When your base is composed of unreformed bigots, you become dependent on them to get re-elected. Does the Left really want to appease these people for votes?
The only solution to bigotry is bigotry. This, anyway, is the logic of the day, explaining why Bernie Sanders chose to cut a campaign ad featuring a half-endorsement from the reactionary podcaster Joe Rogan.
Rogan’s podcast is one of the most popular in America. It’s also made America a much, much worse place. Rogan occupies a familiar persona—the braying bro-jock who doesn’t, like, get all this PC stuff—which, in and of itself, is frequently sexist and gross. He still uses “gay” as an insult and accuses people of having “sand in their vaginas” when they’re upset, like a high-school bully in 1996. He wonders aloud why he can’t say the n-word, and in the process, says the n-word himself, at a rate not typically observed outside of Klan rallies and Quentin Tarantino movies. If this were all, Rogan might be another Morning Zoo shock jock, but also he’s used his platform to normalize the far fringes of the alt-right. Gavin McInnes, founder of the white nationalist Proud Boys, has guested on Joe Rogan. Milo Yiannopolous, the GamerGate leader and Nazi sympathizer, sat down for two friendly interviews, and so did Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. MRA “philosopher” Jordan Peterson has been on the show eight—count-em—eight times. Rogan himself pushes dangerous causes with fatal consequences: While conservative states weigh bills targeting trans children, Joe Rogan inveighs against giving trans children puberty blockers, which are the most effective way to lower suicide rates among trans children and teenagers.
Yet Bernie Sanders has also been on Joe Rogan, and when Rogan professed to like Sanders, the campaign cut together a glowing ad spotlighting the endorsement, sending the clear message that Joe Rogan’s approval was something to be proud of. Political commentators swung in to call it a savvy move: “Bernie’s strength is that he can win over some voters who are skeptical of Democrats—like Joe Rogan. If you think getting Trump out of office is actually important, that’s a good thing, and he should lean into it,” Ezra Klein tweeted. Matt Steib at New York Magazine wrote that the endorsement would be a “boon” for Sanders’s support among “disaffected working-class voters … particularly men who aren’t politically engaged, but are open, like Rogan, to a compelling argument.” (Which part of “white men should say the n-word more often” is compelling, I don’t know, but here we are.) Later, the same magazine printed an editorial headlined, simply, “Democrats Should Want Joe Rogan’s Vote.”
The Sanders campaign responded to criticism of the Rogan ad with cool condescension: “Sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs,” said Press Secretary Briahna Joy Gray in a statement. If that language sounds familiar, it should. It’s exactly how Sanders defended his endorsement of anti-choice Democrat Heath Mello in 2017. Mello had co-sponsored several bills to restrict abortion rights in his home state of Nebraska, including a 20-week abortion ban, and was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life. When Sanders received pushback from reproductive rights groups, he said that “I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”
The language here is both trivializing and vague—it’s one issue, it’s not every issue, why would you complain about a guy who disagrees with you on one little issue?—and it disguises the fact that the “one issue” somehow always happens to be gender. It’s easy to speak in broad language about the beauty of a big tent, and harder to justify the fact that, for trans people and cis women, the “one issue” they’re expected to peacefully “disagree” on is their lives.
The Sanders style of triangulation is to promise a strong social safety net and quietly ignore or bargain away “identity politics,” on the theory that bigots will vote for social programs as long as they don’t have to stop being bigoted. As Michelle Goldberg wrote, making the subtext text, “[Sanders] was right to take the Joe Rogan endorsement. One premise of his campaign is that he can win some number of alienated men with reactionary social views to the left, and this is proof of concept.” What remains unanswered here is the question of what happens to the left if those men don’t disavow their “reactionary social views,” or how someone with “reactionary social views” could be considered to belong to the left at all.
This isn’t a delicate, finicky moral distinction. Candidates become indebted to the groups who deliver elections for them, and they often measure their policy moves by how those actions might resonate with the base. Sanders, for example, has justified his spotty gun control record by the fact that he represents rural Vermont, where hunting and gun ownership are a way of life. Mello was supposedly the best “progressive” candidate for Nebraska—but his anti-choice record was to be expected for, you know, Nebraska. If Sanders’s base is substantially composed of unreformed bigots, then he becomes dependent on unreformed bigots to get re-elected, and “the left” starts making its decisions based on what will make those unreformed bigots happy. People will inevitably be left behind in that exchange.
Certainly, other Democrats have their own failings on gender. Joe Biden has made anti-abortion statements in the past and supported the Hyde amendment, which restricts abortion funding for low-income patients, until this summer. Katelyn Burns argues that “there’s not a single candidate in the field who wouldn’t sacrifice trans rights for enacting their signature piece of legislation,” and that the numbers argument—“why are we sacrificing [x policy] for 0.6% of the population?”—will always be within reach.
But then, that’s the point: Every minority population is, well, a minority, except for “women,” and even that can be sliced up into subgroups and dismissed as ultimately unimportant compared to the mythic “swing vote” of white men who hate everyone else. I suspect that under all the big-tent thinking, the real rationale for prizing those white guys is more concisely voiced by the troll in Burns’s mentions: “Who the fuck cares about about trans people? … Just focus on rich vs. poor and after we solve that major crisis we can pick up your sad little pieces[.]” Ah, yes. Can’t people just wait to receive basic civil rights until some time after the complete destruction of global capitalism? How long will that take? Is it a two-year thing we can do if we get both House and Senate, or more of a four-year project?
I don’t dispute that people can change their politics. I was raised Catholic, and was passionately anti-choice well into my teens; by high school, I had discovered feminist theory and was pro-abortion. My stepfather voted Republican when I met him; by 2004, he had come to believe Bush’s wars were immoral, and voted blue. Yet in each case, adopting new politics meant rejecting the worst parts of the old. I absolutely welcome misogynist and transphobic white men to “come to the left,” that is, to stop being misogynistic and transphobic. But I do not welcome them in progressive spaces until they disavow those views, and neither should anyone else, because when one half of your coalition actively wants to murder the other half, the “big tent” quickly becomes a slaughterhouse.
There is a difference between finding a way to convince conservatives they’re wrong—to educate the Catholic teenager about the history of back-alley abortions, or ask the Libertarian whether his personal freedom is really served by the Patriot Act—and simply welcoming them into your “big tent,” problematic views intact, because you need the numbers. The latter approach is premised on the idea that reactionary white working-class men are either too stupid or too inherently hateful to embrace change or growth, or to adopt self-evidently true positions—such as the fact that other human beings are, you know, human—when given evidence. The belief that working-class white men are dumb, amoral brutes who must be indulged because they can’t help themselves is more viciously classist than the liberal attempts to educate those men could ever be.
Ultimately, the reason it’s easy to disregard feminist and trans voices in electoral politics is that we are presumed to be hostages to whichever candidate the Democrat nominates. To vote Republican is to vote for people who will actively deprive us of our rights, and therefore, we have to vote for a Democrat who will merely refuse to advance them. Yet if the Trump presidency has endangered those voters by empowering and legitimizing bigots, it is wildly demoralizing to tell them they must rally behind a Democrat who will welcome and nurture the very same bigotry for the sake of his own advancement. People who are demoralized and taken for granted by their party are not energized voters. They don’t talk to their friends, they don’t organize for the candidate, and often, they don’t vote at all. The mammoth turnout we saw in 2018—powered largely by female organizers and female candidates—is unlikely to manifest for a Democratic Party that relies on strategic bigotry to get things done. While Democrats reach out to men like Joe Rogan to build that “big tent,” some of the voters they already have will walk out the door.
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