Pod Save Us From These Liberal Wonks
I remember once being asked to explain the U.S. election system to a foreign classmate and the shame I felt at describing the Electoral College—a dusty old relic that somehow can’t be shoved into an attic somewhere. America frequently invites this kind of embarrassment, whether because its institutions are unjust, make no sense or simply beggar belief. Even worse, not only do the men and women who prop up those institutions sleep well at night, but it never seems to occur to them that they should do anything else.
Which brings me to “Pod Save America.” Produced and distributed by the pseudo-ironically named Crooked Media, the podcast offers the kind of digestible, wonkish insights peddled by websites like Vox or Axios, but with the imprimatur of D.C. “insiders.” The flagship podcast’s hosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Daniel Pfeiffer are all former Obama staffers with the inoffensive clean dress and good looks of a Bonobos ad. Where presidential gatekeepers once merely fell ass-backwards into private-sector riches, they now have their own programming. This gang does the usual double-dipping but still wants more: to be prominent cultural voices cashing their checks in perpetuity, or at least as long as there’s a political class in America willing to pay them.
Still, the podcasters’ greatest foible appears to be the lack of self-awareness that only the truly successful possess. (As of November 2017, the podcast drew 1.5 million listeners per episode.) Take the recent musings of Lovett, snipped from a “Pod Save America” broadcast and promoted by the group’s social media account. In the clip, Lovett, the “funny one” in the boy band, attempts to explain the greater objective of health care reform, although it’s not entirely clear what that is; his digression recurs and bends, going wobbly for whole clauses at a time before finally settling on the construction “Medicare-access approach.”
Such a phrase is almost designed to make its speaker sound like he knows something you don’t. But even someone as dense as I am could sense that the only coherent theme in Lovett’s rant was a peevish sensitivity to the accusation that supporting anything less than “Medicare for all’—the popular proposal to expand one of the welfare state’s greatest successes to a sorely needed underclass—is not progressive. It also hints at a greater gripe: the suggestion, implicit or explicit, that Lovett and his ilk aren’t themselves left-wing. Which, of course, they aren’t.
Left unmentioned in this diatribe is the Obama administration’s construction of the Affordable Care Act, which proceeded on the false notion that there is a market solution to our health care crisis, even as it foreclosed on any more expansive alternatives. That’s prologue. Lovett wants to know what’s so bad about a generous and affordable private insurance plan that keeps you and your family healthy, besides the fact that it doesn’t exist and probably never will.
Herein lies the podcast’s whole shtick; as Truthdig contributor Jacob Bacharach put it, the incident revealed how Lovett and his co-hosts “don’t really know what health insurance is.” As a class, Bacharach elaborates, such self-anointed experts would be surprised to learn “their wonkish devotion to ‘policy’ and ‘nuance’ never quite breaks upon the shore of learning how anything actually works.” The politics of “Pod Save America” resemble very closely those plastic geometric toys given to children learning their shapes—all rounded edges to avoid any nasty gouges or cuts. Yet these same guys controlled their country’s levers of powers just a few years ago. Could they really be this clueless?
One thing the American right understands implicitly—indeed, glories in, like those terrifying Germanic tribesmen at the beginning of “Gladiator”—is that politics is about power: who wields the truncheon, and who gets their skulls crushed. Insurers make millions more per year if they institute a rule that prevents you from getting a new gallbladder, an asthma nebulizer for your kid or even some measly insulin; they have the power, and you’re shit out of luck. If the U.S. military decides it’s invading, it’s invading; there’s no referendum to be held on the matter. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rampages through courthouses, corporate money dirties and binds public servants, street cops become judge, jury and executioner. Power is pooled, amassed and exercised with a machine-like precision.
It has been this way since the days of Shakespeare, and it will remain so until the last blades of grass and puddles of rainwater are fought over in the coming decades. America’s fascists—who, it must be said, seized control of the country in the wake of Obama’s over-promised and under-delivered failures—cannot help but view politics as war. The problem is the people closer to our side of things, the Beltway courtiers like Lovett who would choke off any reaction in kind.
One might accurately use the adjective “conservative” in describing such figures, standing athwart history and yelling, “Stop!” Not that the “Pod Save America” boys consider “conservatism” in and of itself a dirty word. These are the same people, after all, who hired Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush hatchet man, as a contributor and pet Republican for their show. The revelation that Miller had trafficked in the basest gutter sleaze—circulating far-right, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on behalf of Facebook’s corporate leadership—was enough to get him fired, but not enough to answer the question “why invite the wolf in through the front door to begin with?”
I am a recovering political junkie. Competitive house districts, crowded senatorial fields, two or so years out, even statehouse races in the odd battleground state—I used to inhale this stuff. Now, I couldn’t do it with one of those N95 masks you have to wear during a forest fire. The great conversation will continue, like a football season that never ends or a Terror Tuesday meeting with an infinite list of humans to pulverize—one grand bargain with every corporate sleaze in the iron triangle. And there will be its liberal technocrats, yammering away on their nonsensically titled podcast. Pod Bless America, every one!