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Fetterman v. Oz (And a Love Letter to a Conflicted Pennsylvania)

(Edan Cohen/Unsplash)

“Not everything stays the same, and, in many cases, it probably should not.”

During the second weekend of October, with four weeks to go before the November 8th election, New York and The New York Post published contrasting portraits of the Pennsylvania Senate race’s two major candidates: lieutenant governor John Fetterman, the Democrat, and physician and television host Mehmet Oz, the Republican. The New York piece titled “The Vulnerability of John Fetterman” was by Rebecca Traister and ran just days before Fetterman appeared on NBC News for the interview that would spark so many differing opinions, so many of which were contrasting, hysterical, and endeavoring to make viewers disbelieve their own eyes. (Not to mention those that seemed to take issue with the very concept of journalism: that it constitutes a dereliction of journalistic responsibility to raise eminently reasonable questions about the health of a candidate.) Traister’s a portrait of the candidate bore many of the hallmarks of a New York piece, particularly in its post-Sullivan era, replete with numerous mentions of “Black” and “white” (and not of course in the context of describing the contents of an atelier), adjectives galore, and the sort of overtly partisan bullet points one would expect from a campaign flier but arranged within a mildly compelling narrative arc and topped off by the occasional nod to journalistic objectivity that might make one ever so briefly mistake it for impartial analysis. 

But the thrust of the piece was not obscured: Oz is intolerable, and Pennsylvania voters would be misguided beyond imagination to opt for anyone other than Fetterman. As for concerns about his health, Traister writes, “In the final weeks, Fetterman is banking on the hope that voters will see in his vulnerability a new way to appreciate his strength.” And this was shortly after she dismissed concerns Pennsylvania voters might have about crime, especially after Philadelphia recorded 561 homicides in 2021, its highest ever: “Oz’s aim increasingly became to depict this broad, tattooed giant as weak and deceptive, secretive and soft on crime—a playbook the right has used successfully against Democratic candidates of all kinds but especially those who are not white men.” Traister, in her endless sympathy for Fetterman and his campaign, condemned a Washington Post editorial that asked questions about Fetterman’s health as merely taking “up the frame offered by the Oz campaign.” Although to raise concerns about the candidate’s health is more than reasonable, what about his policies that despite his endless effort to cultivate an everyman image would, in all likelihood, make matters worse for said everyman, even when President Joe Biden insists that “John IS Pennsylvania”? 

The New York Post piece, which was titled “Inside Dr. Oz’s miracle comeback against John Fetterman in US Senate race,” could not have been more different. For Salena Zito, its author, Oz was in the midst of a miraculous and triumphant comeback after trailing in the polls and surviving a caustic primary contest against financier David McCormick. Part of Oz’s supposed comeback, for Zito, can be traced to his statewide handshaking campaign, a far-cry from team Fetterman’s Twitter snarkiness: “Oz went big—taking turns driving with his staff in his navy Denali—to meet voters in almost every county in the state. He held 90-minute town hall meetings and didn’t leave until he fielded every single question. He hosted business round tables, visited parents groups, maneuvered around cow pies at farm shows. With each visit, he gave interviews to local radio, print and television outlets, addressing the specific concerns of those communities.” In Traister’s telling, Fetterman’s stroke-prompted vulnerability is a strength, while for Zito, it is anything but: “Not even a stroke Fetterman suffered in May, leaving him unable to process verbal questions, could derail his campaign.” (And this would be followed up by even more targeted comments on Fetterman’s health by Zito following the October 25th debate between the two candidates.) Both writers discuss the stakes of the race given the Senate’s current 50-50 composition, but Zito, to her credit, also focuses on the importance of the crime issue, which I will argue is among the most pressing challenges facing this state. And, in her telling, Zito provides data showing that crime during Fetterman’s tenure as Mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania actually rose. The focus for both, though, is on the purely political, and I would like—in this piece—to look slightly beyond that. 

