Blame Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan seems to be taking a lot of heat these days. His recent takes on Ivermectin and vaccines are attracting the ire of major media outlets including Rolling Stone, NPR, and the New York Times. I hear about his transgressions in a text message that reads, “What do you think about Joe Rogan?” The message that follows suggests the question was rhetorical — “I think he’s abusing his platform.” I can’t help but roll my eyes.
I get why Rogan can trigger people. He says dumb shit. But the obsessive concern with the rantings of a popular personality does little to illuminate or solve the issues we claim to be concerned with. It’s a distraction from the real questions we should be asking. Why have institutions lost the trust of so many people?
News Becomes Big Business
Boomers and some Gen Xers remember Walter Cronkite fondly as "the most trusted man in America." He was one of a few voices that delivered the news to the entire nation. The dispassionate and nonpartisan manner that he and other broadcasters exhibited stemmed from the Radio Act of 1927 and the fairness doctrine introduced by the FCC in 1949. They required broadcasters to provide airtime to matters of public interest, and present them with opposing viewpoints.
But, the path to partisan programming was cleared by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 when he repealed the fairness doctrine. Conservative voices who felt shut out of mainstream television news turned to talk radio. Talk radio found a home on AM radio stations because they were unable to broadcast music in stereo the way FM radio could. The Rush Limbaugh Show became nationally syndicated in 1988. The show was credited for the "liberal media-bias" meme that still exists today.
CNN launched the first cable news network in 1980. But, it wasn’t until June 17, 1994, when a white Ford Bronco fled police on the 405 in Los Angeles, that cable began to dominate how news was consumed. The OJ Simpson murder trial catapulted us into the era of 24-hour news. The Nineties news cycle had nonstop coverage of scandals and tragedies like Rodney King, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Jon Benet Ramsey, and the Clinton Impeachment to name a few. The news was no longer merely for public benefit - it became a huge business.
Newt Gingrich and Hyper-partisanship
Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House in 1995, after Republicans won control of Congress for the first time since 1954. He recognized a dangerous landscape for Republicans, as Clinton's shift rightward on crime and fiscal responsibility, coupled with changing demographics, threatened to keep Republicans in a permanent minority. He believed the liberal dominance of politics, media and culture would have catastrophic consequences for his party, and launched a Conservative insurgency that catalyzed the era of hyper-partisanship. The opposing party no longer signified a mere difference of philosophy. It represented an existential threat to the nation. Every election in my adult life has been framed this way on both sides.
Ironically, Gingrich was able to build on an obscure Democratic rule change from two decades earlier to consolidate power over his party’s agenda. In 1975, Democrats gave the Speaker of the House power to appoint the chair and their party members to the Rules Committee. The committee was responsible for deciding which bills to bring to the floor for a vote. It prided itself on being neutral before the change. It gave the majority party and its leadership tremendous power to set the legislative agenda.
Gingrich continued to dismantle non-partisan structures in Congress during his tenure. This led to an unwritten rule that later became more explicit under Gingrich's successor, Dennis Hastert. The Hastert rule said, "that the Speaker will not schedule a floor vote on any bill that does not have majority support within their party—even if the majority of the members of the House would vote to pass it." Both Speakers Paul Ryan (R) and Nancy Pelosi (D) would later expand the use of this rule. A vote would only be brought to the floor if the majority party could pass the vote entirely on their own. In other words, a bill would not even get a vote if it didn’t have the support of at least 218 members of the majority party, even if it had enough minority party votes to pass it. This didn’t leave much room for bipartisanship.
The effect of these changes should not be understated. Historically, bills could be passed across party lines when conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans might side with the other party. The new rules consolidated power to party leaders and their control over the agenda, as well as the candidates that could win party-controlled primaries. Party politics were no longer centered on local concerns, and voters no longer selected candidates on their individual merits. They voted for a party because control of Congress and the Presidency was the only thing that stood between us and the destruction of civilization itself. At least, that's what we were sold.
