Buttigieg's Version of America Is Basically a Caste System

He's a Harvard graduate, but his mayorship of a private university-dominated town tells us more about his strange take on free college.
Buttigieg's Version of America Is Basically a Caste System
Pete likes college. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

The 1993 film Rudy offers the saccharine story of underdog Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a mild-mannered kid from a blue collar family. He’s portrayed by a rambunctious Sean Astin, whose mop of hair you just want to tussle, and he has one dream in life: to play football for the University of Notre Dame.

There are three things holding Rudy back: his small stature, his grades, and money for tuition. To combat the first, he trains at the gym, runs laps, and pulls a few Rocky montages. For grades, he hits the books. For tuition, he works as an assistant groundskeeper while gritting himself through homelessness—at night, he sneaks into his boss’s office to sleep on a cot.


At the end of it all, he gets a meaningless sack in a meaningless game and is carried off the field by his teammates. It’s an important moment, we’re told. It’s all meant to be inspiring. But maybe in retrospect, in 2019 at least, the film’s most valuable offering is the glimpse it gives into the ideological bubble that is the small town of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,000), the biggest clip on the resume of surging Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

South Bend is effectively a company town dominated by a single concern: The University of Notre Dame and its affiliates amount to the largest employer in the city and the county in which they reside. They bring $2.46 billion annually to the region, according to the school’s own report, based partly on tourism centered around pilgrimages to the school's storied football program.

The institution that governs the town Mayor Pete oversees and grew up in—he lived there until he attended Harvard in 2000—is one of the most selective private universities in the country. Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, Buttigieg has smugly appropriated the right-wing talking point about how universal free college would, horrifically, be “free even for the kids of millionaires." But a more recent offering from Buttigieg, about how universal programs are not needed because “not everybody goes to college,” seems even more telling of a distinctly South Bend perspective. Higher education, Mayor Pete appears to be saying, simply isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who planned, who fought, who had the tenacity of someone like Rudy or perhaps himself.


It’s probably not for you.

Through this lens, it's not hard to see why Buttigieg’s plan calls only for free public (not private, mind you) college for the kids of any family earning less than $100,000, a bone tossed out to the less wealthy from the magnanimous upper crust. It’s all very Catholic, an elite conservatorship over the poor, one that seems embedded in the Notre Dame mission statement itself, claiming campus life “prepares students for subsequent leadership in building a society that is at once more human and more divine.” (As a child of the Midwest who grew up in Notre Dame's shadow, I've been to the campus many times, and life there prepares students to drink, sleep past noon, have sex, and do their own laundry, just like anywhere else.)

Through this lens, it makes sense why Buttigieg would rather maintain a more generous version of the status quo rather than use taxes and universal programs to cram the wealth gap closed. Those who have fought hard enough to be selected by admissions have been chosen to lead the world.

Of course, this muddles the actual truth, which is that Notre Dame has one of the highest legacy admission rates in the country. Buttigieg himself had the good fortune of being born to two Notre Dame professors before, as Nathan J. Robinson detailed in his devastating “All About Pete” piece, going on to “become the technocratic mayor of the city his parents’ university is in.” It’s the foundational bullshit of the American meritocratic myth, that you must fight and claw to earn that opportunity, that you need to rise and grind like Rudy to finally bust down those doors of Notre Dame.

In many cases, this is true. You do need to work your ass off. They don’t, but you do. What Mayor Pete doesn’t understand, and never will, is that this difference is a problem to be fixed, not a reality to be perpetuated.

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