Wide Angle

Once More Unto the Echo Chamber

Pod Save America will never challenge the way its listeners think. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

Pod Save America hosts Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett.
Pod Save America hosts Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

If #Resistance culture is a fleet, Pod Save America is its flagship. According to the New York Times, the podcast has roughly as many listeners as Anderson Cooper has viewers. The show partners with left-aligned organizations like MoveOn and Swing Left, helping to raise money for candidates, register voters, and organize volunteers. Crooked Media, the media company founded by Pod Save America’s hosts, has become a miniempire for poppy, politically minded podcasts: In the past two years, it has sent as many as 10 different podcasts into the top two spots on the iTunes charts, with at least four making it to No. 1. The show and its T-shirts are seemingly everywhere and can seemingly get anyone even a smidge to the left of the median American voter to appear on it and be interviewed. Soon they’ll even be on HBO.

And it’s not hard to see the appeal. Cast your mind back to early January 2017. Trump isn’t in office yet. The Women’s March is still being organized, and turnout for it is unclear. Russian interference in the election is a relatively minor story, and no one is talking about Robert Mueller. Yet you, a Hillary Clinton voter, are still filled with a gnawing sense of emergency. The best president of your lifetime—not a high bar to clear, but still—is stepping down, and every time there’s some kind of discussion of his legacy, you have to click away because the grief is too great. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on the fall of the Roman Republic or Weimar Germany. Every time you log onto Facebook or Twitter, you enter a panic spiral as friend after friend informs you that experts in authoritarianism advise you to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember. I know! I know! You think, but what can I do? There’s a chasm of despair yawning in front of you, and every time you ask if the best years of your life are behind you, or wonder if the American Experiment has maybe already ended, you take another step closer to it.

But then you hear that these four good-looking guys, all of whom actually worked for that Best President Ever, have a podcast. The title of its first episode, “Repeal and Go F*ck Yourself,” references the GOP’s forthcoming attempts to destroy Obamacare. And in its opening minutes, co-host Tommy Vietor sets out the mission for this new venture. He tells you that a problem with the last election was that “there wasn’t a good place to talk about politics like a human being,” that our national conversation lacked a space “to try to understand not just what was happening but what you can do about it.” Thus, the podcast. Over the course of 80 or so minutes, they make you laugh, they share some stories from inside the Oval, and they tell you actual things you can do. There’s still, well, hope! And who better, you think, to explain how the sausage gets made, and how you can help influence its ingredients, than four former chefs from your favorite restaurant?

Pod Save America’s format is as fixed as the tides. Jon Favreau and his co-hosts (Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer) discuss two to three recent political events or news stories, punctuated by ads and a short interview with a politician or activist. There’s a few action items scattered throughout, as well as lots of riffing, especially from Lovett, the show’s comic relief (and host of Lovett or Leave It, a kind of lefty Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!). Favreau asks each of the co-hosts questions about the news stories, but the questions are anodyne, the answers almost meaningless. Their biggest takeaway from the August primaries and special elections was that every vote matters. After Trump tried to walk back the infamous Helsinki press conference with Putin in which he appeared to side with Putin over U.S. law enforcement agencies, Favreau’s hard-hitting questions included, “Shall we start to enumerate all the different ways that [Trump’s] explanation was a steaming pile of horseshit?” Everyone on Pod Save America agrees on just about everything, and if you listen to the show, you probably agree, too.

Pod Save America’s value as actual news and political analysis is very low. The Trump administration’s deviance from the institutional norms of the executive branch and the behavioral norms of nontoddlers has rendered the host’s insider expertise essentially irrelevant. You will almost never hear an interesting or provocative argument, nor will you hear them discuss undercovered but important news stories of the day. Informing you and challenging you are not the show’s functions. Pod Save America exists to do three things: confirm to the audience that they are not crazy and This Is Not Normal, rile the audience up with humor and outrage, and direct that energy toward concrete action items that will help elect Democrats and push back against the GOP’s agenda.

The show’s aims are thus identical to those of a political speech, which is not a coincidence, as the hosts’ backgrounds are as spokespeople and speechwriters. Pod Save America’s success as a political tool—they’ve raised more than $1 million for candidates, sent thousands of volunteers to town halls, and created a simple tool to help boost voter registration— is a testament to how effective this approach can be.

But it also can make for wearying listening. The stories they cover are the same stories everyone else covers. Their point of view is identical to that of any number of interchangeable political writers and random people who are likely clogging your Twitter feed. If you have a circle of politically aware liberal friends, you have almost certainly had conversations as interesting and incisive as the ones you will hear on the show (although they may not have been as funny). Saying anything particularly original would, after all, interfere with the show’s actual purpose by introducing the possibility that there is something the audience, or the hosts, could be wrong about. This certainty, this easygoing authority that comes from being young white men who have actually been in the room where it happens, is what is most grating about Pod Saves America, but it is also the key to the good that it does. Without it, we wouldn’t know to trust them when they tell us we are right, or when they urge us to call our senators.

Yet, as their new show The Wilderness demonstrates, this approach is a liability when it’s time to move beyond political action into substantive analysis. The Wilderness is a new limited podcast series, hosted again by Favreau. It’s a work of incredible ambition, and it is, like every Crooked Media podcast, incredibly popular: It went to No. 1 on iTunes based on only a trailer and stayed atop the chart for much of last month. In it, Favreau wants to tell the story of how the Democrats lost their way electorally and how they could find their way back, with deep dives into hot-button issues like immigration, race, and how Democrats managed to screw up 2016 so badly. It is, in other words, meant to be the vehicle for the kind of analysis and soul-searching that Pod Save America avoids. The Wilderness thus ditches PSA’s chatty, bro-y feel of in favor of scripted narration from Favreau punctuated with interviews with a hundred or so political analysts and insiders as well as data from focus groups. The goal couldn’t be more admirable, or the access to interview subjects more broad, but time and again it defaults to the impulses of a speechwriter. Often, when The Wilderness could be analyzing history to find a way forward, it chooses instead to feel the history at you.

