Why “High Hopes” Is the Perfect Dance Song for the Buttigieg Campaign

It’s a meritocratic fantasy.

Dayton Martindale November 21, 2019

Pete Buttigieg speaks at a Democratic presidential forum November 17 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A new dance craze is sweep­ing New Hamp­shire. Call it The Buttigieg,” a team-build­ing bop per­formed by staff and vol­un­teers on May­or Pete’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Videos of the dancers, set to High Hopes” by Pan­ic! at the Dis­co, have been mak­ing the rounds on social media, shared enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly by Pete fans and mocked mer­ci­less­ly by his critics.

Compared to his competitors, Buttigieg's hopes don’t really seem that high. He wants to cancel some student debt; Sanders wants to cancel all of it.

The song, which Buttigieg also uses at events, is some­thing of a cam­paign anthem. And that’s fit­ting: Its lyrics express some­thing dan­ger­ous­ly awry about May­or Pete’s worldview.

High hopes” is about the lone indi­vid­ual suc­ceed­ing against the odds: I didn’t know how but I always had a feel­ing / I was going to be that one in a million.”

One read­ing would be that Buttigieg and his cam­paign see them­selves as opti­mistic under­dogs, scrap­py aspir­ers to the Amer­i­can Dream. But while under­dog” may super­fi­cial­ly fit the 37-year-old may­or of a town of 100,000, it does not fit the rest of Pete’s pro­file. Buttigieg, the son of aca­d­e­mics, is a Har­vard grad­u­ate and Rhodes schol­ar who was earn­ing six fig­ures by the age of 26. He has out­raised every Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date except Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren, and out­raised every­one among big-mon­ey donors. His cur­rent polling surge required help in high places.

So let’s hope it’s not Pete him­self whose suc­cess­es we’re singing. Char­i­ta­bly, then, Team Pete may see in the song a metaphor for the coun­try — the may­or has high hopes for America.

If so, that metaphor goes to a very dark place in the first verse: Man­i­fest des­tiny / Back in the days / We want­ed every­thing, want­ed every­thing.” Were I run­ning for U.S. pres­i­dent, I would prob­a­bly not embrace a song that pos­i­tive­ly invokes Man­i­fest Des­tiny, a stain on our nation’s past, when we want­ed every­thing” meant pil­lage and con­quest. The 19th cen­tu­ry saw tens of thou­sands of Native Amer­i­cans dis­placed, thou­sands more killed and an unjust war against Mex­i­co, all so that Amer­i­ca could stretch from sea to shin­ing sea. To this day, suc­cess in Amer­i­ca still means com­pe­ti­tion and exploita­tion — whether you’re a cor­po­rate CEO, a Wall Street banker, or a con­sul­tant at a big firm like McK­in­sey.

If the lyrics are trou­bling, the music video is worse.

A white man in a suit (the band’s lead singer) exits a Lyft and begins walk­ing up the out­side of a build­ing, defy­ing grav­i­ty. A mul­ti-racial crowd gath­ers to cheer him on from below. They applaud him all the way to the top, where he steps onto the roof and finds his band. We nev­er see the crowd again.

Let’s break this down: A white man, pub­licly break­ing the law (of grav­i­ty) with no reper­cus­sions, is sup­port­ed in his climb by a diverse work­ing class, then par­ties with those who are already at the top. It’s not clear if those at the bot­tom even get to enjoy the con­cert. The lyrics exhort, Stay up on that rise and nev­er come down” — no men­tion of sol­i­dar­i­ty or bring­ing oth­ers up with you.

Cul­tur­al crit­ic John Weeks has argued that the song and its video offer a per­fect nar­ra­tive of white male priv­i­lege: The prophe­cy to be ful­filled in High Hopes’ is that of the white man’s priv­i­leged place with­in the sym­bol­ic order.” High Hopes” tells us if you’re tal­ent­ed, if your hopes are high, you can be the one in a mil­lion” who succeeds.

I am not say­ing the man in the video rep­re­sents Buttigieg him­self. But the video does rep­re­sent Buttigieg’s world­view: May­or Pete, a priv­i­leged white man whose tal­ent, ambi­tion and class back­ground pro­pelled him to aca­d­e­m­ic and pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess, is pre­cise­ly the kind of per­son to believe that hard work and vision pay off — it worked for him, right?

Recent com­ments of Buttigieg’s sug­gest that he is a true believ­er in mer­i­toc­ra­cy. The pro­gres­sive group People’s Action asked can­di­dates how the gov­ern­ment should address inequity. Buttigieg’s answer focused on uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ty”; the government’s role is to ensure equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty,” he said, through unspec­i­fied fed­er­al pro­grams” that eliminat[e] bar­ri­ers.” The impli­ca­tion is that if every­one got a fair shot, jus­tice would be achieved. Unlike Sanders and Julián Cas­tro, he did not men­tion the need for a social safe­ty net or secure eco­nom­ic rights. Unlike Sanders, Cas­tro, War­ren or Kamala Har­ris, he did not assign any blame to cor­po­ra­tions or the wealthy.

In fact, com­pared to his com­peti­tors, his hopes don’t real­ly seem that high. He wants to can­cel some stu­dent debt; Sanders wants to can­cel all of it. He oppos­es a job guar­an­tee, and his pro­posed ver­sion of a Green New Deal is slim­mer than Sanders’ or Warren’s.

And his mer­i­to­crat­ic vision, focused on equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty, ignores that so long as some achieve wealth and pow­er and oth­ers are left behind, those who suc­ceed will pull the lad­der up behind them. His mes­sage, and his theme song, are ulti­mate­ly fine with inequal­i­ty so long as those at the top can con­vince them­selves they earned it.

So when Buttigieg vol­un­teers dance along to lyrics like didn’t have a dime, but I always had a vision” — as their can­di­date stands awash in rich donors’ dimes — they’re danc­ing to a fairy tale.

The views expressed are the author’s own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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