There’s a wonderful term the Brits use when describing something that is either loved or hated — Marmite. Marmite is a thick, yeasty spread with strong salty notes and an umami finish. To call something marmite means there is no middle ground between veneration and revulsion. However, Marmite isn’t familiar to most Americans. Our closest approximation might be cilantro.
Cilantro is the herb we most associate with Mexican food and is used liberally in traditional salsas as well as toppings for tacos and anything else a taquero might hand you. It is an aromatic that gives your guacamole a fresh, slightly earthy taste, with a hint of pepper. It comes alive when paired with fresh lime juice and onions. It is also despised by a portion of the population because they think it tastes like soap.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is cilantro for Democratic voters and he has now dropped out of the race. The parts of his resume and personal story that resonated with many Democratic voters, Harvard-educated, left-leaning centrist, gay, veteran with mayoral experience in America’s heartland, have turned off many voters outside his base. Buttigieg’s polarizing reception by Democrats is evidenced by his ability to win the Iowa caucus but not the Democratic primary.
“Every Democratic winner of the caucuses since 2000 has gone on to be the Democratic Party’s nominee.”
As the post-mortem of Mayor Pete’s campaign begins, all the analysis will focus on what went wrong but few people will question the Buttigieg 2020 soapy aftertaste.
Perhaps the rock you’ve been hiding under has masked the high stakes of the 2020 presidential election. A mere glance at the simmering vitriol amongst the candidates’ camps reveals how serious it is and nothing tells the story better than the reactions to Pete Buttigieg
Early on, many Democrats fawned over the youthful nerdishness of the Harvard-Rhodes Scholar-Oxford wunderkind. He was a refreshing breath of intellectualism in the brain vacuum of Trump’s anti-science, anti-enlightenment presidency. However, as a portion of the electorate swooned over Pete’s grey matter, less amicable wings of the Democratic party began labeling him as smug and smarmy. It didn’t endear him to the common person when he listed Ulysses as one of his favorite reads. The braininess working in his favor alienated some voters. This was the first sign of Pete being cilantro.
Conventional wisdom within the Democratic party states that moderate candidates perform better in general elections. Candidates such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were easily painted as too liberal by conservative opponents in previous general elections. The 2020 election requires a candidate such as Bill Clinton who managed “to push a progressive agenda while appealing to moderate voters.” We’ve already seen much hand-wringing over the need for centrist appeal.
Buttigieg seemed ideally suited to coast in the middle lane of the political debate, having cultivated an image of pragmatism and likeability. He was liberal but not too liberal. Superficially, it appeared he would be more palatable to parts of the country that might never vote for Warren or Sanders.
“He’s more ideologically centrist than Warren and Bernie Sanders. He’s from a red state. He’s unfailingly polite…And he’s a white man, which may — in and of itself — make him less threatening to those Trump supporters inclined to see another female presidential nominee as evidence of the anti-male bias purportedly warping American life.”
Nevertheless, critics, especially younger critics, went full knives out for Mayor Pete, asserting his appeal to the middle of the road voter was anathema to progressive values and traitorous to the values of his Millenial generation. Some in the under-35 crowd went as far as to call him a “Boomer wrapped up in a Millenial’s clothing.” Furthermore, Mayor Pete also weathered attacks from black voters, questioning his wokeness. Visceral attacks came from Michael Harriot in The Root, stating that Buttigieg was willfully misstating the reasons for black children struggling in school. Harriot alledged Buttigieg was echoing racist tropes of the past, that the problems black people face are their own fault. The woke attack continued in the usually liberal-friendly confines of The View. Buttigieg was simultaneously the liberal the Democrats needed and a pretender parading around in woke progressive pants.
Much has been written about the historic campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate to win a state nominating event, as he did in Iowa. He set an example for LGBTQ young people wondering how they might be accepted by their countrymen, much as Obama did for black children and Hillary did for girls and young women. Many people beyond the LGBTQ demographic were drawn to the idea that a viable gay candidate was running for president. It is a compelling part of his story. Once again, though, an aspect of his appeal proved cilantro.
