Among the ever-growing list of Democratic presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg—current mayor of South Bend, Indiana—seems to stand out as a fairly promising rising political star. It isn’t only his millennial status and openness about his sexuality that attract attention to Buttigieg, but his innovative approach to major issues—from tackling climate change to dealing with unemployment. One of Buttigieg’s key points in advancing his candidacy is the manner in which he utilised technology to uplift South Bend from decades of socio-economic decline. The same method of intervention, Buttigieg and his supporters argue, should be applied to the United States as a whole (something he intends to do if elected president).
A close inspection of the situation in South Bend, however, reveals a slightly more complex reality, and while some aspects of Buttigieg’s transformation of the city should be lauded and learned from, others warrant a certain degree of scepticism and criticism.
Since the shutting down of Studebaker, then America’s fourth-largest automaker, in 1963, South Bend appeared to have slumped into a downward spiral. Like many cities and towns in what has become the country’s Rust Belt (stretching from mid-Pennsylvania to western Illinois), South Bend was hit hard by the collapse of America’s manufacturing centres, and by 2011 was declared a ‘dying city’. With widening poverty gaps, a dwindling supply of fresh talent, a crumbling downtown, and a growing number of abandoned properties—there seemed to have been virtually no hope for South Bend.
Yet, the city’s shared border with the highly reputable Notre Dame University had proven to be its salvation. Back in 2008, in a bid to morph Notre Dame and neighbouring South Bend into an attractive employment hub for faculty and their spouses, the university launched an initiative to transform its technology research into new businesses. The initiative was further developed when Buttigieg became mayor in 2012, which attracted big data companies to the city.
Buttigieg’s overall vision was to turn South Bend into a smaller, Midwestern version of Silicon Valley, and employ new data systems and technologies in order to boost its economy and prosperity. Among Buttigieg’s first and most prominent endeavours, was the creation of SBStat—a data-operated system which tracks, and troubleshoots services in the city. Currently, the system tracks each individual municipal department, reviews its goals, and reports on whether or not they were met. Buttigieg also facilitated the transformation of abandoned houses and factories into apartment and office buildings, utilising old infrastructure and an abundance of available fibre cable to attract big tech and data companies (more of which have been relocating their headquarters to South Bend).
Alas, Buttigieg’s emerging techtopia has failed to uplift all of South Bend’s residents. It’s been reported that South Bend’s median income stands at about 61 percent of the national figure, and roughly a quarter of the city’s residents still live in poverty. The data becomes even more alarming while focusing on racial minorities in South Bend. For instance, 40 percent of African Americans in the city, who comprise about a quarter of its residence, live under the poverty line and make half as much as their white counterparts. It has also been reported that while the creation of new high-tech jobs in South Bend has benefitted university graduates, it did little to improve the conditions of the working class, and that Buttigieg’s adoption of technological innovations (such as installing robotic arms on city garbage trucks) has resulted in frequent layoffs.
Although his track record of urban development is far from being blemish-free, there’s no doubt that Buttigieg is onto something. While many politicians capitalise on the frustration of those who were left behind following the downfall of America’s manufacturing centres and fill their minds with unfeasible promises of a grand return to a glorious past, Buttigieg urges them to adapt to reality and find a new niche within the ever-changing landscape of the job market. Buttigieg also recognises that this isn’t a simple task that would yield absolute success, and stresses that it’s impossible to expect people to simply align themselves with whatever the market demands at any given moment. In an interview for WIRED, Buttigieg states that, “The things that make a great carpenter are not that different from the things that make a great coder: The ability to handle ambiguity, to not get frustrated when it’s off, dealing with other people.”
Even if Buttigieg makes it all the way to the White House, it will certainly prove challenging to apply the same transformative logic used in South Bend to the country as a whole. One thing is certain, though. In a sea of candidates belting familiar slogans, Buttigieg stands out in his honest approach to the unavoidable challenges that accompany technological innovation, and his eagerness to harness such innovations to improve living conditions and secure our future.
