John Fetterman is once again in the public limelight having won the closely-watched Pennsylvania Senate race against his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz. This win makes Fetterman, a Democrat, the first candidate of the election to flip a national Senate seat from red to blue.
Fetterman has been cast by his campaign time and time again as a “man of the people,” standing in stark contrast to his more elite Republican opponent. It is not surprising, then, that Fetterman has captured the interest of a larger share of non-college educated voters (who typically turn out for Republicans) than Democratic candidates in other states have.
Part of Fetterman’s popularity has stemmed from his image—a rough and tumble, all-American man. Fetterman, a former college football player, certainly looks the part. Standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall with a shaved head and hooded sweatshirt, he would appear to be 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 dedicated his life to public service.
Although Fetterman acknowledges his relatively privileged upbringing, his often unconventional approach is bolstered by his clear commitment to his constituents. After all, Fetterman literally etched on his arm the dates on which someone from Braddock, where he served as Mayor, died by violence under his watch. While he may not have labored in the steel mills, his willingness to genuinely listen to and advocate for those who have stands out. He is, in fact, a bit of an unexpected surprise—and he may be a (but not the) crucial keystone on which the future of the Democratic party rests. To ensure a strong future for the party, Democrats must expand their models of political manhood.
As social scientists, we know that the ability to connect with a candidate is important, but so is being able to see yourself reflected among our politicians. While there is certainly a way to go, the party has taken strides to diversify itself for women; a record number of women serve in the 117th Congress. But as recent history shows us, Democrats have had a rocky relationship connecting with men.
Since at least the 1830s, when the Whig party formed in order to oppose the archetype masculine frontiersman Andrew Jackson, major American political parties have used symbols and codewords to give the appearance of a masculine appeal that they believe will resonate with a broad voting populace. In 1840, for instance, the Whigs ran William Henry Harrison, a long retired, mostly unsuccessful aristocratic politician, under a “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign, while also appealing to his distant past when he fought Indigenous forces in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison became the first Whig-elected president, thereby also solidifying a trend in which that party selected former soldiers as their leading men.
Whereas the 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 a blue-collar appeal. With few exceptions, male Democratic politicians appear to be relative cookie-cutters: middle aged or older, wealthy, and extremely polished.
One way to increase voting rates of your political party is to “find” groups of prospective voters who never or rarely turn out, and get them to the polls. After all, those who voted in 2018 but not 2016 helped hand Joe Biden a 2020 victory, with 62% of those individuals choosing Joe Biden over Donald Trump. Some groups—like Black women—historically have high levels of voter participation; others, like non-college educated men and white men, when they do turn out, have often done so for Republican candidates. In fact, just 38% of white men identified as Democrats in 2019.
According to Pew Research Center, the Democratic Party has made some recent gains among men, though in 2020, Republicans gained some ground among Hispanic voters and women. Such shifting allegiances are not new, as generational voter realignments in the 1990s demonstrate. As the electorate is not “fixed,” political parties are constantly on the hunt for new groups to turn out or convert.
People over the age of 50 can recall quite clearly that the current political alignment, particularly when it comes to regional voting patterns, looks quite a good deal different than it did in the 1960s. Going even farther back, the migration of white Southerners from the Party of Jackson and Jefferson—two white slaveholders—to the Party of Lincoln was complex and multifaceted. But by the 1990s, white Southerners were consistently voting for Republicans in both presidential and congressional elections.
To attract more men, particularly white and Hispanic men, (back) to the Democratic Party, we need to ensure a diversity among male candidates as well. It is clear that Democrats can’t rely upon changes in the country’s changing demographic profile to produce inevitable political majorities. Women and minority group members are multifaceted and varied in their political beliefs and are not the “lock” that the party once assumed.
That said, Democrats must also appeal to men ranging from the Indiana Coal Miner to the Ohio College Professor for lasting gains. They must seize the opportunity of their recent 2020 gains among men to appeal to many different types of male voters.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that men, especially white men, already have plenty of representation in politics. And, it is true—politicians are overwhelmingly white and male. But American manhood is so much more than older, wealthy, and genteel. That is, of course, a legitimate type of masculinity. But men are also suburban fathers, union factory workers, and rural tradesmen and they, too, deserve Congressional representatives that understand their lives.
Just 43,000 votes in key states stood between Joe Biden and a second Donald Trump presidency. Further, given the rise in legislation which further restricts voting rights, particularly for Black voters, Democrats must convert existing voters or convince individuals who typically do not vote to come to the polls. White males represent an obvious target.
The Democratic Party tends to pride itself on casting a wide net in terms of the demographics and interests of their constituency. But, their male politicians, in particular, need to also be more inclusive. In order to continue moving forward, the party must diversify its appeal to men. Ensuring that voters feel like they can see themselves among the candidates is just one step in this process. That may mean seeking more candidates, like Fetterman, even if they campaign in cargo shorts.