Last year, The Atlantic published an article by American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin, entitled “Lights, Camera, Congress!” In it, Levin excoriated senators and representatives for “treating Congress as a particularly prominent platform for commentary, channeling the frustrations of their voters, elevating their own profiles, and perpetuating the endless melodrama of our culture war.”

Enter, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

On Monday, Fetterman declared what everyone already knew, that he is running to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring from in 2022. He did it with a video, much of which is filled with clips of him speaking on national television.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Over the last few years, if any of us have seen or heard from the “larger-than-life” lieutenant governor, as the Associated Press recently described him, it has likely been via MSNBC, CNN, CBS, “The Colbert Report,” and so on. As WHYY noted in a November 2020 article called “The Cult of John Fetterman,” he’s been profiled by Paste Magazine, Glamour, and Teen Vogue. If you search his name on MSNBC’s website, he comes up 739 times. And that search only provides results going back to July of last year. A similar search for his boss, Gov. Tom Wolf, nets a mere 249 results going all the way back to 2015.

But while Fetterman has been a raging success in grabbing national attention since stepping onto the political stage, much less can be said of his job performance as lieutenant governor or his ability to get things done on behalf of Pennsylvanians in a split U.S. Senate.

The vast majority of Pennsylvanians would likely find it impossible to name a single thing he’s accomplished as a statewide elected official.

The vast majority of Pennsylvanians would likely find it impossible to name a single thing he’s accomplished as a statewide elected official. The exceptions may be his much-publicized “listening tour” on marijuana legalization and his yelling matches with Republicans while attempting to preside over the state senate — one of the few responsibilities of his office.

READ MORE — The Editors: A civics lesson for Mr. Fetterman

Of course, it’s not as though citizens of this commonwealth can rely on Fetterman’s friends in the national media to interrogate his policy positions and plans for realistic legislation. On Monday, an MSNBC journalist saw fit to chat with him about his position on the Sheetz vs. Wawa hoagie debate

When asked an actual question of substance, Fetterman reveals a superficiality akin to the Carhartt apparel he uses to veil his familial wealth. Asked about eliminating the Senate filibuster, he said, “Let’s be honest here: If Mitch McConnell is for something, that should give anyone pause to be like, ‘well, then I probably should be against it.’” In other words, Fetterman as Senator would think no further than blind partisanship demands.

There is no doubt that Fetterman is a skilled political performer. Rather than constructively working within state government, he uses it as a platform to pick fights guaranteed to go viral. In recent weeks, for example, he’s been unwilling to follow rules that disallow using the state Capitol as a personal flag mount for his marijuana and LGBT pride flags, for which he’s received accolades on Twitter. Many others who work in the building undoubtedly agree with him on those issues, but unlike Fetterman, they’ve at least respected the dignity of the building they’ve been sent to in service of the commonwealth.

Rather than constructively working within state government, he uses it as a platform to pick fights guaranteed to go viral.

If Pennsylvanians were to elect Fetterman as senator, we’d be sending another politician to join the growing ranks of performers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Sen. Josh Hawley, and Rep. Illian Omar, who find stoking divisiveness via Twitter and cable news so enticing (and helpful in soliciting donations) that legislating is a distraction. 

Such shallow tribalism is a plague on our politics and civic culture.  As Fetterman’s profile continues to rise, let’s hope he can offer something more.


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