Mayor John Fetterman on the 2016 primaries and the value of liberalism

As the 2016 election races toward its ominous climax, other parts of the campaign have already come to an end. There’s the Republican presidential primary, which is nearing an epochal self-immolation at the Ohio Convention, with Donald Trump as the nominee, and the Democrats, whose party, after weathering the Bernie Sanders “revolution,” are now winding down to their preordained Clinton conclusion.

With so much chaos and hatred on the Republican side, and the deferred idealism of the Democrats looming, there’s a conversation to be had about the impulses of the 2016 electorate. As it swings back and forth between savage and civilized, establishment and revolution, conservative and liberal, there’s no better person to have that conversation with than Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who until just last week, ran his own progressive insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination in the Pennsylvania Senate race.

Fetterman won nearly 300,000 votes, 20% of the overall vote, and came in third behind Democratic establishment pick Katie McGinty and former congressman Joe Sestak. He easily won every debate, but was abandoned by his party apparatus and chosen presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, and was outspent fifteen to one. Coming in third is never great, but Fetterman, whose polling lagged throughout the race, had an astounding showing on election day, considering how well-positioned his opponents were. He now towers over the other Democrats in his state as the standard bearer and warrior wonk of the new progressives.

As the political establishment brunched through their 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner hangovers, I spoke with Fetterman about his own primary battle, how it relates to the national race and his party, and what it means for the soul of the country.

Steve King: You’ve said that yours was “the most progressive candidacy for the Senate” in the country, and that yours and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns were a kind of “harmonic convergence.” And for a little while it started to feel like the beginning of something. Like the impetus for Occupy Wall Street in the early days. A revolution. What happened?

Mayor John Fetterman: I can’t really explain it. Our campaign was positioned perfectly. We would have been honored to hook up with the Sanders campaign and I think we could have won the race. So I can’t explain why. You would have to ask the Sanders campaign. We actually ended up winning Allegheny County and Bernie didn’t. But I don’t have any regrets for endorsing Bernie. It doesn’t change my message or my outlook or my opinion. It’s just my disappointment and nothing more.   

SK: I find myself genuinely torn between Bernie and Hillary. I agree with nearly everything Bernie says but I don’t find him presidential. I’ve been a Bernie fan for over a decade. He’s an important voice but he’s never been a presidential voice. Is it really just antipathy within the base toward Hillary that turned Bernie into a real challenger, or is it something else? Does Democratic-Socialist just sound cooler?

JF: I look at this way. Bernie has made an important contribution. And it’s not policy or moving the party to the left. It’s demonstrating that we don’t need outside money in politics. He has demonstrated that you can campaign and you can just use people. Just regular Joes and Janes can finance an entire campaign, and you’re accountable to nobody except the voters. Now that that’s possible and this true democracy can actually finance your campaign the way you do crowdfunding or kickstarter, there’s this idea that you can run a presidential campaign and actually out-raise your opponent. It’s really exciting. To me, I think that’s the part of Sanders legacy that’s most important. There’s no reason to have outside money in politics anymore because Sanders has shown that you can raise money if you’re able to connect with voters and people. I don’t know why more people aren’t talking about that. I guess it’s just lost in translation. There’s just this toxic influence. It’s better to have a million voters backing your campaign than 100 families backing a campaign. That’s a more perfect form of democracy.

SK: The flip side to that is Trump, in that he’s kind of blown the whole money in politics thing out of the water in a louder and more disruptive way than Bernie in some respects.

JF: I’ve said this during the race that they’re the same candidate except one has mined the positive, aspirational side of populism, and the other has mined the dark side and nativism, racism. You live vicariously through him and he gets to say the things you wish you could say. One’s ying and the other one’s yang. They’ve tapped into the same force.

