The year was 2000. I was 15, and Ralph Nader was my candidate. I wasn’t alone; when my high school ran a mock election, Nader placed a close second to Al Gore, putting George W. Bush in a distant third. Young leftists like myself revered the famous consumer advocate running under the Green Party banner. To us, Gore was the enemy, a capitulator, barely even a real Democrat.
This meme was everywhere at the time. In his memoir, Pete Buttigieg describes encountering it as a Harvard freshman:
I volunteered for Al Gore’s campaign that fall, chauffeuring guests around Boston during the run-up to the presidential debate there, but the sense among many students was that Bush and Gore were barely distinguishable on domestic policy: center-left versus center-right. The biggest campaign-related excitement was the arrival of riot police on the outskirts of the debate site to contend with Green Party protesters who were marching and chanting, “Let Ralph [Nader] debate.”
In the end, 2,882,955 votes would be cast for Ralph Nader in the election, 97,488 of them in the swing state of Florida. Gore lost the state by only 537 votes.
How did this happen? Gore had made environmentalism a centerpiece of his campaign, showing a heartfelt interest that would culminate in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which brought the problem of global warming to a wide audience for the first time. Bush, a former oilman, had promised to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Yet somehow, swathes of green-minded citizens in swing states looked at the two major-party candidates and opted to cast a symbolic pro-environment vote instead of a potentially decisive one.
Here’s my theory: Those voters didn’t want Gore to offer bolder policy prescriptions. They just wanted him to feel the way they felt. Nader wasn’t a charismatic speaker, but if you watched him, you could tell that he was angry. Gore didn’t do anger. He was famously bland, with a generally upbeat disposition. “Upbeat” reads as “out of touch” to a lot of people: “Doesn’t he see how bad things are? Does he even care?” That demographic had no interest in a nerdy problem-solver like Gore.
And I was one of them. In hindsight, I lacked perspective. Despite the booming economy, despite the falling crime rate, despite the peace, I saw the Clinton era as a dystopian hellscape. I believed that the only way to make things better was to abolish the two-party system that had led us to this point. Yes, if only I could talk to all the voters, they’d realize that rewriting the Constitution in the name of democratic socialism was in their best interests! I was, as the kids say, woke af.
Fast-forward to today. A guy no one outside of South Bend had heard of until this year has become one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like Obama in ’08, his campaign theme is hopey-changey stuff. “The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing, all-consuming. But starting today, we are going to change the channel,” he announced.
A cool cucumber like Pete Buttigieg will never satisfy some voters. They’re mad as hell, and they want to see their politicians reflect that. But I’m no longer one of them. I’m on the other side of the divide, the side that prefers cerebral politicians who keep their anger muted and try to get things done. For me, the calming presence of Mayor Pete is a breath of fresh air. What's more, he might be just the unifying force our polarized democracy needs.
This is Part 1 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.