests. Writing in his own time, the philosophe Jean Jacque-Rousseau argued how a pantheon of self-regulating citizens would relinquish their individual rights to a governing body formed by those same people. It was a utopia where societal concerns were to be handled by the very minds that were affected by them. On our own Lockean soil, this type of proto-Populism does not have to carry negative connotations if the leader in charge can truly act on our behalf. Right now, the best candidate for that job is Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The South Bend mayor, who is openly gay and has degrees from Harvard and Oxford, recently gained momentum after a slurry of interviews with CNN, MSNBC, and Bill Maher, to name a few. At only 37, Buttigieg, also an Afghanistan vet, lacks the grey-hair and impassive gravitas of an archetypal Washingtonian, but compensates through a command of the issues. To watch the mayor on television is to witness forensic genius. For one thing, he often strays from first-take answers, opting to contextualize the past record of an item before making his claim. He replicates the tone of the reasonable everyman, yet intertwines his language with the cadence of an academic. Buttigieg’s intellectual writ is evident in some of the terminology he employs, which fuses erudition with down-to-earth intent. When asked in an interview with Chuck Todd about the role of capitalism, he endorsed the system, but added that, “It’s got to be democratic capitalism.” The idea, which basically equates to free enterprise with a human face, is quite a set of semantics for a man whose name pundits can barely pronounce. As Buttigieg oozes heady talking points, many have been seduced by the man’s embodiment of meritocratic principles. A self-made and highly-educated persona might be the panacea that elevates smart, assiduous leadership again. Perhaps the antidote to politicians who blast government is a philosopher king who genuinely believes in the value of civic service–the key to crafting good government. If we analyze where Buttigieg falls on the policy spectrum, he tangibly ekes out a progressive platform, although this placement is colored by some spellbinding complications. Sometimes the mayor seems to be proffering a brand all his own. On healthcare, he merges a socialist “Medicare for All” program with the standard inner workings of the market, explaining how a public option for government coverage “will not involve eliminating private insurance.” On religion, soft nuances abound in the way Buttigieg tackles scripture; he is a devout Episcopalian, but reads the Bible as a commentary on how to treat the poor, not preach notions of chastity and uprightness.

Like a conservative, his profound focus on family mores harkens back to an old-fashioned sense of the nuclear clan, even if Buttigieg himself is not a straight man. This tendency to espouse homespun virtue in light of forward-thinking frameworks highlights Buttigieg’s humanism. No matter which side of aisle you stand on, these qualities of optimism and nobility are more imperative than ever. Buttigieg, extolling the concept of “freedom,” has appropriated the buzz-word of a Reagan-era Neocon and imbued Kennedy-esque possibilism: “We’ve allowed our conservative friends to get a monopoly on the idea of freedom. Now they care about freedom, but they care about a very specific kind of freedom: freedom from. Freedom from regulation, as though government were the only thing that could make us unfree. But that’s not true, is it?…Your freedom depends on a lot more than just the size of your government. Healthcare is freedom, because you’re not free when you can’t start a small business because leaving your job means losing your healthcare. Consumer protection is freedom, because you’re not free when you can’t sue your credit card company even after they get caught ripping you off.” Here the mayor shines a light on the flip side of basic liberty: Shouldn’t individuals possess “freedom to”? Equal opportunity does not follow a system devoid of oversight–it blossoms through legislation that supports each and every pathway. Democrats and Republicans should take note.