The Limits of Ideology
John Fetterman says he's not a progressive.
Memeorandum points me to NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg‘s “What’s Driving Former Progressives to the Right?” and Hot Air’s John Sexton‘s “Progressives Worry About So Many Former Comrades Drifting to the Right,” both of which offer competing explanations for a phenomenon I’m highly skeptical exists outside of a handful of famous people.*
But those pieces framed my reading of NBC‘s report, “‘I’m not a progressive’: Fetterman breaks with the left, showing a maverick side.”
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., is breaking with progressives on hot-button issues with his fiery support for Israel and calls for Democrats to engage on tougher immigration laws, disappointing some on the left as he shows an independent streak.
He’s also continually scolding Democrats for not pushing Sen. Bob Menendez out of office after he was indicted on federal charges of taking bribes and acting as a foreign agent for Egypt, which the New Jersey Democrat denies.
In the 2022 campaign, Fetterman’s ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., prompted GOP opponent Mehmet Oz to tell voters he’d be a mere “sidekick” for the democratic socialist. But Fetterman’s recent stances point to an unorthodox brand of blue-collar liberalism, with a dash of outsider populism, in a purple state that is expected to be hotly contested again in the 2024 elections.
In an interview, the first-term Pennsylvania Democrat said his critics shouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m not a progressive,” Fetterman told NBC News. “I just think I’m a Democrat that is very committed to choice and other things. But with Israel, I’m going to be on the right side of that. And immigration is something near and dear to me, and I think we do have to effectively address it as well.”
Fetterman insisted he can be pro-immigration while also favoring policies to restrict the flow of migration to manageable levels, disagreeing with progressives who oppose new limits on asylum and bash some of the ideas in the negotiations as cruel.
“It’s a reasonable conversation — until somebody can say there’s an explanation on what we can do when 270,000 people are being encountered on the border, not including the ones, of course, that we don’t know about,” he said. “To put that in reference, that is essentially the size of Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in Pennsylvania.”
The senator added that while it’s “not ideal to have this conversation” about asylum and parole policy in connection with an aid package for Israel and Ukraine, “it’s still one that we should have,” given that Republicans have made it an essential condition to advance the supplemental bill.
“Progressives better do that because we can’t leave Israel — we can’t sell them out, and we can’t sell Ukraine out, and we have to deliver on this,” Fetterman said. “I just would very much like to get a deal to deliver this critical aid.”
“People liked Fetterman because of his populist outsiderness and empathy toward all kinds of people,” said Waleed Shahid, a progressive organizer who has rallied criticism of U.S. support for Israel as the conflict escalates. “But his extreme jingoistic support of this war has made many people feel that he holds a hierarchy of human value where Israeli lives are simply more important to him than Palestinians.”
Some Republicans are shocked — in a positive way.
“For a lot of Republicans, it’s been a pleasant surprise,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime GOP strategist based in Pennsylvania, referring to Fetterman’s stances on Israel, border policy and Menendez. “Here is a freshman taking some strong stances. … I just see someone who’s ‘Well, that’s what I think, and I say what I think.’”
Nicholas said he’s particularly struck by the fact that Fetterman is out front in refusing to let up on Menendez.
“I know how clubby the Senate is, having worked for Arlen Specter for 18 years. So I get it,” Nicholas said. “But I find it perplexing that you haven’t had a lot of other Democratic members of the Senate saying it. Perhaps that’s because he’s a freshman and he hasn’t been totally inculcated into the ‘Here in the Senate we do things differently’ line of thinking.”
Fetterman chief of staff Adam Jentleson said the senator has “always had” the policy positions he’s espousing today, even though Republicans wanted to paint him as a socialist in 2022 and “some folks on the left are pretending” he has since changed his beliefs.
“He’s just being consistent,” Jentleson said. “He spent the entire campaign telling people he wasn’t a down-the-line lefty.”
Fetterman, like most normal** people, simply isn’t an ideologue. While I find him quirky and annoying, he seems like a decent guy who grew up well-off but developed a strong affinity for the working class. He has all sorts of ideas about the world, shaped by his experiences, but they don’t form a coherent worldview that’s easily labeled.
He sees Israel as the side of right in the current conflict and therefore supports them. He sees Menendez (like the expelled George Santos) as unfit to serve in Congress, period. And he’s pugnacious enough not to overly care what his colleagues think about him.
