Some progressives don’t want to join any party that would have him as a member. Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images
Joe Rogan is one of America’s most influential dickheads. Over the course of a long career as a tedious comedian, mediocre game-show host, competent UFC commentator, and superlative simulator of smoked-out dorm-room bull sessions, Rogan has assembled a formidable following. His YouTube channel boasts more than 7.3 million subscribers, while his interview podcast attracts nearly 200 million downloads a month.
Through his decade of work on The Joe Rogan Experience, he has established himself as a kind of Terry Gross for Americans who prefer muscle milk to lattes and purple haze to fresh air. His interviews cover a broad range of topics, from mixed martial arts and hallucinogenic mushrooms (subjects on which Rogan boasts hard-won expertise) to science and current affairs (subjects on which he doesn’t). As a media personality who delivers long-form political discussions to millions of dedicated listeners — a large percentage of whom do not seek out other political content — Rogan has attained a rare form of influence. He has occasionally used this influence for progressive ends, as when he condemned president Trump’s treatment of Central American migrants as a crime against humanity. But he has also used his platform to promote a wide variety of “anti-PC” demagogues, and broadcast his own bigoted sentiments about trans people and African-Americans.
Thus, when Joe Rogan said last week that he would “probably” vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, the Vermont senator’s campaign was (understandably) pleased to see itself validated on a program with transpartisan appeal — and many progressives were (understandably) offended by the campaign’s gleeful promotion of a bigot’s affirmation. In fact, several of Sanders own surrogates criticized his campaign’s decision to promote Rogan’s endorsement without simultaneously acknowledging and denouncing the podcaster’s most hateful public statements. Sanders has framed his candidacy as a vessel for left-wing social movements of every stripe. Unequivocally advertising the support of a man who has disseminated transphobic views to an audience of millions undermines that pitch.
For this reason, there is a strong argument that the Sanders campaign’s decision to promote Rogan’s endorsement through official channels was both insensitive and counterproductive. But some progressives have condemned the campaign’s posture toward Rogan in more expansive — and, in my view, misguided — terms. In their account, Rogan is not merely unfit to star in a Democratic campaign ad; he and his ilk are unfit to stand beneath the Democrats’ big tent. The (excellent) New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb was among those voicing this sentiment, tweeting, “People who are the core of the Democratic Party, ie black people, reasonably do not [want] to be in a coalition that includes Joe Rogan. And reasonably are suspicious of anyone who does.”
This is not an argument against Democrats’ triangulating on policy as a means of gaining support among unenlightened voters; it is an argument against gaining the support of such voters, period. Bernie Sanders has made no substantive concessions to Rogan’s brand of conservatism. The senator’s platform is emphatically pro-LBGT rights, and his campaign has made common cause with the Dream Defenders, Movement for Black Lives, and other racial justice organizations. His critics’ ostensible concern is that attempts to accommodate unenlightened white voters rhetorically — by declining to treat Rogan as a pariah, and by emphasizing the universalist aspects of his agenda — will serve as a prelude to substantive betrayals: Once you let the bigots into Blue America, they’ll begin remaking it in their own image.
This fear isn’t baseless. For much of U.S. history, our nation’s two major parties were not polarized on questions of racial justice. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the alignment of (many) conservative voters with the GOP, and just about all Southern ones with the Democrats, left African-Americans without meaningful partisan representation. Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights ultimately cost the Democratic Party a lot of votes by leading the Solid South to change its colors. But the Donkey Party’s loss was, in many respects, black Americans’ gain: Without the support of southern segregationists, the Democrats became less electorally dominant but also more responsive to the needs of African-American communities. If the dividing lines in U.S. politics were redrawn once again — and racially unenlightened white people suddenly split their votes evenly between the two major parties — African-Americans might once again find themselves without a true political home.
But in 2020, there is no risk of that happening. The parties are more polarized on race now than they have ever been, while the median white liberal’s views on racial issues are now more progressive than those of the median black Democrat. Today, the threat that the two-party system poses to African-Americans, LGBT individuals, and other marginalized groups is not that it will fail to divide their friends from their adversaries, but rather, that it will do so too completely.
If Democrats lost the support of every voter like Joe Rogan — which is to say, every American who espouses liberal views on some issues, but reactionary ones on others — the GOP would govern just about the entire country. In a 2017 analysis of survey data, Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartles found that 33 percent of Democratic voters agreed with the statement, “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”; 39 percent felt that “people who disrespect the American flag don’t belong in this country”; and some 55 percent insisted that “speaking English is essential for being a true American.” A 2017 Pew Research survey, meanwhile, found that 34 percent of Democratic voters believe that “whether a person is a man or a woman is determined by sex at birth.”
The American electorate is more progressive than it has ever been. But voters with uniformly progressive issue preferences remain a small minority of the U.S. public. David Shor, director of political data science at Civis, recently illustrated this point (in the following chart, the phrase “Employers should be able to refuse to cover birth control and other health services” should read as “Employers should not be able to refuse to cover birth control and other health services”):
Note, that chart exclusively lists Democratic positions that boast majority support among the public as a whole. If one added less mainstream progressive stances to the list (such as, “illegal border-crossing should be decriminalized”), the percentage of Obama voters with uniformly progressive views would be much lower than 28 percent.
It’s clear then that the Democratic Party cannot govern without the backing of many voters who espouse some regressive views. In fact, it can’t even dispense with the support of voters who hold outright bigoted ones — in a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 25 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters said that whites were more “hardworking” than blacks.
