As Paste EIC Josh Jackson put it after watching John Fetterman’s first campaign video in his upcoming bid for the Pennsylvania Senate, “if I’m Pat Toomey, I’m really glad I’m retiring.” Watch for yourself:
It’s a great ad, but more importantly, it’s coming from an actual progressive who believes in things like Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. We’ve seen a lot of very good political ads in the past few years, but often they come from nothingburger candidates like Amy McGrath, who offer nothing beyond a few slick videos and whose centrist policies stand no chance of taking root in conservative parts of the country…or in actually helping those people, even if by some miracle they won. The difference between someone like Fetterman and someone like McGrath is, to put it bluntly, the bullshit factor. Fetterman means what he says, and you’ll never find him dancing circles around the truth. He doesn’t need to; he has both the courage of his convictions and—perhaps more importantly in politics on this scale—the faith that his convictions are appealing to a massive chunk of the electorate. It’s a big change from Democrats whose chief selling point is that they’re not Republican.
The tempting comparison here is to say that Fetterman is AOC for rural people, for purple-staters, for the hackneyed notion of the REAL (read: white, allegedly culturally conservative) American. There is probably some truth to the idea that as inspiring as AOC or Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar or Cori Bush or Ayanna Pressley or Jamal Bowman are, the common thread is that they come from big cities with a high minority population. Translating their appeal outside those concentrated urban areas is a harder task, and there are many middle-of-the-road Democrats in winnable conservative districts who believe “The Squad” was used as an effective weapon against them in the 2020 races. There’s a lot of rationalization in that perspective, since it absolves them of their own lack of policy ambition, but if there’s a nugget of truth there, it’s that the battle plan for exporting progressive politics into the “interior” requires a slightly different approach.
As far as I can tell, John Fetterman embodies that approach almost perfectly. There’s a lot to like, and his ubiquity during the election led to a kind of informal Internet cult developing around him and his wife, but there are a few key things that really matter. The first is that he can handle himself verbally. There’s no nonsense to the guy, and if you attack him, he can stand on his feet and exchange blows. There are other qualities, too, which are trickier to admit. He’s got a masculine aura, which matters more than you might think if you’ve never lived in small, red towns, and he knows which issues to highlight and which to push to the background. A look at his campaign website finds nine core topics, from minimum wage to weed legalization to healthcare to environmental justice to LGBTQIA+ rights to criminal justice. Not listed there? Guns, the albatross weighing down every democratic candidate outside urban districts. And in fact, Fetterman himself is a gun owner. He’s the kind of guy who can credibly speak to both progressives and those voters who have progressive interests but consider themselves culturally opposed to liberalism.
It’s a rare quality, but hopefully becoming more common. The path to a broad coalition for progressives—one that can feel impossible due to social and cultural differences—are people like Fetterman who can highlight the hypocrisy and phoniness of the two-party power structure in ways that feel genuine and not simply in furtherance of a political career. That’s because he’s walked the walk for a long time, starting as mayor of Braddock, PA, where he tattooed the dates of each of the town’s murders on his watch onto his arm. As a young man, he was well on his way to taking over his father’s insurance business before a friend’s death in a car accident changed his path totally. He became a Big Brother, joined Americorps, and won his first mayoral race in Braddock by a single vote. He made about $110 a month as mayor, and $30,000 running an Out-Of-School Youth program, and founded a non-profit to benefit the city and its residents. In 2010, he was arrested for protesting the closure of Braddock Hospital. The so-called “Braddock Renaissance” is a fascinating story, and what’s clear at the root of it is that Fetterman was never in this for his own ambition.
People like Fetterman, or AOC, are few and far between, but it’s inevitable that in a time of progressive political awakening, they’ll become more common. And in order for any of this philosophy to take root in red and purple parts of the country like Pennsylvania, it will take candidates like Fetterman who can credibly bridge the culture gap and talk to people on their level from experience. The movement for a higher minimum wage or Medicare for All or free public education will require different tactics in different parts of the country, but the ideas themselves are palatable to an overwhelming majority everywhere. To get the message across, you need a good messenger, and that’s what has to change from place to place. What works in Queens might not work in rural Pennsylvania or in Texas or in Idaho, and vice versa. In that sense, Fetterman represents the tip of the spear—a new kind of candidate who is almost like a missionary, spreading the important ideas where they’ll have the most trouble catching on.
His Senate campaign will be fascinating to watch, especially in the primary stages where he faces the inevitable party candidate. Will he have the same popular appeal among white voters as Bernie Sanders? Will he be able to make inroads with black urban voters, or will he face the same obstacles that Sanders faced in the south on that front? The more Fetterman can make his campaign about the message, the more successful he’ll be, and it’s likely that the chief tactic used against him will be the same social bludgeons used against Sanders and figures like Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. His success or failure takes on an importance far beyond this individual race, because to some degree it represents the future success or failure of the movement he represents. In a perfect world, he would be the AOC of purple America and illustrate the path forward. At the very least, it will be a stress test of the very concept of a progressive winning a massive race like the one for U.S. Senate in a state not called Vermont, and an illustration of what works and what weapons the opposition will use to stop it from happening.
In a basic sense, his goal is to reach the people, and to make the people want to reach him. If he can do that, the sky’s the limit, and not just for John Fetterman.