How To Spot Red Flags

Politicians like John Fetterman always tell audiences what they want to hear. It’s our job to scrutinize their records, demand real commitments, and hold them accountable when they lie and betray us.

Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman has recently disappointed and angered a lot of his progressive supporters, while delighting conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. “I find myself every single week retweeting something that Fetterman has said,” said a Fox & Friends cohost. As Israel has continued its genocidal war on Gaza, Fetterman has staunchly supported it, literally draping himself in the Israeli flag. He even went to his office to fetch an Israeli flag so that he could “wave it at [pro-Palestinian] activists while they were being arrested.” After South Africa brought a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, rather than respond to South Africa’s voluminous evidence and argumentation, Fetterman said the country ought to “sit this one out.” He has insisted there should be no conditions whatsoever on U.S. military aid to Israel, and we should “stop talking about proportion” in evaluating Israel’s response to the Oct. 7th attacks. 

Israel isn’t the only issue on which Fetterman has clashed with progressive Democrats. Even as the climate crisis puts the Earth in unprecedented peril, Fetterman is a staunch supporter of the fracking industry. He has also “broken with immigration advocates in his support for curbing migration,” leading NBC News to label him a “maverick.” Ingrid Jacques of USA Today says we are seeing a “whole new John Fetterman” for the new year now that he is “kissing his progressive ways goodbye.” Fetterman’s stances have caused his support among young people to plummet quickly, and horrified a number of former campaign staffers, but he’s made it clear he couldn’t care less. And it’s unlikely it’ll affect him electorally; Fetterman remains popular in Pennsylvania and will probably pick up a Republican supporter for every young Democrat he alienates. 

Fetterman, for his part, claims he hasn’t changed “a lick,” portraying his conservative stances as independence and a willingness to buck party orthodoxy. In some ways, this is true. During his campaign, Fetterman made it clear that he was “not really a progressive” on issues involving Israel, and he encouraged the Biden administration to keep Trump-era immigration restrictions in place. Leftist commentators like myself and Ben Burgis harshly criticized Fetterman before he was elected over his support for Israel’s apartheid regime.

What accounts for the sense of betrayal among progressives, then? Well, one reason is that Fetterman outright lied about his own positions, repeatedly. Before publicly coming out in support of fracking, he had publicly come out against it. He went from saying that he had “never” supported fracking to saying he had “always” supported it. And when he declared in December that he was “not a progressive,” but a “regular Democrat,” supporters hauled out old statements in which Fetterman explicitly pitched himself to voters as a progressive. Fetterman had endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, and it was clear that he wanted to be carried forward by some of the energy that had drawn young supporters to Bernie. But he used them cynically, lying about where he stood. He did this even more brazenly than Barack Obama did—I don’t recall Obama doing anything as egregious as saying he “never” supported something and then saying he had “always” supported it. Fetterman has revealed himself to be completely untrustworthy; I don’t know why anyone should believe anything he says about what he believes, given that he has shown he might soon say the opposite. 

Young progressives who were drawn to Fetterman have a right to feel betrayed, then, because they were. Even those who agree with Fetterman on his anti-immigration, pro-genocide stances should be able to see his dishonesty. (Although if you’re fine with the obliteration of Gaza, I doubt you’re terribly disturbed by a politician’s fibs to voters.) And yet even though they were betrayed, I also think it was somewhat naive to have faith in Fetterman. Personally, I became suspicious of him quite early on, even as many people I respected had high hopes for him. I just saw a few red flags that made me think: This guy is a classic self-serving politician who can’t be relied on to advance progressive values.

At first, I liked Fetterman. I watched a great talk he gave about his time as mayor of Braddock, and it seemed clear he deeply loved the city and was committed to revitalizing it. But his legacy there is actually quite controversial, with his successor saying he has “a fan club of a lot of people who aren’t in Braddock.” One can speculate about whether Fetterman used Braddock in the same way Pete Buttigieg, a fellow wealthy Harvard grad, used South Bend, Indiana: a sandbox to build some good PR and Rust Belt cred in preparation for higher office.

I can’t say I was dubious about Fetterman from day 1, but I was definitely dubious about him by about day 3 or 4. There were some odd things about him from the start, like his refusal to apologize for pulling a shotgun on a Black jogger he suspected (wrongly) of having a gun. But he also seemed like he might hold the key to getting Democrats back in touch with the working class. He was gruff. Tattooed. Big. And he supported raising the minimum wage! And he’s pro-union! Maybe Fetterman had the key to progressive power, combining a humble, workaday aesthetic with pro-labor politics. A lot of people wanted to believe in him. 

The only problem was that this required overlooking certain of his words and actions. I found his justification of pulling a shotgun on a Black jogger to be weird and discomforting. But I started to really become suspicious of Fetterman when his campaign adopted an especially personality-focused series of messages against Dr. Oz. Now, granted, this may have been strategically sound—Fetterman is now in the Senate and Oz is not, even though Fetterman had a major stroke on the campaign trail. But I was disturbed by how little substance there was to the Fetterman campaign. His social media accounts were flooded with goofy memes and insults, not actual political positions. It struck me as very much the opposite of the inspiring and wholesome Bernie Sanders approach, which hammered on substantive issues like the costs of healthcare and college and led with promises to make material improvements in voters’ lives.

To progressives who end up disappointed by Fetterman, then, I think there are some important lessons here. Don’t trust politicians, even if they seem cool. Be careful not to project onto them qualities they haven’t actually shown they possess. Scrutinize them intensively. Kyrsten Sinema began her political career as a Green Party activist and critic of capitalism. She ended up as one of the most pro-corporate Democrats in the senate. Trust someone’s record, not their promises. (Bernie Sanders earned his supporters’ trust in part through 40+ years of consistency.) Be ready to challenge political leaders if they waver from their promises. They don’t deserve our loyalty. Politicians are “public servants.” We’re not here to help them, they’re here to serve us, and when they lie and betray us, they no longer deserve our support. John Fetterman is right that he was never as committed to progressive values as his supporters assumed, but he also chose to mislead his supporters. To avoid being burned, it’s important to watch carefully for signs that an aspiring elected official is going to sell you out the moment they no longer need you. Sadly, most of them will do just that. 

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