News & Politics

Gay Is the New Black: The Buttigieg Candidacy

Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks with an AP reporter at Farmers Market in South Bend, Ind., Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

We need to talk about Pete Buttigieg and why his candidacy for president in the age of identity politics is negatively disruptive — though this certainly doesn’t mean he shouldn’t run. He’s the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the first openly gay candidate to run for president. It’s not a comfortable discussion. I’ll be called a homophobe for having it. But it’s necessary, so let’s dive right in.

The politics of the Democratic Party is driven by an ideology that pits one group against another. Blacks against whites. Gays against straights. Women against men. Political agendas and views are often put in that frame. We saw the consequences of this during Barack Obama’s reign as the first black president. If you criticized him, you were called a racist. Almost all statements and judgments regarding his policies and performance were filtered through the lens of identity politics.

This was true with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton as well. Democrats tried to put any criticism of her agenda in that context. Women who opposed her were called traitors to their sex. Men who refused to vote for her were inevitably called misogynists who didn’t want a female president.

Most of the time these accusations were untrue, but the truth doesn’t matter in identity politics. Character, qualifications, and political philosophies don’t matter. It’s all about the group identity based on the hierarchy of historical victimhood, which elevates anyone who is not a white, straight man to the top of the ticket.

Like it or not, this is the state of our culture today. Politics is saturated with it. It worsened under the presidency of Obama for obvious reasons. The more you criticized his progressive and anti-American policies, the more you were labeled a racist. These increased tensions between blacks and whites, a trend we saw on full display in the recent Covington controversy when a group of black adult men accosted white high school students with racial and degrading slurs — a disturbing scene of abuse that was applauded by many in the media.

We now have a climate of group hostility — the bastard child of identity politics. As a result, we are increasingly incapable of seeing people for who they are as unique individuals, and instead, we plug them into a collective through which everything is judged.

Enter Pete Buttigieg into the fray. The South Bend mayor is a Rhodes Scholar and served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, spending seven months in Afghanistan in 2013. Reviews of his performance as mayor are mixed, as some think he’s done a good job in South Bend while others consider his service less than stellar.

Buttigieg came out as gay while mayor and was elected for a second term. He is also married. His sexual orientation certainly didn’t hurt him in his reelection bid, and it’s impossible to measure how much it helped. The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin wrote, “That his sexual orientation drew so little notice speaks well of a country that has gotten past fighting over gay marriage.”

Local politics, however, are not the same as national, especially presidential politics. After Buttigieg announced his run for the 2020 presidential campaign, his stand-out quality as expressed repeatedly by the media has been his sexual orientation, something that shouldn’t matter — but, of course, it does, and it’s how the media has set him apart from the rest of the field.

Consider some of the national coverage he has received. Hollywood Life headlined the announcement with “Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg is running for president in 2020! The 36-year-old is openly gay and looking to give the U.S. a ‘fresh start.'” Newsweek focused on his sexual orientation front and center: “Who is Pete Buttigieg? Gay Navy Veteran and Mayor of Indiana’s South Bend Exploring Candidacy for 202 Election.” The same was true for these other media outlets: MSN, NBC, and Vox, to name a few.

The LGBT magazine The Advocate headlined, “Is the nation ready for a gay millennial president?” The article highlights how LGBTQ issues are a key interest for Buttigieg and why his sexual orientation is important to some voters, even as he says being gay doesn’t impact his political performance.

Buttigieg was fighting for LGBTQ rights before he came out; South Bend adopted an inclusive antidiscrimination ordinance early in his mayoral tenure, in 2012. He also was outspoken against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 2015, which was widely viewed as granting a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others who might offend certain religious sensibilities. …

He wrote that being gay had no bearing on his performance as mayor or in any other job, but that being open about it could help fight prejudices and stereotypes, and help the state move on from what he called the “disastrous” RFRA episode. He also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to issue its decision on marriage equality any day, and he said he hoped to be able to marry one day and raise a family.

“I hope that when my children are old enough to understand politics, they will be puzzled that someone like me revealing he is gay was ever considered to be newsworthy,” he continued. “By then, all the relevant laws and court decisions will be seen as steps along the path to equality.”

