The Art of Winning: A John Fetterman Story
The rise of one of Washington's most fascinating figures.
I’m going to start this off with something that may set me apart in the world of political analysis: I did not pay much attention to the results from Pennsylvania on election night last year.
I could say that this was because I knew the result ahead of time, but in reality, it wasn’t for any good reason. What happened was I spent most of the night stressed out of my mind watching the results come in for the Georgia senate race. There wasn’t really any basis for this. There was no reason to hang on to every single update in that race other than an immense desire to see Herschel Walker lose. But I had such a desire, so I sat there, cut off from the races in the rest of the country, for hours on end.
By around midnight, I had seen enough to be reasonably confident that the race would go to a runoff and decided to return back to Earth. And I thought I blew it. Maybe this was just my expectations being far too high or my focus being too fixed on Georgia, but I truthfully didn’t feel good about things when I logged back on to twitter. I would soon learn that I was the only person to the left of Matt Walsh who felt anything near this way. All of the people on my feed were jubilant. Accounts with names like “TheWesternScholar” and “Music Groyper” sounded like they were one foot off the ledge.
And, for a moment, I really, truthfully, did not understand it. Sure, I’d seen a smattering of some results coming in from the race call tickers on the websites I was using. They also left me totally unfazed. Did people really care this much about Abigail Spanberger holding on in Virginia? Was there actually an expectation that Gretchen Whitmer and Maggie Hassan were on track to lose? Sure, these were important wins for Democrats, and they probably foreclosed a massive red wave. But if the Georgia results I was looking at were any indication, the real, big-ticket races were yet to be decided. It all felt like people were coming to conclusions far too.
And then I looked at the results from the Keystone State and I instantly understood.
For those of you who didn’t follow 2022 all that closely, it’s a little hard to overstate just how omnipresent this one senate contest was. In certain circles, it was close to all anyone ever talked about for a year. The contest itself was unceasingly flashy: a made-for-TV fight between a famous talk show host and a lieutenant governor who looked like a NFL linebacker. It was like no other race in 2022, and it was also every race in 2022. The nation as a whole seemed to move along with its comings and goings. At its beginning, it mirrored the early signs of Democratic strength that went dismissed and ignored by pundits. Through its middle, it reflected the fake, manufactured last-minute Republican surge that led those same pundits to gleefully declare that the red wave was back on. And in its end, it embodied the ultimate results: a robust Democratic performance that shocked everyone who wasn’t paying attention and shattered the worldview of the most self-assured.
Of course, it didn’t take time for commentators to create explanations for what happened. The Republican candidate, Mehmet Oz, was terrible—a deeply unpopular extremist carpetbagger whose campaign never found its footing. The state of the Pennsylvania GOP, with its lunatic gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, was even worse. The Dobbs decision ripped apart the Republican coalition in the state, driving white secular independents with moderate views on social issues into the Democratic column. For an entire year, the Pennsylvania Republican party shot itself in the foot so many times it could no longer walk.
All of this is true. It also misses perhaps the most important part of the race: the campaign of John Karl Fetterman, the man who actually won the election.
John Fetterman has been either Senator-elect Fetterman or just Senator Fetterman for nearly a year now. He’s been a national figure for a bit longer than that. But even after all this time, nobody’s ever been able to figure him out. Somebody like him is not supposed to accomplish what he’s accomplished. Star candidates are supposed to be immaculately credentialed, polished, uncontroversial—Air Force veterans, local heroes, and former CIA agents in suits talking about “expanding access to affordable healthcare.” They’re not supposed to be someone who looks like a roadie for a Norwegian heavy metal band running on a Bernie Sanders-inspired platform. That’s not how things work. Those people are supposed to be the quixotic washouts who get overwhelmed by the party machinery in the primaries. They’re not supposed to hold statewide office of any kind, and they should be a thousand miles away from any race that actually matters. No hard feelings, it is said—us who know better like the platform, we’d support it in an ideal world, but we just need to be practical.
John Fetterman didn’t just prove this kind of thinking, and this kind of person, completely wrong. He also proved them to be completely unserious, and, in doing so, changed the game for the left wing of the Democratic Party. The argument that progressive is more electable is no longer just founded on speculation. It’s real, and it just won in Pennsylvania by five points. But as we go on to use his victory as proof-of-concept for our ideas—as we should—it’s also important to understand what, exactly, Fetterman did. Obviously, he’s been able to ascend leaps and bounds past the average progressive politician, whether it be in unifying the party behind himself or appealing to voters in the general election. But what got him here? What enabled him to so easily surmount the barriers that have been the end of countless similar efforts? What does his success mean?
And, most importantly of all: can it be done again?
Mayor of Hell
First, let’s start off by establishing one thing: John Fetterman knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s very well aware of what he looks like and how he comes off to people. He also correctly understands it as an asset, and he has used it as such throughout his surprisingly long career. Ever since he entered politics in 2005, it’s been something of a magic trick for him, allowing him to transform into something he isn’t. Despite the looks, John Fetterman isn’t a recently laid-off steelworker. Neither is he the guy at 7/11 who tries to sell you dirt weed from under the counter. He is a well-educated, experienced, ambitious political operator and is best understood as such.