At Northeastern University, Pete Buttigieg weighs in Electoral College, climate change, and the US economy

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is exploring a run for the presidency, dug into a wide range of issues with WBUR senior news correspondent Kimberly Atkins at Northeastern University’s Boston campus Wednesday. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Pete Buttigieg, who is now 37, and who won his first mayoral race in Indiana when he was 29 years old, says it’s voters his age who have the most at stake when it comes to policy-making.

“By definition, the longer you’re planning to be here, the more you have a stake in the decisions that are being made right now,” he said.

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is exploring a run for the presidency, dug into issues that he said will have an outsize effect on millennial voters, during a wide-ranging conversation with WBUR senior news correspondent Kimberly Atkins at Northeastern’s Boston campus Wednesday.

“It’s why I’m always talking about the need to consider the world as it will look in 2054, when I get to the current age of the current president,” Buttigieg told a standing-room-only crowd largely comprised of young people.

The discussion was the third installment of Northeastern’s Civic Engagement series, and Atkins asked questions that focused on how millennials are influencing American politics, and whether Buttigieg (himself an “older millennial,” he joked), is poised to respond to that influence.

Buttigieg’s age stands out in the current political field. President Donald J. Trump is 72 years old. United States Sen. Bernie Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren—all Democratic contenders for the Oval Office—are 77, 76, and 69, respectively.

In a political era rife with partisan division, Atkins asked about a different kind of chasm: the “generational divide” between younger voters and older voters.

National polling organizations, such as the Pew Research Center, have been tracking ever-widening differences in the political opinions of millennials and Generation Xers as compared to baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation.

Buttigieg acknowledged the differences, particularly when it comes to the economy and climate change.

“As the generation that’s poised to be the first in American history to be worse off than our parents, we’re insisting that we get a better answer on how our economy is going to be more just and more equitable than just saying, ‘Well, a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Because it just doesn’t,” Buttigieg said.

Atkins brought up a recent study that shows only 44 percent of millennials believe maintaining superior military power is a very important goal, and they’re less supportive than older generations of increasing defense spending.

Buttigieg is a former Naval intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. As a veteran, she asked, is he worried by these figures?

“Most of us expect and believe that the U.S. needs to be kept safe, and that it requires a military to do that,” Buttigieg said. “I think where you’re seeing a shift in opinion is because [military spending] is beginning to come up against other things that are security issues. To me, climate change is a security issue.”

Buttigieg said there have been two moments, 18 months apart, when he needed to enact emergency protocol as mayor in South Bend, and both came as a result of extreme floods.

“Climate change is right now, today,” he said. “The best time to have met carbon emission goals in the U.S. was yesterday.”

While Buttigieg made the case that issues such as climate change and the economy are having outsize effects on younger generations, Atkins said that only 31 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2018 midterm elections. How should politicians motivate young people to engage in politics? she asked.

Part of the disengagement, Buttigieg responded, is because of political systems such as the Electoral College and rampant gerrymandering that discourage voters from getting involved.

“For anyone who lives in a red or blue state that is small, medium, or large—so, a lot of us—the Electoral College is a dumb idea,” he said, to thunderous applause Wednesday. “It’s really hard for me to convince a 19-year-old in Idaho or Massachusetts to vote if they don’t think it matters.”

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