On the eve of an ill-fated government shutdown in 2013, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a column that captured the sentiments of liberal opinion makers perfectly: This was all talk radio’s fault.
Senator Ted Cruz, the avatar of the ill-conceived effort to prevent ObamaCare’s implementation, had undertaken this quixotic campaign at the explicit behest of right-wing radio hosts and their listeners. Kristof observed that liberals had spent the last 20 years feeling victimized by the explosive popularity of conservative talk on the AM dial, but it was, in fact, the right that had been bamboozled. Ted Cruz and his blinkered constituents were about to charge headlong into a meat grinder in service to the careers of a handful of entertainers, none of whom had skin in the game. Whoever got crushed in the shutdown circus, they’d come out with ratings intact.
“The right-wing echo chamber breeds extremism, intimidates Republican moderates and misleads people into thinking that their worldview is broadly shared,” Kristof wrote. “And that’s why Republicans may lead us over a financial cliff, even though polling suggests that voters would blame them.”
Kristoff and the cadre of progressive opinion-makers who agreed with him had a point. To the extent that millions of conservative talk-radio consumers had become convinced that a shutdown designed to “de-fund” the Affordable Care Act had any chance of success and was not destined to backfire on Cruz and his party, the right had locked itself into a “suffocating echo chamber.” Republicans are still struggling to break the hold talk radio’s lotus-eaters have over them. But even as Republicans are making an effort to extricate themselves from that trap, liberals are settling into it.
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” reads the apocryphal quote attributed to Eric Hoffer. “The Resistance” has matured past the movement stage and is now an enterprise. A number of industries have sprung up with the aim of commoditizing anger at the Trump administration and nostalgia for the last one.
Few have enjoyed more success in this venture than Obama administration alumni Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer. Their podcast—Pod Save America—has become a sensation, generating 1.5 million listeners on average per episode. These former Obama speechwriters and communications officials travel the world, preaching the gospel of Resistance and blending entertainment with activism. They’ve built a modest media empire around their brand: “Crooked Media,” named in honor of the epithet with which Donald Trump branded Hillary Clinton.
Like talk radio in 2013, the Obama administration in exile is making demands of Democratic legislators. If Democrats adhere to them, they would force the government into a shutdown. And Crooked Media is organizing effectively to achieve their aims.
“At least 41 Senate Democrats need to say: we will not fund a government that rips away health insurance from 9 million children or deports 700,000 young immigrants from the only home they’ve ever known,” the website insisted. That is to say, Democrats should insist on a long-term funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as well as legislation making the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) permanent. All of this, they insist, should be tacked onto a short-term continuing resolution that funds the government for another month. That’s not happening; it’s an unrealistic ask that only hardens liberal partisans in the grassroots against an achievable compromise. It’s therefore not unreasonable to conclude that an achievable compromise is not in this media outlet’s interests.
Pod Save America isn’t just offering a suggestion for their would-be activist listeners; they’re holding their hands through the process. The podcast has published a regularly updated “whip count,” featuring the names of Democratic senators and their office telephone numbers, identifying who is publicly for or against a continuing resolution that doesn’t include their demands. They not only ask their listeners to call Democratic lawmakers on their behalf, they provide a script for listeners to follow to make sure their demands are heard. And in case you are confused, the podcast’s hosts have included a video of their call to Senator Dianne Feinstein—a reliably liberal California Democrat who is nevertheless facing a potent primary challenge in her one-party state because she is viewed as too accommodating toward Republicans in the minds of a liberal activist class.
If there is a government shutdown, it would be folly to lay the blame at the feet of the hosts of one popular podcast, or even its many imitators. The folly would belong to Senate Democrats who, as NBC News accurately put it, “have enough votes to block the spending bill in the Senate and prevent Republicans from keeping the government up and running.” But these lawmakers are only following the will of their voters. And their voters, much like Republicans in 2013, seem more interested in the fight than what that fight is supposed to achieve. That’s a familiar kind of inchoate rage. These and other liberal entertainers are following a trail blazed by Republicans. And if Congress avoids a shutdown at the last minute, don’t worry. We’ll be here again in a month.