I don’t want to go overboard on this Mayor Pete thing but when I examine myself and also look at the extraordinary response he is stirring in others I have to wonder what is going on, exactly. So do many analysts, like Amber Phillips in today’s Washington Post (Why is Pete Buttigieg so popular?). She puts forth the theories she’s gleaned: his novelty, the parts of his resume that appeal to liberals (he’s young, he’s gay), the perennial search for leadership from outside the Beltway, his potential to beat Trump (highly speculative at best but at least he seems unflappable), and finally, simply that he’s got “the intangibles.” Which means that the analysts haven’t come up with a name for whatever it is. Phillips cites what she hears from voters about Pete’s calm personality and communication skills.
She also illustrates “the intangibles” by quoting Carolyn Engelhard, a professor at the University of Virginia. “At the most basic human level, I just want to believe in something good, I want to revel in the promise of the next generation, and I want a leader who believes in compassionate caring for those less fortunate.”
There is actually a pretty good Biblical term for that kind of “intangible.” I would call it the hunger and thirst for righteousness, from Beatitude number four in Matthew 5. It is the basic human desire for the good, to be good, to do good, to seek out the good in others.
Whether or not Pete Buttigieg deserves to be the focal point of this longing, I would contend that he stirs it up in a lot of folks and that is the basis for his surprising appeal. Just as Obama stirred hope, just as Trump stirred fear. These basic impulses exist in all of us and some leaders have the capacity to bring them out in powerful and unexpected ways, especially if they come on the scene when the time is right for them.
After a few years of Trumpism, perhaps the hunger and thirst after righteousness in this country is at an all-time high. Pete is not the only righteous kid on the block but he conveys that appeal more articulately and genuinely than most others, not by preaching but by being upfront about who he is, what he believes, and how that affects what he does.
Should we be skeptical about the way leaders affect our emotions, both superficially and deeply? Absolutely! But I would contend that, along with skepticism, we should exercise curiosity. Why does this politician make me feel this way? Why do others stir no emotions at all, and what does this mean about their leadership? Am I being manipulated, and if so, into believing or doing what?
The promise for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness is that they will be satisfied, not by any political leader, surely, but by their own determined quest. It is a good thing, though, to honor this hunger and thirst in ourselves and others.
In any case, I’m trying to look at how other candidates appeal in any “intangible” way to me, to others. What do you think? Or, may I ask, how do you feel about any of them?