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Today’s SYSTEM UPDATE examining this topic — with guest Shant Mesrobian, former Obama 2008 strategist and author of a recent viral thread on the liberal contempt for Rogan — can be viewed on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.
Joe Rogan has amassed one of the largest and most influential media platforms in U.S. politics, if not the single most influential. The value of his program was quantified in May when the streaming service Spotify paid a reported $100 million for the exclusive rights to broadcast his podcast.
As one illustrative example of his reach, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared on Rogan’s program six days ago, and the episode has already been viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube alone. The first time Snowden appeared on his program was last October, and that episode, just on YouTube, has more than 16 million views. To put that in perspective: The top-rated cable news programs are the Fox News shows hosted by Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, and they average between 4 to 5 million viewers, or one-fourth the number of views Rogan’s discussion with Snowden generated.
Rogan is rarely discussed in mainstream political and media circles, which raises its own questions. Why does someone who packs such a big punch in terms of audience size and influence receive so much less media attention than, say, cable news hosts with audience sizes far smaller than his? Presidential candidates certainly recognize Rogan’s importance: All of the major Democratic candidates, according to him, requested to appear on his show. (The only ones he invited on were Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang.)
Rogan was in the news this week after President Donald Trump favorably responded to a guest’s suggestion that Rogan host a four-hour, sit-down presidential debate between the two candidates. The mere suggestion that someone like Rogan could host as prestigious and high-minded an event as a presidential debate prompted condescending scorn from establishment media precincts.
Prior to that, one of the few times Rogan was discussed in mainstream political circles was when outrage among establishment Democrats ensued after Sanders touted a quasi-endorsement from Rogan. The argument was that Rogan’s views are so repellent, bigoted, and anathema to liberalism that no Democratic candidate should be associated with him (this anger was shared by some of Sanders’ own supporters including, reportedly, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
What is it, by the standards of U.S. political and media orthodoxy, that makes Rogan so radioactive? In March, billionaire and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg — who spoke at the 2004 GOP Convention in the middle of the Iraq War and war on terror to urge the reelection of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and who presided over and repeatedly defended the racially disparate “stop and frisk” police practice — endorsed Joe Biden for president, and Biden not only accepted but celebrated the endorsement, praising Bloomberg in the process:
What are the standards that make Michael Bloomberg an acceptable endorsement to tout but not Joe Rogan, given that the billionaire three-term mayor and former Republican has taken far worse positions and done far more damage to far more people than the podcaster could ever dream of doing?
That question is even more compelling when it comes to the Biden/Harris campaign’s touting of the endorsement of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, widely blamed for the criminally negligent lack of clean drinking water which plagued primarily African American residents of Flint, Michigan, for many years. Not only did the Biden campaign accept Snyder’s endorsement, but they issued a press release trumpeting it:
What makes all of this more confounding is that Rogan is a fairly basic political liberal on almost every issue: He believes in the need for greater social spending for the nation’s poor and working class, opposes war and militarism, favors drug legalization, is adamantly pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights, and generally adheres to liberal orthodoxies on standard political debates. That is why he was so fond of Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, and why Andrew Yang — whose signature issue was the universal basic income — was one of the few candidates he deemed worth talking to.
The objections typically raised to Rogan concern his questioning of some of the very recent changes brought about by trans visibility and equality, particularly asking whether it is fair for trans women who have lived their entire lives and entered puberty as biological men to compete against cis women in professional sports (a question also asked — and even answered in the negative — by LGBT sports pioneer Martina Navratilova, among many others), and whether young children are emotionally and psychologically equipped to make permanent choices about gender reassignment therapies and gender dysphoria.
If embracing and never questioning the full panoply of trans advocacy is a prerequisite to being permitted in decent society, I seriously doubt many prominent Democratic politicians will pass that test (even Kamala Harris, from San Francisco and the very blue state of California, has a very mixed record on trans rights). Moreover, though polling data is sparse, the data that is available show that there is still much work to do in this area: Only a small minority of Americans believe it is fair to allow trans women to participate in female professional sports.
If the standard is that anyone who even entertains debates over the maximalist and most controversial questions in this very new and evolving social movement is to be cast out as radioactive, liberalism and the Democratic Party will be a very small group. It will also have to proceed without the vast majority of political leaders whom they currently follow. Even on this issue of trans rights, Rogan’s views are in accord with the standard Democratic Party view: He advocates full legal protection and dignity for the right of trans people to live with their gender respected.
The other critique centers on Rogan’s willingness to invite on his show various pundits with far-right views. That’s a bizarre criticism of someone who purposely hosts a program designed to foster dialogue with people across the political spectrum. After all, if one employs the blatantly irrational tactic of attributing to Rogan the views of all his guests, he would be simultaneously everything and nothing.
But again, this is a standard which few if any Democratic Party leaders could meet. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all went on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, while Rep. Adam Schiff has appeared on Tucker Carlson’s program. Speaking with people with differing views is called politics and journalism, and if one is decreed radioactive for interacting with people with bad views, few will survive that standard. (Liberals also point to the fact that Rogan said he could not vote for Biden over Trump, but that was not on ideological grounds but based on the same narrative that Democratic political and media elites spent all of last year disseminating: namely, that Biden’s cognitive decline makes him unfit for the job.)
While Rogan is politically liberal, he is — argues former Obama 2008 campaign strategist and Rogan listener Shant Mesrobian — culturally conservative, by which he does not mean that Rogan holds conservative views on social issues (again, he is pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights). He means that Rogan exudes culturally conservative signals: He likes MMA fighting, makes crude jokes, hunts, and just generally fails to speak in the lingo of the professional managerial class and coastal elites. And it is those cultural standards, rather than political ones, that make Rogan anathema to elite liberal culture because, Mesrobian argued in a viral Twitter thread, liberals care far more about proper culture signaling than they do about the much harder and more consequential work of actual politics.
As Rogan’s platform grows, it is worthwhile to understand his appeal, his audience, and what he is doing that is new and different to attract such a large following. But it is also very worth examining the reaction to him by the political and media class because in that reaction, one finds many revealing attributes about how they think, what they value, and the priorities that they actually venerate. Today’s SYSTEM UPDATE on The Intercept’s You Tube channel with Mesrobian as my guest is devoted to examining those questions.