Pete Buttigieg

Dreams of the Heartland

Air Date: April 15, 2017

Mayor Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana talks about democracy and values according to the American Midwest.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When visiting three times last year with among the most politically engaged students at the University of Notre Dame, they recommended booking a public servant whom they affectionately call Mayor Pete. This is of course mayor Peter Buttigieg, chief executive of South Bend, Indiana. His resume did not just merit the invite. It was a presidential pedigree no less than the legendary fictional fighting Irish alum, President Josiah Bartlett, some years removed, of The West Wing. A decorated US Navy officer, a Rhodes Scholar, and native Hoosier, the Mayor was elected at 29, and he is among the youngest mayors in this country, and was the youngest mayor of any city over 100 thousand residents. So it came to me as no surprise, in fact, told you so, I reminded friends, when the mayor burst onto the national stage as a DNC candidate in recent months. He’s here today with me to discuss what he learned from that road show, and what we can learn from him about the key to the American heartland. Mayor, welcome.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good to be here.

HEFFNER: Really good to have you here. What did you learn from your experience as a candidate for DNC Chair that might have surprised you, going into the process?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, one thing I learned, is that the Democratic party is struggling to learn how to change. You know on one hand, I think it’s a party that has the right values, that has ideas, that actually command the support of most Americans, and yet one that has struggled to really face how much trouble we’re in. You know, even had we won the White House, the Democratic Party would be in a tough spot right now. If you look where we are in terms of uh, state houses, governorships, not to mention congress, uh, a lot of offices in addition to the presidency that really decided most of the policy in this country. We’re on the back foot. And yet the party has been slow to be able to change. My hope is, this whole process of the DNC Chair race has surfaced some of the ideas that are gonna help us recognize that the party needs to position itself as part of a broader movement, rather than the other way around, rather than trying to cram all of the things that are happening in the progressive space into the political machinery, instead making sure that the party has the humility to recognize where it fits inside a, a broader movement of what’s happening in our country, in response to the policies and the politicians that are not just disappointing us, but really betraying our values in Washington.

HEFFNER: When you say, Mayor, humility,


HEFFNER: Um, we’ve seen a campaign season that in some ways rewarded the opposite of that character, that ethos, that civility. How do you fight back against it without imitating it.

BUTTIGIEG: Hmm. Yeah, we’ve got to figure out a way to defeat Trump and Trumpism without emulating it. And I think the key is placing the focus back on real people. You know I think there is an extent to which, especially in the last campaign, the conversation really became about the politicians themselves. And all of us who were supporting Hilary Clinton against Donald Trump, we had the T-shirts or the buttons that said, “I’m with Her” as if it really were about her, and the campaign was largely structured around her. Um, then, once it became clear who the nominee was going to be, it increasingly became about him. It became I’m against him. And there was a sense, especially in my part of the country, the industrial Midwest, that actually he was the only one, from the perspective of somebody watching at home, who’s talking about me. And we made it so much about him, um, how terrible he was and how great we thought our candidate was, people at home didn’t feel like we were talking about them. I’m afraid that’s happening right now too, so when you look at the, the fascination with all of the things that make Trump a problematic person, which are obviously many, it can often come at the expense of talking about how things affect people in their real lives.

And when we were in the midst of policy moves that will amount to a massive transfer of wealth, away form the working and middle class and toward, ironically, the elite, and those who are best off, that is the sort of thing that affects people in their daily lives, and yet we have a hard time talking about it, because we’re so consumed with the show, the, the erratic tweets, uh, the intrigue and Russia and everything, some of which has to be talked about, but we can’t allow it to become the center of gravity of a party that, at its best, has always been about taking care of people.