To the extent people are moving to the right more than to the left—and, again, I’m not sure there’s a lot of empirical evidence for that—I suspect it’s a function of the current Democratic Party being more ideologically coherent than the current Republican Party (very much a reversal of the recent norm).
And I think Goldberg is onto something here:
[I]n much of the Western world, the right has been so much better than the left at harnessing hatred of the status quo.
Part of the answer is probably that the culture of the left is simply less welcoming, especially to the politically unsure, than the right.
But I think there’s a deeper problem, which stems from a crisis of faith in the possibility of progress. Liberals and leftists have lots of excellent policy ideas but rarely articulate a plausible vision of the future.
It’s easy to see what various parts of the left want to dismantle — capitalism, the carceral state, heteropatriarchy, the nuclear family — and much harder to find a realistic conception of what comes next.
The right has an advantage in appealing to dislocated and atomized people: It doesn’t have to provide a compelling view of the future. All it needs is a romantic conception of the past, to which it can offer the false promise of return. When people are scared and full of despair, “let’s go back to the way things were” is a potent message, especially for those with memories of happier times.
As Democrats coalesce to appeal to the college-educated and adopt the language and attitudes of the academy, it’s natural that they’ll alienate former members. Working-class whites have most famously shifted their allegiance but we’ve also seen some movement among working-class Black and Hispanic voters. Progressive policies on everything from race to immigration to LGBTQ issues, especially when articulated in a maximal way, are naturally going to alienate some factions.
But, of course, this realignment works both ways. There are people like myself who were longtime Republicans who have been alienated by the ascendance of the Tea Party and, especially, the MAGA wing.
The reason we pay so much more attention to the former than the latter is twofold. First, the preponderance of the elite media is liberal and progressive, so they columnist class is naturally more interested in why people who used to be on their side are drifting away. Second, and more importantly, the strange way we elect our representatives—and particularly the President—has made the former more important.
Indeed, I can pretty easily see a world in which Fetterman is a Republican and, certainly, in which the kind of people who are drawn to Fetterman would vote for Donald Trump over a Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. Most folks aren’t ideological, voting instead on some combination of habit, tribal loyalty, and personality assessments. The same people who admire Fetterman’s pugnacity and would prefer having a beer with him than Mehmet Oz are likely to prefer Trump.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum shares my skepticism of the underlying premise:
In fact, according to two reliable pollsters the number of people who identify as liberals has gone up over the past two decades:
Conservative ID, by contrast, has stayed steady this entire time.
Nonetheless, he has an interesting explanation for the phenomenon, notwithstanding its non-existence:
The plain fact is that being a liberal is hard. You have to care about poor people and homeless people and Palestinians and trans people and the environment and Black people and the disabled and Hispanics and the neurodivergent and fast food workers and animals and undocumented immigrants and indigenous people and plastic straws and public transit and mass incarceration and DEI and white privilege and child workers and wage theft and lead pipes and educational equality and systemic racism and bullying and climate change and screen time and maternal mortality and social justice and fat phobia and antisemitic tropes and voter suppression and bank fees and racial stereotyping and income inequality and safe spaces and unconscious bias and football concussions and Black Lives Matter and eugenics and atoning for the past and food deserts and gender affirming care and neoliberalism and health equity and flying and the unbanked and restorative justice and toxic masculinity and biodiversity and colonialism and intersectionality and the global south and malaria and sexual harassment and microaggressions and dolphin-safe tuna and power relations and factory farming and stereotype threat and Davos and cultural appropriation and habitat loss and #OscarsSoWhite and gender identity and pronouns and whale hunting and police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct and Twitter and ableism and deeply problematic and heteronormativity and colony collapse and forever chemicals and body shaming and white saviors and mansplaining and gentrification and hate speech and plastic water bottles and the Bechdel test.
It’s pretty exhausting caring about all this stuff all the time, and I’m not even counting issues that everyone cares about, like abortion or gun control. If you get overloaded by it all—and especially if you find some of these items sort of ridiculous to begin with—it’s pretty easy to drift right, even if you don’t go full MAGA.
He’s not wrong. More to the point: not caring about even a few of those can get you branded apostate.
*In most cases, they’re people in advanced middle age whose views on social issues simply haven’t evolved since their younger days, making them out of step with younger progressives.
**My wife often notes that I define “normal” with my own experience as the center. In this case, though, I’m aware that, like most OTB readers, I’m decidedly abnormal in spending so much time analyzing politics and public policy.