Politics & Policy

The Wrong Side of Pete Buttigieg’s History

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa., August 9, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Discussing the marriage debate, he presumes his opponents are ‘disoriented’ by ‘the pace of change.’

Pete Buttigieg was conducting a “town hall” with Jake Tapper on CNN last night when he was asked what he thinks of religious Democrats who oppose gay marriage, given his wont to condemn Mike Pence for the same.

He responded by invoking his experience in Indiana, where “people were able to move past old prejudices and move into the future.” Ultimately, he said, it “is not an easy conversation for a lot of people who have, frankly, been brought up in a certain way and are struggling to get onto the right side of history.”

Buttigieg uses this schema anytime he is asked about traditional religious believers: He will rebuke anonymous remnants of the pre-Obergefell consensus in a conciliatory tone, offering them a path to redemption on the cheap, appealing to exogenous forces of History and progress to cudgel the hangers-on toward a reluctant embrace of “the future.”

At a Pride festival in June, Buttigieg tacked the same line. “There are millions of Americans,” he began, “who today are not proud of what they believed yesterday about us, but we ought to make them proud of the fact they came on to the right side of history.”

What did “they” believe “about us”? Bad things, probably — maybe that marriage is between a man and a woman, or that scripture isn’t Pete Buttigieg’s malleable plaything that he can simultaneously invoke and dismiss as he finds expedient — but “what they believed” or didn’t believe “about us” is not the point. The ritual of redemption is: renounce your old beliefs, be born again, and expiate your guilt by condemning the avatar of that which you used to be. That self might have been any number of Buttigieg’s bogeymen: the “conservative Christian,” “older people,” those “brought up in a certain way,” or any other strata of the “they” who think bad things about “us.” Part of the condemnation is instructive, to shame the relics of the old consensus. The other is sacramental — the sneering and condescension toward traditionalists is itself a sort of ceremonial purge. We’re good people, you’re not.

Buttigieg said much of the same on NPR: While he understands that people can be “disoriented by the pace of change” surrounding the redefinition of marriage, the time is now to “move past old prejudices and move into the future.” Never once does he acknowledge the substance of the marriage debate, instead presuming that any opposition to the redefinition of a millennial Western consensus on a central societal institution is reducible to a pathological “disorientation” with “the pace of change.” He invokes “the future” again, with all of its Hegelian implications — the perfect “consciousness of Freedom” toward which Hegel’s history makes its gradual approach is the elegant translation of Buttigieg’s “right side of history” trope — but the proximal aim is to render traditional beliefs about the definition of marriage verboten. Mayor Pete’s salve to the once-conservative believers — like his promise last night to “beckon and welcome people onto the right side of history in a way that helped them feel good about themselves” — is soft soap and wishful thinking of Lewisian proportions. He might be “welcoming” you “onto the right side of history,” but not without cost: In accepting Buttigieg’s “beckon,” you’ve accepted that your former self and all it believed is worthy of a certain regret, if not contempt.

And for what? So Mayor Pete Buttigieg can absolve you of the guilt you’re supposed to hold for believing what Barack Obama did until just over a decade ago about marriage?

One gets the sense that Buttigieg’s rhetoric is nothing but a covert attempt to rebrand as immoral and beyond discussion an opinion once held by almost every faith tradition and more than half of the country. “Move into the future,” or we’ll drag you there.

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