When muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens wanted to catch a glimpse of the future in 1919, he went to Russia. When David Brooks had the same thought eight decades later, he went to Princeton.
As he explained in an essay for the Atlantic, published in spring 2001, Brooks arrived hoping to get a sense of “what the young people who are going to be running our country in a few decades are like.” With a humble tone appropriate for a mere mortal welcoming his new overlords, Brooks depicted the ruling-class-in-training as a group of streamlined achievement machines. They went to sleep puzzling over math problems, dreamed up solutions as they rested, and were out of bed in time to meet their friends for breakfast at seven. The only problem with these students—Brooks dubbed them “Organization Kids”—was that they were too good, because nothing in their lives gave them a reason to rebel. After watching the Soviet Union collapse while they were in grade school, they had come of age during the longest economic boom in American history. At Princeton, future employers were lining up to offer them adventure, prestige, and gigantic paychecks. Society was making them a promise in the form of a dinner paid for by a Goldman Sachs recruiter. Brooks explained the terms of the contract this way: “There is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty fantastic life.”Today, former students like the ones Brooks met in Princeton are, in fact, starting to run the country. Millennials have been a major presence in Silicon Valley for over a decade—hello, Facebook—and they are now taking over more of the institutions that dominate society. These Organization Kids had a straightforward road to mastery, especially if they graduated before the Great Recession.
For the rest of the generation, however, the promise of a pretty fantastic life has held up about as well as a glass of milk that’s been roasting in the sun since David Brooks was writing for the Atlantic. Instead of reveling in peace and prosperity, millennials loaded themselves up with unprecedented levels of student debt and graduated into the worst job market since the Great Depression. Then, Donald Trump was elected president—thanks, in good measure, to baby boomers voting decisively for him in 2016. So much for a fundamental order to the universe.
But that’s old news. The important issue today isn’t what the world has done to millennials. It’s what millennials are going to do next—and where they’ll look for leadership. Here, the split between the few who have mastered the system and everyone else becomes important, especially in politics.
The last decade of politics has provided two models for how to win over young people, but they point in fundamentally different directions. First there was Barack Obama, living proof that society was holding up its side of the meritocratic bargain. Put the right people in charge, Obama promised, and the system will work. But then came Bernie Sanders. When Obama turned thirty, he had just finished a year as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. At the same age, Sanders was a part-time carpenter and freelance writer who spent his time pitching articles to obscure Vermont magazines. Yet millennials voted for Sanders over Hillary Clinton by even greater margins than they had supported Obama in 2008. And since Sanders’s run, more and more young people have started calling themselves socialists and voting for candidates who wouldn’t have made it past the first round of an interview at Goldman Sachs—candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar.
Think about this for a while, and two questions present themselves. What are the ex-class presidents in the millennial wing of the political elite supposed to do with all this? And what are the rest of us supposed to do with them?
Let’s start by considering the first millennial to make a serious run for the presidency. If Brooks had visited Harvard instead of Princeton back in 2001, a professor might have put him in touch with an impressive first-year named Pete Buttigieg. Thanks to an avalanche of media coverage—in my memory, the articles all have titles like “Buttijudgment Day: Can a Thirty-Seven-Year-Old Political Phenomenon (and Piano-Playing Prodigy) Move from South Bend to the White House?”—you’re probably familiar with the outlines of Buttigieg’s biography: a child of Notre Dame professors, he excelled at Harvard, attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, did a stint at McKinsey, picked up a working knowledge of seven or so languages, has twice been elected mayor of his hometown of South Bend, came out of the closet after being deployed in Afghanistan with the Navy Reserve, and is somewhere around third place in his precocious bid for the Democratic nomination. He’s become a human bumper sticker that liberals would love to slap on the back of their collective Volvo after the long and dispiriting years of Trump. He’s also the best clue we have about how the next generation of establishment politicians will adapt to the populist revolt that’s taking place against a system they have spent their life scrambling to climb.
In good meritocratic fashion, Buttigieg is supplementing his campaign for a new job with an application letter—or, as he would rather you think of it, a memoir. Buoyed by its author’s newfound celebrity, Shortest Way Home has broken into bestseller lists and received glowing reviews. But the person that Buttigieg describes in the book bears little resemblance to the candidate he’s pitching himself as on the campaign trail, and the speed with which he’s adapted is probably the most important thing you should know about him.
Memoir-Buttigieg is a consummate technocrat, and there are few greater terms of derision in his vocabulary than “ideologue.” Although his father spent most of Buttigieg’s childhood translating a three-volume edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, there are no signs that the young Buttigieg ever flirted with radicalism. As a teenager, he put himself on mailing lists for “every political persuasion, from the local Republican Party to the Democratic Socialists of America”—not because he believed in either one, but because he wanted to understand how they thought about the world. In high school, he won a “Profiles in Courage” essay contest sponsored by the JFK Presidential Library for a submission lamenting the exclusion of Bernie Sanders (and Pat Buchanan) from the political mainstream. Buttigieg was less concerned with the content of either Sanders or Buchanan’s platforms than with the narrowing of debate within both parties. He volunteered on Al Gore’s campaign during his first semester at Harvard, and upon graduating in 2004 went—after declining a job offer from Obama’s senate race in Illinois—to work for John Kerry’s presidential run. After studying political theory and economics at Oxford, he emerged confident that he had tested his liberalism against its strongest critics. It was a love for data, he says, that next drew him to McKinsey. “By manipulating millions of data points, I could weave stories about possible futures,” he writes of his days at the firm, which were followed by nights like the one where he found himself “toss[ing] and turn[ing] in my hotel bed, dreaming in spreadsheets.”
He brought the same mentality to his work as mayor of South Bend. “Shaped by my consulting background,” he writes, “I arrived in office wanting to get concrete, measurable things done.” Buttigieg governed like the technocrat he had trained himself to be, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s most data-oriented mayors. A few years into his term, his press was as glowing as South Bend’s had been miserable—glowing enough to let him mount a long-shot but not-entirely-ridiculous race for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017.
Head of a political party might seem like an odd job for a lover of nonpartisan government, but according to Buttigieg his aversion to conventional politics was exactly what qualified him for the position. The national political scene had become an empty spectacle, and he offered a different vision grounded in his experience as mayor, where—so he claimed—officials put ideology to the side and focused on making tangible improvements to people’s daily lives. “Being the mayor of your hometown is the best job in America,” he wrote at the time, “partly because it’s relatively nonpartisan — we focus on results, not ideology.”
With Democrats split between the party establishment and a resurgent left, Buttigieg offered his politics of the everyday as an alternative to endlessly rerunning the 2016 primary. It wasn’t enough to win him the chairmanship, but it put him on the radar of party leaders who hadn’t already heard the good word about Mayor Pete. (His friends, by the way, call him Peter.)
Now that he’s running for president, however, the technocratic Buttigieg has receded into the background. “People like me are told to not use ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘center’ too much in our vocabulary,” he told New York in February. “But it’s also just a fact, it’s something you gotta say.” In speeches and interviews, he declares that we’ve come to the end of a “conservative or neoliberal” era that lasted decades. What comes next, he argues, could be anything from “an enlightened era of social democracy” to Trumpist “protofascism.” But in either case, it’s no use trying to go back to the way things were. In his modulated style, he’s offering a variation of one of the left’s most familiar slogans: in 2020, he wants you to believe, it’s Buttigieg or barbarism.