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.
I’m not sure if coining Cory Booker solely a racial justice supporter is rooted in any fact. Also there are better descriptors for Bernie Sanders than just his policy proposal of Medicare for all. These are very general and in my opinion inaccurate descriptors of these candidates’ main interests. Also I’m not sure if Buttigieg simply stating he wants to uphold or amend democracy is actually indicative of anything considering many left wing political candidates can be quoted saying the same thing. Nonetheless stating that our democracy has been compromised is a step in the right direction that all elected officials should admit across the aisle.
I want to clarify that those are not associations that I have made (or believe), but associations I have heard in conversation and on the news. I’m certainly not endorsing them, just noting that they have been employed. I was using these hyperboles–identifying a candidate by what one might perceive as their most crucial policy objective–to contrast the lack of a clear consensus about Pete Buttigieg’s platform and key policies. Also, I think the key difference with Buttigieg is that he stated amending democracy to be his first priority, unlike many other candidates who often have prioritized social issues. In my opinion, this is a significant difference worth investigating and following as the primary nears.
I found the comparisons made between each presidential candidate being identified by their biggest policy concern to be a great addition to build your blog on. You make a very clear thesis of Buttigieg’s recently discovered agenda: prioritizing democracy, mounting an opposition to backsliding, and breathing a new air of reconstruction to any failings in our democracy. I know the focus of this blog post is on Pete Buttigieg, but I found it too be more campaign-ish, as if the author is already pro-Buttigieg. This could be amended by changing the focus of the blog post from being the reason Pete Buttigieg is “the anti-backsliding candidate,” in the title. I find this slight modification would better build your case for this blog post. Overall, I found your blog post to be a very informative read.
Emily, while I agree with you that Buttigieg is a great candidate focused on rebuilding democracy, I think your comparison to him with other candidates is a little off. Booker actually plans to rebuild democracy in many ways other than focusing on race. For example, his use of Baby Bonds. Granting Americans $2,000 at birth and then yearly depending on income, would reduce the wage gap between those born into money and those who are not. This would give all Americans a chance to education and greater economic success, bringing back the peoples’ faith in democracy. Booker, similar to Buttigieg, focuses more on the need for the country to come together and work as a democracy than the need to “overthrow Trump”. He focuses on the people and future of America’s democracy.
Jose Michael de Dios
While I cannot participate in the upcoming elections, I have followed Pete Buttigieg closely and I strongly support his focus on introducing voting reforms as means to rebuild democracy. More than ever before, challenges to America’s elections should be scrutinized because whoever Americans vote for in the upcoming elections concerns other states,who are deeply reliant on America’s brand of leadership, in terms of security and economy. While a reform doesn’t automatically improve voting behaviour, it is a great starting point for other reforms and projects to be developed.
This is very interesting! As I am writing Buttigieg has dropped out and the only remaining candidate is Joe Biden. This discussion has made me wonder why his focus on democratic backslide was not largely publicized. While I did not previously consider Buttigieg a candidate focused on preventing democratic erosion, this article has made me rethink the last debates he was in. I think of how he talked about bipartisanship and uniting the Democratic Party, and how this relates to his mission. Hopefully Buttigieg’s ideas about democracy will be adapted and influenced into Biden’s remaining campaign. Since Buttigieg is young, perhaps this is just the start and he will continue his political pursuit, or inspire others to run campaigns more focused on democratic backsliding.