Survey data suggests that at least 25 percent of self-identified Democrats, and perhaps as much as 40 percent, hold explicitly racist views like “blacks are lazy.” Among independents—voters Democratic candidates repeatedly insist they must appeal to—those beliefs are even more common. Nearly half of Republicans are willing to tell pollsters that blacks are more violent than whites—and almost all of them voted for Donald Trump. No candidate has a base consisting entirely of people with enlightened, progressive views. Whether they realize it or not, all Democratic politicians count on people who hold both sympathetic and terrible views.
For the past year, Joe Biden has consistently done two things: led polling for the Democratic nomination and underwhelmed in campaigning for it. His appeal is based largely on “electability,” the pseudoscientific notion that he alone can win by appealing to Republicans, independents, and the all-important “white working class.”
The same Democratic and liberal voices that tout this as an asset in Biden (or, to a lesser extent, Pete Buttigieg, whose Indiana roots supposedly mean rural Midwesterners will like him) are apoplectic over the endorsement of Bernie Sanders by the meat-headed podcaster Joe Rogan. Rogan’s excruciating show, The Joe Rogan Experience, regularly features guests with awful beliefs, including white supremacists, and the host has a track record of racist, transphobic, homophobic, and misogynistic comments. As one prominent Sanders supporter, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, noted, it is crucial not to condone, disregard, or make excuses for those bad politics.
At the same time, the opportunistic criticism of Sanders for accepting the endorsement rewrites the past and present of Democratic Party electoral politics. If it’s good that Biden can appeal to older white people with not-very-woke attitudes and that Barack Obama campaigned in opposition to gay marriage in 2008 so as not to alienate homophobic potential voters, then it is good for Sanders to give his pitch to Rogan’s audience. Taking our message to a new audience is outreach; adopting their message to win their approval is pandering.
The electoral strategy of the Democratic Party since 1990 has been: You have to sacrifice some of your principles to win. The list of voting blocs thrown under the bus and compromises made in service of that mantra is too long to catalog here. After asking voters to compromise their beliefs in the name of winning for decades, this is an unusual time to adopt “purity tests.”
Rogan’s show is the most listened-to podcast in history, with just under 200 million downloads per month. If even a sliver of those listeners likes what Sanders has to say, that’s electorally useful.
Yes, Rogan regularly has made transphobic comments, but the sudden, deep concern among liberals for transphobia rings hollow given their embrace of people with bad histories with that issue like Hillary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, and the aughts comedy duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (both of whom regularly scored comedy points with trans jokes).
No candidate has treated transphobia as an important issue in this election so far. Biden’s website doesn’t say a word about any LGBTQ+ issues in its “Joe’s Vision” section. So the Sanders pile-on feels hollow. Interestingly, Sanders, Andrew Yang, Dr. Cornel West, and other prominent political actors have previously appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience and attracted little notice (Sanders’s earlier appearance covered predictably puerile topics like weed and aliens but also included a part on mental health care).
The unfamiliar are probably wondering why Rogan is so popular. Put simply, he is good at what he does. But, unfortunately, what he does is expand the Morning Zoo Crew shock jock routine. It’s Howard Stern with occasional heavy topics and a zeal for crypto-science. Guests tend to be selected from any group perceived as outside of the mainstream. That is one reason anyone can find an episode or guest to either praise or criticize him. Rogan has featured transphobic guests as well as trans adult film actors. He has featured white nationalists and outspoken anti-racists. One episode there’s some guy who thinks Bigfoot is real, the next features a Palestinian rights activist. It’s the podcast equivalent of browsing Reddit.
The show appeals to people who believe anyone who is rejected by the mainstream must have something worthwhile to say. Add Rogan’s enthusiasm for drug use and a heaping dose of language favored by people who dislike “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors,” and you have a mega-hit hosted by America’s surrogate older brother who lives above the garage, believes in chemtrails, and buys beer for 15-year-olds.
His listeners are sometimes called Freethinkers, although even loyal Rogan fans must cringe at that one. They’re certainly open-minded, which explains why they’re open to hearing so many stupid ideas. Rogan disavows responsibility for guests’ views with the “I’m just asking questions, you decide!” routine. No matter his guest, Rogan presents them largely uncritically. That is why I and many others slam him as a gateway drug for the far right, platforming people like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos and ideas like “white genocide.” There is little ideological consistency though; as long as a guest’s views are sufficiently “edgy,” Rogan weaves it into his circus.
If that sounds unlistenable, I concur. But for a Democratic Party obsessed with appealing to Republicans, the disaffected, and the working class, what exactly do they think those voters are watching, reading, and listening to? Do they believe their imaginary white working-class, Trump-acceptant voter’s favorite media personality is Rachel Maddow? Do they believe he (it’s always imagined as a he) only watches TV shows discussed on NPR? It seems considerably more likely that person is into mixed martial arts (the sport for which Rogan is a color commentator and apostle) and listens to infotainment like The Joe Rogan Experience. There is no winning electoral coalition made up solely of people who know all the words to the Hamilton soundtrack.
It is legitimate to worry about Sanders doing anything to lend credence to the podcast’s often terrible politics. Rogan sits, by his own preference, at the outer limits of what a candidate might be able to tolerate in the name of spreading the message. Sanders will now be watched closely to see how he responds when Rogan inevitably generates his next shock-value headline. However, if Rogan fans will listen to a Palestinian rights activist or Justice Democrats founder Kyle Kulinski, maybe they will listen to Sanders talk about his decades of support for LGBTQ+ rights and some left economic policy ideas.
This is far from the first or even most prominent example of a Democratic candidate explicitly trying to reach angry, disaffected nonvoters or people who fell for Trump in 2016. The party is all but obsessed with doing so. Elections and politics are about winning power, and it requires selective memory to pretend that winning the White House in 2008 and 2012, or the House in 2018, did not require swallowing hard on a lot of compromises aimed at courting conservatives.
The argument about Biden’s electability suggests that Democrats recognize the need to appeal to potential voters who might have some bad opinions; the freak out over Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders suggests that they have deluded themselves into thinking they can appeal to those voters with newspaper endorsements and fact-checking articles. If 2016 did not prove the limitations of campaigning on the candidate’s popularity among party elites and the liberal intelligentsia, nothing will. There’s a country full of people out there who can’t stand MSNBC and, believe it or not, the Democrats have to find some way to appeal to them too. To paraphrase LBJ, you can have those voters outside your tent pissing in, or inside your tent pissing out.