I include this excerpt about religious liberty because it sets up a point I was making in a tweet to Buttigieg and his followers — a tweet that incited the expected backlash infused with denigrating name-calling and, of course, “You’re homophobic.” I wrote,

In the age of identity politics, the last thing our country needs is a president whose stand-out quality is he’s gay. We won’t ever deal with real issues when every time we criticize him we’re accused of being homophobic. Sadly this fact undermines any real credibility he has.

My criticism here is not of Buttigieg or his sexual orientation. I’m not opposed to having a gay president — his sex life doesn’t matter to me. His policies do. When I say that the last thing our country needs in an age of identity politics is a president whose stand-out characteristic as generated by the media is that he’s gay, I’m focusing on a cultural problem, not a problem with the candidate.

I would also say that about women of color in this climate. The tensions created by white female candidates are not as striking, so their candidacy is not as problematic—though we still get the “You’re a misogynist” slurs when we criticize a Democratic woman. (Oddly, conservative women aren’t included in this protected class.)

I do not celebrate the fact that identity politics has made electing historically marginalized Democrats to high office disruptive to our nation. I lament it. I lament that a person’s identity status encapsulates them like body armor, or — if they’re a white man — like a target. I lament that we can’t fully debate issues or even address these social conflicts born of identity politics without being reduced to a “hateful bigot.”

I lament that these group identities are the defining and sometimes qualifying framework for the Democratic Party, just as the white man’s identity is disqualifying—unless, of course, he toes the party line to such an extent that this liability is ignored.

My concern with a gay candidate is not that he is gay, but that he is gay in the context of a highly divisive identity politics culture. I wish this were not the case. It’s a shame that we’re even forced to have these discussions in which we will inevitably be misunderstood, maligned, and labeled bigots.

But it must be said. Unless we rid our society of identity politics, a politician’s contributions and governance will never be objectively assessed because the focus will always be on his or her group identity. Again, we saw this with Obama. His abuse of executive powers was ignored by those who are now concerned with the same under President Trump — because they were not willing to criticize a black president.

Likewise, those who did were silenced and delegitimized as racist. The issues were never fully dealt with because identity politics hindered any discourse and stoked flames of frustration and anger, leading to disunity and distrust.

The same will happen with a female president, a WOC president, or a gay president. Error, abuses, corruption, and dangerous policies driven by unconstitutional ideologies will be ignored and even championed because the person proposing them is part of an accepted group in the intersectional hierarchy of power.

As a two-party nation, we have always struggled with these biases in the partisan realm, but it has reached a whole new and dangerous level with group identity politics. Candidates are acceptable and not to be criticized, not only because they have a D beside their name, but because of their sex, sexual choices, race, or ethnicity. Any opposition is met with histrionics and rage.

Consider this fact in light of the issue of religious liberty mentioned above. Many Americans oppose Buttigieg’s view of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If he became president and this issue became a point of contention in a policy debate, or if other issues involving transgenderism arose, anyone opposing the gay president would be labeled homophobic, maligned, attacked, and stigmatized into silence. In other words, a progressive agenda would be advanced through intimidation and threats, not through reasoned debate.

So what is the solution? Some have accused me of concluding that only white men should run for office. This is far from the truth. I want qualified people who will honor our Constitution, respect our nation as founded, and champion principles of liberty to run for office regardless of their color, sex, or sexual orientation.

The solution is not to keep white men in power or push white men out of political power and replace them with women of color and homosexuals simply because of their group identities. Our culture must change. We need to stop judging, championing, denigrating, or electing people according to their sex and race.

Regarding Buttigieg in particular — and anyone else in a cherished identity group — this means supporting his candidacy without putting his homosexuality on display as an asset to governance and allowing people to criticize him without being labeled a homophobic bigot. The labels must stop. If they won’t, our country will continue to decline.

If we ever want unity in our nation, we have to fight against the scourge of identity politics and elevate individuals on the basis of their character, beliefs, and abilities — not the shallow distinctions that sacrifice unity for plurality.

We are a nation in which out of the many comes one. We need to return to the one, and that “one” is our shared American values and principles of liberty. If those ties don’t bind us, we’re lost.