We hear often about different segments of the population being conditioned to consume different sources of news or commentary and, in turn, interpreting events through differing lenses—a point reminiscent of what David Foster Wallace was describing when he spoke of how “the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience.” This is not too different from this oft-discussed concept of “echo chambers,” the entity former House Speaker John Boehner pointed to as the cause for loss of the Washington he knew and loved, though the BBC told us in 2018 that the existence of echo chambers is actually a myth. It is difficult to say for sure who’s right. But, in this case, retreating to my own long-standing lens of media criticism (something I used to practice so much of), one cannot help but pause and reflect on the chasm between these two pieces published just days apart in publications that bear the name of the same two-word city. In one, a stroke is seen as a possible hidden political advantage, and in the other it is viewed as one that raises serious questions about a candidate’s viability. In the former, crime is treated as a non-issue that ought not even be brought up for fear of stoking racial tensions, and, in the latter, it is seen as an essential component of the story. Our post-persuasive age, I suppose, is one in which conceding points is as rare as an Okapi spotting, a productive dialogue across ideological lines, or, in our litigious society, an opportunity to file suit left untaken. There is nothing inherently wrong with polemical journalism and contrary to the pleas of some pundits, it is nothing new, but, still, the irreconcilability of the dueling portraits makes one grimace. 

It is surely unimaginative and eye roll-inducing to lament the lack of policy focus in electoral politics and in campaigning. This is the sort of observation that would often be made in discussion sections by my classmates in Yale’s department of political science before said classmates left such rumination immediately behind once they had traded the classroom roundtable for the residential college dinner table, at the latter of which every ad hominem and hysterical charge was made. But, in reality, does it matter how many houses Oz owns (as if financial success is something that ought to disqualify one for political office) or if Fetterman’s family helped to subsidize his lifestyle until the age of 49 (as if that is unheard of in American political history)? At least for me, a long-standing believer in the importance of public decorum, criticisms of Fetterman’s scruffy attire do hold weight. Whether it be a ripped copy of the State of the Union, a senior Senator from North Carolina pitter-pattering through the Capitol in flip flops or a foul-mouthed Kirsten Gillibrand, propriety ought to matter. As such, can’t the lieutenant governor of a state wear a proper shirt? With that said, at least in this Senate race if one occasionally looks past the ad hominem barrages, a few policy issues are indeed discussed: crime, marijuana, and inflation mostly—with a dash of vaccines

Why am I afraid to walk around the city where my family has lived—at least for the most part—since they first got off the boat centuries ago?

On the crucial crime point, despite New Republic writers trying to tell us that “…the evidence is murky about the power of the crime issue. With the 2021 murder rate mostly steady and other crime information marred by the limitations in how the FBI collects data, it is difficult to get a reliable handle on the importance of public safety as a voting issue,” certain realities, no doubt, remain. Why am I afraid to walk around the city where my family has lived—at least for the most part—since they first got off the boat centuries ago? And after my car was broken into in that city, Philadelphia, in January of 2018—with two windows smashed (because smashing just one would not have been gratuitous enough), my credits cards stolen and used at a Center City convenience store, two policemen having to crawl on their hands and knees in the snow to find my cell phone by a creek bed because the perpetrator (whose name they knew the second they saw the crime scene because he was out on bail for doing the same thing, again and again) did not want me to find my phone and call the police while he was still in the vicinity—district attorney Larry Krasner made sure that the case was not even presented when the time came. This relative chain of events is hardly rare for those who make the fatal mistake of parking a car within Philadelphia’s city limits. And that is if one does not have his car stolen entirely

All of this is compounded by the fact that police officers can take hours to arrive at the scene—not because they are lazy but because they are understaffed, especially in districts such as the 39th where my car was broken into. And as most Philadelphians know, in many of the City’s policing districts, if one calls the police for something deemed minor, you are informed in no uncertain way that “We don’t come out for that.” But, of course, I will allow Traister and The New Republic to tell me that crime does not actually matter. As George Orwell once put it, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” 