HEFFNER: The center of gravity I’m afraid Mayor, though, is in some ways preconceived or premeditated at the state and local level…


HEFFNER: To disfavor progressives or Democrats, because of gerrymandering, not just in Indiana, but across the country. That is a structural institutional problem that the Democrats have to cultivate a response to in town halls, and local municipal relationships with constituents. How are you modeling that now,
going forward, in a way that, state houses and legislatures can be responsive to?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, it’s, it’s an extremely important question, and here’s how we do it in South Bend. First of all, again, when you’re talking about people’s lives, you can break down some of the ideological barriers sometimes, so one of the ways that I’ve been able to attract a lot of support from Republicans in a place like South Bend, isn’t so much by trying to shoot for a, an ideological middle, or get the right kind of conservative elements in my ideology. It’s more by focusing on delivery, and focusing on impact, um, trying to really get the conversation to be about what’s actually going to happen to real people, if we take this course of action, versus that one. Now on a partisan basis, there is this very troubling dynamic of redistricting and gerrymandering, and we need to be prepared to talk about the fact that this in fact, amounts to a rigged politics. So, in a twisted way, Trump was right when he said that the system was rigged, and even when he said that elections were rigged. Now, it wasn’t the way he was saying, you know that you would have um, busloads of illegal voters changing outcomes, and by the way, I’ve never met anybody who thinks that happened in their precinct, even if they think that happened somewhere. But he wasn’t wrong when he said there is something broken and deeply unfair about our politics.

Unfortunately the, one of the things that’s broken and deeply unfair, is that right now, our politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that has created a structural, uh, setup that certainly, in the current phase of it at least, disfavors Democrats. Now, Republicans for years, decades even, have patiently, and cleverly assembled majorities everywhere from the school board to the statehouse, where I’m afraid that our party has been a little bit inclined to treat the presidency like it’s the only office that matters. We’ve got to pay attention to these local offices and these state offices, not only because they furnish the farm team, the bench, the people who are eventually going to be leading in federal offices, but also because they are intrinsically so important, not least because many of them decide the shape of the districts and the congressional districts, which is one of the reasons that, even if Democrats get millions of more votes, you know, not unlike the electoral college issue, even if we get millions more votes for congress, we may not get a majority there.

HEFFNER: The Republicans in your hometown in Indiana, do they view gerrymandering as an anti Democratic practice?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, let’s be clear. When Democrats in Indiana had the upper hand, they enthusiastically practiced gerrymandering, and now the shoe’s on the other foot, because 2010, which was the last, uh, census year, was a big Republican year. Uh, this shouldn’t be ideological. I mean really both sides should be able to embrace the idea that politics should be more representative, but in practice, it is partisan for the simple reason that Democrats have more to gain from fair districting,


BUTTIGIEG: Than Republicans, just like we have more to gain form more people being able to vote. Um, now, philosophically, you might ask yourself, if one party stands to lose from more Americans participating in the process, why is that? But right now we’re at the phase where we just have to respond to the reality in front of us, and deal with it accordingly in our tactics, as well as in our thinking.

HEFFNER: The reality, Mayor, is that Republicans dominate governorships across the country right now to such an extent that, you know, their state legislatures could be positioned to offer a Constitutional Amendment. That’s how…

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, we’re one state away from that…

HEFFNER: … What happened to governor Dean’s fifty state strategy? I, I know that the the DNC was hacked…


HEFFNER: I mean there were some tremendous vulnerabilities there, but it seems like that dissipated in his success of ten years of Tim Kaine…


HEFFNER: And later chair people.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, we really got away with that, and part of that was just uh, a result of the, the politics of the time in between. Uh, so, uh, take, you know, president Obama is a president I deeply admire, and one that uh, you know I knocked on doors for, and I think his presidency will be looked on uh, very kindly by history. Uh, but one of the things, politically, about his playbook is, uh, his particular approach to campaigning only worked for one person. Uh, that playbook only works if you happen to be Barack Obama. It’s very different from a playbook that is, uh, that is designed to get people elected in, in different states. And so you found that, you know, people running for congress had to adopt a very different strategy than what the president was using in his reelection for example. Um, there’s always going to be differences within the party. There’s always as going to be times when what’s working in a presidential campaign is different from what you want to have, uh, you know, at a grassroots level, but we’ve got to make sure that we are organizing, organizing our politics, first around our values, and if we do that, then the candidates who embody those values are going to be likely to surface and prevail.

