Real Voter Enthusiasm from Charlie Pierce:
It was 50 years ago last week that I cast my first vote of any kind, absentee to Massachusetts from Milwaukee, where I was going to school at the time. I voted for George McGovern for president, so I got to wear my “Don’t Blame Me. I’m From Massachusetts” button proudly as Richard Nixon sank slowly back into the primordial political ooze from which he had emerged.
I voted to re-elect Ed Brooke, a Republican, to the U.S. Senate. (And this was before I learned that he’d been doing the wild thing with Barbara Walters, at least according to her.) I also voted to re-elect Congressman Harold Donoghue from my old congressional district, MA-3, as they designate them now. Harold was some kind of half-assed cousin of my mother’s. He sent us a card every Christmas and a reminder every other October that it was time to vote for him again. Harold got his 15 minutes of fame two years later, sitting beside Chairman Peter Rodino on TV as the House Judiciary Committee debated and voting to recommend the impeachment of Nixon. There was some rude speculation within the family that Harold might have dozed off at several key points in the proceedings. I also voted to amend the state constitution to allow 18-year-olds and “paupers” to vote. I voted to make judges retire at age 70, and I advised the legislature to lower the drinking age and not to allow prayer in the public schools. There is not one of those votes of which I am not proud to this day.
(The really great result from the Commonwealth—God save it!— that election was that the horribly racist Louise Day Hicks was turfed out of Congress by the great Joe Moakley. Moakley, in turn, hired a brilliant young staffer from Worcester named Jim McGovern. Between the two of them, they later did the tough and dangerous work of exposing the murderous thugs the Reagan Administration was funding in Central America. McGovern now is the congressman from MA-3, my old district, and is finishing up his stint as chairman of the House Rules Committee.)
I miss the days when every vote didn’t seem like a desperate act to preserve democracy. I miss the days when you could bear the burden of citizenship lightly, when it didn’t seem like absolutely everything was hanging by a fraying string. I voted for McGovern because Bobby Kennedy had said he was the most decent man in the Senate, and I knew that there were cell blocks in the federal penal system in which you couldn’t say the same thing about Nixon. I voted for Brooke because he was a good senator and his Democratic opponent was a nondescript D.A. from around Boston. My best friend on campus was working with the Young Republicans, so we had a number of bar-clearing shouting matches about the election. Even those were fun. And, yes, I did fill out my ballot next to the basketball-shaped taps of the late, lamented Gym Bar on Wells Avenue. My impromptu election monitors that evening were Dirty Ed, who worked in the cement plant, and Bingo, the bartender. Voting was a duty and a privilege, for sure, but I really got kind of a kick out of it, too.
The fun has all drained out of it now. Voting is now penmanship homework and lima beans and neckties, and all the stuff I decided to avoid when I grew up. It’s a polio shot—when it’s not dialysis, when it’s not chemotherapy. For all the talk about enthusiasm gaps between the two parties all summer, the real enthusiasm gap came between the voters and the act of voting. Yes, turnout was high, almost as high as in 2018. And the young voters carried the day. But those young voters were voting because they wanted a future without wage slavery, that wasn’t a virtual and perpetual debtor’s prison. Women voted heavily out of understandable anger that a 50-year-old constitutional right had been dropkicked into the Potomac by a carefully engineered conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The turnout in many places overwhelmed the roadblocks to the franchise that have sprung up since 2020. People were happy, certainly, at the end of things, but even more than that, the country seemed freaking exhausted. It had a look on it similar to the one you see on marathon runners after they cross the line, and all their friends crowd around them and tell them how tough and strong they are, and all the poor bastard wants is to lie down somewhere.
There was one election in which all the clouds seemed to part, however. One election in which people seemed happy to be involved because the vision in their minds of the candidate in the chamber of the U.S. Senate was so incongruous that it seemed to summon up all the consultant-free eccentrics who once stalked those hallowed aisles: Huey Long, railing against greed while looting the state of Louisiana back home. Bob LaFollette, so pissed one day that the presiding officer wouldn’t recognize him that he hurled a spittoon at him (and later that day, he sent his son, Bob Junior, later a senator himself, back to the office to get his gun, while another senator came at LaFollette with a stiletto).