SK: But you can look at both Bernie’s and Trump’s grassroots support and see large swaths of people who are just not living in reality, whether it’s foreign policy or domestic matters. They’re flips sides to the same coin. It kind of speaks to the old joke “You know what’s in the grassroots…? Bullshit!” How much of each party’s base is just out to lunch and full of shit?

JF: As vehemently as I disagree with the right’s grassroots, this is a free country and they’re able to hold these beliefs that I might find deeply offensive and wrong-headed. And the same thing holds with Sanders. I think it’s important that the Democratic Party always remain the party of big ideas. And these things that you and I accept as norms were once considered to be a radical idea. Social Security, children going to school and not working in a factory or in a farm, women voting, women working. I don’t ever want to see the Democratic Party retreat from that. Marriage equality was a radical idea even ten years ago. Now it’s the law of the land. Marijuana legalization, I think is going to go the same route. What are we as a society afraid of? We’ve gone from “Reefer Madness” to it being no different than having a cold beer and watching a football game.

SK: You even said something like that in one of the debates that there was a time when covering preexisting conditions was controversial. Now even Trump is okay with it.

JF: It’s crazy. This idea that the more you need something should disqualify you is one of the craziest things in the world. I don’t understand why that was even considered a radical concept? The Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect, and if you talk about realism in the sense that with a divided Congress, then neither is universal health care. But that doesn’t mean that one is the enemy of the other and that we as a society aren’t continuing to evolve toward that. It’s a beachhead that we were able to take in the war toward achieving universal health care. It can be the segue toward that. It’s far from perfect, but that’s the way the system is constructed, where that’s the best law that could have gotten passed at that time. I’ll take that over nothing.  

SK: Now that we’re facing the eventuality of Hillary Clinton in the general election, and in the face of a Trump onslaught, are you, a Bernie Sanders supporter, ready For Hillary? Are you resigned to Hillary?

JF: I’ve said this to people who say “It’s Bernie or I’m not voting.” I say, “I’m begging you, please reconsider.” If you think you object to Hillary, what does that look like under Ted Cruz or Donald Trump? I don’t know who you’re punishing other than the citizens of your own country. There are people out there who think Donald Trump is fit to be Commander-in-Chief; or Ted Cruz, who is the most Machiavellian and soulless politician that I can ever recall. He’s a caricature. Even his own kids recoil at his touch. The way he behaves…I don’t get it. I don’t know how anybody would ever want that man in any position of authority over anything. Donald Trump is a buffoon and this big gas bag, but Ted Cruz I really believe is evil. Ted Cruz is on a whole different level. There’s nothing there. And now his campaign is about not letting transgender people use the bathroom. There is no level which he will not pander to figure out a way to get elected. People laughed but the fact that the former Speaker of the House, who’s a hardcore Republican, would call a major political figure in his party “Lucifer,” that right there says is all.

SK: I’ve been thinking a lot, especially in this campaign, about the idea of political and human evil. I’ve just never seen it displayed more overtly than in candidates like Trump and Cruz. It’s a hell of a juxtaposition. It’s shocking.

JF: His campaign slogan is “Trust Ted” which is the complete opposite reaction that any person or child would have. Just because you’re not ready for Hillary, or don’t want to vote for her, is really destructive. As a staunch Bernie supporter I would just implore people in that camp to reconsider. It can’t be “Bernie or bust” because the alternative is Donald Trump, and he’ll turn America into some busted out, bankrupt, casino in Atlantic City. We can’t have that. Is Hillary your perfect candidate? Probably not. But she’s a lot different from what Trump would accomplish. We saw that with Al Gore. People were like “Oh, what’s the difference?” Well, how about the Iraq War or massive tax cuts for the wealthy? For everyone who said “I’m going to vote for Ralph Nader”…well, how’d that work out for you?

SK: What is the difference in politics between “evolution” and “revolution?” What’s more valuable: passion and revolution, or incrementalism, evolution, and pragmatism?