But even more importantly, if those values start to win, if we tug the entire country toward greater fidelity to those values, then we can expect that the politics on both sides of the aisle will begin to embrace them, in the same way that the right, I think very effectively, didn’t just get people from the right elected. They actually moved the American political center rightward during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, so that a Democratic president like Bill Clinton was saying things that in the 60’s would have been considered a little bit conservative for a Republican president to say then. We’ve got to have our eye on a broader gain here, than one election at a time. And I think that uh, going even beyond the fifty state strategy, which we’ve got to reestablish. We’ve got to think about a fifty year strategy, one that really, uh, celebrates the values that bring us together, not just as Democrats, but those of us who believe in America where, where freedom means more than just being free from regulation, where uh, family values includes keeping families together, and accepting nontraditional families, uh, and above all, one where people know that they will have access to the American dream, wherever they came from. And I don’t know whether that’s now considered to be an issue owned by liberals or conservatives, but what I know is that social mobility is breaking down in our country. And I’m concerned that our republic cannot survive much more of the kind of inequality and immobility that we’re experiencing in middle America.

HEFFNER: I think Senator Sanders, who we hosted before his campaign, began to articulate a new definition of, of the values voter today, but it doesn’t seem to be resonating so fervently with an expanded coalition. I’m wondering, when you go out to town halls, or travel the state of Indiana, what is the values voter today? What are those values?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. I think what Senator Sanders got right is, if people can see that you’re motivated by conviction, they’re going to respond to you, even if your conviction’s a little different from their own. Um, I think this was something that Paul Wellstone was very effective at actually. It would be very interesting to see what he would be like today if, if we hadn’t been robbed of him by his untimely death. You know he was somebody who voted against uh, the war, at a time when the war was popular, and yet his popularity, this is the war in Iraq, and yet his popularity went up, I think because people knew that even if they didn’t agree with him, they could see that he was motivated by values. I think that was the appeal of the Sanders campaign as well.

HEFFNER: Authenticity.

BUTTIGIEG: Authenticity, which is associated with uh, uh, my part of the country, uh, the Midwest, but also, I think, our generation. Um, you know, our generation, I think by virtue of having grown up just soaked and marinated in every kind of sophisticated marketing on television and the internet, has an equally sophisticated radar for efforts to manipulate us. And I think insincerity, or a lack of authenticity, is something we, we pick up, right like that. And so making sure that, that we’re putting forward candidates who believe in something, who can explain to you what’s worth more to them than winning, uh, is going to be very important if we want to be taken seriously, and I think paradoxically, there are actually a lot of voters who might vote more conservatively, who are available to us, if and only if we won on our progressive value.

HEFFNER: What do you do in the case that increasing funding for the military becomes a value issue that overrides virtually anything else?

BUTTIGIEG: I think in the same way that the left needs to become more comfortable talking about freedom, we also need to be more comfortable talking about American greatness, because to me, what has made America great is not just having a powerful military, and I’m proud that I served in our military and um, you know, it’s done a lot of, uh, extraordinary things across world history. But we’re not just great because we have a powerful military, we’re great because of the power of our culture. Uh, I believe we won the Cold War in no small part, because we were the country more people wanted to be. We were the country people wanted to be part of, and it had as much to do with blue jeans and rock music, as it did with ICBMs. I mean all of that knitted together into something incredibly powerful. And so I think when we’re talking about, for example, diverting all of our natural resources into a military buildup, the question has to be, at the expense of what.

And if we’re losing the ability to fund the arts, if we’re losing the ability to uh, throw our weight around, not just militarily, but economically through foreign aid, helping people and having, you know, whole populations, uh, look upon us better because we did something uh, for them, if we’re throwing away, uh, the opportunity to fund research when, a matter that’s often forgotten today, the federal government literally invented the internet, right, things like that made America great. And without them, if we have a strong military but none of that, we’re no better than a lot of other countries out there that also invest heavily in militarization, and yet that nobody at home wants to, wants to be more like. We’ve gotta concern ourselves with whose values are really going to dominate the 21st century.

HEFFNER: That is the critical question. But I, I think when you talk about a sophisticated radar, there is a Midwestern identity, how is that radar different in a way that we can become responsive to, in an increasingly national media environment?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I mean this is where I think we’ve got to get back to what’s happening in people’s lives. So there are false choices, but there are also real choices. There’s only so much money to go around. What are we going to spend it on? Right? If we’re taking it away form these things, these institutions, these efforts toward research and the arts, also if we’re taking it away from middle class Americans, right, if we are distributing wealth away from the middle class, which, for example is what, some of what’s been proposed when it comes to healthcare, really amounts to, um, then we’re making people worse off. And, you know, people that I spend most of my time with, in, in my hometown and the area around it, are not terribly preoccupied with what’s going on in Washington, with who’s voting on this confirmation or, or that proposal. They’re concerned with whether they are going to be made better off, or worse off, and for all the sophistication of progressive philosophy, it had better be prepared to hold itself accountable, for whether its application makes people better off or worse off.

