The curious mind of Pete Buttigieg holds much of its functionality in reserve. Even as he discusses railroads and airlines, down to the pointillist data that is his current stock-in-trade, the US secretary of transportation comes off like a Mensa black card holder who might have a secret Go habit or a three-second Rubik’s Cube solution or a knack for supplying, off the top of his head, the day of the week for a random date in 1404, along with a non-condescending history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
As Secretary Buttigieg and I talked in his underfurnished corner office one afternoon in early spring, I slowly became aware that his cabinet job requires only a modest portion of his cognitive powers. Other mental facilities, no kidding, are apportioned to the Iliad, Puritan historiography, and Knausgaard’s Spring—though not in the original Norwegian (slacker). Fortunately, he was willing to devote yet another apse in his cathedral mind to making his ideas about three mighty themes—neoliberalism, masculinity, and Christianity—intelligible to me.
Because Buttigieg, at 41, is an old millennial; because as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he got a first in PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), the trademark degree for Labour-party elites of the Tony Blair era; because he worked optimizing grocery-store pricing at McKinsey; because he joined the Navy in hopes of promoting democracy in Afghanistan; because he got gay-married to his partner Chasten in 2018; and because, as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he agitated to bring hipster entrepreneurism and “high-tech investment” to his rust-belt hometown, I had to ask him about neoliberalism, the happy idea that consumer markets and liberal democracy will always expand, and will always expand together. I was also fascinated by the way that Buttigieg, who has long described himself as obsessed with technology and data, has responded to the gendering of tech, and especially green tech, by fearsome culture warriors, including Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Buttigieg, whose father was a renowned Marxist scholar, was himself a devotee of Senator Bernie Sanders as a young man. He now recognizes that the persistence of far-right ideology, with its masculinist and antidemocratic preoccupations, is part of the reason that neoliberalism has come undone. Not everyone, it seems, even wants a rising standard of living if it means they have to accept the greater enfranchisement of undesirables, including, of course, women, poor people, Black people, and the usual demons in the sights of the world’s Ted Cruzes and Tucker Carlsons.
He also talked about his faith. Lefties these days are said to be less religious than right-wing evangelicals, but between Buttigieg, whose Episcopalianism grounds his decisionmaking, and his boss, President Joe Biden, whose robust Catholicism drives his sincere effort to revive America’s soul, perhaps a religious left is rising again.
Virginia Heffernan: What is neoliberalism, and what happened to it?
Pete Buttigieg: When it comes to neoliberalism, we got mugged by reality. That’s one cheeky way to put it.
Poor old liberals. Always getting mugged by reality, or just muggers.
Look, in the early part of my adulthood, neoliberalism was described almost as a consensus that just made sense—at least to everybody in positions of influence. Now it’s very different. We have experienced the end of the end of history. We have certainly experienced the limitations of the consensus. None of the assumptions from between roughly 1991 and 2008 have survived.
Certainly not the idea that the global move toward democracy is a one-way street. Nor the idea that greater integration between markets and governments means greater harmony politically.
Nor the idea that if we acted to make sure the pie gets bigger, everyone’s slice would follow suit, which was the promise that was made to the industrial Midwest at the time of NAFTA.
The lived reality of the younger generations is that they are experiencing climate issues not as a theoretical possibility but as a clear and present danger. These are generations that have experienced the reality that disparities, including racial disparities, left alone, will only compound. They won’t cure of their own gravitational tendency.
… or tendencies of the market?
Right. Because market tendencies depend very much on what you have to begin with—the initial endowment, as the economists call it. But your initial endowment looks very different if your previous generation was dispossessed.
Last year I was in Berlin as they were confronting the tectonic disruption that had been caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have this very German word for it: Zeitenwende. A turning point. The war blew up their presumption that when it came to Russia, more integration between it and Europe would mean more stability.
This has been our presumption about China too—that greater economic integration would mean not just greater stability, but a more or less inevitable move on the part of China into greater acceptance of democratic norms, market norms, and a rules-based international order. We’ve come to the point where we are super-integrated, but that economic relationship with China has not yielded the kind of comfort that was promised.
As we careen toward the second quarter of the century, suddenly industrial policy sounds less retro and more like a response to the times.
“Industrial policy”—is this paleoliberalism?
Well, there are some new, or at least renewed, ways of thinking about transportation policy we work on at DOT that embrace the importance of public investment, which is a big part of the philosophy of the infrastructure bill. There are more than 32,000 new infrastructure projects now underway in every state and territory, all across the country. We created an interactive map so people can see what's up in their communities.
We’re also facing the effects of anticompetitive behavior in pretty much every industry connected to the movement of people and goods.
Was there, maybe, a comeback of a pared-down version of neoliberalism—or at least the hope that markets and democracy might work in sync—when Ted Cruz coined “Woke Coke” to show contempt for Coca-Cola’s protest of voter suppression in Georgia?
