In this way, his candidacy violates a certain unwritten law of U.S. electoral politics. American voters have historically appreciated candidates who, from a socioeconomic perspective, identify “down”: Franklin D. Roosevelt was a traitor to the upper class; Trump is the real-estate billionaire who speaks for coal miners; Bernie Sanders is the septuagenarian senator who rallies the young left. But there’s not a deep history of successful candidates who appeared to identify “up,” like a young, nonmillionaire, small-town mayor who aligns himself with cosmopolitan capital. Identifying down can be a proxy for authenticity, but identifying up invites accusations of inauthenticity. By rejecting young progressive activism, Buttigieg betrays his generational-class identity.
4. Overthink it more: Young people project an extreme hostility toward Buttigieg on the internet in part to exorcise their own anxieties about success and increase their in-group status.
This week, I tweeted that the stark age gap of Buttigieg’s support suggests that he performs a specific archetype in this race: “your polite, hyper-achieving high school friend, who delighted the parents at that Christmas party with his piano rendition of Silent Night, which made your friends roll their eyes so hard their retinas detached.”
Older and richer educated liberals look at Buttigieg and see a flattering reflection of their young selves or offspring. Young educated liberals look at Buttigieg and see a nauseating caricature, not of the person they are, or even the person they wanted to be, but of the person they’ve felt pressured to emulate but never quite became—an outcome they regard with tortured ambivalence. Buttigieg is the guy they hated in college, not only because he was obnoxiously successful, but also because his success sat uncomfortably, hauntingly close to the version of success they once felt prompted to achieve.
Read: What Pete Buttigieg says he did at McKinsey
This was the subtext—to me, anyway—of a highly celebrated New York Times magazine column in April by Jay Caspian Kang, which tagged Buttigieg as a kind of polymathic Frankenstein “who seems most intent on dazzling the country with his academic feats of strength.” The headline read: “Pete Buttigieg’s Meaningless Erudition Made Him the ‘Smart’ Candidate.” Fair enough. But for The New York Times to publish this critique is like Garden & Gun magazine running a long feature on the existential emptiness of cheesy grits. The column indicts readers for delighting in the very sensibility that they subscribe to the publication to enjoy. I have nothing against Kang, erudition, meaninglessness, or, above all, cheesy grits. But it is, shall we say, telling to discover a critique of conspicuous well-roundedness within a publication with approximately 10 pull-away subsections on arts, travel, business, and foreign affairs.