Trigger warning: the following lede contains extreme moments of cringe, far exceeding the limits that the human body is designed to withstand. For those with anxiety like me, you may feel a sudden compulsion to tunnel a hole to the center of the Earth and take up residence in its soothing molten core for the rest of your milliseconds, but please do your best to fight that wholly rational urge.
Now that we have that much-needed warning out of the way, I swear on everything that is holy this is a real passage from a real report in the real New York Times (emphasis mine):
Ask almost any Iowa Democrat, and they’ll tell you: Pete Buttigieg is smart.
He speaks multiple languages, went to Harvard University and plays the piano, Martha Ludeking, 63, recited, as she watched the presidential candidate take a picture with a fellow Iowan. Lori Lechtenberg, 59, said, “There’s just something about him — he’s intelligent.” When an audience member asked about conditions in Gaza during a campaign stop in Mason City, Mr. Buttigieg began responding in Arabic. The overwhelmingly white audience, largely unaware of what he said, broke into raucous applause.
Excuse me for a minute while I tag in the only good Twitter account to most accurately articulate my thoughts.
OK, now that the pro has done most of the work, I’ll do my best to finish the rest of this up.
The scene reported by the NYT’s Astead Herndon is like one written by Aaron Sorkin for an audience of only Michael Scotts from The Office. Everyone laughed at Beto O’Rourke when he randomly answered a question in Spanish on the debate stage a few months back, but the joke’s on us, because this proves he was getting at something. Something unfathomably bleak and depressing.
“I can’t even” died sometime around the time Trump was elected, but that feels like the only cogent analysis one can even conjure up for this event.
Democrats, I beg of you, please be better than this. If we’re going to clap like trained seals every time a white man speaks in a foreign language (also known as Europe), then we deserve to lose to Trump again and again and again until the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans finally merge into one somewhere over Missouri. That’s not to say that Democratic candidates should never speak in foreign languages, but it only makes sense to do it if the audience they’re speaking to actually knows what they’re saying. Otherwise, it’s all just meaningless political theater.
Obviously, this one anecdote from one event in one state for a fourth-place candidate is not representative of the broader Democratic Party, and there is no shortage of a wide range of ideological liberals dunking on this blatant act of self-parody—but this kind of superfluous, patronizing, and ultimately aimless kind of politics is not something to be trifled with, and it’s important to emphasize that whenever it rears its empty head. “This is how you got Trump” has become a vehicle to say “I don’t like that,” but if there is one thing that we have learned from the Obama-Obama-Trump voter, it is that a very significant portion of the country feels that Democrats are out of touch with their day to day needs. This detached, flippant attitude towards policy and a focus on optics has tangible consequences, and President Trump is a result of decades of Democratic leadership not heeding that lesson. This moment where Mayor Pete dodged a policy question to demonstrate his ability to speak in the foreign region’s native tongue, and was subsequently rewarded with raucous, clueless applause, is an incredibly blunt and over-the-top metaphor for this larger issue plaguing the party.
The historic landslide of 2018 proves that Democrats learned a lot from the humiliation of 2016 (plus it proves Trump’s historical unpopularity), and the boots on the ground doing most of the work in the party are leading the charge into the future, but reports like this show that many rank-and-file Dems still have a ways to go before the party sheds our image of perpetual self-parody and self-ownage. This Pete Buttigieg story is an extreme example of a much more common problem in the Democratic Party: a problem where the focus resides on optics, and not substance. For a more common example of this issue, may I present proud anti-vaxxer, Bill Maher. As long as unfunny, racist, smug, uninformed jackasses on TV like him are allowed to speak on behalf of much of liberalism, this virus will still plague our psyches and put our electoral fates at risk.
In closing, my primary message here is:
My secondary one is that this moment echoes much of the incoherence of a party who consistently lost to the Republicans repeatedly for nearly five decades, culminating in losing 1,000 seats during the course of a presidency most Americans now consider the best of their lifetimes. The term “virtue signaling” has been co-opted by a bunch of right-wing ideologues who are desperate to prove their lack of empathy to everyone, but that’s exactly the term you would use to describe enthusiastically clapping for a white guy from Indiana randomly speaking in a foreign language that you don’t understand. I’m not asserting that these folks lack virtue, just that this particular signal was definitionally vacuous. There are better ways to try to prove your egalitarian ideals than blindly following a politician into the dark. For all those folks giving him a round of applause knew, Pete Buttigieg could have been calling for the establishment of a new ISIS caliphate in Barack Obama’s living room. If we want politicians to stop treating us like we’re easily manipulated, we should stop giving them reasons to think that we are.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.