South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg once won the JFK Presidential Library and Museum’s “Profile in Courage” essay award in 2000. His topic? Then-Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).

Buttigieg was just 18 years old when he wrote the essay, which began by heaping criticism on candidates for both parties for having weakly articulated positions on issues that matter to voters. The eventual mayor and presidential candidate said this tended to create an atmosphere of cynicism for both politicians and voters, and led to more people withdrawing from the political system.

“Candidates have discovered that is easier to be elected by not offending anyone rather than by impressing the voters. Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues,” Buttigieg wrote. “Just as film producers shoot different endings and let test audiences select the most pleasing, some candidates run ‘test platforms’ through sample groups to see which is most likely to win before they speak out on major issue. This disturbing trend reveals cynicism, a double-sided problem, which is perhaps, the greatest threat to the continued success of the American political system.”

“Cynical candidates have developed an ability to outgrow their convictions in order to win power. Cynical citizens have given up on the election process, going to the polls at one of the lowest rates in the democratic world. Such an atmosphere inevitably distances our society from its leadership and is thus a fundamental threat to the principles of democracy,” he added.

The essay then transitioned to why Buttigieg viewed the Vermont Congressman as someone who could help get voters to trust government officials again. Buttigieg’s praise for Sanders was that he was courageous in both his embrace of the “socialist” label as well as using his position as the lone independent member of Congress to push Democrats and Republicans to more adequately address the needs of constituents and push for policies that hadn’t yet become popular with mainstream America.

Since [1990], he has taken many courageous and politically risky stands on issues facing the nation.  He has come under fire from various conservative religious groups because of his support for same-sex marriages.  His stance on gun control led to NRA-organized media campaigns against him. Sanders has also shown creativity in organizing drug-shopping trips to Canada for senior citizens to call attention to inflated drug prices in the United States.

And in the final paragraph of the essay, Buttigieg goes on to state that even though Sanders has been an outspoken advocate on issues other politicians of the era wouldn’t go near, his best contribution to the political system was his “energy, candor, conviction, and ability to bring people together.” He added that Sanders was the one politician who personally inspired him to pursue a career in public service.

“[Sanders] and few others like him have the power to restore principle and leadership in Congress and to win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism,” Buttigieg wrote. “I commend Bernie Sanders for giving me an answer to those who say American young people see politics as a cesspool of corruption, beyond redemption.”

“I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service. I can personally assure you this is untrue,” he continued.

A recent survey from Emerson Polling found the South Bend, Indiana mayor had since surged to 3rd place in the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus with 11 percent support, putting him only behind former Vice President Joe Biden (at 25 percent support) and Sanders (at 24 percent support).

Read the full essay here.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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