In Ryan Murphy's Netflix show The Politician, the titular character embodies one of the most grotesque caricatures of ambition ever put in pixel form. Still in high school, he's obsessed with becoming president of the United States and picks everything—from his college to his girlfriend—with that goal in mind. He thinks he can improve the lives of his future constituents, but mostly he just wants power, and his machinations in service of power come off as both pathetic and terrifying. It's an exaggeration of an idea that most people probably have in their heads, which is that people who run for president have been laying the groundwork for years, decades probably, their every decision from childhood onward calculated and artificial.
It's a little bit ironic then that two of the leading Democratic contenders for president are now under assault for not being calculated enough, or at least being sloppy in their math. Elizabeth Warren, who is campaigning as a populist anti-corruption crusader, has been criticized for her work in past decades for corporations, including those fighting lawsuits over pollution, while she was a Harvard law professor. Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old who of all the candidates most resembles Murphy's Politician, has faced questions over his work for the infamous consulting firm McKinsey & Company as a fresh-out-of-Harvard twentysomething. (Buttigieg has just revealed which clients he worked for after McKinsey, where he signed a nondisclosure agreement, granted him permission.)
Both candidates stand accused of failing to live up to progressive values, of working for the odious institutions that a truly virtuous Democratic Party would burn to the ground. But the antagonists here should be those institutions, not individual consultant drones or hired-gun law professors. When confronting the vast and murky problem of corruption in elite American life, we shouldn't be talking about individual choices but about how the system placed those decisions before them.
In the past few days, Warren has said Buttigieg's consulting work could raise "possible conflicts of interest," while the South Bend mayor's adviser Lis Smith accused Warren of hiding "decades of tax returns" from the years she spent "defending the types of corporate bad actors she now denounces." (Warren has since released details of her compensation for her corporate work.) Both attacks boil down to accusations of hypocrisy, and it's easy to see why the campaigns would think that sort of tactic would be effective. Democrats build campaigns around caring about downtrodden people and promising to help them, so anything that indicates they don't actually care seems to smack of duplicity. (Donald Trump, who was mostly famous for being an asshole prior to his presidential campaign, is less vulnerable on that front.)
So Warren's work as an adviser for Dow Chemical, for which she earned $20,000, could be seen as a sign she's just as selfish and venal as everyone else but is also a phony. Yes, she did a lot of legal work for a lot of different reasons, and sure, her views have changed over the years from Republican to progressive—but why couldn't she simply always be a true believer like Bernie Sanders, a lifelong left-wing activist so pure he once lived in a literal shack?
But charges of phoniness are easy to level against anyone. Everyone is impure in some way once you start looking for impurity. Sanders himself has been called out for being a millionaire and owning a $700 jacket while preaching democratic socialism. Even more absurdly, Sanders disciple Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was attacked for allegedly eating a hamburger while advocating a Green New Deal package that conservatives said would ban meat, or something.
Working for McKinsey, a firm most recently in the news for faking numbers while working on a project to reduce violence at the jail on Rikers Island, is more involved than eating a hamburger. But Harvard grads like Buttigieg are routinely encouraged to go into consulting at places like McKinsey, which are sold to students as offering the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of things while keeping their options open for the future—a natural continuation of an Ivy education, with the added bonus of a nice paycheck and a shiny resume item. Buttigieg's post-college career might not be as admirable as some, but it was utterly banal. Plenty of people would, and did, make exactly the same choice.
Similarly, Warren's work for corporations while she was at Harvard was the sort of thing that was encouraged by the law school, one of her colleagues told the New York Times. At Harvard, it is just the normal state of affairs for bright graduates to go off to consult for businesses, just as it's normal for law professors to lend their expertise to businesses. If some of those businesses are not exactly engaged in the most praiseworthy activities under the sun—well, who among us can claim our hands are truly clean?
It's notable that Warren and Buttigieg have likely targeted one another with charges of failing to be transparent about their past careers, probably because they see themselves as competing for the same group of white, college-educated voters in early primary states. That class of person is most likely to be familiar with the world both candidates inhabited. Maybe they didn't work for an elite consulting firm or make millions from dispensing legal advice, but these voters may be cogs in a law firm representing oil companies or Big Pharma. They might do PR for products that don't actually help anyone, or spend their days laboring for a monopolistic tech company. (Alphabet and Microsoft are at or near the top of the list of sources of donations to both Warren and Buttigieg.)
These people have been lucky enough to have a number of choices in life, and so they know how slippery those choices can be. You take a job with a company whose cause you don't share to pay off your student loans, but it turns out the work is interesting, the people are nice, and all of a sudden you've slid into a career you couldn't have imagined before. You score a gig with a consulting firm because you didn't know what else to do, and you find yourself using terms like "force reduction" while helping decide who gets laid off. You win a seat in Congress, then write a bill benefiting a company you have stock in. When your husband's term as president is over it's only natural that you start a charitable foundation, and why not accept money from foreign sources while you're Secretary of State? Your dad becomes a U.S. Senator from Delaware and you get a job as a lobbyist for one of his biggest donors, then you later are on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm, what's wrong with that? No one is getting hurt.
Zoom out far enough and it's possible to view these small personal compromises as part of a corrupted and corrupting whole. The America inhabited by elites like Warren and Buttigieg (and every other politician of consequence) is one where a lot of people are handed money for no good reason, and a lot of brainpower is expended on enterprises that cause harm. There is real damage being done by polluters, by big tech, by unethical actors at every level of business and government. Seen from that perspective, the behavior of individuals in this system is far less important than the need to reform it.
One notable thing about Democratic politics today is that even as Warren calls out companies like Amazon by name for being monopolies, employees at these tech giants have donated large sums to both her and Sanders. You might cynically conclude that this means these companies are trying to buy influence—but it also seems likely that some of these people are unhappy with the things being done by their employers and feel, for all of their relative wealth and status, that they are powerless to change things from within.
If these people have watched The Politician (and some probably did, since they all have Netflix), they probably winced with a little bit of recognition at the main character's equal helpings of narcissism and neurosis. There are millions of Americans who grew up smart, passionate, idealistic, and ambitious but had trouble figuring out how to channel those sometimes contradictory impulses toward actually doing good in the world. A lot of them went into lucrative, challenging fields like finance and law, many with good intentions in their hearts. And they sometimes wound up at companies that are doing enormous damage to the world.
Scuffles like last week's Warren vs. Buttigieg campaign-trail bout don't reveal too much about who the candidates are today. It reduces politics to a finger-pointing contest. Who is at fault for the current domination of American life by huge, uncaring corporations? You could cast blame at Harvard, Warren, Buttigieg, the Clintons, literally millions of others. But assigning that blame is also a way of avoiding talking about even the symptoms of corruption on a larger scale, let alone what might cure it.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.