Well, yes, there’s something delicious about the way that Cruz and the rest of them have positioned themselves on one side of the fence. And Netflix, Coca-Cola, Disney, and Bud Light are on the other side. Along with most of America.
There may in fact be a center of gravity in this country that includes both a Democratic majority of the American people, and even something of a consensus, at least among mainstream business leaders. We have certain commitments around democracy and inclusion that are really elemental to the whole system.
True. But the right likes to dismiss any political action—even in the name of elemental American ideals—as pretense or virtue-signaling. I think of the time Putin defined the Kremlin’s enemy as foie gras, oysters, and “gender freedoms.” An American conservative might hear him and say, OK, foie gras, pronouns—annoying, pretentious, sure. But do Republicans really want to be dragged into a bigger far-right project, including the renunciation of democracy, modernity, civil rights, human rights?
Look, the mainstream right’s political project was twofold. It was to prevent legal access to abortion and to sustain lower taxes for the wealthy. Those are kind of the two greatest pillars of the mainstream right now. They’re now the dog that caught the car. And, to switch metaphors, they rode a tiger to get there. They made a lot of distasteful bargains in order to get there.
Sometimes the military—the military, of all institutions—comes under attack from the far right. On ideological grounds. Yet another front in the culture war.
The woke Pentagon.
You could add that to the list: Bud Light, Coke, football, Disney … and the Army. You can only put yourself on the wrong side of so many red, white, and blue American institutions, and the question becomes, Is this about you?
Speaking of is-this-about-you, have you followed the masculinity crusade of former TV personality Tucker Carlson—testicle warming and the rest?
I mean, where to begin on this? Fears about masculinity are a way into the fear of displacement. Masculinity establishes a default place, and that place is being shifted and threatened by modernity. A man as the head of the household. The only one who earns income. The default leader in any social or political organization.
The politicization of masculinity is code for Nothing in your life has to change. The problem is, of course, lots of things have to change. Either because there was something wrong with the old way—or because, even as the old way seemed perfectly fine, it’s not an option.
This is true with the realities of climate change. If you can’t face that change, you might retreat to the default place of masculinity. Maybe that’s why someone characterized electric vehicles as emasculating. I think it was Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Are they not?
To me, a car is a car.
Actually, the electric truck has got more torque than a regular truck. And it’ll tow just as well.
And yet EVs unaccountably fall on the femme side of the ledger, like Impossible burgers.
Right. A lot of this discussion about masculinity doesn’t have anything to do with the immediate function that’s at stake.
I’m thinking about burgers, right? I love a good cheeseburger. I hate a bad veggie burger. I like a good veggie burger. The Burger King Impossible Whopper with bacon is not a bad combo.
Likewise, when it comes to driving. I mean, there’s a very literal, physical, technical sense in which power is at stake when you drive. It feels good to be driving a vehicle with a lot of power.
The vehicle I get around DC in is a Mustang Mach-E. The fact that Ford made one of their first electric vehicles a Mustang is probably not an accident. It has three modes. Whisper, Engage, and Unbridled. There are propulsion sound effects involved in the different modes to help you feel conscious of the power of the engine.
Clearly, we have a chance to rewrite some of these easy gender tropes. My life happens to cut across them. I like drinking beer, lifting weights, splitting wood. I'm also gay and I like playing piano. I do a lot of the caregiving for our toddlers and other things that supposedly aren’t masculine.
Your secrets are safe with me. So what’s going to stop the androgen-addled, Putin-besotted ideologues?
When it comes to conspiracy theories and extreme partisan ideologies, I found two things are true. One, it’s always more people than you would think. Disturbingly so. But it’s also, almost always, much less than a majority.
The problem, of course, is there are some features of the American system where you could be a long way from the majority and still take control of certain decisions. We’re seeing a lot of counter-majoritarian movements, with, of course, abortion being an example.
But facts still matter. And when a fact is challenged, or a supposed fact, like “the Russian Federation’s army is unbeatable.” Right? I have to think that catches up to you.
At a certain point, in Russia, for example, you see those charts by region of the areas that suffered the most casualties. Just as a statistical matter, it is impossible for a false narrative to hold.
And here in the US the confrontation with reality comes every time I get a letter of support from a House Republican for a transportation project using funds from the bill they voted against. It’s shameless. But it’s also reassuring that they’re the first to come to a ribbon-cutting when we fund a project in their community.
It’s a reminder that there is such a thing as true and false. These funds are helping all over the country. That’s true. And one thing that’s false is that it was a good idea to be against these funds. It was a bad idea.
People like infrastructure, I guess. Even Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t pro-pothole.
