January 27, 2024 - 7:30pm

Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman was once a progressive darling. His hoodie-shorts uniform and union-guy persona made for great optics in his race against wealthy celebrity Mehmet “Dr” Oz. But lately he has shown a willingness to challenge both his party and ideological allies on a range of issues, making him an increasingly popular figure on the Right.

Fetterman has acquired a half-ironic fanbase among conservatives, where influencers are celebrating “based Fetterman” and joking that the Senator’s 2022 stroke had something to do with his Rightward shift. 

Most recently, he came out against a Democratic push to regulate Zyn, a nicotine pouch that’s recently developed a cult following in the US. “I’m going to err on the side of more freedom and personal choices with those kinds of things, and I made that same argument when I wanted to legalise marijuana,” Fetterman told reporters this week. Pushback against the Democratic effort to regulate Zyn has been led overwhelmingly by Republicans, with the exception of Fetterman. 

The Pennsylvania Senator sees himself as a defender of the working class, which may be why he has broken with his party on some key issues. Last week, for example, he explained on CNN that, while he supports legal migration, he believes that the massive wave of illegal immigration at the border is a threat to the American dream. Meanwhile in December, he called for the federal government to block the acquisition of US Steel by a Japan-based company.

While running for Senate in 2022, Fetterman publicly rejected progressives’ anti-Israel rhteoric and has since drawn ire from protesters as well as his own staff for his continued support for the state. Fetterman was one of two Senate Democrats who rejected a measure supporting a two-state solution, because it lacked language requiring the destruction of Hamas as a precondition to peace. As Ivy League universities came under fire for antisemitism, Fetterman called his alma mater, Harvard, “pinko”. 

Nevertheless, Fetterman would not call himself a conservative. He recently criticised Ron DeSantis for “[picking] on gay or trans kids” and targeting Disney while celebrating the termination of his campaign. He is also in line with the Democrats on several other issues, which include support for universal healthcare, legal late-term abortion, and transitioning to clean energy “as quickly as possible”. He also backs the Equality Act, which would expand civil rights law to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity. 

The narrative that Fetterman’s centrist views represent a sudden ideological shift is misleading. His support for Israel, for example, predates his stroke; he explicitly rejected the progressive label and criticised progressive orthodoxy on Israel in April 2022. His image as a hardcore progressive may be attributed in part to Republican attacks on him during his Senate campaign. That he represents a purple state which he only won by a slender majority also makes some of his more centrist positions easier to understand.

American political parties are undergoing a slow realignment, with Republicans making gains among the working class and Democrats increasingly becoming the party of college-educated graduates. This has created a class of politicians who don’t quite fit the party mould on key issues, which may well continue as political leaders adjust to changes in their voting bases.

Laurel Duggan is UnHerd’s US correspondent.