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.