Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, in the Oval Office in 2012. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
On the left of
US politics, vigorous debate continues over how to respond to the forces that got Trump elected. Many such arguments mirror discussions in the Labour party in the UK, as the left responds to populism, disenchantment with the market economy and conflicting views over the role of identity politics.
Nikki Usher, who teaches a class on the future of media at the George Washington University, said Pod Save America was “unabashedly trying to create an alternative leftwing media ecosystem that takes all of the lessons that have failed and repackages them for the kind of audiences that treat Obama as a hipster God versus the kind of wonky principled Democrats who sit around and debate policy”.
Conservative radio is a behemoth in terms of business and political influence, and Fox News is America’s most-watched cable news outlet. Attempts to replicate that kind of success on the left have not fared well – from Al Gore’s Current TV to the Air America radio network, which declared bankruptcy in 2010. After years of lackluster ratings, MSNBC, the left’s answer to Fox on cable, has pivoted back towards the center.
“I don’t know what the opposite of rightwing rage is,” Usher said, “but whatever that is I think that’s what the Crooked Media company is trying to take advantage of.”
The founders of Pod Save America say they hope its humor, insider-knowledge and drive for collective action will make it a mobilizing force. They are advocates, not passive documenters of elections, for instance helping promote Democratic candidates ahead of the party’s impressive performance in Virginia last November. But they also seek to inform with facts, a role traditionally reserved for press.
Favreau recently spoke to Ezra Klein, another young liberal media entrepreneur who left a high perch at the Washington Post to run the political website Vox. “I’m not going to pretend I’m a bloodless analyst who can leave all my personal opinions behind,” he said.
Instead he wants to galvanize people who agree with him. “People are angry right now, but I think liberals like to be inspired,” Favreau added. “I still believe that.”
Such work will only increase ahead of November’s midterm elections, when Democrats hope to retake the House and Senate.
‘White men speaking about politics’
Pod Save America is fresh, even radical. But stepping back, it’s still four white guys seeking to reshape the future of Democratic politics as the party is trying to diversify itself.
Research has shown that in the emergence of the political blogosphere, an earlier techno-media innovation, top influencers were white males, typically with an Ivy League or advanced education. Today, the top influencers on political Twitter fit the same profile.
Tommy Vietor, who worked as an Obama spokesman. Photograph: Publicity image
With “each new technological distribution”, Usher said, “the patterns of dominance continue despite what we might think about the potential for new voices to shine”.
“I do think there’s still a perception that white men speaking about politics is politics and anybody else speaking about politics is identity politics,” said Friedman, a co-host of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast who has been a guest on a Pod Save America spinoff and remains a fan of the show.
“I listen to plenty of podcasts led by voices that are not white guys that are just not coded as general politics.”
Growing pains are inevitable. The problem is structural and Vietor and his co-founders, who cut their teeth working for and to elect the first black president, acknowledge as much. As Crooked Media has expanded, they have diversified the backgrounds of their writers, guests and co-hosts.
Mark Feldstein, a veteran investigative journalist who is now a professor at the University of Maryland, encouraged the experimentation of ventures like Pod Save America.
“Let a thousand flowers bloom,” he said. “There’s nothing so sacrosanct about all the media forms we’ve had heretofore.”