Day One in the Buttigieg Administration
Compared to the policy-dense campaigns run by Bernie Sanders and other Democratic hopefuls, Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy has, thus far, been surprisingly free of many policy particulars. Other candidates are often identified according to their greatest concern: Booker as the racial justice supporter, Sanders as the Medicare for All candidate, and Gilibrand as the women and family rights advocate. The list goes on but lacks an obvious priority to group with Buttigieg. He has purposefully withheld much of his platform, preventing the public from creating one of these simple policy associations.
However, some of the ambiguity behind Buttigieg’s platform was recently addressed on an episode of Late Night with Trevor Noah. Asked about his first priorities were he to be elected, Buttigieg responded in a way that differentiated him from the candidates focused on more specific social policies: “I think Day One you launch a package of democratic reforms to strengthen our democracy.” He went on to suggest voting reforms, such as simpler registration and greater access to polling places, as well as reforms on a grander scale, such as changes to the electoral college system and the depoliticization of the Supreme Court. He argued “that one of the most elegant features of our constitutional system is that it’s designed to be capable of self-healing and reform,” a key foundation for his intent to amend American democracy.
Prioritization of Democracy
This focus on restoration of democracy is rare in the field of Democratic debate. Racial disparities, income inequality, and other social issues around which candidates have rallied are certainly closely intertwined with more accessible voting procedures and the wellbeing of democracy. However, Buttigieg uniquely frames democratic reform as a priority in its own right, rather than as a component of a larger priority. In choosing to focus on strengthening democratic practices and institutions, Buttigieg introduces an opportunity for bipartisanship in an era when the Democrats are largely running on their opposition to Trump. Some of these issues can be construed as partisan concerns in the ways that they affect reelection prospects or the likelihood of partisan reform, but democracy is ultimately an issue that holds value across the aisle and retains potential to be a powerful unifying force.
Mounting an Opposition to Backsliding
Buttigieg’s statement of intentions frames him as a candidate that is staunchly opposed to democratic erosion. The strengthening of democratic institutions and norms that Buttigieg intends to seek combat two forms of backsliding that political scientist Nancy Bermeo argues are on the rise—executive aggrandizement and strategic manipulation of elections . With the depoliticization of the Supreme Court, the Court might be able to augment its legitimacy as a check on executive power and interfere with executive aggrandizement. Judges that simply heed the will of the President would not sit on a truly non-partisan Supreme Court, making the Court better suited to serve as a gatekeeper of democracy . A court that is neither steadfastly opposed to nor loyally committed to the President will be far more successful in protecting democracy and opposing anti-democratic leaders.
The pro-democracy stance proposed by Buttigieg impedes another dimension of democratic erosion, electoral manipulation . Inclusiveness, or the right to participate, is a key dimension of democratization as outlined by Dahl . However, citizens must also be able to signal their preferences to the government , meaning that the populace must be able to exercise the right to participate with a reasonable degree of ease. Increasing the accessibility of voting procedures with regard to registration and polling places is a direct method of enhancement of democracy that allows more citizens to effectively convey their preferences. Barriers that institutionally marginalize specific groups of Americans are necessarily anti-democratic in terms of Dahlian democracy, which relies on the responsiveness of the political system to all of its citizens .
A New Breath of Democracy
Buttigieg’s intent to immediately begin implementation of democratic reform, rather than push it to the end of his administration, reinforces the potential for bipartisanship. Rather than changing or reinforcing the standards of democracy in order to reign in the influence of a Republican successor, he plans to prioritize these actions, potentially constraining his own power. This ensures that he and the Democratic party would have to abide by the same standards of democracy, instead of using reform to limit the power of the opposition party when convenient.
In prioritizing democratic reform over more specific social reforms, Buttigieg may be able to strengthen the mechanism by which other social changes come about. This success of this strategy in bringing about the reforms that Buttigieg desires remains to be seen but in the meantime, American democracy would persevere, more resilient than before.
Academic Sources Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27 (1), 5-19. doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012Campbell, C. (2016, August 08).  Dahl, R. A. (2007). Polyarchy: Participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.  Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. London: Penguin.