The Left-Right Divide Isn’t the One That Matters

Buttigieg is ideologically moderate, but his lofty perch atop the meritocracy could prove deeply divisive.

Pete Buttigieg
Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

Locked in a close race for first place in both Iowa and New Hampshire with only weeks to go before Democratic presidential-primary voting begins, Pete Buttigieg, along with his advisers, is talking about bringing people together. In a recent New Yorker profile, Benjamin Wallace-Wells quoted Buttigieg as welcoming “future former Republicans” into “our movement” and pledging to “unify the American people” once Donald Trump is gone. One Buttigieg strategist explained that the South Bend, Indiana, mayor wants to tap into America’s “yearning for reconciliation.” Another adviser, Lis Smith, recently contrasted her boss, whom she credited with the ability to “heal our divides,” with Elizabeth Warren, who is supposedly contributing to the “divisiveness that is tearing this country apart.”

Buttigieg’s depiction of himself as a more unifying figure than his chief rivals has a superficial plausibility. He’s more ideologically centrist than Warren and Bernie Sanders. He’s from a red state. He’s unfailingly polite. He hasn’t been in politics long enough to make many enemies. And he’s a white man, which may—in and of itself—make him less threatening to those Trump supporters inclined to see another female presidential nominee as evidence of the anti-male bias purportedly warping American life.

Viewed through another lens, however, Buttigieg may be the most polarizing candidate in the top tier of the Democratic field. The reason is that America is not only divided ideologically; it’s also divided culturally. And that cultural divide revolves, in large measure, around education and the status markers it produces. A Warren or Sanders presidency may further divide America horizontally, between left and right. But a Buttigieg presidency could further divide America vertically, between people near the top of America’s ostensibly meritocratic system, and those who feel looked down upon by an elite they view as insular and corrupt.

To grasp what that might look like, compare Buttigieg with another young centrist who rocketed from obscurity into his country’s presidency: France’s Emmanuel Macron. Macron, like Buttigieg, is the child of professors. And Macron, like Buttigieg, spent his early adulthood whizzing through his country’s elite academic, business, and political institutions. Buttigieg studied at Harvard and Oxford, Macron at Sciences Po. Buttigieg worked as a management consultant at McKinsey, Macron as an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. Buttigieg, in his 20s, advised John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and a consulting firm established by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. Macron, in his 20s, worked for the mayor of Paris and the French finance ministry. Both men are overtly and self-consciously brainy. The Atlantic’s Rachel Donadio has detailed Macron’s “impressive, even tedious, grip on policy details.” Buttigieg famously speaks eight languages.

In 2017, Macron ran a presidential campaign that bears some similarity to Buttigieg’s. Initially, he was considered a long shot—“an all-but-certain loser whose maverick, nonparty movement was considered promising for the future but unripe,” in the words of The New York Times. But the seasoned centrist candidates stumbled, which gave two contenders from the ideological fringe, the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the hyper-nationalist Marine Le Pen, potential paths into the presidential runoff. In this moment of populist convulsion, Macron stepped into the centrist breach. Although not an ideological outsider like Mélenchon and Le Pen, his youth and the fact that he had created his own party gave him a different sort of outsider persona. He made it into the runoff against Le Pen, and then beat her easily, as French citizens from the far left to the center-right rejected neo-fascist rule. At 39—the age Buttigieg will be on inauguration day in 2021—Macron became France’s youngest head of state since Napoleon.

If you squint—and ignore the many differences between French and American politics—you can see the parallels with Buttigieg’s campaign this year. The South Bend mayor hopes that as the Democratic Party’s establishment front-runner, Joe Biden, stumbles, the force of his own youthful charisma can rejuvenate the party’s centrist wing. Buttigieg is deriding his leftist opponents, Sanders and Warren, as divisive and unable to win. And after winning the Democratic primary, he hopes to assemble a majority that extends from left to center-right, including “future former Republicans,” to defeat America’s resident hyper-nationalist, Donald Trump.

Macron’s and Buttigieg’s campaigns also appeal to similar people: college-educated voters content with their economic lot and optimistic about the future. In the first round of France’s presidential election, Macron beat Le Pen by 21 points among voters with at least three years of post-high-school education, but lost to her by 11 points among voters without a high-school degree. He beat her by 19 points among professionals and managers, but among blue-collar voters lost to both her and the far-left candidate, Mélenchon. In the runoff, he beat Le Pen by 58 points among people who said they “easily” maintained financial security, but lost by 38 points among those who found doing so “very difficult.” He beat her by 60 points among people who thought members of the younger generation would fare better than their parents, but only by 18 points among those who thought they would fare worse.