And yet, it is also clear that the Democratic Party’s reliance on such voters has not prevented it from moving left on racial justice issues. Without the support of voters who believe that anti-black discrimination is no more prevalent than anti-white discrimination in the U.S., Barack Obama would have never occupied the Oval Office; with their support, his administration was able to take major police departments to task for systematically violating the civil rights of their black constituents. If Democrats forswore the support of all Americans who believe that gender is dictated by sex at birth, the Christian right would soon control every branch of government. With the support of a significant minority of such voters, the Democratic Party was able to win the White House in 2008 and 2012, and then use executive authority to extend various civil-rights protections to trans individuals.
The reason why the Democrats’ dependence on anti-trans and anti-black voters has not stopped the party from moving left on gender and race is simple: Ordinary voters have very little influence on party platforms unless they are highly politically engaged, and/or, organized into interest groups. Progressives don’t have much trouble discerning this fact when they gaze across the aisle. Every liberal knows that the Republican Party could not govern without the support of voters who oppose tax cuts for the rich (in fact, a majority of GOP voters oppose the party’s trickle-down policies). And yet, few were surprised when the GOP chose to make such tax cuts their top priority upon taking power in 2017. The party’s reactionary plutocrats are well-organized and highly-engaged; the Trumpen Proletariat is not. Likewise, Democrats with socially conservative (and/or racially problematic) views tend to be much less politically engaged and informed than the party’s social liberals — and the former don’t have one iota of the organizational or institutional support that the latter command.
Bernie Sanders is not going to change that fact by courting Joe Rogan’s fan base. Voters whose partisan preferences are contingent on what a UFC commentator says on a podcast are, almost by definition, low-information, low-engagement voters. More broadly, given the stability of Donald Trump’s approval rating, and the depths of partisan polarization, it is simply not possible for any Democratic candidate to drastically realign American politics in 2020. No matter who the Democrats nominate, the demographic and ideological composition of their coalition is going to look much the same in 2021. Different Democratic candidates and messages could change things on the margins, and those marginal differences could well determine the general election’s outcome. But if Sanders, or any other candidate, were to improve the Democrats’ performance among low-information, culturally conservative white voters by a few percentage points, that would have no meaningful impact on the party’s platform, nor on the balance of power between ideological tendencies within Blue America’s coalition.
By contrast, if the Democratic Party continues bleeding support among culturally conservative white voters, it will struggle to win the presidency in 2020, and to secure control of the Senate at any point in the foreseeable future. Although the American public is growing more diverse and liberal, the Senate and Electoral College battlegrounds both award disproportionate influence to white rural voters with culturally conservative leanings. And as racial identity has become more electorally salient — and ticket-splitting, more uncommon — the biases of America’s governing institutions have become a bigger problem for the Democratic Party. In 2018, the Democrats posted their best midterm performance since 1974 and still suffered a net-loss of two Senate seats. Had the same Democratic incumbents been on the ballot in a neutral presidential year, the party’s losses would have been closer to double digits. Simply put: The Democrats’ increasing inability to win voters like Joe Rogan is a crisis for the party, and thus, for the marginalized groups who depend on it for protection against reactionary rule. If Democrats do not increase their support among the unwoke, they will not win control of the Senate; and if they do not win control of the Senate, they will not be able to enact laws or judicial appointments that roll back the GOP’s war on voting rights, LGBT equality, or reproductive autonomy.
For this reason, progressives should see Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders as an encouraging development. It is one small sign that Democrats can win over voters who espouse reactionary views without making any substantive concessions to their prejudices. If the price of increasing the Democratic Party’s vote-share among culturally conservative whites is not compromising on policy — but merely, accepting the praise of problematic podcast hosts, and putting a bit more rhetorical emphasis on class than on race or gender — then anyone invested in social justice should want the party to pay up.
Some may counter this assertion by positing an inevitable trade-off between trying to accommodate white swing voters through forms of rhetorical moderation and inspiring higher turnout rates among nonwhite constituencies. But this is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that increasing non-white turnout rates by any realistic margin would be insufficient to solve the problem that the Senate poses. And the second is that there is very little evidence that appealing to white swing voters, and mobilizing nonwhite nonvoters, require antithetical messaging strategies. Last November, a New York Times Upshot survey of Electoral College battleground states found that nonvoters who lean Democratic were both much less white — and less progressive, especially on issues of race and immigration — than reliable Democratic voters. In their broad attitudes, these nonvoting Democrats were actually quite similar to non-college-educated swing voters: Both groups evinced more sympathy for the progressive movement’s position on health care than its stance on immigration.
None of this is to say that Bernie Sanders’s approach to politics is electorally optimal. Just about all of the reasons why it would be unwise for the Democratic Party to disavow the support of Americans like Joe Rogan double as reasons why, all else equal, it would be better for the Democratic nominee not to identify as a socialist. Sanders’s ideological self-description does not have any direct policy consequences, but does create a potential barrier to building a bigger Democratic tent (although, for now, it does not appear to be an insurmountable one).
My point is merely that Democrats do not have the luxury of refusing to be a party that would have Joe Rogan as a member. Unenlightened, low-information white voters are never going to set the terms of the Democratic agenda. But they could very well give Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell a new lease on power this November. Efforts to cajole such voters out of Red America — without flattering their prejudices — are not only compatible with securing justice for America’s marginalized, they are likely a precondition for doing so.