Its chief weapon against your emotional defenses is the audio collage, pulled from news clips, underscored by either sentimental or mildly threatening music. These are used to extreme effect during the episodes on Obama’s presidency and the 2016 election, both of which function like sense-memory exercises in a method acting class, transporting you into emotional states you thought you had left behind in lieu of teaching you anything. The multipart examination of race in America ends not with any kind of real reckoning with how racism makes the job of selling a progressive agenda harder but rather with Favreau waxing nostalgic about co-writing “the race speech” with Barack Obama and a lengthy clip of Obama delivering it. The immigration episode turns into an apologia for Obama’s deportation of more than 2 million people and concludes with Favreau prompting Cecilia Muñoz, director of Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, to tell him a story about a letter she received from Ted Kennedy. “I’m not sure I can do it without crying, but I will do my best,” she says. The letter, sent to her after bipartisan immigration reform failed in 2007, thanks her for her work on the issue and tells her that while they didn’t succeed this time, someday they would. “My plan was to take that letter with me to the signing ceremony when Barack Obama signed an immigration reform bill … and, uh, it’s going to be a bit of a wait, and Barack Obama isn’t going to be the one to sign that bill.” As heavenly strings swell in the background, Favreau reassures her, “Someday. Someday we’ll get there.” It’s a lovely little moment of drama, but it brings us no closer to answering how the Democratic Party should handle immigration, morally or politically.

In part, this may be because answering those questions means reckoning with Barack Obama’s presidency—and the actions of the Democratic Party under him—in its full complexity. It means looking at how, by creating DACA, they set the stage for a more humane immigration status quo but deported more people than Donald Trump. It means looking at how they saved the economy but left a flawed system and the people who ran it pretty much intact. Or how they expanded health care access but still did not do enough to help people in need. How they “ended” the Iraq war but ensured that our forever war in the Middle East would continue unabated. Or how Obama inspired so many to vote for him but oversaw the decimation of the Democratic Party at the state level.

These successes and failures are in part the successes and failures of Favreau, Lovett, Vietor, and Pfeiffer, because they helped sell them. It’s thus somewhat head-spinning to hear them all denounce the kind of conciliatory, bipartisan, overly deferential approach that was so deeply ingrained in Obama’s politics. Early on, there was the occasional tut-tutting about “polarization,” but now the Pod Save America crew wants the Democratic Party to hit hard, to experiment broadly, to run the most progressive electable candidate in each district, and to refuse to compromise. They decry the centrist establishment and political-consultant class that they themselves were, if not a part of, at least adjacent to and dependent on. It’s as if having seen that the things they knew to be true were wrong, they have pivoted to knowing a different set of things to be true, rather than asking how they got it wrong in the first place. Instead of a process of questioning, they have continued a process of answering, but with different answers. I happen to agree with this new set of answers, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe liberals should be turning to people whose analysis was right to begin with, rather than—just as they did after the Iraq war or the financial crisis—relying on the people who helped dig the hole they’re in to teach them how to climb out of it.

Is that a petty thing to write? After all, my podcast doesn’t get people to register to vote or save Obamacare. Sometimes a couple weeks go by before I realize I didn’t call my reps! As a critic, my stock in trade is doubt. And doubt is rarely helpful when it comes to political mobilization. You can wonder, Is this the right thing to do? and Am I the right person to do it? for so long that you never actually do anything. Besides, if we truly are in an emergency—and I believe we are—is this really the time to fight about who gets taken seriously and who doesn’t? Crooked Media’s hosts aren’t useless compulsive tweeters in the vein of Seth Abramson or fantasists like Louise Mensch. They care a great deal about making the world a better place and they have found a way to go about it while providing solace to a still-injured left. Pod Save America is of particular value to my friends who live outside of liberal enclaves. It provides them the kind of conversation and reinforcement they can’t get where they live.

Democrats are not in disarray. If anything, they’re the most arrayed they’ve been in a long time. Being in the minority has a galvanizing, unifying effect, and while the job of opposing everything Trump does is nearly impossible, it’s also simple and clear. But the future of the party, and of the left, is far from simple or clear. The divisions are real and, like all conflicts, only get more dangerous the longer they remain sublimated. Since the election, we’ve seen them bubble up in surprisingly heated proxy conflicts like the struggle over which person with nearly identical political views should head the DNC or over whether rising Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda will play in the Midwest.

There will be a moment in the future—maybe as soon as 2020—when our present crisis feels less acute. A moment when, inshallah, the Democrats have power again, and they have to figure out what to do with it. In that moment, the #Resistance will have to keep working. It will need to push against the Democratic Party and its complacency and against our own sense that everything will now be OK, because that feeling is part of how we got here in the first place. It will have to address the various structural hurdles—from voter disenfranchisement to the Electoral College and the structure of the Senate—that keep Democrats from power, while simultaneously using the power they have to avert any number of catastrophes. Democrats will have to address those lingering conflicts that they’ve worked so hard to keep under wraps as they focus on winning elections. For all its charm, insider information, and access, it’s unclear whether Pod Save America will be suited to that time to come. But the fact that listeners can imagine it coming at all is partly due to the show and its firm belief that there is something they can do beyond despair.