John Fetterman is back in the spotlight by winning the closely watched Pennsylvania Senate race against his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. The victory makes Fetterman, a Democrat, the first candidate in the election to flip a national Senate seat from red to blue.
Fetterman has been cast by his campaign over and over as “a man of the people,” standing in stark contrast to his more elite Republican opponent. It is therefore not surprising that Fetterman has attracted the interest of a a larger share of voters without higher education (which usually turn out to be Republican) than Democratic candidates in other states.
Part of Fetterman’s popularity stems from his image as a rough and tumble, all-American man. Fetterman, former college football player, certainly looks the part. Standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall with a shaved head and a hooded sweatshirt, he would look right at home among the steel mills of Pennsylvania, where he currently serves as lieutenant governor. But Fetterman also holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and has devoted his life to public service.
Although Fetterman admits his relatively privileged upbringing, his often unconventional approach is underpinned by his clear commitment to his constituents. After all, Fetterman literally engraved on his arm the dates that someone from Braddock, where he was mayor, died of violence under his watch. Although he may not have worked in the steel mills, his willingness to genuinely listen and advocate for those who did stands out. He’s actually a bit of an unexpected surprise – and he can be a (but not on) a key cornerstone upon which the future of the Democratic Party rests. To ensure a strong future for the party, Democrats must expand their models of political masculinity.
As social scientists, we know that the ability to connect with a candidate is important, but so is the ability to do so see yourself reflected among our politicians. While it certainly has a way to go, the party has taken steps to diversify for women; a a record number of women served in the 117th Congress. But as recent history shows us, Democrats have had a rocky relationship with men.
Since at least the 1830s, when the Whig Party formed to counter Andrew Jackson’s masculine frontiersman archetype, America’s major political parties have used symbols and code words to give the appearance of a masculine appeal that they believe will resonate with the general electorate. In 1840, for example, the Whigs ran William Henry Harrison, a long-retired, largely unsuccessful aristocratic politician, under “Log cabin and hard cider,” while also referencing his distant past when he fought with Native forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison became the first president elected by the Whigs, thus also cementing the trend of that party electing ex-soldiers for their leading men.
While Democrats can look deep into their past for masculine figures like Jackson, in the more recent past they have struggled to recruit leading men who exude blue-collar appeal. With few exceptions, male Democratic politicians seem relatively sweet: middle-aged or older, rich and extremely polished.
One way to increase voter turnout for your political party is to “find” groups of prospective voters who never or rarely turn out and get them to vote. After all, those who voted in 2018 but not in 2016 helped Joe Biden win in 2020, with 62% of those people choosing Joe Biden over Donald Trump. Some groups—like black women—historically have high levels of electoral participation; others, such as men without college degrees and white men, when they did appear, often did so for Republican candidates. In fact, only 38% of white men identified as Democrats in 2019.
According to Pew Research Center, the Democratic Party has made some recent gains among men, although in 2020 Republicans have gained some ground among Hispanic voters and women. Such shifting loyalties are nothing new, as the voter realignments of the 1990s show. Since the electorate is not “fixed”, political parties are constantly looking for new groups to emerge or convert.
People over the age of 50 can remember quite clearly that the current political arrangement, especially in terms of regional voting patterns, looks quite different than it did in the 1960s. Going even further back, the migration of white Southerners from the Party of Jackson and Jefferson—two white slaveholders—to the Party of Lincoln it was complex and multifaceted. But in the 1990s, white Southerners consistently voted Republican in both presidential and congressional elections.
To attract more men, especially whites and Hispanics, (back) to the Democratic Party, we need to ensure diversity among male candidates as well. It is clear that Democrats cannot rely on changes in the country’s changing demographic profile to create an inevitable political majority. Women and members of minority groups are multifaceted and diverse in their political beliefs and are not the “lock” the party once assumed.
However, Democrats must also turn to men ranging from the miner in Indiana to the college professor in Ohio for lasting gains. They should take advantage of their recent gains among men in 2020 to appeal to many different types of male voters.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that men, especially white men, already have enough representation in politics. And it’s true – politicians are overwhelmingly white and male. But American masculinity is much more than older, rich and noble. This is, of course, a legitimate type of masculinity. But men are also suburban fathers, union factory workers, and rural merchants, and they too deserve representatives in Congress who understand their lives.
Just 43,000 votes in key states stood between Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s second presidency. Moreover, given increasing legislation that further restricts voting rights, especially for black voters, Democrats must convert existing voters or persuade nonvoters to come to the polls. White males are an obvious target.
The Democratic Party tends to pride itself on casting a wide net regarding the demographics and interests of its constituency. But their male politicians in particular need to be more inclusive too. To move forward, the party needs to diversify its appeal to men. Making sure voters feel like they see themselves among the candidates is just one step in that process. That could mean looking for more candidates, like Fetterman, even if they’re campaigning in cargo shorts.
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