These days, my one cousin who still lives in the city speaks of the phenomenon of the “crash out,” where people, mostly teenagers, have all but given up. Prices are up; decent job prospects are diminished; and, for some combination of those reasons or some other reason, life just does not seem to matter as much. This might take the form of stammering in front of zipping cars rather than waiting for when it is safe to cross, drag racing down Roosevelt Boulevard even though red light cameras now are up to try to catch those doing it, or mugging someone and then killing him afterward even though he gave up his wallet without so much as a protestation. Retirees who moved to Center City after raising their children hoping for leisurely walks in Rittenhouse Square, trips to the theater, and nice dinners out nearly universally now regret that move, and, if one does not want to take my word for it, look no further than the fact that retailers in Center City are closing locations, citing retail theft and “continued safety and security challenges” as the factors. One of the greatest tragedies of all of this is that Philadelphia has so much to offer, something The Washington Post was sensing even in 1980 as it began to shed its butt of a joke status, from its comparative affordability to its northern neighbor of New York City to its history to the colonial beauty of Old City. It had come so far since the high crime rates of the 1990s began to ebb, but no matter how much a city has going for it or how much progress it has made, as Charles Krauthammer once stated, “Get your politics wrong…and everything stands to be swept away,” and that is precisely what its voters have done in recent years, particularly by electing Jim Kenney as its mayor and Larry Krasner as its district attorney. (1)  When reflecting on the resurgence that took place in Philadelphia in recent years, I cannot help but ponder a question I have considered before in more than one context: If you have a renaissance and it later reverts back, can it still be called a renaissance? 

Although it is difficult to discern the degree to which economic matters are to blame and I am skeptical of those who invoke economic reasons to the exclusion of all others, my friend Jamison Maley, who grew up on Knights Road in Our Lady of Calvary Parish, is correct when he notes that the main streets of most Pennsylvania towns are not nearly as vibrant as they were in decades past. He usually makes that comment when we are driving upstate, whether in Tamaqua (where the Tamaqua Diner where he used to like to eat closed on Sunday, February 5, 2017) or in the vicinity around Easton. But this is true back in Philadelphia, in Mayfair and Somerton just the same, where the Halloween decorations are getting sparser and one would now have to be nothing short of insane to leave the front door unlocked all night long like would have been second nature to do not altogether that long ago. Patrick Deneen, the University of Notre Dame political science professor, has said much the same recently, except he used Steubenville, Ohio as his example. There is a reason, though, that Charles Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart brought into focus the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia or why Northeast Philadelphia, the section of the city from which much of my family came, is heading in the direction that it is. The Nabisco plant is gone and with it the benefits it afforded its longer tenured employees like my Uncle Harry, another casualty of deindustrialization.

The close-knit communities where one could once divine much about another based on his answer to the simple question “What parish are you from?” have been replaced by enclaves where no one speaks the same language as those in the adjacent one, looks like them, or has much of anything in common. In one area, everyone came from South Vietnam; in the next neighborhood, everyone is Russian; and in South Philadelphia, recent Asian immigrants predominate as the Italian-Americans who made that section of the City famous gradually have filed out. Perhaps anticipating the war waged on the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, one friend of mine when asked what part of the city he recently moved to replied, “The Italian Market, but people don’t call it that anymore.” The diners, which were once 24-hour, might finally take credit cards now, but they are closed half the time, often empty, and ripe for some voyeuristic Politico photojournalist to take an Amtrak train up from Washington to 30th Street Station (Wait: They renamed it, just like they did West River Drive, and just about everything else) then “uber to it,” snap a few shots and smugly file it for a story lazily titled something like “Trump’s new urban base.” The average age of a parishioner at Our Lady of Calvary’s Saturday vigil has to be closing in on 75, I am told, and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary just sold its campus, the place Pope Francis stayed when he came to Philadelphia, to Main Line Health.

Not everything stays the same, and, in many cases, it probably should not. For instance, many of the high schools in Philadelphia saw brutally high casualty rates during the war in Vietnam. As is often recited in this area, Thomas Alva Edison High School in Philadelphia lost more graduates in Vietnam than any high school in the United States, and Father Judge and Cardinal Dougherty were not far behind. I often say that all of recent American history seems to exist in the shadow of the war in Vietnam, but nowhere does that still seem more true than in certain neighborhoods of Philadelphia. But today, with the debacles of Vietnam and Iraq (the latter being the far more ill-advised war of the two in my view) still fresh in mind, one hopes that the federal government would be less effective at asking a generation of young men to die, as Emmylou Harris might put it, “About a million miles from Meridian.” (To paraphrase the onetime Nebraska Senator George Norris, if one is going to ask a mother on the prairie to send her son to die in a country he has never been to and may never have even heard of, there better be a damn good reason. Too bad neither Pennsylvania Senator assumed that lens on August 7, 1964.) On the economic front, much change is for the better; though excessive outsourcing must be condemned, free trade and innovation have manifest benefits. Thanks to modern medicine, my favorite part about living today, and the many technologies that now make our lives more pleasant, many would still prefer to live today than in decades past, but one must still engage closely with what has accompanied these shifts: a diminished manufacturing sector, the decline of the extended family, and the loss of a consensus on what constitutes, for lack of a better word, upstandingness.

