Almost 20 years ago, David Brooks wrote a provocative piece in the Atlantic about subtle changes to the lives of young people entitled “The Organization Kid.” Playing on the 1950s notion of the Organization Man, Brooks described the organization kid was the human type increasingly prevalent in our top universities.
For these students, “An activity—whether it is studying, hitting the treadmill, drama group, community service, or one of the student groups they found and join in great numbers—is rarely an end in itself. It is a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment.”
The Millennial children of helicopter parents became the organization kids, comfortable with structure, used to supervision, risk-averse, and wary of conflict. Brooks contrasted the organization kids’ intensity and highly regimented schedules with the more leisurely, less structured atmosphere that prevailed when he went to college in the 1980s. This was a time when students would spend a lot of time discussing various political and ethical controversies . . . and partying.
Brooks concludes that “[t]he young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”
The Golden Résumé
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is the quintessential organization kid. From the time he was a child, he checked off all the boxes. Undoubtedly he is bright. He was his high school valedictorian, attended Harvard, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship. After this, he pursued some entry-level positions in politics and journalism, followed by a stint at the elite consulting firm, McKinsey. He rounded out his résumé with a short tour in Afghanistan as a direct commission Naval intelligence officer.
By his late 20s, Buttigieg was the mayor of his sleepy hometown of South Bend, Indiana. What he accomplished in any of these roles is mysterious. But he was there, becoming the perfectly well-rounded adult version of the well-rounded high school students who get into Harvard.
His presidential campaign reflects the ethos of the organization kid. Buttigieg does not really say much. He talks, of course, and uses a lot of words. But none of it is very memorable, consisting of smart-sounding pabulum like, “the shape of our democracy is the issue that affects every other issue.”
Similar to Barack Obama, Buttigieg is liked and supported by the establishment, because he flatters them and reminds them of themselves.
After all, the managerial elite of Washington D.C. is filled with organization kids: liberal, comfortable, credentialed, and ambitious. They benefit from the current order and have succeeded by following its rules and customs. They are suspicious of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or anyone else who dares to question the legitimacy of the system that has provided them with interesting careers and modest affluence.
Young people, of course, like Buttigieg because he’s young. And he’s gay. While this last part seems like it would be very important, for Buttigieg it’s almost an afterthought, another bullet point on his résumé, somewhere between knowing how to play the piano and being skilled at PowerPoint. While his life is otherwise that of an ordinary organization kid, being gay is the part of Buttigieg’s “brand” that elevated an otherwise laughably inexperienced small-town mayor from Indiana to the national stage.
A Life of Participation Trophies
While Buttigieg has a golden résumé, he does not have any real accomplishments to his name. The real movers and shakers of his generation broke out of the organizational mode, such as college dropout Mark Zuckerberg. Buttigieg, by contrast, has continued jumping through hoops put in front of him by others.
He joined the Navy, for example, through the shortcut of the “direct commission.” He then had a tour in Afghanistan. Military service distinguishes Buttigieg in a field where the only other veteran is Representative Tusli Gabbard (D-Hawaii). She has a lot more military experience but is reviled by the establishment because of her heterodox views on foreign policy.
Buttigieg, on the other hand, has garnered the praise of the establishment, because he grasps “the integrated idealism and pragmatism that has been key to the success of American foreign policy initiatives from the Marshall Plan to the Paris climate accord.” In other words, the organization kid has no intention of challenging the organizations that he has navigated and served his entire life.
While Buttigieg’s many campaign speeches make him out to be the second coming of Audie Murphy, this obvious embellishment of his record is only possible because so many Americans, particularly Democrats, know nothing about the military. While there was nothing undistinguished about his military service, a brief stint doing financial intelligence work without any real leadership does not change the fact of his fundamental lack of experience in life.
Compare the military career of someone like Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant. Those men demonstrated records of leadership, courage, and planning in grand campaigns. They led men in battle. In his naval service, as with everything else, Buttigieg merely demonstrated his preternatural skill at résumé building.
Buttigieg’s chief “adult” job has been as South Bend mayor, and there his record contains almost nothing impressive and, in some instances, exhibited terrible judgment. In an emblematic case, Buttigieg rearranged the entire system of trash pickup to use automated collection trucks. In the end, this change killed jobs, put trash cans all over the streets, but it was endorsed by consultants and appeared “high tech.”
This penchant of “change for change’s sake” is typical of the Millennial striver class. They have little practical experience and mistake the use of technology for efficiency. It’s reminiscent of the Obamacare website meltdown or the recent vote-counting debacle in Iowa.
The Battle for Non-Sanders Voters
Buttigieg has surged because of the vacuum created by Biden’s meltdown as the leading “moderate” Democratic candidate. From the beginning of the 2020 campaign, Democrats justly have been concerned that Bernie Sanders is too radical to win nationally, likely turning off the urban professionals and suburban moms who lean Democratic on social issues, but don’t want to see their 401ks cut in half.
Even so, Bernie Sanders remains a significant force within the party. Like Trump in 2016, he is channeling the hopes and wishes of a large cohort of left-leaning Democratic voters who feel neglected by the party’s top leadership. They recognize that picking the moderate establishment’s choice didn’t lead to victory in 2016.
Coming up from behind with bags of money is the significantly more accomplished billionaire and former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. It’s now becoming a three-way race: Sanders, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg.
It’s hard to say what happens next. Bernie is the obvious choice for the far Left and the ideologues. Buttigieg is softer, unthreatening, and gleaming with the optimism that comes from being prepared.
Bloomberg, on the other hand, superficially resembles Trump. He’s a crass, rich New Yorker who appears very impressed with himself and is often inarticulate about key parts of Democratic ideology. Unlike Trump, Bloomberg lacks any obvious affection for the working class or, indeed, anyone besides himself. He also lacks a core issue, like immigration, to galvanize independents and disaffected Democrats.
Perhaps Buttigieg, channeling the success of Obama, will emerge victorious, the empty vessel into which Democrats impute their hopes and dreams. After all, as he says on his website, “This moment demands that our policies reflect a deep understanding of Americans’ everyday lives and embody our country’s highest values,” whatever the hell that means.
Real Life vs. School
Like the earnest young participants in Model United Nations, Buttigieg is fundamentally a performer. He has earned the approval of the adults (donors) by mouthing the right words and being a team player.
Like Hillary, he is aloof from the frustrations of disaffected Democratic voters, whether in South Bend or nationally. And he has never shown the ability to accomplish anything outside of highly structured settings like academia or academic-style businesses with vague performance measures like management consulting. There is something mechanical and soulless about his life and his rhetoric.
Trump was never a Rhodes Scholar. He’s only the president. Like all organization kids, Buttigieg looks good on paper and always got an “A.” But sometimes the “C” student gets to be the boss, because he takes chances, is good with people, and can come up with something other than the “book answer.”