JF: Each one is useful in a particular way. Revolution can be just as damaging for progressive causes as the Bush presidency was. Obama’s two terms were about bringing us back from that disaster. In terms of revolution, be careful what you ask for. Because it can go your way or it can go the other way. What I am confident of is that we can’t say if it’s not Bernie, then to hell with it, because like I said, it gets back to the Bush versus Gore kind of thing.

SK: We’ve had a lot of wave elections recently. 2006 was a wave election, same with 2008, 2010, 2014, and now this year. These are rhetorical revolutions. At this point I just can’t help but see the danger in both. I don’t know if that’s me getting older or if it’s truth.

JF: There is no danger from Bernie Sanders. His ideas are benign for any normal person. Wall Street’s power is alarming. There’s plenty out there that a reasonable person could be like “Yeah, that makes sense to me.” But I don’t think any reasonable person could say “Let’s build a wall between the United States and Mexico.” And I don’t think a lot of Trump’s supporters think that’ll happen. They’re just happy that somebody feels the way they do, and “let’s send all these damn Mexicans back home” or whatever. There’s so much that I think has become accepted in American politics because of Trump. That’s the revolutionary part about Donald Trump. How many third rails did this guy hit during his campaign? He made fun of the disabled, veterans, said that Megyn Kelly was menstruating and that’s why she was being so hard on him. Think of all the things he has said and done. And he is going to be your party’s presumptive nominee? How do you feel about that? Think about what America is about to do.They are about to nominate a terrible reality TV show host with the most absurd comb-over in the history of the planet, who can’t even run a couple casinos and a few buildings, and that qualifies him to be President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief. I mean, think about that. It’s staggering. I don’t know how any patriot who loves his or her country can say Donald Trump should have the nuclear suitcase.

SK: Is reconciliation within the party worth it? With the Senate, health care reform, and Supreme Court on the line, is it worth it for so many unhappy liberal Democrats to stay home if their candidates aren’t ideologically pure enough? Are these imperfections make-or-break?  

JF: You can’t turn your back on the party at this point, when you look at the alternative. That’s the way I see it. And if some of Bernie’s supporters are angry with me then I would apologize. But you just can’t have Donald Trump. I really mean this. Democrats lose if turnout is low. And what if Sanders was our nominee? Wouldn’t we want the same from Hillary supporters? Seriously? And I’m still a big Bernie person, even after his campaign failed to pick us up. This idea that we’re going to somehow even the score or make a statement, it’s like voting for Ralph Nader. We’re still on the same side. A vote not cast for Hillary in protest is a vote for Donald Trump by default, and we can’t have that. Everybody knows it’s over and should allow Bernie the same dignity that Hillary was afforded, then we all come together in Philadelphia and we realize that there’s too much at stake and there’s still a lot of great stuff that we can accomplish.

SK: This is what happens in primaries. People get riled up and then they calm down, but does refusing to support a Hillary or McGinty really just become a social exercise? Doesn’t it become about justification of self?

JF: I understand the passion. I really do. But at the end of the day, work that out and come to your senses and realize that you may not agree on everything, but there’s more we have in common – and consider the alternative. And what should supersede all of that is: what would we be saying to their supporters if we were the chosen ones. To not do that is hypocritical. I’m confident that folks will realize there’s only one way to go with this thing.

SK: In a debate, you said that “bipartisanship is dying and it’s not our fault.” This general election, no matter which way the race goes, will be the most negative in generations. How do we pick up the pieces the day after? How do you move forward from scorched-earth politics?

JF: It’s a false equivalence but we’re all part of this. I can’t tell you how many Republicans reached out to me and said they’re gonna vote for me or change their party affiliation. You don’t have to agree with everybody. We need to get back to a time when it wasn’t so polarized. When I can talk one-on-one with a conservative and ask “Can you live off $7.35 an hour?” The say “Of course not.” Ok, how about $8 or $9? And again they say “No, of course not.” And then you have to ask “And why do you think that you can’t? What’s the solution? Do you feel better knowing that somebody is living in poverty and it’s your tax dollars making up the difference?”   