Exactly. Everyone here cares about delivering on the president’s view that the way we vindicate democracy, at a time when democracy really is being challenged frontally, is we take care of the basics. In my corner of this administration, we work on things like fixing bridges and holes in the road and keeping people safe in the transportation systems.
Another major goal of ours is to reverse the rise of roadway deaths in this country. Early data suggests we may be seeing those numbers stop rising and then go down. That could be the most important thing we do here, because a day’s worth—one day’s worth—of roadway deaths in this country represents more death and destruction than a year’s worth of losses across the rest of our transportation system. So given how hard we work to push the number of, for example, accidental railway casualties from the single digits toward zero, and to make sure there are not just no airline crashes but no close calls with airlines, what it would mean to reverse that rise in roadway deaths, which claims about 40,000 lives a year, yeah, that’s an enormous one.
Do you think the administration’s work on the basics is getting through?
Every time I go to celebrate a new bridge, we have a great time with local leaders who fought so hard to get it done. But it bears little chance of penetrating the national news of the day. Our task here is to deliver so much good news that the volume of it outweighs the tendency to focus on what went wrong.
I think we might do this. One formulation is that we’ve delivered the most significant economic legislation since FDR, the most important infrastructure initiative since Eisenhower, and the second most important health care work since LBJ. All while dealing with the first land war in Europe since Truman and facing the biggest public health crisis since Wilson, with the slimmest governing majority in Congress in almost 100 years.
You see it that way and you think, Well, yeah. That’s right. We’ve gotta shout that from the rooftops.
Let’s talk about Christianity. The first time I heard you say “Christ” and not “Jesus,” I figured out you were an Episcopalian.
I didn’t know that was a tell!
I’m not sure if it is in the books as a tell. But that’s how I read it. So how does your faith influence you?
Well, every policy decision I make should be equally fair to people of every faith and no faith. It should be as defensible to me as somebody who is religious as it would be if I were not.
At the same time, you can’t help but notice certain rhymes between your religious convictions and the choices you’re called on to make in a job like this. There’s a lot in the faith tradition that I hold close about “the least of these” [the imperative to help the needy]. This doesn’t just go to the worth of your choices, but even your worth as a person, which depends in no small measure on how you make yourself useful to those who have the least power and the least means.
When you’re making public policy, you’re often asking yourself, “How does this choice help people who would have the least going for them?” So that’s part of it.
Running DOT seems to suit you. Are there more ways the challenges of transportation speak to your spiritual side?
There’s just a lot in the scriptural tradition around journeys, around roads, right? The conversion of Saint Paul happens on the road. I think we are all nearer to our spiritual potential when we’re on the move. Something about movement, something about travel pulls us out of the routines that numb us to who we are, to what we’re doing, to everything from our relationships with each other to our relationships with God. That’s part of the reason why so many important things in the Bible happen on highways.
And then journeys—they’re also just marvels. Every flight is a marvel that pulls us out of that in the same way that religious rituals, holidays, liturgies are one kind of routine that pulls us out of another kind of routine. When you get on a plane, people buckle their seat belts and listen to the flight attendants’ very predictable pronouncements. It’s routine. It’s almost a ritual, right? And yet you’re preparing to fly through the heavens.
Life is a combination of drudgery and miracles. Part of what keeps me at home in the Episcopal faith is that it is liturgically rather conservative. I like that routine.
I don’t know if you’ll remotely agree with me, but I’ve come to consider January 6 as a triumph of something like drudgery—or at least of the mundane. Even after terrible violence, destruction, and bloodshed came to the US Capitol, Congress returned to carry out its clerical workday. The paperwork got filed. The flag of the ordinary was still there.
Yeah, I agree there’s something that bears more attention about how Congress stayed, came back, finished the job. That’s real. And the fact that the Republic held is real. And another under-remarked fact is the courts did a good job of surfacing what was true and what was false. Because in the US court of law there are actual consequences to lying, and you have to actually present evidence in favor of your client, so it turns out to be less susceptible to the warping of reality.
That being said, part of why we would hesitate to assign any triumph to that day—in addition to just the awfulness of it—is that we don’t yet know how the story ends. When we look back at moments further in history, we think of the outcome as settled and stable. We have to go out of our way to be rightly afraid of how close we came. If you study the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s a study in leaders doing the right thing. But, also, the more you put yourself in their shoes, the more terrifying it is.
How do you think this particular crisis will resolve?
I think a lot now about the worst experience of my life, the critical hospitalization of my son. He was treated with RSV, which is a respiratory disease. Like many viruses, it takes a certain course where it gets worse and worse and worse. It reaches the worst moment. And, if the patient survives, then it gets better and better.
The terror of it as a parent is the only way you know it’s getting better is when it’s stopped getting worse. There are a lot of things like that in the world. The conditions of our democratic institutions—we don’t know how much rougher things might get before things get better.
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