Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg, Democratic Capitalist

The good news: Capitalism is working its way back to the Democratic mainstream. The bad news: This capitalism comes with a whole lot of government.


South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg calls himself a "democratic capitalist." In a Democratic field where several popular candidates are either fully or partially embracing "democratic socialism," it's worth taking a closer look at a candidate who isn't shying away from the capitalist label.

Indeed, Buttigieg is fond of his economic identity, evidenced by the repeated use of the term. He is currently enjoying media attention reserved for big-name candidates and has already raised $7 million within the first campaign fundraising quarter, suggesting there may be an appetite for a defender of capitalism in the mix.  

Sitting at a CNN desk in April, Buttigieg was asked to address the vocal factions in the Democratic Party that vilify big business and capitalism. 

"Well, I think the reason we're having this argument over socialism and capitalism is that capitalism has let a lot of people down," he said on CNN. "I guess what I'm out there to say is that it doesn't have to be so."

Buttigieg told CNN it's generally assumed that those who support capitalism also support democracy. In his view, though, democracy and capitalism are "coming into contention" with one another.

"It was very alarming to hear recently one of the president's economic advisers said that between capitalism and democracy, he would choose capitalism," said the South Bend mayor. "I would say the reverse ought to be true, that at the end of the day we prioritize democracy. And, you know, having that framework of a rule of law, fairness, is actually what takes markets to work."

Buttigieg acknowledges a line between good government intervention and too much government intervention. Tariffs, for example, cross Buttigieg's line. Buttigieg decried President Trump's tariffs on China at an event as both a tax on Americans and a "counterproductive" tactic to try to force China to change its economic model.

Free college, a campaign promise that has been adopted by democratic socialists and mainstream candidates alike, also crosses his line. Buttigieg told a New Hampshire audience that as a progressive, he could not justify requiring the majority of taxpayers to subsidize a minority that will eventually outearn them because of a degree.

He's bucked one-size-fits-all policies like zoning restrictions that do not take regional differences into account. He personally favors religion as an important source of community and morality.

While Buttigieg occasionally takes a stand against what he believes is too much government intervention, it's more difficult to gauge just how much intervention he believes is acceptable.

Buttigieg has suggested using the government to enforce mandatory national service. A veteran himself, Buttigieg told Rachel Maddow that he believes that his own interactions with people of all socioeconomic backgrounds in the armed forces could be used as a model throughout the country. He added that national service would not necessarily mean military service; a variety of public-sector jobs could fit the bill as well.

Confusing matters more, Buttigieg proposed making service a social norm, "if not legally obligatory." It remains unclear whether he's legitimately interested in government mandating service, and for whom, and in which sectors, but the notion is troubling.

And he acknowledges the idea itself is a long shot: "It's one of these ideas that everybody kind of likes, but it was always important and never urgent," he muses. "How would that ever kind of hold on its own in a policy debate where we deal with kids in cages and we have to deal with climate change and there are all these pressing, burning issues?"

This is the heart of the Buttigieg campaign so far: Big ideas—good and bad—but very little clarity about what they would mean in practice.

"We give him points for even saying he's a capitalist of any kind in a Democratic field," says Cato Institute Senior Fellow Michael Tanner. "That's hard to come by."

Tanner observes "two branches" currently in the Democratic Party: one that accepts the existence of capitalism while pushing for a larger welfare state and one that rejects capitalism entirely. While he gives Buttigieg credit for calling himself a capitalist, he warns that libertarian and free market voters should be mindful of his understanding of the term.

"We should praise the concept while rejecting the specifics," says Tanner.

Still, in a world where less than half of young Americans view capitalism more favorably than socialism, it is heartening to see a popular candidate calling himself a capitalist. Defenders of capitalism should take heart while remaining vigilant against the dangerous, vague ideas that Buttigieg is bringing along with his embrace of the term.