The Democratic primary season is now in full flow, with over 20 hopefuls vying to go head-to-head against President Trump. The discussions have been frenetic, entertaining and, at times, illuminating.
Clear detail on economic proposals has been missing though. Leading contenders like former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke prefer to talk about values, slipping quickly into vague generalities when discussing economic matters.
Mayor with the answers
The clear exception to this principle is Pete Buttigieg, who goes by the moniker ‘Mayor Pete’. He is unusual in many ways. Just 37, he previously served in Afghanistan and is currently the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, an industrial town of around 100,000 people.
Whilst some argue his youth is a disadvantage, the experience of being a mayor of a Rust Belt town has meant he has thought more deeply about the effects of automation and globalisation than, for example, Harris (a former prosecutor) or O’Rourke (who represented a Texas border town).
During his tenure as mayor, Buttigieg made a concerted effort to refurbish derelict properties to make the city more attractive. He also made the city centre a greener and less polluted area, with the aim of encouraging private investment. South Bend’s seemingly inexorable decline stopped as it became a tech hub and unemployment halved.
Buttigieg also has a pretty clear macro picture, arguing for the need for the US to invest in artificial intelligence and green technology, and to avoid China becoming the global leader in the industries of the future. Rather than harking back to the past, he accepts the current job market is more disparate and that the process has to be managed – for example by making benefits portable, examining Universal Basic Income, and establishing identity and support groups outside of work.
This last point is missed by many commentators who forget that people’s jobs have historically been a huge part of their identity and purpose. What effect does a more transient, fluid labour market have on this? The mayor’s answer is an untraditional Democratic one: put more emphasis on an individual’s place in the community and, where appropriate, faith.
Buttigieg will probably not win the Democratic nomination, but the fact that he is there putting forward his economic arguments is good for the party. As much as the Democrats should fight President Trump on values, they also need to convince blue collar workers that the modern economy can work for them.