Following weeks of visceral hearings and protests, Brett Kavanaugh was finally sworn in as a Supreme Court justice last Saturday. Like millions across this country and over the world, I found the events almost too overwhelming to grapple with. The Kavanaugh charade and the grim outcome of the process constituted a brutal assault on nearly every principle I hold dear. Like many, I feel enraged by the shamelessness and hypocrisy of senators. I am furious about the sham FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. I’m mind-blown by the fact that the man was confirmed before hundreds of thousands of documents were released about his time serving under President Bush, during which he allegedly facilitated illegal surveillance and torture. I replay in my head the blunt and unapologetic partisanship Kavanaugh exhibitedduring his testimony, and his vulgar, aggressive behaviour which, on its own, was enough to disqualify him not only as a Supreme Court judge but as any type of judge whatsoever.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover it. I am appalled that the president had the audacity to apologise to Kavanaugh on behalf of the people and present him as the victim of women. I’m sickened by the fact that during a rally last week he had mocked Dr. Ford, adding in a cheap theatrical bit that it is a dangerous time to be a man in this country (and that people cheered in response!). I’m tired of the Democrats’ nonexistent leadership—their lack of action and initiative. And that just opens up an entire pandora box of anger and frustration: what about the ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ comment? How the hell did we forget about that? How can a criminal like Trump defend a punk like Kavanaugh and even be taken seriously? And what about his collusion with Putin and his tax fraud and the EPA going nuclear on the environment and the Muslim ban and separated migrant children and what the hell is even going on here anymore.
But in order to process and sift through the barrage of infuriating and terrifying news, I had to expand my gaze for a moment and try to understand what are some of the underlying issues which, in the midst of this chaos, we may fail to acknowledge.
I found that there were several layers worth examining. Focusing on the Kavanaugh issue, one of the main allegations directed at him, even before it turned out he’s a sexual predator, was his undeniable political bias. Many have been, rightfully, pointing fingers at the Republican establishment, blaming them for decades of packing the courts with conservative judges, which leads to a complete political imbalance in favour of the right. While this is true, one must think, what is the alternative? Packing the courts with liberal judges? Would it spawn a ‘fair’ judicial system? Or would it simply result in bias from the other direction? And so the real question is, under the current circumstances, when justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, can the Supreme Court truly fulfil its intended function? Can a judicial body that is so deeply entangled with politics be expected to constitute a neutral and impartial arbiter? The mere fact that justices are labeled as liberal and conservative is distorted and troubling in my opinion; that their judgement, for the most part, is predictable. Every judge should be considered a ‘swing vote’. Perhaps, then, the discussion more Americans should be having is how can they challenge and alter a judicial mechanism that proves so utterly dysfunctional.
Yet, if we expand our gaze even further, we come to realise there is a much more basic issue underlying all of this: the absurdity of a binary political system. People are complex beings, their opinions and beliefs vary on a wide range of issues. If we were to look carefully we’d realise that many registered Republicans identify with some ideals that are typically associated with the left, and vice versa. Yet, by maintaining a political system that divides people into two distinctive groups, we limit and stifle their power to engage in profound and critical analysis of events, forcing them to adhere to the role prescribed by their party and its professed principles (which usually serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy, not those of the people).
Human society isn’t as fragmented as we often perceive it to be. I truly believe that at the end of the day most of us share a common urge to live and prosper. Yet our failure to recognise this unity leads to the pain we experience. The election of Kavanaugh and the battle over it are, to a great extent, a result of a tribalist worldview according to which we must huddle under some form of leadership that would protect Us from the Other, forcing ourselves to align with an ideology or a political party that ultimately doesn’t reflect our true values and character. Deconstructing such separatist perceptions begins with personal introspection and soul-searching while trying to abandon a blind commitment to labels such as Republican and Democrat as we engage in conversation with one another. Ultimately, this conceptual, but not utopic, transformation could very well reflect the way people vote and, more crucially, the manner in which those who are voted in construct their political ideology.