Last Tuesday, Joe Rogan, commentator, comedian, and host of the incredibly popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, said in conversation with New York Times staff editor Bari Weiss that he would probably be voting for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. The campaign put out a clip on Twitter in response to the endorsement, including Rogan’s remarks on how Sanders was “insanely consistent,” along with pictures from the senator’s appearance on the show in August. This prompted immediate backlash due to Rogan’s history of transphobia and racism as part of his “brand” of mocking political correctness. The campaign’s so-called insensitivity to this was compared to the tone of Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, which was often criticized for its lack of diversity and a willfulness to view race and gender issues almost solely through the lens of economic inequality.
The campaign stood by the decision to embrace the endorsement, with staff, surrogates and supporters alike taking to Twitter or email to justify it. As related by Vox, Briahna Joy Gray, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, argued that “sharing a tent requires including those that do not share every one of our beliefs…[but] never [compromising] our values,” that is, creating a coalition by bringing together groups that are not perfectly aligned. Supporters online dismissed those who were upset about the Rogan endorsement as members of the Democratic establishment, or anti-Bernie liberals and moderates playing identity politics to downplay Bernie’s working class appeal and rise in the polls.
By referencing coalition building and identity politics, Sanders supporters have unerringly put their finger on the biggest divide among the progressive left: which voters progressives should prioritize, and what role diversity plays in a campaign. It would be futile to think about this endorsement without examining both of these concepts separately and together because of how much they have shaped the differences in opinion among the activist left.
A cornerstone of the controversy over Joe Rogan is who his viewers are: majority white, majority male; and based on his content, they’re also likely to be Trump supporters or libertarians, likelier than not to be anti-establishment. This includes those whom Hillary Clinton denounced as “deplorables,” workers disaffected by the unpredictability and change in the job market and a demographic that was instrumental to Donald Trump’s election. In this way, the endorsement presents a huge opportunity for the Sanders campaign to broaden his base through coalition building – that is, by bringing together different groups to form a diverse and varied coalition – even if not everyone is motivated by exactly the same tenets of his campaign. By bringing Trump voters into the fold, Sanders hopes to dispel the chronic mainstream debate over his electability (although it doesn’t much seem like the mainstream media is using hard numbers on that one anyway).
In a way, this is the irony of Sanders supporters’ indignance at “identity politics” - because this motivation is also a form of identity politics. The 2020 campaign’s investment in Latinx communities is a form of identity politics. When Bernie Sanders talks about Judaism and his faith, that is also a form of identity politics, which does not make any of that wrong. Many progressives and Sanders supporters, including high profile ones, conflate identity politics – which is simply how demographics and identity impact voters’ decisions – with tokenism, which is a sheerly representation-based argument, i.e. “vote for me because I’m a woman.” If that sounds familiar, it may be because it is something Sanders himself often described as Hillary Clinton’s main message during his 2016 run.
The fact that the value of the Joe Rogan endorsement comes from a place of identity politics, again, does not mean Sanders is wrong to accept it. Identity politics are a key part of political participation, and I believe that the senator has worked and introspected on the role of identity in movements to make his campaign more inclusive in 2020. But by justifying the endorsement on the basis of coalition building, the campaign is departing from their usual messaging regarding how they want their grassroots movement to work.
As we can tell from the campaign slogan “Not me, us,” Sanders and his team are committed to invigorating and pushing forward not just his candidacy but the entire progressive cause. The emphasis on grassroots, movement-based politics is part of what has driven Sanders in the polls, and this time around there is renewed focus on how Bernie would win by increasing voter turnout and inspiring young people and people of color to go to the voting booths. He rejected the moderate notion of reaching across the aisle, or the establishment urge to nominate a centrist like former Joe Biden to possibly attract some Republicans who didn’t want Trump. The Sanders campaign hoped to instead be a rallying cry to how bold politics could be. They wouldn’t be tempering their progressive outreach to appeal to moderates just because a progressive would likely vote Democrat anyway.
But the rhetoric of “sharing a tent” doesn’t fit well with that messaging. This is partly indicative of how the campaign is looking to expand in all the ways that it can. But we start to also see an interesting comparison between the campaign’s stance on race- and gender-related issues against its firm principles on economic ideals.
The Hill journalist Krystal Ball said on “Rising,” an anti-establishment show that she co-hosts, that marketing the Joe Rogan endorsement did not make Bernie culpable for every unsavory thing that Rogan had done about transgender individuals, African Americans, and the gay community. Gray’s statement about not compromising values makes the same point – benefiting from this endorsement was fine, but it was not an endorsement in turn. This seems reasonable until you consider Bernie’s vehement (and in my mind, correct) refusal to take corporate donations, and his pride over never having received contributions from a billionaire, unlike the rest of the field. He frequently draws this contrast, emphasizing that he is a candidate unsullied by corporate intentions. But when benefiting off of a problematic endorsement, his campaign is able to completely compartmentalize their values and Rogan’s racism and homophobia, referring to them as “sharing a tent” while keeping those values insulated and separate.
Progressives haven’t had it this good in generations, and parts of the Sanders campaign seem to reflect a true desire to be inclusive and target all forms of inequality. But as someone who will probably be voting for Sanders myself, I find it troubling that he still does not hold himself to the same standards on social issues that he does on corporate greed.