A pattern emerges.
Sunday, crowds gathered in South Bend on a cold April day to hear native son Pete Buttigieg announce his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Hundreds stood outside in the rain, waiting hours in line for their candidate to speak. They stood longer still as the rain fell while Buttigieg promised to bring a new America into being.
“I am impressed by the people standing inside,” he said. “I am moved by the people standing outside because this is what the beginning of a new American spring looks like.”
He also said his campaign was less about winning an election than about winning an era.
Buttigieg is an unlikely presidential candidate. He’s only 37. He’s gay and married. His only government experience is that he has served as the mayor of a Midwestern city that doesn’t even crack the top 300 in America in terms of population.
Buttigieg says this will make him a better president. He’s untainted by Washington, D.C., he argues.
His candidacy has prompted responses that range from enthusiastic to ecstatic from Americans who feel they haven’t been heard, that their concerns have been ignored.
In 2016, another unlikely presidential candidate emerged.
Donald Trump sought the Republican nomination. He pledged to “make America great again.”
He never had run for any office before. A man who’d been married three times and had declared bankruptcy more times than that, he laid claim to the party of family values and fiscal responsibility.
Trump argued that his non-traditional resume and lack of government experience meant he could drain the swamp in Washington.
He won, on the strength of support from Americans who felt dispossessed and saw Trump almost in messianic terms.
In 2008, another outsider claimed the White House.
When he declared his candidacy for president, Democrat Barack Obama had served half of a single term in the U.S. Senate. Before that, he had held an Illinois Senate seat for seven years.
He promised hope and change, especially for those Americans who had felt disenfranchised and disparaged by their nation’s history and institutions.
So many expectations buoyed by these charismatic figures – and so much frustration follows when we realize these figures cannot remake the country after a month, a year or even a term or two in the White House.
Rarely, if ever, in this cycle of intense expectation and numbing frustration do we ask ourselves if part of the problem is that we’re operating from a flawed premise.
Buttigieg and Obama, implicitly, and Trump, explicitly, launched their campaigns as attacks on Washington, D.C., and the federal government. They talked as if the federal government were some foreign body, one separate from the American experience.
But it isn’t.
The federal government was designed by the founders of this country to be both the expression and the embodiment of the national will. Its people are our people, the folks we send from our communities and states to represent us.
If the federal government is the enemy, then the classic comic strip Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Yet, again and again over the past half-century, we have cast presidential campaigns as assaults on Washington.
Thus, time and again, we have found ourselves fighting the one opponent we cannot possibly defeat.
Even when we win, we lose.
That’s a decent summary of recent American history right there.
Pete Buttigieg is a man of gifts. In different ways, so is Donald Trump. The same goes for Barack Obama.
But not one of them is a divine being capable of remaking reality as we know it. We don’t elect deities to the presidency or any other public office.
No, we elect flawed and fallible human beings who must work with other flawed and fallible human beings to achieve the greatest good possible in this imperfect world.
The sooner more of us acknowledge that, the happier we all will be.