This spring, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor had a stroke. Also this spring, the same guy — John Fetterman — won the Democratic Party’s nomination for his state’s Senate race. If you didn’t think these two facts would be joined at the hip this fall, you weren’t alone, since the majority of Keystone State voters supported Fetterman through the summer. But the Republican in the race, a former UPenn cardiologist and TV doctor by the name of Dr. Mehmet Oz, has started taking barbecue-burger-sized bites out of Fetterman’s lead since the leaves started changing colors.
Of course, there are a lot of complicated reasons Fetterman’s advantage over Dr. Oz is disappearing. Republicans, as I mentioned last week, have started putting a lot of their Oz-related questions on the backburner, and Pennsylvanians care less than ever about whether the doc is even from the state. But the hullaballoo over Fetterman’s health, and an NBC reporter’s riff that he had “difficulty making small talk” during a Nightly News interview last week, belong in the cocktail of his collapse.
I’m not bringing this controversy up because I’m worried about Fetterman’s health, or about his stubborn refusal to show us, the voters, a single document related to what can most sunnily be described as a disability. I’m bringing it up to tell a completely different story about the state that gets to decide how much any of it matters.
On the other side of Pennsylvania’s election ledger, attorney general Josh Shapiro is facing a Republican state legislator, Doug Mastriano, for the go-ahead to move in to the governor’s mansion. Shapiro — and, since you thought to ask, dang near half the state — seems convinced that Mastriano is unfit to be governor, partly because he peddled various brands of bovine excrement on the 2020 election and partly because he’s light years away from the mainstream on gay rights and abortion.
Mastriano’s support for Donald Trump’s stolen-vote fanfiction did manage to draw the former president’s support, but the state senator’s more… extreme views have sent Republicans diving for cover like no campaign since 1991. The national GOP refuses to spend money on him, and a plethora of current and former Republican officials have called for voters to get behind Shapiro.
Dare I say it, none of those views are quite as disturbing as Mastriano’s… suspicious collisions with the Jewish people of Pennsylvania. For one, he has a follower-funnelling agreement with Gab, the far-right social network that hosted a manifesto from the man who massacred worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. For another, Mastriano’s repeatedly teed off on Shapiro for attending Hebrew Day Schools in his youth, accusing such schools of being incubators of elitism and privilege reserved for the wealthy.
Like I wrote about last week, there’s an undertone to that kind of talk. Unlike I wrote about last week, Mastriano’s kind of talk is a direct assault on people of faith, rooted in the doctrine of Christian Nationalism — an American remodel of cuius regio, eius religio that claims America was founded on a very select set of Christian ideas and should therefore be primarily governed by them. That Shapiro is a Jew, who decided to give his kids a Jewish education, doesn’t render him completely unrelatable to Pennsylvanians, any more than Dr. Oz’s high-minded monikers for vegetable medleys make him unfit to represent the Keystone State in the Senate. But the state of this state’s politics may well have sunk to the point that the voters might very well think they do.
It’s one thing to think that it’s a politician’s job to represent the interests of their constituents, or that certain kinds of candidates do a better job of representing certain constituencies than others. But Pennsylvania, like America, is a big place, and it’s only a hop, a skip, and a jump from “he’s not a candidate who can represent us” to “he’s not the kind of candidate who can represent us.” That might not raise your eyebrows in most of the Union, but it should in a state where nearly four-fifths of the population is white and 73% of the population identifies as Christian.
All of this brings me back to John Fetterman, and the notion of relatability he’s traded in for most of this campaign. His wardrobe — Carhartt hoodie, streetball shorts, work-shirt portraits — marks him out as, well, like Pennsylvanians, in some deep and salient way that the rest of Washington can’t match. John Fetterman doesn’t say crudité.
But, even last winter, his body stood at 6-foot-7, a constant reminder that he wasn’t like us at all. (”I don’t look like a politician,” Fetterman mused in his first campaign ad, “because I don’t even look like a normal human being.”) If John Fetterman, the Harvard man, could be hidden from our view, John Fetterman, the NBA-sized man, could not. Now, Pennsylvanians are faced with John Fetterman, the man who struggles with a disability, whose use of the kinds of assistance that disabled Americans everywhere rely on might cost him his job.
That’s not to say that Fetterman’s differences — from Washington or from us — were bad. Not only is it good for the Senate to contain people whose ideas and experiences might broaden our ability to see and solve problems, but the acceptance and embrace of difference has to be non-negotiable in a free country. A country that requires sameness to participate in democracy isn’t a democracy at all; it’s a cruel, calculated mockery of representative government.
We understand that when it comes to Josh Shapiro, because some of us understand the alternative. (Or, to quote Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, in The Atlantic last year, “We know what happens to us when the world becomes uncivilized.”) If Doug Mastriano — or anyone else, for that matter — refuses to accept the dignity of people who vote, or worship, or live differently then he does, then he’s failed one of American statesmanship’s most basic tests. But so has everyone else — including us.
There are ways in which your elected representatives are not like you — they might not be your color, or come from your kind of place, or believe what you believe about life, God, and existence. (If you’re reading this, they’re probably not your age, either.) Great; they might still do an awesome job representing you. We’re not all alike, and Americans’ ability to navigate our distinctions might be the difference between freedom and something else altogether.