Joe Rogan and the doomed politics of shunning

It's good to go on popular shows and talk to people

Does it make sense for progressives to try to systematically shun popular media figures such as Joe Rogan who are only somewhat political in their interests and who have bad, right-wing opinions on some important issues?

It seems to me that the answer is a pretty obvious no, but as a learned after going on Rogan’s show an alarming number of progressive say yes. It’s not just that they disagree with Rogan’s approach to certain issues or don’t like his show. They think his show is so bad that it would be socially, culturally, and politically constructive to pressure progressive people to refuse to go on it, although that would mean that the only political content Rogan’s audience is exposed to would come from the right and that Rogan himself would hear that anyone with his constellation of views should regard themselves as a right-winger.

Most people, it seems to me, don’t believe this strategy makes sense. But, as tends to happen these days, a lot of sensible people are inclined to be non-troublemakers. They “read the room” and don’t point out that the shunning tactics advocated by a minority are wrong and counterproductive. I am a troublemaker so I want to say it squarely — the idea that Rogan or comparable figures should be shunned is wrong and counterproductive. Any sensible person who is invited to share their ideas with a gigantic audience of people, many of whom are not that highly engaged in politics, should be encouraged to do it, and to do it without being subjected to blowback.

My Joe Rogan experience

I did not closely follow any aspect of Joe Rogan’s career since the unfortunate end of News Radio. But as of January 2020, I was aware that he was a very popular personality in the overlapping realms of comedy, podcasting, and mixed martial arts. When he had Bernie Sanders on his show, said he was supporting him for president, and then Bernie touted that support I, of course, agreed with my longtime friend and then-colleague Ezra Klein that this was basic Politics 101 for Sanders.

In fact, at the time my understanding of the blowback Sanders got was that it was just opportunistic BS — which is fair enough; it’s politics, there was a heated primary happening, and primary season leads to a lot of opportunistic BS.

Then when Rogan asked me to come on his show to talk about One Billion Americans, the publicity people at Penguin Random House were very excited and those at Vox Media also thought it would be a great chance to promote The Weeds. Just like it’s Politics 101 to go on a popular show and talk about why you’d be a good president, it’s Marketing 101 to go on a popular show and talk about your work.

It has since been made clear to me that a significant number of people are critical of this behavior, not as opportunistic BS in the context of a primary campaign but out of a sincere belief that trying to get progressives to shun Joe Rogan would be an effective form of advocacy for trans people.

I support trans rights:

  • I am glad that transgender people won Civil Rights Act protections from the Supreme Court.

  • I’m glad Biden has committed to reversing Trump’s executive orders on trans health care.

  • I’m for open access to restrooms and frankly for the abolition of gender-segregating of bathrooms in general.

  • I’m looking forward to a new and more enlightened era on military service.

But I don’t think shunning tactics make a lot of sense as a way to do politics in general, and I don’t think there’s anything specific to the trans rights issue that makes them a more reasonable tactic for that cause than for any other.

And I’m concerned about a development in the discourse where support for shunning tactics, rather than first-order support for substantive trans rights, is seen as the signpost of being a good ally. In reality, shunning tactics are counterproductive to the politics of the cause. And the generalization of shunning to other causes will, if it happens, make progressives increasingly ineffectual across the board.

Trans rights are good

My participation over the summer in “the infamous Harper’s letter” ended up being read by some of my colleagues largely through the participation of J.K. Rowling on the letter, and thus through a trans rights lens. When I signed, I had no idea Rowling was on the letter. The only person I knew to be signing it was George Packer, who simply shared the text of the letter with me and said he and his collaborators were working on getting a diverse group of signatories together.

If you follow my tweets at all, you’ll know I’ve expressed a lot of controversial-on-the-internet opinions about “defund police” and related matters and the correct inference to draw is that those topics were of interest to me.

But, since it’s been pointed out to me that my paucity of expression on trans issues could be taken as quiet agreement with Rowling (or perhaps Rogan), I want to state emphatically that is not how I feel. I grew up in Greenwich Village and have lived for years in Logan Circle, so I have known and lived in communities of LGBTQ people for my entire life and I believe in and support their struggle for equal rights. It’s also worth saying that one reason you don’t find a lot of Yglesias writing on trans issues is that I don’t think this is an area where Democrats’ advocacy has hurt them electorally, whereas I am very concerned that Democrats’ re-embrace of gun control, and increasing tendency to go out of their way to racialize what could be race-neutral political debates, is hurting their efforts to win elections.

I don’t see that on trans issues — the only state I’m aware of where it’s become a high salience thing is North Carolina, where it may have helped Roy Cooper win in a right of center jurisdiction. On both the policy and the politics, I agree with the mainstream liberal approach and I don’t have anything particularly interesting to write about that beyond supporting its tactics and goals.

