Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
You Don't Need Political Fandom
A culture that never dies
It was the summer of John Fetterman, and the summer of cackling at Dr. Mehmet Oz’s latest gaffe. If you hung out on social media or followed politics closely, you were well aware of the celebrity doctor awkwardly walking around a Pennsylvania supermarket, lamenting how Joe Biden had made his crudité too expensive. Oz got the name of the supermarket wrong, further underscoring, for most liberal observers, he was an out-of-touch elite who was going to get demolished by Fetterman, the tattooed lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Fetterman’s campaign kept slinging the memes and pundits on the left, as well as sympathetic journalists, mostly rejoiced. The Fetterman camp, far more fluent in the vernacular of the internet than Oz staffers, derided Oz for living in New Jersey and owning almost a dozen properties. The Washington Post, with fun cartoon characters, offered a round-up of the great meme wars of Pennsylvania. It all seemed to be working, as Fetterman built up a polling lead as high as 13 points.
Predictably, for those who know how Pennsylvania votes and how Americans deal with parties in power in midterm years, the race has narrowed. Oz now trails Fetterman in some polls by as little as two points. Some of this may be attributed to concerns over Fetterman’s health—he had a stroke several months ago and significantly curtailed his campaign for long stretches of the summer—but it is more likely a natural reflection of where a polarized electorate remains. While candidates for governor can sometimes outrun national trends, winning over states that usually choose a different political party, Senate candidates are usually yoked to the president. Despite his late summer bounce, Biden still is not popular, inflation is a problem, and Democrats are, as expected, on the defensive. The fall of Roe will help Fetterman and other Democrats, but there will be limits to how far the fight for abortion rights can push Democratic candidates.
It should be stated Fetterman is a strong candidate for this open seat. He’s won statewide, he won a commanding primary victory, and he has a strategy for appealing to the working-class, rural counties that have rapidly fled the Democratic Party. Fetterman was famously the former mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania called Braddock, where he did his best to reverse post-industrial decline. He supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, winning over progressives, but has managed to keep centrist Democrats in his camp with his decidedly middle-of-the-road messaging—he repeatedly says he wants to be the 51st Democrat in the Senate to break the logjam there and deliver a majority. On most issues, he now exists in the political mainstream, yet retains a strong degree of support from activists and voters on the left. This is not easy to do.
Fetterman is probably best known for his many tattoos, his campaign attire of hoodies and shorts, and his height. He is six-foot-eight and looks like he should be working a construction site. Whether actual blue-collar voters buy the aesthetic remains to be seen—Fetterman’s father ran a successful insurance business, and his family funded him into middle-age—but it has gotten him this far. Is it genuine? A costume? In politics, image often equals reality, and it’s a debate that only solves so much in a zero-sum contest to win votes.
But there is something that nags me about Fetterman and what his candidacy says about American politics, on both the left and right. Since at least the Obama era, and continuing into the Trump years, each side has been desperate to deify their own. It’s trite to say political participation has come to mirror sports fandom, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Years ago, ticket-splitting was common and the idea of building your identity around red vs. blue was laughable. Politics was background noise, or something you could care about for only so long. Personal relationships were not, 20 years ago or so, predicated on political party.
Now, it is not merely enough to support a politician, to wear a sticker or cast a vote. To care, you must transform into a fan. You must take on the tiresome act of every Cowboy or Yankee or Laker fan blowing up a talk radio line—my team is great, its flaws don’t exist, here’s why. Each new candidate, if appealing in some fashion, becomes a great hope or symbol of something or other. The media, especially if it’s a left-leaning publication, invests them with great power or promise, a certain enchantment. Fetterman can’t just be a Senate candidate. And his most fervent supporters, in turn, do strain to equate aesthetic with policy outcomes, to see a superhero instead of an ordinary Democrat triangulating around thorny topics. What does Fetterman endorsing Israel’s miserable treatment of the Palestinians have to do with uplifting the working-class of Pennsylvania? Isn’t it notable, at least, Fetterman did actually buy a home from his sister for $1? If you’re a Fetterman fan, or just a Democratic pundit, these aren’t even questions worth considering. Democracy is on the line, after all. Oz is bad.
Fandom rarely allows for accountability. It rarely allows for tough questions. Consider Biden. Realistically, he will run for president again because there aren’t any good options waiting in the wings. His vice president, Kamala Harris, polls worse than he does. The arguments for Biden running again are stronger, for now, than those for him not seeking a second term. But to even suggest it may be challenging for a man who turns 82 in 2024 to seek a second term as president is to provoke days of outrage on the left, as I found out recently. Biden, who has serious accomplishments as president that I am happy to acknowledge, must be venerated, for the moment at least, as the greatest domestic Democratic president in generations, if ever. His achievements can’t merely be stated for what they are; everything must shift a paradigm, define a century. Anything else is a betrayal. This is the tiresome world we’ve inherited and it’s not going anywhere.