Joe Rogan and the Bernie Sanders brand


LaMonte Patterson, Assistant Viewpoints Editor

What is the Bernie Sanders brand? Is it Oochie Wally or is it One Mic? In the wake of Joe Rogan’s public endorsement of Sanders, I am left with a troubling answer. He is indeed a democratic socialist, but he is not a “woke” one. If I missed it before, it is ever apparent now. What other conclusions could I come to after watching the commercial-like highlight video the Sanders campaign paraded on Twitter? How else could I explain the “we need a big tent” posturing Sanders offered to detractors that found fault with Rogan’s past trans-phobic and racist statements?

Rogan is, by no means, an ally of the cultural movements that populate left-wing politics. When he is not mocking them, he often questions their motivations and sometimes argues that they are part of some conspiracy; and, Rogan loves a good conspiracy. On several occasions, he has expressed controversial opinions on 9/11, former President Barack Obama’s citizenship status, and the existence of autism. Rogan is very comfortable operating at the fringes of conspiratorial thinking, and his podcast often acts as a billboard for all things pseudoscience.

Even so, the Joe Rogan podcast is not entirely one-dimensional. Rogan has hosted leaders from all walks of life on his show. Sadly, an episode featuring Dr. Cornel West will likely get lost in a sea of episodes featuring the likes of Ben Shapiro, Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. On the same platform that he used to discuss the death of Sandra Bland with journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell, he has entertained racist figures like Proud Boys founder, Gavin McInnes, who argued that white people should say n*gger as much as they want. Rogan usually justifies his obsession with the n-word by stating that censorship is wrong and that freedom of speech should be respected. In doing so, he grants himself and his guests the freedom to dance around the edges of bad ideas without acknowledging the fact that those ideas perpetuate a dangerous environment for people outside his demographic. His podcast is a marketplace where good and bad ideas have equal value.

In most respects, Rogan is unremarkable. At a glance, it seems that he operates as a mirror of white male normalcy. There is a reason millennials who get eagle tattoos and fill their bellies with Diet Pepsi populate his viewership. For them, Rogan embodies the best of what “regular” can be. He does not need to provide any deep insight to satisfy fans. They come to see what it would be like for themselves to talk to interesting people. His guests are what make his podcast influential. The show only exists for its guests to finish their sentences.

So why does Rogan matter?

He matters because of the people that make him matter: his audience. His show garners millions of views and downloads every week and is the most popular podcast in the country. Without his viewership, no self-respecting politician would court his endorsement or ask to appear on the show.

For Sanders, the Rogan endorsement symbolizes a stamp of approval from white America. Sanders has been campaigning for white support for the past five years. As early as 2015, Sanders has been packing out arenas in Wisconsin and Iowa auditioning in front of mostly white crowds and for a good reason. Electability in this country is simply a euphemism for white support. The 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign offers some proof of this. For a good portion of the 2008 Democratic primary, Hilary Clinton had more support from African American voters. Before big wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are both more than 90 percent white, Obama was seen as a candidate with little chance of winning the Democratic nomination, let alone the general election. On the backs of those early wins, Obama showed that he could appeal to white voters and develop a broad enough voting coalition to win the whole thing.

Like Obama, Sanders hopes to woo white voters, but unlike Obama, Sanders does so even when it risks alienating other groups. The same Sanders that barely batted an eye in response to push back from the Rogan endorsement is the same Sanders that questions what reparations are. For Sanders, class relations are the foundation; everything else constitutes a secondary concern. He seems to think that an overthrow of the bourgeois is more important than addressing the unique problems that face people living at the margins of our society. His answer to every social issue is a class-based initiative. When asked how he will counter the enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, Sanders offered a medley that included his Medicare for All plan, the Green New Deal, and debt-free public college. 

While all those policy ideas represent valid responses to specific problems facing our country, they are not a restorative justice program. If it were up to me, all of those policies would exist, but because African Americans have been routinely undercut and dehumanized in this country. On issues related to gender and sexuality, Sanders makes the same pivot from cultural topics to class-based remedies. When asked about his thoughts on the deaths of transgender women, Sanders predictably answered by saying the country needed better moral leadership and free healthcare.

For Sanders, the Rogan endorsement is a Pyrrhic victory. The two groups least excited about his potential nomination, women and African Americans, will be of utmost importance for a Trump contender come November. If the past few presidential elections are any indicator, we know African Americans will show up to the ballot box if energized, as they did for former President Obama. Women nearly always have high voter turnout.

On the other hand, Joe Rogan fans are an unknown quantity. I guess racists vote too. If not, Sanders may soon realize he can not pave a road to the White House while also ignoring essential voting blocs. By then, it may be too late.