One of the world’s most popular podcasters has said that he’ll “probably vote for Bernie Sanders.” He went on to say some glowing things about Senator Sanders’s consistency and integrity. Unsurprisingly, the Sanders campaign celebrated the moment by tweeting out the clip.
Why wouldn’t it? While Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang have appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan has said that Warren, Buttigieg, and Biden have all tried and failed to get booked on the show. It’s obvious why — the YouTube page for The Joe Rogan Experience has 7.29 million subscribers, and even more people download the podcast every month.
Better yet, this legion of fans isn’t made up of progressive activists who were already planning to vote in the Democratic primaries. Rogan spends far more time talking about drugs and movies and Mixed Martial Arts than he does about the presidential election. Many of his fans are relatively apolitical, but some may be moved to register to vote by Rogan’s ode to the integrity of Bernie Sanders — or his passionate defense of Medicare for All.
Of course, there’s a reason why Rogan is controversial. When he does talk politics, the host often does so in the context of chatting with “intellectual dark web” figures like Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin about culture war issues like free speech on college campuses.
Rogan’s friendly relationship with these right-wing thinkers, along with his own reactionary views, has given many casual observers the impression that he’s a coherent right-winger. In reality, he’s about where many persuadable Americans are, which is to say that while he doesn’t think about politics all the time, he likes and dislikes some individual politicians, he has kneejerk reactionary positions on some issues, and he finds egalitarian proposals for universal programs deeply appealing.
The fact that the Sanders campaign can reach the Joe Rogans of the world is a very good thing.
However, more than a few progressives, appalled at some of Rogan’s statements over the years and his associations, thought that the campaign should repudiate the endorsement — or at least that it was wrong for Bernie’s social media team to tweet out the clip.
We disagree, but not because we don’t think the criticisms of Rogan are baseless. The “intellectual dark web” figures, for example, that Rogan promotes play a corrosive role in the public discourse. They’re all defenders of traditional hierarchies that stand in the way of human flourishing, they all use silly and sophistical arguments in pursuit of this cause.
We don’t object to “platforming” such people for the purpose of pushing back against their views, but Rogan has acted as an uncritical sounding board for them. (Though there was a hilarious moment in one his conversations with Rubin when Rogan pushed back against Rubin’s libertarian economic fantasies and Rubin — a man who says he cares about “ideas” above all else — was left with no coherent response.)
It’s also true that Rogan’s talent, knack for drawing out guests, and interest in a variety of topics has allowed him to build such a massive platform that he’s far more representative of an actually existing American “center” than any corporate prestige outlet that claims to speak for the “mainstream.” In some contexts, ranging from Palestine to health care to Trump’s child separation policy he’s been a voice of reason and compassion. On that last subject, he’s gone so far as to say that if you don’t oppose what Trump has done to immigrant and refugee families, “you aren’t on the team” of the human race.
This is the real Joe Rogan show: a total mix of the apolitical and apolitical, the reactionary and the progressive. He’s in a sense representative of the political zigs and zags of most ordinary people who don’t think and tweet about politics all the time.
It’s worth noting the often maddening inconsistency of many Sanders opponents. Some of the loudest voices assailing the Bernie Sanders campaign for putting out a 51-second video highlighting Rogan’s praise for their candidate are centrist Democrats who spent eight years defending the politics of Barack Obama and then supported Hillary Clinton in the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
Some of these critics seem to have very short memories. See for example this tweet from Alex Singer, a former Democratic Congressional candidate in Nevada.
Also, Obama won twice, handily, without bigots, homophobes or transphobes.
— Alex Singer (@AlexCSinger16) January 24, 2020
In reality, Obama had homophobic pastor Rick Warren say the opening prayer at his first inaugural — a decision that was controversial even at the time. Part of how Obama could maintain a relatively friendly relationship with someone like Warren is that, when he first ran for president, he claimed to have religious objections to marriage equality. It was only years later that Obama started carefully “evolving” on this issue with one eye on the polls. By contrast, Sanders didn’t have to give up an inch — on trans rights or on any other issue — to get the support of Joe Rogan.