Black and Latino voters are crucial to Democrat’s chances of unseating Trump in 2020. These blocks of voters typically help elect Democratic candidates but cracks in that support appear if a gay man is atop the ticket. Some conservative Christians within these communities expressed uneasiness supporting a gay candidate, particularly those with “a literal view of the Bible.” While many black voters state Buttigieg’s being gay shouldn’t be a factor, “polls show a narrow majority of African Americans support gay marriage…far less supportive than other Democrats.” And Buttigieg wasn’t only facing Biblical hurdles with Latinos and blacks. There were also questions about how his sexuality would impact his agenda.
“…there’s a question among the African American and Latino faithful of whether gay candidates would push LGBT concerns over more general issues of social justice.”
It would be unfair to paint Buttigieg’s struggles with black and Latino support as merely religious bigotry. There are legitimate questions about how he dealt with racial issues in the past as well as concerns about his poor job of outreach to these communities.
Nonetheless, being gay is a double-edged sword for Mayor Pete, bringing some marginalized groups into the tent while leaving other groups feeling uncomfortable or with fears they may not be his priority. He was left with insufficient traction either way to provide a path to victory.
Pete Buttigieg gained the attention of many Americans when they heard what he has been able to achieve in his relatively short life. Americans like winners. Regardless of its legitimacy, this is what Donald Trump peddles so well. He’s styled himself as a winner. Mayor Pete is an actual winner.
“Buttigieg, who turned 38 last month, has achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. He graduated from Harvard University in 2004 and graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in 2007. He worked as a Toronto-based consultant for McKinsey & Co., spent eight years as mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, wrote a book and, by the way, speaks eight languages.”
Many people see Buttigieg’s resume and experience as the culmination of hard work combined with ability. He’s obviously very bright but very bright people fail all the time. He turned his impressive potential into real-world achievements and won the admiration of many Democrats desperate for a winner. As with his other marketable traits, his impressive list of accomplishments proved divisive.
The fact he experienced such success drew the ire of many people. Buttigieg is to some, the brainy kid in the class with all the answers whom the teachers adore. Perhaps the best explanation for the unbridled Mayor Pete-hate is he makes people feel bad for not doing more with their lives. Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic in December:
“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.”
His politics have been labeled as ‘bourgeois’ by some younger voters taking issue with how Wall Street and Silicon Valley embraced Pete and filled his coffers with donations. His achievements should give him the means to burn down the establishment but instead, he joined it, raking in their contributions and hosting fundraisers in swanky wine caves. The coastal elites have embraced Pete as their own because he has their desired pedigree and can ensure their unchallenged rule over the working class.
“…this “Petey” bourgeois persona masks what is actually a campaign supported by the ruling class that could end up giving the elite continued access to political power.”
In addition to his success being nothing more than the leash by which his elite masters steer him, it also apparently threatens the entire future of the Democratic party. It means nothing and is an existential threat at the same time.
Supporters laud Mayor Pete’s success but for opposing members of the party, the mere fact he has been so successful justifies supporting a different candidate as well as hating Mayor fucking Pete. A soapy aftertaste lingers after washing those obscenities from his 2020 campaign obituary.
Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric rise from unknown mayor of a smallish city to a presidential contender has been fascinating. Everything you love about him, someone else who votes like you hates. Each step he made in the right direction was simultaneously a misstep. All that he’s achieved might also have been his undoing. The only possible explanation? Cilantro.
Some people, like me, love it and put it on everything. Others hate it so much there is a national I Hate Cilantro Day. With the way certain people respond to Buttigieg, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first of March soon becomes ‘I Hate Mayor Pete Day.’ I would hope we can do better but hope won’t make cilantro any less divisive.