Despite that, there are still opportunities to be found, but to embrace them requires recognizing that this is no longer the world of yesteryear, and the opportunities that exist may be different from those on offer to generations past; the most pernicious problem, though, is this all too pervasive loss of agency, where so many feel that things are so hopelessly rigged against them that it would be foolhardy (or even a betrayal of themselves) to even try, a mindset that must be resisted. 

Perhaps the most significant change, though, has been the decline of the Catholic Church in places like Northeast Philadelphia, alluded to already when I described the aging population of parishes such as Our Lady of Calvary, or really any other. This is with the possible exception of St. Agatha-St. James and other campus-based Catholic churches; as the pseudonymous writer N. S. Lyons (and others) have suggested, there appears to be the emergence of a Catholic chic, where young people, particularly young women, are embracing the Catholic Church in an almost counter-counter culture. This is not altogether surprising when one thinks of one of the great lines from Russell Kirk (and he, of course, had many): “In a revolutionary epoch, sometimes men taste every novelty, sicken of them all, and return to ancient principles so long disused that they seem refreshingly hearty when they are rediscovered.” (2) But for many Catholics raised in the tradition, those who lack the proverbial zeal of the convert, the sex abuse scandal was (and is) unforgivable. It is much of the reason the Archdiocese had to sell St. Charles Borromeo’s campus, why so many schools and churches have closed, and why the once-faithful stand out in the February cold in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul to make clearly known their feelings of betrayal. The clergy sex abuse scandal, in many ways, has left these communities morally rudderless as its onetime parishioners consider converting (“But what about apostolic succession?”) but, in the end, elect not to or just tune it all out altogether, at least until funeral time comes around. But one at least hopes that if there is any consolation to be found it is that parents would be less inclined today to dismiss out of hand the possibility that their supposed moral leaders would engage in something so unthinkably evil. As one mantra echoing across the decades holds “Never again,” but as Eric Bogle puts it in “No Man’s Land”: “Did you really believe them that this war would end war?…it’s all happened again/And again, and again, and again, and again.” For the most part, the Catholic Church has itself to blame for its decline in Philadelphia (and in Boston and Palm Beach and elsewhere), but that is not without its costs, and even though some are quick to say that bagpipes are the saddest sound in the world, only a handful of voices being there to respond “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” in a near-empty church might be it for me. 

Maybe sometimes, though, whether in religion, politics, or the realm of the personal, it requires one’s world to be shattered before he finally wises up.

Returning to the more explicitly political side of things, while I agree that it is unlikely that the lasting solution to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s ills lies in choosing the better candidate in a federal political race (in this case, my view is that that candidate is Oz), it is also an overstatement when one hears the oft-recited claim that “This does not have a political solution.” In some ways, it does. One could not re-elect Larry Krasner. (The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is currently impeaching him.) A new mayor could reverse this policy of not enforcing certain traffic violations on the risible basis that to do so represents racism against black Philadelphians. In fairness though, as for the Senate race, then-gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain was probably correct when he remarked to me at the bar at Radnor Valley Country Club at a candidate event in April that the gubernatorial race is the one likely to have far greater impact on crime in the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, since federal policy—whether it be at the border or when it comes to drugs or further proposed legislation along the lines of the already-backfiring First Step Actmatters, one can argue with the confidence that the result of this Senate race will have bearing on crime, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

But, again, it is still incumbent upon the people of Pennsylvania to embrace their agency, whether this takes the form of breaking a pattern of voting only for one political party for decades or allowing themselves to try something new, to begin the ever-so-arduous process of rejecting the assumption of stagnation

With that said, I care about the Pennsylvania Senate race so much because this is where I come from and where I live and the only place I would ever want to live, even when we hear constantly about the so-called “Miami Moment” or when Kevin Williamson tells us to go get a U-Haul.

