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.
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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.
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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.