SK: In watching the debates, it’s apparent that Sestak was stale, rusty, and downright boring. McGinty seemed stilted, fake, and rehearsed, but you seemed to not just be regurgitating talking points, but, as you’ve said in the past, telling a story and connecting. Why doesn’t authenticity always translate to overwhelming electoral success? Your own state Party Chair viewed you as having the best shot against Senator Toomey in the fall. Why is it so hard for the rest of the party to catch on?

JF: I think a lot of the party did catch on. For us to get the votes that we got, if you break down the cost-per-vote, we were somewhere around two dollars per vote. Sestak was, I think, ten dollars per vote, and McGinty was at $14 per vote. That’s staggering. I think we did connect. If you look at the intensity of our voters, we had the highest of all three candidates by far. If we had been able to hook up with Bernie we could have won this race. It would have been great for both of us. It would have been the antidote to the overwhelming outside money that rained in mostly for McGinty. Given the fact that we were so badly outspent, for us to walk away with 20% of the vote and win Allegheny County and a few others, I think that does mean that authenticity connects. It speaks to the limitation and the reality that Pennsylvania is a gigantic state and you just need to be able to get your message out. I finished ten or eleven points down from a guy who has been campaigning for seven or eight years, who outspent me for five or six or seven to one. The message did resonate. We didn’t have as much time and we were so outmatched in terms of resources.

SK: You’ve talked a lot about the “moral imperative,” whether it’s in regard to Syrian refugees, or Black Lives Matter, or confronting economic inequality in all its forms. But the moral imperative seems to be up for debate in this country. Why is that? Where does what you call the “moral imperative” come from?

JF: People have a different slant on what morality is. For me, you look at the pictures of people in Syria, and the horror, and I think “Why wouldn’t you want to take in as many people as you can?” Marco Rubio was campaigning proudly on his family’s Cuban roots and heritage, and he should. Cuba was a dangerous regime, trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and it was only 90 miles off our coast, not thousands of miles away in the Middle East, yet somehow our country welcomed Marco Rubio’s family, and they thrived as a result. Why do Syrians deserve less? How can you defend that? Why doesn’t everybody deserve that? That’s what I find unconscionable and morally devoid of decency.

SK: We’ve touched on this in the past, but I’m kind of obsessed with the concept of two or more political realities existing within the same space. Americans seem to be not so much a community, but more a collection of self-interests whose main function is to look out for themselves and their version of reality. You always say that “we have to watch out for each other” but do we actually do that? Isn’t relentless self-interest regardless of consequences quintessentially American? Is it really un-American to only care about oneself?

JF: I just remember when “Wall Street” came out and Gordon Gekko said “Greed is Good,” and people rallied around that phrase, and years later Oliver Stone said “I meant that as parody.” If you look at the things that we collectively look out for each other on, whether it’s Social Security, or the military, or infrastructure. You don’t have to argue against your economic self-interest. You just need to not argue with 110% of your own economic self-interest. Why oppose $15 an hour for a minimum wage when you’re in the top tax bracket? Or can’t we all agree that climate change is happening? Here’s one thing that I vehemently disagree with Bernie on: the Philadelphia soda tax. Who walks into a convenience store and says “Well, that Coke used to be a $1.37 and now it’s $1.47. No, I’m done. I’m out of here.” But that would provide universal pre-K for kids in Philadelphia. Who cares about the price. You’re buying it for the convenience. Who could possibly oppose that?   

SK: This is something that I wrestle with. Something that we as Americans involved in or interested in politics should all think about. Is America, as Trump and many in the Republican party portray it, every man for himself, or is it a co-operative experience as you’ve espoused?

