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Why Is Pete Buttigieg Using Conservative Attacks on Free College?

Pete Buttigieg bites his lips, presumably to keep from laughing at how bad Jacob Wohl is at crime.

Two out of the three frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – are running on platforms that call for college to be free for everyone, as well as eliminating much or all of the student debt that is suffocating the millennial generation. It’s one of many aspects of their campaigns, along with taxing the wealthy and providing Medicare for all or most people, that make some people (like Michael Bloomberg) nervous because they represent a threat to the established system.

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And now South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is preying on those nerves and attacking his democratic rivals by saying that free college would mean that the kids of millionaires would get free college too.

This argument – that a public benefit would result in people who don’t “need” it abusing it – is a long-time conservative argument against many social safetynet programs. The spectre of some mysterious, unintended beneficiary gaming the system is the kind of boogeyman conservatives and the GOP have used to frighten people away from expanding social programs for years.

Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Sanders in the primary, articulately and clearly broke down why this is common conservative argument against many social goods isn’t just sad to hear coming from a democrat, but it’s also incorrect and disingenuous.

Ocasio-Cortez is correct here, because a public good should indeed be available to the entire public. What she doesn’t mention is how attacks like this are strawmen that actually send the opposite of the message they purport on their face. When someone argues against a public benefit going to the “wrong kind of person” – like when they say they don’t want people exploiting ER visits or free medical care, or don’t want “criminals” abusing the immigration system – the message they’re actually sending is that the benefits of living in America only belong to the “right” kind of people.

Conservatives like Donald Trump and his ilk have risen to power via dog-whistle messaging that preys on the anxieties of groups that have historically had social privilege and now see actual equity and equality as a threat to that privilege. Buttigieg is obviously not a fear-mongering monster like Trump, but he also is not making friends in marginalized communities and has a difficult history with race. So to see him using the anxieties of the privileged for political gain is not great.

Buttigieg is surging in national polls and I can’t help but think that this kind of messaging which preys on anxiety and fear is why. He represents a sort of middle of the road on the political spectrum that’s akin to Biden, but he’s younger and hipper and his status as an out gay man gives him the sort of street cred as a liberal that his positions don’t match.

It will be interesting to see how the campaigns continue to shape up, but for now, we can only hope that Buttigieg comes around to the idea that American dreams and public goods are for everyone.

(via: Salon, Image: (image: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.