There is no indication that this newly elected senator has any propensity for violence, and that is another reason to rejoice that we have him around for six years, a senator that we can laugh with and not at.
It took a lot of things breaking right to land John Fetterman a seat as the junior senator from Pennsylvania. First, Pat Toomey, the Republican skinflint who likely took a campaign donation from the firm of Scrooge and Marley, had to resign. Then Fetterman had to beat Democratic establishment darling Conor Lamb in a primary. Then, the Republicans had to nominate an out-of-state quack like Mehmet Oz, and the former president* had to drop his Mark-of-Cain endorsement on Oz. Then, Fetterman had to run for the Senate while recovering from a damn stroke.
As Rebecca Traister wrote in a definitive New York Magazine profile during the campaign:
Tucker Carlson said that Fetterman is “brain damaged” and “can barely speak,” and has joked about his “stupid little fake tattoos,” comparing him to a “barista in Brooklyn dressing like a lumberjack.” Media Matters reported that in September the Fox News prime-time lineup mentioned Fetterman more than any other candidate, including those in other hotly contested Senate battles, a metric that illustrates how scared Republicans are about losing this race. “No one is ever fully ready to have an entire gigantic media organization just unload on you,” Fetterman told me. “To have lies weaponized with tens of millions of dollars. There’s aspects of that that are surreal.” Meanwhile, the New York Times and the Washington Post have echoed the Oz campaign’s suggestions that Fetterman is hiding something about his fitness to serve, running editorials pressing him to do more than the single debate scheduled for October 25 and for the release of further medical records.
In response to this unsavory speculation, Fetterman and his team tapped into the deep reservoir of snark that exists on social media, and for which Oz, a completely humorless drone, was uniquely vulnerable. As Traister wrote:
Social media offered a recuperating Fetterman a way to reach voters he wasn’t seeing in person or speaking to on television. In early June, Katz entered a campaign group chat to say Fetterman had made a “Running Away Balloon” meme in which Oz was reaching for the yellow orb labeled PA SENATE RACE but was being hugged by the pink blob labeled LIVES IN NJ. Hebert remembered thinking, “Wait, John can do graphic design? The candidate himself is making a meme …” The campaign tweeted it out. Two days later, Fetterman had another idea, in response to news that Oz had spelled the name of his purported Pennsylvania hometown incorrectly on his candidacy statement. (It’s Huntingdon Valley, not Huntington.) This time, Fetterman’s chosen meme was Steve Buscemi’s 30 Rock appearance as an old guy pretending to be a teen, with the caption, HOW DO YOU DO, FELLOW PA RESIDENTS?
When that one took off, it became a free-for-all among campaign staffers. “It created this fun atmosphere,” said Hebert. “John’s rule for it was basically: Be funny, but don’t be mean.” “Especially after nearly dying,” Fetterman said of that distinction, “I had no malice in my heart.” Almost everything would be run past the candidate; several staffers told me the highest praise you could get was “Oh, hell yeah, that’s a good one.” So the campaign spent a summer that otherwise felt very bleak trying to impress their boss and one another with new ways to dunk on Dr. Oz. “I always say that politics would be completely unbearable if there was no fun in it,” Gisele told me. “It would just completely suck. I need joy in my life — bread and flowers.”
I have waited for decades to hear someone associated with a candidate say something like that. Be funny, but don’t be mean, and that politics is unbearable if there isn’t any fun in it.
Four years after I cast that first vote, I spent a year and a half doing field organizing for Congressman Mo Udall’s presidential campaign. I joined up for two reasons: the congressman’s exemplary environmental record, and the fact that Mo was the funniest politician I’d ever heard.
And the best thing about the Fetterman campaign was that the fun worked. The fun was great politics. It got Fetterman past the stroke, and it so wrong-footed Oz that he’s probably still running in circles. John Fetterman is a guy I would be proud to vote for in a bar, as evening falls. I think Dirty Ed would have voted for him, too.
Doonesbury — Unavailable at press time. I’ll check back later.