Downtown South Bend (Photo: Jacob Titus)

A letter from flyover country

Most people have trouble pronouncing my name, so they just call me “Mayor Pete.” My surname, Buttigieg (Boot-edge-edge), is very common in my father’s country of origin, the tiny island of Malta, and nowhere else. Dad came to America in the 1970s and became a citizen; he married my mother, an Army brat and umpteenth-generation Hoosier, and the two of them settled in South Bend, Indiana, shortly before I was born thirty-five years ago. At the age of 29, the city elected me mayor. Being the mayor of your hometown is the best job in America, partly because it’s relatively nonpartisan — we focus on results, not ideology. Yet, precisely because of what it means to my community, I am paying closer attention than ever to national politics and the direction of my party.

The Democratic Party matters more than ever, now that a hostile takeover of the Republican Party has brought to power a thin-skinned authoritarian who is not liberal, nor conservative, nor moderate. Yet the party today stands at its lowest point of national and statewide influence since the 1920s, just when a robust opposition is needed most. Much will depend on whether Democrats can organize and deliver a consistent alternative — principles, proposals, and candidates — in the face of what is about to come out of Washington and various state capitals under unchecked Republican control. They will keep some of their promises and break others. Things they will do, and things they will allow, stand to hurt America and Americans. We need to be ready to put forward a better way.

Among Democrats responding to the last election and organizing for the next one, the conversation, inevitably, is moving in the direction of organizing and tactics. This is vital, but it cannot come before the fundamentals. We need to begin with the values that make us Democrats in the first place. If we don’t talk about values, many Americans will tune us out. Again.

I am a Democrat because I believe in protecting freedom, fairness, families, and the future.

First, freedom — not just the thin idea of freedom from overregulation but the freedom to choose our destinies, not to mention our spouses. Freedom from things like crushing medical costs and student debt, from dishonest banking practices and anything else that affects the most basic of freedoms: freedom to live a life of our choosing.

Next, fairness, in the sense Democrats have always cared about deeply, fairness in access to voting and to public accommodations, fairness in the face of discrimination and privilege, fairness in our systems of distributing financial and political power. Donald Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he correctly asserted that there is great unfairness in our economy and our democracy.

Next, family: because we are made happy or unhappy mostly by what happens in our families, because you can’t raise a family on less than an adequate wage, because shaping our families is a personal right, and because you can’t raise a family at all if your government doesn’t have your back.

And finally, the future: because the national security of our people, and the habitability of our land, almost totally depend on those we elect, their judgment and wisdom and willingness to pay attention to facts and evidence when making decisions that will have consequences for centuries.

None of this is theoretical for me. I didn’t see Afghanistan on the news, I saw it through the armored windshields of the vehicles I drove or guarded on dozens of missions outside the wire, and as a Reservist I could be sent back to war if a reckless president leads us into peril. I don’t think about gun violence as an abstraction, not when I’ve had to attend funerals and console the mothers of victims in my city — and swear in police officers alongside family members who pray they will come home safe every day. Marriage equality isn’t a political rallying cry for me, it is a legal fact without which my future family cannot even exist. Obamacare isn’t a political football for me, it’s a matter of household finance: it’s how my partner pays for his health care and how his mother pays for the chemotherapy on which her life depends. Climate change isn’t about polar bears for me. It’s about the South Bend families whose homes I stood in last summer, their basements flooded with muck and excrement while children wandered around the porch the night before school started, because our city had just experienced one of those unprecedented rainfalls that science kept warning us about.

Commentators have focused on candidates and their antics as though that mattered most. But politics, for our city and for most Americans, isn’t about The Show. Its consequences don’t happen in the Beltway or on Twitter or on television. Politics happens in, and to, our homes, in the lives of the people we care about, like the people in my household, my family, and my community. That’s why this all matters so much. The process matters because of what it means to us voters as human beings, not the other way around.

At home, I ran and won, twice, by telling my blue-collar community that Studebaker was never going to come back and make cars in our city, and that it was all right, because there is a way forward. Now Democrats need to absorb the fact that winning the popular vote is not enough, see that the future trends of the electoral map alone will not save us, and know that it’s all right, because there is a way forward.

Our values are American values, and a values-led strategy (backed by a formidable organization) will prevail if we are true to it, and if we keep it close to the earth. I am not a candidate for a position in the national party, but I am watching closely to see if any of the declared candidates will articulate this message: it is time to organize our politics around the lived experience of real people, whose lives play out not in the political sphere but in the everyday, affected deeply and immediately by how well we honor our values with good policy.

With over 40 per cent of voters in my generation describing themselves as independent, our future as a party will depend on reminding people how their lives have been improved by good Democratic policies, and when a voter thinks that isn’t true in her life, we had better listen closely and try to understand why.

When it comes to my part of the country, we will recover our ability to reach people only when we take them seriously, connecting our plans to their actual, personal lived experience rather than focusing on The Show. We need to invite individual people to assess how their individual lives changed — how their safety, their income, their access to health care, their gun rights, their marriages — have actually been affected, if at all, by what goes on in Washington.

Taking people seriously also means treating the constituency groups that traditionally support Democrats as more than a disconnected patchwork of interests to cater to, served by a great political salad bar of something different for everyone. The various identity groups who have been part of our coalition should be there because we have spoken to their values and their everyday lives — not because we contacted them, one group at a time and just in time for the next election, to remind them of some pet issue that illustrates why we expect them to support us. Laundry lists will not inspire.

Democrats need a true turnaround, just like my city did when I ran for mayor. In the last five years, my “rust belt” city went from being described by Newsweek as one of America’s ten dying communities to seeing its fastest pace of population and investment growth in recent memory. That’s how I got re-elected with 80 percent of the vote last year, in the seat of a county that would split its vote evenly between Clinton and Trump a year later. We earned support from residents on both sides of the aisle, not by becoming ideologically conservative but by listening to people about what matters to them, facing our problems, and delivering results on the ground to earn confidence and trust. In the same way, I am convinced that, for our politics and for our nation, salvation begins with the local.