John Fetterman: A Case Study on Ableism in American Politics

John Fetterman, born and raised in southeast Pennsylvania, became lieutenant governor of the state in 2019 alongside Governor Tom Wolf. He is currently running against media personality Mehmet Oz, more commonly known as Dr. Oz, for former Republican Senator Pat Toomey’s seat. The two candidates have clashed frequently throughout their campaigns, including when Democrat Fetterman trolled Republican Oz on Twitter about the latter’s New Jersey heritage. However, a stroke Fetterman suffered in May  2022 has since overshadowed other notable aspects of this heated campaign and  monopolized coverage of the race. While he has made great strides in his recovery, Fetterman has been candid about his continued struggle with auditory processing, which has led him to utilize closed captioning at campaign events. Fetterman explained in a recent NBC interview that “every now and then I’ll miss a word. . . . Or sometimes I’ll maybe mush two words together. But as long as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked”.  

Despite a doctor’s letter insisting that Fetterman’s health will continue to improve and that “he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem,” Oz has been brutal in his attacks against his opponent, striking low blows against Fetterman’s health. For instance, Oz’s senior communications advisor, Rachel Tripp, made the salacious claim that if Fetterman “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly,”  amplifying her boss’s claims that Fetterman is intentionally minimizing the severity of his stroke’s repercussions. 

Additionally, Oz has criticized Fetterman repeatedly for his team’s refusal to have a debate, accusing him of using his auditory processing issues as an excuse to avoid “answer[ing] for his radical left positions” and citing them as further evidence that he is “too sick to participate.” Recently, Fetterman stated he does intend to debate his opponent in Octoberthe delay from the September dates favored by Oz stemming from his team’s focus on providing accommodations for his  auditory processing difficultiesbut insisted there is no precedent in Pennsylvania for having debates between Senate candidates. He further claimed that Oz’s digs are nothing but the TV star “mocking somebody that’s dealing with a major health challenge.” Oz’s exaggeration of Fetterman’s health condition, especially through mockery, contributes to the perception that he is intentionally abusing his position as a medical expert to validate baseless claims regarding his opponent’s health.

An NBC interview with Fetterman, which focused on the effects of his stroke, spurred immense backlash for accusations that the network over-exaggerated the problems with the candidate’s speech and ability to converse with the interviewer. Alongside the National Center on Disability and Journalism and other advocates for people with disabilities, a multitude of journalists who previously interviewed Fetterman have outright rebuked the claims of NBC’s Dasha Burns that he “stuttered and had trouble finding words.” Similarly, journalists claim Burns exaggerated Fetterman’s reliance on closed captions, with Bryan Taylor Cohen tweeting that, based on his own experience speaking with the candidate, “the notion that he wasn’t able to understand is mind-numbingly false.” In addition, both the NBC interviewer and Oz himself have been criticized for weaponizing such exaggeration as a tool to distract voters from Fetterman’s largely popular stances (pro-LGBTQ, pro-women’s rights, etc). 

The ableism apparent in the NBC interview, as well as the majority of criticisms leveled by Oz and his supporters against Fetterman, feeds into the troubling history of bias in American politics, especially in recent years. President Joe Biden was mocked for his stutter throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, including by then-President Trump, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, and others; a conspiracy also developed—mirroring Oz’s accusations against Fetterman—that Biden was making up his speech impediment and he instead simply lacks the cognitive abilities to lead the country. (Trump has also endorsed Oz, a fellow celebrity-turned-political figure and mocker of people with disabilities.) Even ignoring the dishonest nature of many of the accusations against the aforementioned Democratic candidates, the implication that conditions like stutters, language, and auditory processing issues make someone unfit to serve in office, and the further implication that such conditions make someone untrustworthy and unintelligent, are brazenly ableist and, unfortunately, all too normalized.