Buttigieg’s support base is demographically similar. A recent WBUR poll of New Hampshire voters found that he led Joe Biden by 12 points among voters with graduate degrees, but trailed him by an equal margin among voters who haven’t attended college. He led Bernie Sanders by 10 points among voters who earn $100,000 or more, but trailed him by six points among voters who earn less than $50,000. A recent study in The Guardian noted that while teachers were most likely to donate to Sanders, business executives were most likely to donate to Buttigieg. Buttigieg garnered the most donations from doctors, Sanders from nurses. The senator from Vermont’s disproportionately downscale base shows a striking antipathy toward Buttigieg. When YouGov and The Economist in October asked Sanders’s voters for their second choice, Buttigieg came in fifth, behind Andrew Yang.

Macron’s experience since taking power hints at the potential risks of trying to govern with a coalition of the credentialed and the content in an era of growing class and cultural division—especially when the president himself personifies that credentialism. In the fall of last year, Macron tried to raise the fuel tax in an effort to combat climate change. The move sparked a revolt, which began on Facebook and chose as its symbol the neon-yellow garments that French drivers are required to don in case of emergency. The “yellow vest” protesters tended to live in rural or exurban areas where people depend more on cars than do the residents of France’s big cities. The protesters generally lacked college degrees and had modest incomes. Ideologically, as John Lichfield noted in The Guardian, the movement presented “no coherent ideology, even a refusal of ideology.” The most popular politician among movement supporters was the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But their second-favorite politician was Mélenchon, the candidate of the far left. The fury that propelled the yellow vests was less ideological than cultural, less about left and right than high and low status. The protesters, Lichfield wrote, “are convinced or have been convinced that the little or middling people like them are held in contempt by the trendy, rich, globally-oriented people of successful metropolitan France. That’s why, I think, Macron has sparked such anger and hatred: not so much for what he has done in the past 20 months but for what he represents … He is the embodiment of the rich, clever, self-replicating people from the governing classes who’ve been to the finishing schools of the governing elite and think they know everything.”

After weeks of often violent protests, Macron retreated on his gas tax, and the movement subsided. But this winter, when Macron proposed to rein in France’s generous but byzantine pension system, the protesters surged again, and in tandem with France’s powerful labor unions, powered nationwide strikes that have hobbled public transportation across the country. The underlying cultural and class divide remains: Macron, according to The New York Times, “is viewed both by both Yellow Vests and labor activists as arrogant and disconnected from their daily struggles.” Only about one-third of French people approve of his performance in office, a lower rating than Donald Trump’s.

It’s hard to know exactly what an equivalent of the yellow vests—a populist uprising in which anti-elitist fury blurs ideological lines—would look like in the United States. But there were glimpses in the 2011 Occupy movement, which though generally associated with the left, enjoyed the support of roughly one in three Republicans. There are glimpses in the 10 percent of Bernie Sanders primary voters who chose Donald Trump in the 2016 general election. There may even be glimpses on Fox News, where at 8 p.m. eastern time every weeknight, Tucker Carlson demonizes immigrants and progressives while also viciously denouncing “neo-conservative” warmongers and insisting that the “conservative establishment” is corrupt because it is funded by rapacious corporate and financial interests.

Buttigieg recognizes the impulse behind this ideologically amorphous populism. In April, he warned that the sense among many Americans that “they are stuck” was leading some “to want to vote to blow up the system. Which could lead you to somebody like Bernie, and it could lead you to somebody like Trump.”

The promise of his presidency—like the promise of Bill Clinton’s following the Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot populist surges in 1992—is that by helping struggling Americans better navigate globalization, he can boost the share of Americans who view their government as legitimate. But social media, automation, and Vladimir Putin all add to the difficulty of that challenge today. And for all his evident talents, Buttigieg’s biography may make it harder, too. It’s not just his glittering résumé, which, like Macron’s, offers much for populists to scorn. It’s his lack of political experience, and the resulting absence of relationships with people who can vouch for him in communities where he doesn’t have much firsthand familiarity. That absence of long-standing relationships has undermined his efforts at outreach to black voters nationally and made it harder to quell African American discontent over police violence in South Bend. If a President Buttigieg tries to implement policies that burden some working-class Americans in order to reduce carbon emissions or contain the skyrocketing national debt, the danger is that this lack of familiarity will cut him off from broader swaths of the country as well. Compared with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, he offers an easier mark for populist demagogues.

Because the people alienated by Sanders and Warren tend to be more politically articulate—they reside on Wall Street and in corporate America and get quoted in The New York Times—it’s easier to imagine the rancor their presidencies might bring. Because Buttigieg’s foes are more downscale, the potential backlash is less visible. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Ask Emmanuel Macron.