Rogan, as I understand it, initially made waves on this issue talking about the specific issue of trans women competing in professional athletic competitions, which does seem like a topic where some nuance is called for because the whole institution of sex-segregated sports is a bit of an odd fit with the normal egalitarian approach to things. But precisely because nuance is called for, it’s an issue I would want to approach with careful language and detailed consideration of the evidence. That’s not how he’s handled this topic. When I was on his show, he emphasized several times the value he places on calm open-minded conversations. But his approach to trans issues seems to me to really violate those ideals in a way that has hurt people and called his good faith into question — he’s operating at a level of fame and fortune where I don’t know if he can even hear any criticism, but he ought to reconsider.

To me, these first-order questions are separate from the second-order question of does it make sense to try to shun people over specific issue disagreements.

Shunning only works in specific situations

Trying to shun (as opposed to persuading) people who are expressing a view that is held by a significant number of people — even a really bad view — doesn’t advance political causes.

The reason you can deplatform outright Nazis is that there are very few Nazis. Since they are already marginal, you can make sure to keep them that way. But there are way too many people with traditionalist views about gender identity to try to deplatform them. Rogan already has the most popular podcast in the world. Fox News has the highest-rated prime-time cable programs. The Catholic Church has millions of loyal members in the United States, including president-elect Joe Biden.

In other words, right-of-center views on trans issues are mainstream in the United States, and if you want to participate in mainstream American society you can’t shun everyone with those views. By attempting to do so, you are not marginalizing Joe Rogan, you are asking progressives to marginalize themselves.

And this is just not unique to trans issues. There are lots of harmful political opinions that are nonetheless very widely held. Lots of people think that it is bad to give cash benefits to non-working adults, and that’s why America has sky-high child poverty. Lots of people are in denial about how harmful air pollution is, contributing to the deaths of over 200,000 Americans per year. This is a large, diverse, open society, which is good, but part of what it means to live in a large, diverse, open society is that it’s full of people with widely held bad opinions.

There are roughly two ways you can deal with people like that:

  • You can convince them to change their mind.

  • You can beat them in elections and implement the right policies.

I don’t want to get too preachy about the changing of minds, because obviously in this case neither Bernie nor I went on Rogan to try to do trans-related persuasion and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But the “winning elections” part is important.

Trans people benefit from coalitions with transphobes

There was a good PRRI report on public opinion on trans and gender identity issues back in 2019, which showed two big things. One is that public views on these topics are shifting leftward. The other is that public sentiment remains decidedly mixed and imperfectly polarized.

One big change that will happen when Biden is inaugurated, for example, is that we are going to get better rules for trans people who want to serve in the military. That’s a big deal for the specific people involved, but I also think it’s a bigger deal politically. Over the years in America, military service has been a path through which members of marginalized communities become empowered to claim their standing as citizens in civilian life as well.

PRRI finds that this is a popular idea backed by almost half of Republicans and clear majorities of everyone else.

But note that Democratic support for this, though high, is far from universal.

Twenty-two percent of Democrats do not support transgender military service (my guess is mostly older, churchgoing Black and Latin Democrats). If you tell them that the mainstream Democratic Party view is that people like themselves should be cast out of polite society then you’ll have a big problem winning elections. Biden beat Trump pretty handily in the national popular vote. But not handily enough to be able to walk away from that twenty-two percent. If you successfully expel them from the progressive coalition, then Trump gets reelected and the prospects for policy change go away.

You win over time in part by convincing people that you are right, and in part by forming winning coalitions that include people who disagree with you. The politics of shunning are not helpful, and this is a general proposition.

All issues are like this

It’s been put to me that we should see Rogan as a special case, because anti-trans politics puts vulnerable people’s lives at risk. That’s true, it does.

But essentially all political issues have lives hanging in the balance. The Trump administration’s tweaks to coal rules, if they stay in place, will lead to over 1,000 additional deaths per year thanks to particular emissions. The Supreme Court ruling that led to uneven implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion rules is responsible for 15,000 deaths and counting. Politics and policy are a really big deal, with enormous life-and-death consequences for hundreds of million of Americans and to an extent for the population of the entire world.

That means you have to try to practice politics in a responsible, constructive, and effective way.

But the thing about politics is that even if you restrict yourself to popular, widely held progressive positions it’s very unusual for a given person to agree with all of them. Politics is in large part about getting people who disagree with you about some stuff to support you anyway, because you seem like an overall reasonable person, or because you agree with them on the issue that happens to be most important to them.

And that in turn means seizing opportunities to visit large platforms and share your ideas with their audiences. What makes The Joe Rogan Experience a particularly important media platform for politics is that not only is his audience large, his show is not super-political. I thought it was worth my time to talk about my book with Ben Shapiro, but realistically Shapiro’s audience is pretty ideologically committed right-wingers. Neither Rogan nor his show is super-political, which means that it’s an audience that contains persuadable and cross-pressured voters.

If progressives collectively adopt the view that no progressive person should ever go on his show then that means his audience will only ever hear from conservatives. And that’s not going to be helpful to anyone.