John Fetterman Is the Kind of Political Communicator the Left Needs

As a communicator, John Fetterman has the highly effective Bernie Sanders formula down pat: take progressive positions on social issues while making denouncements of the 1 percent central to his message.

Lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Senate candidate John Fetterman greets constituents during his primary campaign, May 10, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman has surprised many commentators by establishing an early lead in his Senate race against GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, aka Dr Oz. Fetterman’s campaign has depicted Oz as the wealthy, out-of-touch celebrity he is, trying to win an election in Pennsylvania from his mansion in New Jersey.

Right now, Oz’s main talking point is that Fetterman is more like Bernie Sanders than Joe Biden — an odd line of attack at a time when Sanders significantly outperforms President Biden in national polls.

It’s entirely possible that Oz will succeed in changing the narrative sometime between now and November. The race is still much too early to call. But if Fetterman does win, what kind of Senator will he be?

The honest answer from a democratic socialist perspective is “a mixed bag.” His political branding and policy preferences basically make him a moderate Berniecrat, similar to the congressional “Squad” in some ways, but closer to the Democratic mainstream in others.

If he makes it to the Senate, though, that would be an exciting development for the Left — and not just because he’d be an extra vote in favor of many progressive policy initiatives. Given his straightforward left populism, a Senator John Fetterman would be the first major “Berniecrat” to closely resemble Bernie himself as a political communicator.

Gay Rights and the Union Way of Life

If you click on the Issues section of Fetterman’s campaign website, the very first video is called “The Union Way of Life.” It focuses on Fetterman’s support for two strikes. In both cases, he explains in clear, simple language that the striking workers deserve a fair contract.

The same kind of approach is on display in his video further down the page on gay and trans rights. He mostly steers clear of academic language or any formulations that sound like they were cooked up in a human resources department. He grounds his progressive positions on these issues in terms of universalist appeals, framed as simple moral common sense, saying that marginalized people deserve “the same rights and protections that the rest of us enjoy in this country” and that to “single out” any group to deny them “equal protection under the law” is “fundamentally un-American.”

The health care video takes the same straightforward approach. “I don’t know how else to say this about health care,” he says at the beginning of that one, “other than that it’s a basic fundamental human right — no different than food or shelter or education.”

Put this simple and compelling pitch together with all the fun he’s been having pointing out that the man he often calls “New Jersey’s Dr Oz” doesn’t understand how it feels for ordinary people to struggle with rising gas prices, and you can see why Fetterman has been doing so well.

An Imperfect Candidate, a Winning Message

We can and should be clear-eyed about Fetterman’s flaws. In 2016, he was the only candidate for statewide office in Pennsylvania to endorse Bernie Sanders and the association has stuck with him since, but he hasn’t personally adopted the “democratic socialist” label. He’s also been vaguer than we’d like on the policy specifics of treating health care as a “basic fundamental human right.” He responded to a question about whether he’d vote for a Medicare for All bill in the Senate during a Democratic debate by saying he’d vote for anything that gave more people health care. Fair enough — but I’d like more clarity from him on why the difference between Medicare for All and halfway proposals that leave the bloodsucking private insurance industry in place is actually pretty damn important.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that congressional progressives (including Bernie Sanders) need to do better on foreign policy, and that’s definitely a weak spot in Fetterman’s politics. He’s struck some of the right notes on “costly wars of choice” and the importance of diplomacy, and he’s even snagged an endorsement from Peace Action. But he’s given little indication that he has any appetite to rock the boat and pick fights with Democratic leadership on these issues. Most disappointingly, he seems to be significantly worse than some of the other big-name Berniecrats on Palestine.

We shouldn’t exaggerate the extent of those differences. Bernie Sanders and Jamaal Bowman voted to fund Israel’s Iron Dome, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notoriously voting “present.” And Bernie has been pragmatic enough to support more incremental measures on the road to the ultimate goal of Medicare for All. Still, Fetterman is at least somewhat worse on both fronts, and we need to be willing to call balls and strikes even with real political allies.

Despite these real drawbacks, the most exciting thing about Fetterman is that he represents a different model from AOC and some of the others as a political communicator. Like Bernie, Fetterman takes impeccably progressive positions on social justice policy issues — but also like Bernie, he doesn’t spend his time snapping back at the “problematic.” When he recently tweeted in support of the Pennsylvania governor’s veto of a law preventing trans kids from participating in school sports, Fetterman explained his position the way you might explain your progressive views about something like that to a conservative friend at the bar — saying the law was “cruel” and calling it a distraction from Pennsylvania’s real problems.

Instead of trying to combine a commitment to Bernie’s social democratic policy agenda with appeals to Team Blue in the culture war — which seems to be AOC’s strategy — Fetterman foregrounds economic populism. Social policy issues matter, and the Left can’t and shouldn’t be neutral on whether our country has laws making life harder for marginalized groups. But when Fetterman is explaining his positions on such issues, he seems to do what Bernie does: he succinctly explains his position in terms of universal moral values and goes right back to hammering the 1 percent.

If Fetterman wins a Senate seat this fall, he could inspire other Berniecrats considering running for office to imitate that winning political formula. If so, I hope some of those other politicians have better positions on Palestine and stick their necks out further on some important policy issues. But his approach as a political communicator is exactly what the Left needs.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Morehouse College, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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