Even on the narrow question of shock jocks with a history of making “problematic” comments, some memories are very short. Hillary Clinton went on the Howard Stern Show and basked in Howard’s praise of her record — and happily agreed with his criticisms of Bernie Sanders — last month. There wasn’t a ripple of “controversy” about it from this crowd. And, if we’re going to be realistic about this, it’s hard to imagine that there would have been much controversy if Joe Rogan had said “I think I’m probably going to vote for Elizabeth Warren because she’s so smart and she has a plan for, like, everything, man” and the Warren camp had tweeted out a clip of that. In fact, we would be drowning in “Slay Kween” emojis.
Our point here isn’t that Warren would have been wrong to “tout Rogan’s endorsement” if that had happened, or that Clinton shouldn’t have gone on Howard Stern. Demonstrating that a criticism is hypocritical isn’t enough to demonstrate that it’s wrong. It just means that the people making it are being inconsistent, and thus that they must be wrong about one or the other half of their inconsistent stance.
As grating as it is that Bernie is being bombarded with outrage for being endorsed by a podcast host with a mishmash of views while hardly anyone raises an eyebrow at Biden’s failure to repudiate his endorsement by Steve Lynch, whose record includes some truly despicable homophobia, we aren’t asking for a more equal distribution of outrage. Quite the opposite. We’re asking what it would take to build a movement capable of taking on oppression and exploitation.
Joe Rogan has some views on trans issues that anyone on the Left should oppose. Unfortunately, at least half the country holds similar views. The issue isn’t whether Bernie Sanders should compromise with such positions. As a matter of principle, he can’t and shouldn’t do that. The question is whether the best way to build a movement that appeals to rather than alienating the tens of millions of Americans who have reactionary views on at least some issues is to moralistically condemn them for those views or whether it’s to welcome them in an open and compassionate way while continuing to educate them on, and while sticking to our own principles.
As a matter of real-world power, it’s also worth noting that the person Rogan said he is probably going to vote for is the most pro-trans candidate in the race. Sanders was a pioneer in the support of trans rights and he hasn’t changed course. Despite the ideological flaws Rogan has on these questions, the material meaning of his announced intention to vote for Sanders is that he plans to help empower a candidate who wants medical transitions to be paid for by the only insurance program that will continue to exist after the enactment of Medicare for All.
Anyone who’s serious about changing the world has to think hard about what compromises they might be willing to make in order to achieve power. This issue has preoccupied organizers for as long as struggles for justice have existed. It’s one thing for people operating in good faith to disagree with each other about those questions. It’s quite another to denounce Sanders for “touting” an endorsement which required no such compromises.
Sanders supporter Mark Pocan, one of the few openly LGBT members of Congress, put this point particularly sharply in his remarks about the controversy. He said, “I usually find that you win elections when more people support you.”
It’s disturbing that this simple truth doesn’t seem to figure in the calculations of those leftists who say that it was wrong for the Sanders campaign to make a play for the votes of some of Rogan’s millions and millions of fans by calling attention to the endorsement. It would be political malpractice for the campaign not to try to get those votes.
Every successful presidential campaign is by definition a coalition of voters who don’t agree with each other about everything but are willing to get behind a given candidate and their platform. The question is whether we’re so allergic to having people in our coalition who haven’t yet reached progressive positions on every issue that we’re willing to risk losing what is arguably the most important election of our lifetimes.
Which is more important — stigmatizing Rogan for his bad views by refusing to make any welcoming gestures when he expresses interest in joining our coalition, or shutting down Donald Trump’s concentration camps?
Changing personal attitudes is important. It’s also a subtle and complicated project. We can at least start by bringing people together in a shared political project to elect a candidate who is committed to the whole list of progressive goals ranging from Medicare for All to protecting trans people from discrimination.
And this leads us to the final point. To the extent that we can change people’s personal views, what’s the best strategy to do us? Are we likely to reach them if we start by drawing a sharp line between us and them, demanding that they repent their bad views before we’ll have anything to do with them? We don’t think so.
The lesson of history is that reactionary attitudes are best combated by human interactions from within coalitions of people who have already been brought together around a shared purpose such as a union organizing drive — or, say, a campaign to elect the most left-wing president in US history.