JF: I think it’s both and it needs to be both. I think we’re all better off for the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses, and they’re always going to have a nicer home than me, and take nicer vacations than me, and I’m ok with that. But what we should not have is a guy making $7.35 an hour and living in perpetual darkness in a nightmarish world, or families hearing gunshots and they only wait until more than five shots before they call the police. We shouldn’t have this enormous disparity. We always need to preserve enough room for the entrepreneurs, or the truly exceptional people and innovators like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, to be able to raise our standard of living, but it needs to be done in a way that we’re all better off.

SK: But humans aren’t born with instructions. We’re not born with a list an accompanying morals and rights. Americans are born with constitutional rights but not guarantees like free or affordable health care, or early childhood education. Are these things rights? Are they not rights? How do these things become intrinsic American rights?

JF: We have to keep demanding that they do. There were a lot of things that weren’t intrinsic rights that are now. You don’t get harassed at our workplace sexually if you’re a woman. If you’re African-American you can sit at a lunch counter. That’s the way things used to be. That was the reality. And it changed, thankfully. A lot of these things have to keep changing. That’s what I fundamentally believe and hope. It’s my hope that we look back on paying people $7.35 an hour with the same level of revulsion that we see labor practice in the early part of the last century where people were killed and there were no safety precautions or children worked in factories. All of this stuff was common at one point, and the idea that we have to do better, and we are better than this, has kept things moving forward.

SK: Our three most recent presidents all suffered losses in congressional races early in their careers. You’ve said that you’re going back to Braddock and don’t plan to seek another office. But you’re young. Have you given any thought to races closer to home, as opposed to the Senate? Like, say, governor?

JF: I have given thought to other races. The reason why is that our results and our message did resonate. You shouldn’t need more than what we raised to run for Senate. So yeah. I haven’t ruled anything in and I haven’t ruled anything out. That we got X number of votes for X number of dollars as compared to my primary opponents is encouraging. I’ll always care about these issues. I cared about these issues before they became fashionable, so to speak. Until we have what I think is an appropriate societal level of concern for these communities and these issues, I’m going to keep going as long as I can.

SK: What can be taken from this race and brought home to better serve Braddock?   

JF: First and foremost is that it really matters, and this story resonates and people really do care. We came up short this time because there are unfortunate realities, like too much money in politics. But we went from zero and left with the biggest platform of followers and email lists, and these other folks had been building their lists for years and years. And we did it in seven months. What I take to Braddock is a tremendous sense of pride that their story and their sacrifice does matter and does resonate to people across Pennsylvania, and if I have another opportunity to take another stab at that, I would be honored to do so, because these are issues that are super important and aren’t going away any time soon.

SK: You say that you’ve dedicated your life to confronting inequality in all its forms. Isn’t the confrontation really what gives the progressive movement meaning? Is it what gives Braddock meaning? Not achievement, but struggle?

JF: No. If you value the struggle too much that’s narcissism. I wish it wasn’t a struggle. I wish we all agreed that everybody who works full time should be able to live with a basic level of dignity that allows them to take care of themselves and their family. If you get too wrapped up in the struggle, you’re getting too wrapped up in your role in it. If I can help publicize Braddock’s struggle to people who might not have heard of it otherwise, I think that’s useful. Braddock’s struggle doesn’t need me to validate it. My only role is to talk about it because there aren’t enough people who have or do. I’d be the first person to love to not have to work on these issues, if we could all just agree that we shouldn’t lock people up for years for marijuana, and we should pay people a living wage, that health care is a right not a privilege, and a nation founded on immigration should not be choosing one of the major party nominees because he wants to build a wall across a border. There’s so much absurdity in this race, but it all comes down to the common sense level. That’s all I ever wanted to run on. Given the amount of resources we were able to raise compared to the amount of votes we got, I’m optimistic that a lot of people agree with that. I’m optimistic because a common sense campaign was validated as a possibility. I’m grateful to get involved. I’m grateful to my supporters for giving my voice a platform and protecting it from being drowned out by millions and millions of dollars.

Previously: A profile of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and King’s 2015 interview.