HEFFNER: Well there are abstract questions, and the price of milk is not one of them.


HEFFNER: Um, pumping gas is not one of them. Um, I think part of the problem is that, the fact that people believe we’re taxed without being represented because we don’t feel the empowerment in our, in this fiscal, economic situation.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, and I mean can you blame them?


BUTTIGIEG: I mean you have congress that is,

HEFFNER: That’s the reality.

BUTTIGIEG: Less and less attentive, right, to, to what communities are saying.

HEFFNER: It’s not a globalist agenda though, as was documented or pretended to be in the campaign. But, the Clinton campaign, and the Democrats, and anyone besides Trump, were unable to compete in that environment, except maybe you and Senator Sanders, and a few other people.

BUTTIGIEG: Well and I think it also, it felt as though, when people like, you know, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump are saying the system is rigged, it felt as though a lot of, the Democrats were saying, the system is perfectly fine, when our response should have been, yeah, there are a lot of areas in the system that are unfair. Our economy and our politics are both broken in many important ways, but your way isn’t the way to fix it. Our way is. And here’s how it works. And that’s when we begin talking about policies on the economic side that make people free, not only from the unfreedoms that government creates, but also from private oppression and private unfreedoms. The idea that they’re talking about gutting the CFPB, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, when that is something that protects ordinary Americans form shady banking practices, is something that I think we should be talking about much more, and on the political side, you know, we’re the party that has stood up for a more Democratic country, for one where more people have access to the ballot, where it’s easier, not harder, to vote, and I think we need to also become the party that stands up for the structure, from the way districts are drawn to campaign finance, to be fair and more representative too. Um, you know as much as the specifics of it were twisted, uh, again I think there were parts of the narrative of the Trump campaign that we ought to take seriously.

HEFFNER: Well there, there were…

BUTTIGIEG: Because people were right when …

HEFFNER: Seeds of truth.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, people are right when they feel that this stuff is titled against them. It is.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s tilted against them, and you said we shouldn’t be thinking about fifty states, we should be thinking about fifty years. There are elections in 2018 and 2020. Um, without a counterbalance in any one of the three branches, how can we ensure that elections continue to be free and fair.

BUTTIGIEG: If you look at the, the number of people who showed up for the Women’s March, the number of people who’ve descended on town halls, uh, and other opportunities where you can have these kinds of mass mobilizations, I think making sure that translates into electoral activity is going to be very important. Uh, but we also have to make sure we are securing our democracy itself. And there are a lot of issues with that, that’s why, you know, nothing could be less sexy in national politics than a secretary of states race, right? But it’s incredibly important, because they run the elections. Um, we need to be paying much better attention to that, not just from a perspective of things that benefit Democrats, but form a perspective of things that are more democratic, and more accountable for the country as a whole. And we’ve got to think about whether we should be trapped in, basically 18th Century methods of arranging our elections. You know why election day is on a Tuesday? It’s so that you could uh, you know, ride your horse down on Monday after church, and then be back uh, in, in, you know, be back in your farming community in time for market day. Um, that’s not, there’s no good reason [LAUGHTER] that, that election day is on a Tuesday. It’s just what it’s on. I don’t think it’s even in the Constitution. It’s just there. And we have got to update our democracy to make sure that it’s keeping up with the democratic demands in the 21st Century.

HEFFNER: I took a drive from, and I mentioned this a couple of times now on this show, from Dayton to South Bend…


HEFFNER: And this was pre-election day. And I probably gleaned what you had experienced for months prior to the election, which was the real plausibility of an upset.


HEFFNER: Um, I think the most important thing that I saw in that drive, and it was the same thing when you’re in Tampa, Florida, or any major urban center, is infrastructure.


HEFFNER: Um, isn’t it a major problem that this administration did not start with infrastructure? Shouldn’t that have been the first commitment?

