Democratic debate: Why Buttigieg’s attack on “revolution politics” was controversial

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is facing criticism for launching an attack on Sen. Bernie Sanders during Tuesday night’s 10th Democratic primary debate; his critics argue the attack was also a denouncement of the political struggle that has made Buttigieg’s candidacy possible.

During the debate, Sanders was asked to clarify his stance on past comments he has made praising some aspects of left-wing dictatorships, such as their literacy and health care programs.

After Sanders responded by calling for nuance in US views toward foreign leaders — and by tying his views on Cuba to former President Barack Obama’s stance on the country — Buttigieg argued against Sanders’s position and claimed it demonstrates why the senator is unfit to be the Democratic presidential nominee:

The only way you can [restore American credibility] is to actually win the presidency, and I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the ’50s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolution politics of the ’60s. This is not about what coups were happening in the 1970s or 80s, this is about the future. This is about 2020.

The remark drew a mixed reaction from the crowd in Charleston, and the Buttigieg campaign tweeted the line.

But on Twitter, the point was not met with overwhelming acclaim, especially among Sanders supporters. Sanders campaign spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray argued that the revolutionary politics of the 1960s were largely positive — particularly for communities of color in the US.

The moment gave other Sanders supporters, such as senior adviser David Sirota, the opportunity to promote Sanders’s civil rights era activism, and others noted progressive political activism in the 1960s also involved the antiwar movement, the push for women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights activism.

The Buttigieg campaign deleted the tweet amid mounting criticism. Buttigieg campaign spokesperson Sean Savitt told Vox: “We deleted the tweet because it did not capture the full context of Pete’s comments, which clearly referred to Bernie Sanders’ nostalgia for the coups and revolutions that were taking place in Cuba and around the world.”

Buttigieg has increasingly worked to cast Sanders as too radical to be the Democratic nominee

As Vox’s Alex Ward has explained, “Sanders has a long history of showing support for left-wing dictatorships around the world.” This history came to the fore Sunday during an interview with 60 Minutes in which Sanders said, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba … but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.”

Sanders went on to say, “When [Fidel] Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.”

Again — as Sanders pointed out Tuesday — Obama made a similar statement, saying in 2016 as the US tried to improve its relationship with Cuba, “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.”

But Sanders’s argument allowed Buttigieg to reiterate a point he has tried to make in recent debates: that Sanders is too radical to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, and that he is, as Buttigieg said in last week’s Nevada debate, a “candidate who wants to burn this party down.”

The mayor’s dismissal of the “revolution politics of the ’60s” was meant to be of a kind with this criticism.

As Savitt told Vox, “Pete was making the important point that if Bernie Sanders is the nominee, it will hurt Democrats up and down the ballot if we have to spend our time explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.”

Buttigieg campaign staffer Rodericka Applewhaite made a similar point on Twitter amid the pushback the mayor was facing online, writing that Buttigieg “was being critical of Sen. Sanders’ nostalgia for Cold War-era, authoritarian regimes. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t implied nor referenced.”

However, that the civil rights movement wasn’t referenced was what had many Sanders supporters and other observers incensed — particularly given criticisms Buttigieg has faced about his outreach to minority communities in the past.

The controversy over Buttigieg’s comments is a reminder of why he has struggled to connect with many marginalized voters

Buttigieg has faced a number of questions about his support among marginalized communities thus far in the campaign cycle. He drew just 2 percent of the black vote in the Nevada caucuses, and the lack of support within the black community that signals doesn’t portend well for next Saturday’s South Carolina primary, where black voters make up 60 percent of the Democratic electorate.

And his campaign has drawn extensive criticism from other LGBTQ people — critics have argued Buttigieg has failed to address the broader needs and concerns of the LGBTQ community. His desire to find a middle ground between the social traditions of the 1950s and the revolutionary 1960s shows why.

The 1960s were a time of great political change for many marginalized communities in the US. The civil rights movement of the time gave birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination on the basis of race illegal under federal law and removed barriers to voting for black people. The feminist movement at the time created social change that opened the doors to new and longer careers for women.

But although Buttigieg is a white man, his attack on the time’s politics especially betrays his lack of perspective on a personal level. The life he lives now — as a married gay veteran who is a viable candidate for president — would not have been possible without the revolutionary queer politics of the ’60s.

The decade saw the birth of the LGBTQ rights movement through the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966 and, more famously, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City. Without the queer agitation against state power at the time, there would be no marriage equality in the US in 2020, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions on openly LGBTQ people serving in the military might still be in place.

It is those politics that Buttigieg’s statement appeared to dismiss.

He was correct, however, in stating that 2020 has a number of pressing issues — in particular, the hard-won gains of the 1960s LGBTQ revolutionary politics are in danger, with LGBTQ people facing a renewed pushback against their rights. And the Trump administration has launched attack after attack on queer and trans rights. LGBTQ rights seemingly hang by a thread — just this week, the Supreme Court decided to hear a case that could allow adoption agencies receiving federal tax money to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents.

Buttigieg said he wants to focus on 2020, but perhaps queer and other minority voters could use a little bit of ’60s revolutionary politics this year.

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