Before closing, I feel that I must address briefly one of the most common criticisms leveled against Oz by Fetterman, and it is the one that charges that Oz, given his longtime residency in New Jersey, ought not be considered a Pennsylvanian and should be viewed as an opportunistic carpetbagger. While it would be preferable had Oz spent a greater portion of his life, particularly in the past decade, in Pennsylvania, this argument carries less weight when advanced by an aspiring standard-bearer of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, a political faction that actively maligns the very concept of regionalism or a state’s right to relative self-determination. If elected, it is not as if a Senator Fetterman would readily support the right of Pennsylvania, a rather purple state, to forge a course commensurate with the wishes of its relatively centrist electorate; instead, he would prefer (and actively work toward) imposing well-left-of-center policies in a state whose population has expressed little active interest in their adoption. As such, it is particularly disingenuous for a candidate whose worldview rejects outright the right of a state to deviate from the will of a Democratic Congress, especially with a sans filibuster Senate, to attack a rival candidate on the basis of regionalism.

For a number of reasons, many in the commentariat have asserted that the Oz-Fetterman showdown ought to be viewed as the marquis Senate race of the 2022 cycle. While there are stark differences between the two candidates, from the chasm in their relative economic success to the vastly different set of policies they champion, I cannot help but believe that—in 2022—the particular Republican or Democratic candidate nominated in Pennsylvania (or any other state) does not particularly matter. Everyone just votes the party line, in a way that was not the case not long ago. Look at how much trouble, for instance, Senate Democrats with 60 seats had in passing what would come to be called the Affordable Care Act in December of 2009, as compared to the amount of, as they say, “sweeping” legislation passed in this Congress with only the narrowest of Democratic majorities. Viewed in this light, Traister’s abortionist case for a Fetterman candidacy (as a potential 51st vote) makes sense, as do comparable Republican arguments for a Senator Herschel Walker. 

With that said, I care about the Pennsylvania Senate race so much because this is where I come from and where I live and the only place I would ever want to live, even when we hear constantly about the so-called “Miami Moment” or when Kevin Williamson tells us to go get a U-Haul. However, at the same time, one need not be so provincial that he views it, as one person I know does, as a bragging right to have spent fewer than seven nights of his entire life laying his head to sleep anywhere outside of the City of Philadelphia. Former President Donald Trump may now be correct when he said that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” but that is not true for the state entire, though in fairness, Philadelphia cannot even console itself by pointing to a late-20th century literary renaissance, like Chicago had. Some might even say the Philadelphia of today would have made Frank McCourt grateful to have been born in Limerick. But just as Jerry Seinfeld still loves and believes in New York City, I feel the same about Pennsylvania, for its long history of political reasonableness and moderation, for its landscape though the elevation never gets much higher than 3,000 feet, and, of course, for its people. 

As I have discussed before in the context of Wikipedia (what I have called “Wikipedia Wars”), I fear the loss of media or political environments that share basic jumping off points about reality or the simple facts at hand. But I suppose that between the two accounts of the Pennsylvania Senate race, if I had to choose one, I would go with the Post’s because I hope the so-called momentum is real. Even though most of the solutions to Pennsylvania’s ills should be solved at the level of the family or, moving out from there, the community (what the few remaining Catholics might still recall as “subsidiarity”), politics does matter, from City Council on up, all the way to the United States Senate. As for Fetterman’s prized policy positions, I can say with certainty that beginning to mend some of the issues I have pointed out does not lie in further liberalizing federal marijuana policy or abolishing the filibuster, the latter being a reasonable safeguard against unduly elevating the desires of a given (and almost always temporary) political majority. A belief in declinism, as I pointed out in another recent piece, is a long-standing American preoccupation; sometimes there is truth in its prognostications, and other times the prognoses are unrealistically grim. In this case, though, when so many areas of Pennsylvania represent a physical embodiment of survey data suggesting that nearly four in five Americans believe the country is “falling apart,” the first order of business is not to elevate policies that will almost certainly make things worse.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.

Endnotes

  1. It is not as if Philadelphia’s crime problems are, in any way, new; from the killings of police officers to the muggings of students commuting to and from St. Joe’s Prep, crime has been a long-standing problem in (and blemish upon) the City. What is so frustrating is that so much progress was made, only for it now to be reversed. 
  2. Another from Russell Kirk that I think of often as of late is: “The civilized man sinks back into savagery when he forgets the principles that have made possible his material accomplishments.”

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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