Mayor Pete and the Millennial Paradox
By Peggy O’DonnellMay 28, 2019
Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg
Home? I flipped through an internal rolodex of the places life had thrown me, where I’d stayed long enough to have an address. Boston, where I was born. The desert east of Los Angeles, where the sun carved deep lines into my forehead and I learned what it means to call a sky “blue.” The San Francisco Bay Area. The Hudson Valley. Chicago’s South Side. The stretch of cornfields and manufacturing plants and wide-open prairie just beyond the farthest northern reaches of Chicagoland’s suburban sprawl. All of them were home at one point, and none of them are Home.
This feeling of geographic dislocation is not uncommon among millennials, a much-abused term that really just means “adults under 40.” Trends show that young adults, who joined the workforce in the post-crash economic malaise, are living closer to their parents than Gen Xers did at our age. But we can expect to change jobs more times than any previous generation, leaving us with unprecedented uncertainty about where we’ll live and for how long. We’re buying homes at a lower rate than our parents did, putting off marriage, and having fewer kids, later in life, or none at all. In short, as a generation we aren’t hitting the life milestones that tie you to a place and invite you, or force you, depending on your point of view, to put down roots.
In many ways, Pete Buttigieg (pronounced, with a guide he helpfully supplies, Buddha-judge) is just such a dislocated millennial. He grew up an “impatient millennial product of South Bend,” Indiana, and he got out for college, the first available opportunity. Buttigieg saw the gates thrown open to him — the wrought-iron gates at Harvard Yard, but also the less tangible ones that lay between a small-town, Midwest kid and a bigger, better, more important life. “All I had to do,” he writes in his campaign-ready memoir Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, “was leave South Bend.”
But after graduation, Buttigieg spent 10 years winding his way back to the banks of the St. Joseph River, which flows west into South Bend’s center and there swings north, forming the southernmost bend that gives the city its name. He became the city’s youngest-ever mayor, renovating a turn-of-the-century “money pit” 500 feet from his parents’ house.
To be a millennial is to be defined by Before and After: before 9/11 and after, before the economic collapse and after, before Facebook existed and after it helped to swing an election, facilitate Brexit, and incite a genocide in Myanmar. Buttigieg’s millennialness, his sense of Before and After, pervades the book. “Being in your thirties today,” he writes, “means you have lived more or less half-and-half with Democratic and Republican presidencies, known twenty years of peace, and fifteen of war.” He is old enough to have his sixth-grade best friend’s phone number still burned into his brain, and young enough that he couldn’t tell you the number to the landline on his office desk. He is old enough to refer to his television as a “‘flat-screen TV,’ as if they sell any other kind,” and young enough to do most of his cultural consumption on other devices. He is old enough to have joined the military before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and young enough to have married his husband, Chasten, in South Bend’s Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James in a ceremony sanctioned by both church and federal law.
Buttigieg is also old enough to be extraordinarily, terrifyingly accomplished. Shortest Way Home details a journey through Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford, McKinsey, the Navy Reserve officer corps, and two terms in the mayor’s office of a city of 100,000 people. And yet he’s young enough to understand that for many, modern adulthood feels newly, and exhaustingly, daunting. When Chasten wonders aloud whether the couple was in a position to responsibly take care of a dog, Buttigieg “pointed out that we didn’t even seem to be in a position to responsibly take care of cheese.”
Moments of Before and After serve as turning points in Buttigieg’s life and give the book its narrative arc. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we reached what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the “End of History,” when the last ideological alternative to liberalism had fallen. The Nazis and the communists defeated and the economy booming, the fate of the world seemed to be, finally and permanently, in capable American hands. Raised to expect a peaceful, prosperous, predictable future, America’s youth were pulled to the twin poles of apathy and irony — indeed, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, featuring the hit “Ironic,” was the top pop album in 1996 — and the sticky-sweet sentimentality of Titanic and Britney Spears.
The notion that history had ended, that our generation wouldn’t be needed because the world would simply go on as it was, came to an end on a crisp Tuesday morning in September 2001, as Buttigieg lay face down on the bottom bunk in his Harvard dorm. A roommate shook him awake. “Hey, Peter, you’re going to want to see this.” Walking across Harvard’s campus later that morning, blinking up at the same eerily quiet, cerulean sky that dominates that day in my memory, Buttigieg remembers realizing “that the project of my generation had just been reassigned in some way.” Years later, the same spring Buttigieg graduated from Harvard, comedian Jon Stewart delivered that new assignment in a commencement address to William & Mary’s graduating class: “I don’t really know how to put this,” Stewart said, “so I’ll be blunt. We broke it. […] But here’s the good news. You fix this thing. You’re the next Greatest Generation, people.”
The decade and a half that followed, of war, economic turmoil, and political division, tore the United States apart at the seams. Those years led many to fetishize the past, demanding that we return to a moment — though it is not entirely clear which moment — that was greater than our current one. Those years also led Buttigieg back: back to the street he grew up on, and into the mayor’s office of a city defined by nostalgia over past greatness. South Bend’s fate had seemed sealed in 1963, when the Studebaker factory closed its doors and the city became “a company town without its company.” For the next five decades, the city slowly bled out, kept alive by the beating heart of Notre Dame on its eastern shoulder, but only barely. The population dropped by 30,000 and unemployment soared. South Bend is a place where it is possible to argue that the past was greater than the present.
Yet Buttigieg’s solution for South Bend — and the “model for America’s future,” promised in the book’s title — was not to be found in the past. “We don’t actually want to go back,” Buttigieg writes. “We just think we do, sometimes, when we feel more alert to losses than to gains.” And in training our focus backward, we ignore the people who would have fared so much worse in the past, Buttigieg among them. The revival South Bend saw under Mayor Pete’s tenure serves as the book’s central metaphor: the answer for us and the United States, as it was for Buttigieg and South Bend, is to return home and reclaim it, bringing it into the future rather than mourning its past.
Shortest Way Home is a story of changing minds by focusing on the local, the interpersonal, and the everyday. It is a seductive notion, especially filtered as it is through the good-natured humor and obvious love for his home city that animates Buttigieg’s prose. Yet a campaign memoir is a political proposal as much as it is a work of literature, and the narrative is at its thinnest where it draws the proposal’s contours. Buttigieg’s vision for an equitable society — which relies on John Rawls’s definition of justice, that “a society is fair if looks like something we would design before knowing how we would come into the world” — reads as vague and academic, notably out of keeping with the practical granularity of other examples of his governing philosophy: data-driven theories of pothole maintenance and snow plowing, and a careful weighing of the effect a switch to robotic garbage trucks would have on South Bend residents and sanitary workers alike.
Readers looking for radical politics or concrete solutions in the pages of Shortest Way Home may be disappointed. Buttigieg’s insistence on patience as our neighbors become accustomed to ideas like gay marriage may leave many cold, reasonably chafing at being told to wait until older conservatives come around to recognizing their full humanity. But the state of politics in 2019 might be such that simply framing inequality or discrimination as problems is enough of a relief that one need not have a solution in hand.
To read Shortest Way Home is to experience a profoundly millennial product, one that paints a starkly different reality and vision than the one on offer from boomers who currently have a death grip on the government’s reins. The economic crisis that coincided with millennials’ early adulthood shattered a foundational tenet of the American dream: that each of us controlled our own destiny. For the United States’s young adults, the path home that Buttigieg lays out — returning to a hometown and finding professional opportunity and social acceptance, or simply feeling enough stability and certainty to put down roots somewhere, anywhere — may well read like a path to the future.
Peggy O’Donnell is a writer, historian, and non-TT faculty at the University of Chicago.
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