Voters’ stigma against Fetterman’s disability may sink his race, claims piece in The Atlantic


Rather than focus on the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz being a test of either man’s fitness for office, a writer for The Atlantic called it a “Rorschach test of comfort with disability.”

The piece argued it is voters’ ability to handle Fetterman’s disability that will decide the race, though as the outlet’s post-debate analysis noted, “Unfortunately, no disability accommodations—not even 70-inch television monitors for real-time captioning—can change how our society stigmatizes verbal disfluency.”

In his Wednesday piece, The Atlantic senior editor John Hendrickson claimed the debate featuring Fetterman – a candidate dealing with audiovisual impairment after having suffered a stroke earlier in the year – was an opportunity for voters to see whether they could see through Fetterman’s “disjointed sentences” and come away “admiring his courage for debating at all.”

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The piece described the debate this way after admitting that Fetterman clearly has issues communicating on a debate stage: “Fetterman used to talk one way, he had a stroke, and now he talks another way… Tonight, as debate moderators reminded each candidate of strict time parameters (‘60 seconds,’ ‘30 seconds,’ ‘15 seconds’) Fetterman prioritized speed over lucidity, and his disjointed sentences made his struggles unmistakable.”

Though he “may have lost whatever swing voters are left in Pennsylvania,” Hendrickson claimed, “he may have won over some voters who watched a man recovering from a stroke stumble through sentences on live TV and came away admiring his courage for debating at all.”

The author seemed to put the onus for Fetterman’s victory on how tolerant voters are with having a disabled person in high political office. He said, “Tonight’s hour-long exchange was, in some ways, a Rorschach test of comfort with disability.”

Though Fetterman may have a hard road because, as Hendrickson noted, “our society stigmatizes verbal disfluency.” He added, “We are a culture of sound bites, mic drops, and clapbacks. To speak in any way that deviates from the norm is to summon ridicule and judgment. That’s already happening to Fetterman, and his campaign now faces an extraordinarily difficult situation.”

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Hendrickson mentioned that Fetterman is banking on his “transparency” with his struggles to help convince voters to choose him over Oz, though the piece criticized him for refusing “to commit to releasing his detailed medical records” during the debate. It added, “As a result, voters lack a complete understanding of how the stroke may have affected him.”

The author wrote, “Transparency, Fetterman countered, would come in the form of him being onstage to compete at all.”

“Two weeks from now, some number of voters will agree with that idea, yet others are likely to feel uncomfortable voting for a person who does not comport with their notion of what a politician sounds like,” Hendrickson claimed.

He concluded of Fetterman’s performance, “But after tonight, he may no longer have a choice but to be more forthcoming about the medical challenges he faces—and to place his faith in Pennsylvania voters identifying with his struggles instead of viewing them as disqualifying.”

A senior writer for The Atlantic claimed the measure of John Fetterman’s debate performance on Tuesday depends on whether people can accept his disability.

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