BUTTIGIEG: Well maybe, or maybe there’s some clever political calculus going on here. Look, uh, I don’t discount the fact that a lot of jobs may be created by an infrastructure build that will, in the long run, be disastrous, because it’s not paid for, but will in the short run will sell very well and be very appealing. Uh, you know, making sure that people see a lot of benefits around them in terms of, uh, roads and bridges, and seeing a lot of people put back to work, is the sort of thing that a more cynical politician might ensure happens just in time for the next election. So I actually think there’s a certain logic to it not having happened right out of the gate. Now I’ve also got a lot of deep misgivings about whether, you know, the proposals they’re beginning to preview are really going to lead to the kind of infrastructure benefits we want, because a lot of what has to happen, and again, I’m talking about things that aren’t very sexy, um, but it’s the sort of infrastructure change that many people don’t notice, and politicians won’t get to take credit for, uh, for example sewer infrastructure. So, I would love to have a bullet train between South Bend and Chicago, and if I can ever figure out a way to help get it done, by God, I’ll be all over it.

But, the most pressing infrastructure need we have right now, actually has to do with our wastewater. It’s something that you don’t even know it’s there, until or unless it fails, kind of similar with drinking water which, of course we experience every day, but I’m still waiting for the day when somebody’s gonna come into my office and say, you know, I went downstairs today, I turned on the kitchen tap, a glass of clean safe drinking water came out, it didn’t poison my family or anything, and just tell the folks at the waterworks to keep up the great work. Right. It’s not that, it was designed so that you can take it for granted. And yet, as we learned the hard way form the experience in Flint, we’re living in times when you can’t take it for granted, because we have underinvested, not just in the kinds of infrastructure that people can see, roads, bridges, trains, and we’ve gotta do more on that, but also in the unseen dimensions, that there’s very little political reward for doing something about, but that’s absolutely imperative if we want to continue to grow and thrive in the decades to come.

HEFFNER: And it’s not just South Bend or any city that is more suburban that doesn’t have the reservoir um, integrity behind a water system that is funded, and the upkeep is guaranteed. We just have a few minutes left Mayor, but take us into that mindset in the heartland.
BUTTIGIEG: Here’s the way we look at it. Everybody’s got some purpose they’re going for in their life. Um, I don’t necessarily know what it is. I’ve got 100 thousand residents, and for every one of them, it might be a little different. For some of them it might have to do with faith and family. For some of them it might have to do with starting a business, and economic success. Uh, for some of them it may have to do with scholarly pursuits. I don’t know what the meaning of life is for any given person. But I know it’s gonna be a lot harder for them to achieve it, if they can’t uh, count on a glass of clean, safe drinking water when they get up in the morning, or if there’s hole in the road on their way to work, or if we haven’t plowed their streets properly, um, let alone the, the bigger layers of quality of life. Is there a good park system, do you have a, do you have a good economy around here? Right? These are the things that affect us in our everyday lives.

Uh, whether or not our lives go well, depends largely on things that tie back to policy. One reason I think even people with not a lot of education tend to be very sophisticated about what’s happening in their local politics is because it’s so clear to them how it affects them. The challenge, I think, with federal politics, is bringing that same kind of immediacy. So it’s one thing to talk about immigrants, for example, as a category. It’s another thing to talk about an individual, I just got word today, that somebody who is regarded as a pillar of the community, and who was checking in with ICE on a yearly basis, but was undocumented, uh, is going to be deported now. And he’s got not only a family, but a small business that people in our community really count on, and I know a lot of people, many of whom would consider themselves conservative Republicans, who are rallying to his cause, because we just treat people differently when we actually know ‘em, than we do when we view them as categories or as political fodder.

Those, I think are values that are not just Midwestern, but are really human values. And yet, we’ve begun to regard politics as something that happens in congress and on cable, when really politics happens, you know the War in Afghanistan happens to you when somebody you care about is deployed, or it affected, or God forbid doesn’t come back. The Health Care Act happens to you, when you have trouble paying for, for healthcare, or that happens to somebody you love. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a much more uh, immediate way of talking about these things. And I think people are smart. They can connect the dots, but not if we’re not out there telling the story to help them see how those dots fit together.

HEFFNER: Thank you Mayor. I hope you’ll come back, a lot more ground to cover…

BUTTIGIEG: Pleasure.

HEFFNER: Appreciate you being here.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenmindTV, for updates on future programing.