Brett Graham: Pod hold the partisanship

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 - 4:50pm

By all accounts, it was a pretty standard October Saturday. Michigan football was playing in a few hours and I stood on a friend’s lawn near the corner of State and Hoover streets, watching with a red Solo cup in hand as hordes of people decked out in maize and blue passed by. Then, I saw a familiar face in the crowd. And then two more just behind it. “Friend of the Pod!” I shouted. “Friend of the Pod here, can I get a picture?”

Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor and Dan Pfeiffer were passing by on their way to the game, having taped an episode of their extremely popular podcast “Pod Save America” in the Michigan Theater the night before. It might be hard to believe for some, but these former President Barack Obama staffers have gained a huge amount of celebrity since their time in the White House. Their podcast reaches about 1.5 million listeners per episode and their live shows sell out theaters across the country. They have interviewed nearly every major candidate for Congress and the presidency in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

On specs, for progressives and liberals at least, the success of their company, Crooked Media, and its growing list of podcasts is cause for celebration — finally, an answer to conservative talk radio and Fox News! Young liberal voices are helping the average American contextualize the hot mess of current events in the President Donald Trump era and stay informed. Still, long-time listeners (such as yours truly) have observed a certain shift in tone over the past few months that makes me think I would not have such an enthusiastic reaction if I were to see them walking around Ann Arbor today.

Co-hosts Favreau, Vietor, Pfeiffer and Jon Lovett, a former speech-writer and funnyman, have spent hours and hours discussing the state of the Democratic Party. They have rehashed the 2016 primary and the relationship between the so-called Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sander wings. They have parsed apart the party’s position on health care, immigration and gun control to find the most progressive or most sensible stance. They have interviewed countless experts, trying to understand how to best fight the Trump presidency. They used to plainly criticize a number of high-profile Democrats. As the 2018 midterms have approached, though, the Pod is sounding more and more like a partisan rallying cry than the serious autopsy that it once was.

I first got this feeling in the wake of the Alabama special election in December. Obviously, Republican candidate Roy Moore’s loss is something to celebrate, and a Democrat winning that seat goes a long way toward liberal politics returning to the South. But Democratic Sen. Doug Jones is and always has been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. He does not support single-payer health care, which is now enjoying almost universal (no pun intended) support from liberals and progressives. He even once celebrated a Confederate colonel. He will face a tough re-election campaign in 2020, and anyone who expects him to be a consistent and reliable liberal vote in the Senate is naïve; he will be looking for every opportunity to work with his Republican colleagues.

And yet, listening to “Pod Save America,” you hear very few – if any – of these caveats. None of this context. “Someone with a (D) next to his name on the ballot won, so let’s celebrate!” they seemed to say. Now, as the midterms approach, listeners hear regularly how important it is to elect Democrats nationwide in November. I would agree, with one slight adjustment. It is important to elect the right Democrats in November. Progressive, non-corporate ones with vision. A roster of Doug Joneses is not going to cut it.

To a certain extent, no one can really blame them. They are all partisan Democratic operatives, not journalists. They do not pretend to offer any sort of unbiased perspective.

What is worrisome to me is that their audience is comprised of thoughtful, progressive people who now rely on “Pod Save America” for information and context. These people are looking to mobilize and can change the fundamentals of the party if given the chance. They could become an informed, motivated, progressive base that not only helps win elections but keeps its politicians honest. This is only if it is an ideological and skeptical base rather than a partisan and impressionable one.

At the end of the day, I’ll continue to listen to “Lovett or Leave It” regularly and “Pod Save America” on occasion. Crooked Media as a whole employs progressive voices from people of color and women (Symone Sanders, DeRay Mckesson, Ira Madison III) and they deserve commendation for that. To my fellow listeners, though, a word of warning — stay vigilant. This podcast is no longer what it was and may be transitioning into something less than appealing.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.