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Op-Ed: Democrats don’t need ‘messaging,’ just more candidates who act like John Fetterman

Head shot of Fetterman in a hoodie that isn't pulled up
The Democrat running for senator in the battleground state of Pennsylvania isn’t madeover or branded.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

It’s an old saw that Democrats are chronically in “disarray.” Always that word. It’s like “hearty” with “soup.” If you think disarray, you’re supposed to think Democrats. Even at times like this, when the party is plenty well-arrayed.

A slightly newer saw is that “Democrats are bad at messaging.”

This one’s wrong too — but not because Democrats are good at messaging. It’s because messaging itself is a fool’s errand.

To buy a catchphrase from Don Draper and hammer away at it might have worked in 2008 or 2012. But it shouldn’t be any congressional candidate’s strategy in jaded 2022.

Which is why it’s been so refreshing to see John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Senate in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, continue to reject Hollywood makeovers and Madison Avenue branding.

And how has that worked for him? Well, in the second quarter, Fetterman managed to set a fundraising record for a Senate race in Pennsylvania: $11 million.

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From the start, no Photoshop or Auto-Tune has marred Fetterman’s doghair-festooned jacket, raggedy goatee or guttural voice. And something else off-message sealed his reputation as a man of the people. He had a stroke in May and, like millions of Americans, suffers with heart disease.

The low turnout of 2010 allowed the far right to seize power. If moderates can’t get out the vote this fall, it will happen again.

“I avoided going to the doctor, even though I knew I didn’t feel well,” he said in a statement at the time. “I want to encourage others to not make the same mistake.”

Since then he’s been busy improvising an offbeat campaign, largely on Twitter, which he refers to as “a dog-turd-and-motor-oil smoothie.” His social media game is as unrefined as he is — heavy on emojis, GIFs, pop memes and potshots at his posh Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz.

On Tuesday he showed up on Zoom for the first time since the stroke, sounding robust at a meeting of campaign volunteers. Word is, he’ll be edging back into in-person campaigning, starting Thursday.

Fetterman has been as frank about his political views as he was about his health. He’s a progressive. He’s for universal healthcare, Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, fossil fuel divestment, unions and a $15-minimum wage. Fetterman makes you think: Was that so hard? Democrats can appeal to working people by supporting labor and decarbonization, social justice and universal healthcare.

John Fetterman has been fundraising, advertising on TV and grabbing attention with social media posts, but he has yet to return to the campaign trail.

Of course he’s best known for his Rust Belt style. Currently Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman came to prominence when Donald Trump was bellowing about his 2020 loss in Pennsylvania — and he responded with facts and snorts on cable news.

Then, during the Democratic primary, Fetterman presented a stark contrast to his opponent, Conor Lamb, a moderate with bipartisan hair — thick Kennedy locks combed into a clean Republican side part.

Fetterman is very different. He stands 6-foot-8, wears gym shorts year-round and — let’s face it — looks like someone who, swayed by a different ideology , might storm the U.S. Capitol or at least lead a caravan of antivax truckers.

He beat Lamb handily for the Democratic nomination.

The hell-raiser look is not trivial. It aligns him with a rambunctious and proudly unpretty Pennsylvania energy.

Even Pennsylvanians who don’t share his politics admire his authenticity. “Whether or not I believe in everything [Fetterman believes in], I believe he’s being honest with the people,” an antiabortion Republican voter told Bloomberg in May.

In fact, Fetterman is so Pennsylvania that he brings to mind Gritty, the 7-foot-tall fun-scary Philadelphia Flyers’ mascot. Like that strange orange creature, Fetterman crosses up expectations. He has a master’s degree from Harvard, but it’s hard to see him among the TED talkers. Instead of bland James Taylor warmth, he has introduced notes of thrash into the Democratic sound.

Metallica makes anything better,” Fetterman tweeted in April 2020. (“What’s your favorite song of theirs?” someone asked. “Yes,” he replied.)

Baby boomer Steve Bannon once tried to make far-right politics “countercultural.” Tattooed Gen Xer Fetterman, who uses the word “weed” with abandon, is reclaiming the counterculture for the left, where it started and clearly belongs.

In short, Fetterman has capitalized on his own-the-libs demeanor to own the neos — both the neolibs, like Lamb, and the neocons, like Oz.

A slew of May 17 primaries determined a key Senate matchup in Pennsylvania, the fate of GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn and other marquee races.

Which brings us to Oz. Fetterman got lucky with his fish-in-a-barrel opponent.

Oz is an oleaginous, fraud-adjacent celebrity whose campaign has often gone dark. He seems barely to be able to find Pennsylvania on a map. The Oz family can lay claim to an oceanside villa in Palm Beach, two apartments in New York City, and an obscenely large megamansion in New Jersey, which Oz and his wife have long called home.

On Wednesday, Fetterman sent a small plane over the Jersey Shore. Its banner said, “Hey Dr. Oz. Welcome home to NJ!”

Fetterman leads Oz, for now. But the gap has closed some in recent weeks, and Fetterman’s advisors caution that dark money, which is already rolling into Oz’s campaign, will give Oz a lift as November approaches.

On the other hand, Fetterman has no plans to change course. He doesn’t need someone to come along, consult on his choice of ties and show him a PowerPoint deck of messages. He talks off the cuff, he doesn’t do damage control, and — as he says — his views don’t change. “When you support fundamental rights, you don’t have to ‘evolve’ on issues,” he tweeted in September.

Democrats are not in disarray. In fact, they’re more unified on issues than they’ve been in a long time. According to a recent Pew poll, 81% prioritize gun control over gun rights. This is up from 69% in 2014. Eighty percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 63% in 2007.

And according to a New York Times/Siena College poll, 92% of Democrats believe that Donald Trump’s actions after the 2020 election threatened America’s democracy.

And now Democrats need, once and for all, to forget about “messaging.”

Eccentric, devil-may-care style doesn’t belong to the right. In fact, it’s something Democrats used to excel at. Think Jerry Brown, Shirley Chisholm, Ann Richards. Today there are also examples: Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Maxine Waters.

Like Fetterman, these Democrats show how much better the party can do with more passion, more authenticity, more jokes, more mistakes, more courage and much, much less messaging.

Virginia Heffernan writes a column for Wired and hosts the podcast “This Is Critical.”


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