A New Professional Class
During the same period, deindustrialization of our economy accelerated with an expansion of free trade and offshoring. The new economy created a demand for knowledge workers and professional managers. A college degree became a prerequisite for achieving the American dream.
Organizations concentrated their headquarters in major cities on the coasts like NY, LA, SF and DC. Their upper ranks were recruited from elite universities. Second tier colleges became a pipeline to supply a growing demand for knowledge workers. This drove a massive talent drain from other areas of the country. This new educated class became culturally isolated from those fellow citizens who were less equipped to reap the rewards of the new economy.
The institutions that the public relied on to make sense of the world were also headquartered in these cities, and run almost exclusively by the new professional class. These powerful gatekeepers became a closed loop system shaped by an emerging elite consensus no longer in direct contact with a large portion of the population.
A Tale of Two Americas
Populist movements on both the left and the right started to grow organically in response to two significant institutional failures - the War on Terror and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Both events had significant economic consequences, especially for the poor and working class. Despite the countless scandals, lies and criminal behavior exposed in the ensuing years, our media and political leaders failed to deliver real accountability. There were clear conflicts of interest that put them at odds with those most negatively impacted. Distrust in institutions grew considerably in the years that followed.
The failures opened the door for a Junior Senator from Illinois to become our first Black President. Barack Obama represented our hope for a new type of politician. But, his victory failed to address our institutional failures or take on the soft corruption that pervaded them. Yet, his election gave many in the professional class a symbolic victory. His presidency allowed many of us to believe we achieved a post-racial society, despite failing to deliver meaningful structural changes. The illusion was reinforced by the success of Amazon and the gig economy to deliver our needs and wants to our doorstep at the swipe of a finger. We relished in our comfortable enclaves. But, the bubble that protected our liberal utopias kept another reality hidden from view.
An invisible poor was being left behind. Transportation and food deserts were pushed to the margins of our cities. Vanishing industrial and mining towns suffered from a massive opioid epidemic caused by a powerful pharmaceutical industry that was little more than legalized drug dealing, and family farms saddled with debt were excluded from the billions of dollars in farm subsidies doled out to factory farms. We were completely out of touch with these other realities as we celebrated our liberal paradise and moved on from class concerns to focus on cultural issues. All the while, we shamed many of them for being unsophisticated, uneducated and deplorable.
The current Republican party didn’t seem to make much ideological sense to us liberals. Any facade of economic conservatism has flown out the window. The current leader was a philandering reality TV star, whose vulgarity and paucity of morality should have horrified social conservatives. Instead, he used incendiary rhetoric that played on an ethno-nationalist fear of replacement by immigrants and minorities. How could any decent and self-respecting Republican stand behind him?
In this world where our politics have been flattened and depersonalized, we are only left with two choices. On the one side is a dominant elite consensus. On the other side are angry voters who believe we are full of shit. The Republican Party is no longer an ideological party. It is an opposition party.
Don Lemon Proves the Point
The recent feud between CNN and Joe Rogan demonstrated why so many people think the media is full of shit. The feud began when CNN implied on multiple programs that Rogan was taking a dangerous ‘horse dewormer’ as a COVID treatment. He was actually prescribed a human dose of Ivermectin by his doctor — not the version used on horses. There were some initial studies that demonstrated Ivermectin’s efficacy for COVID treatment. Those studies were eventually retracted for using a faulty methodology. The evidence in support of Ivermectin was inconclusive, however, it had not been disproved either.
In the aftermath, CNN personality and medical expert, Sanjay Gupta, joined Rogan on his podcast. Gupta, to his credit, saw an opportunity to reach an audience skeptical of vaccines for COVID. During one of the few tense moments in their 3 hour long conversation, Rogan asked Gupta why CNN reporters intentionally mischaracterized his use of Ivermectin to score political points. Gupta conceded CNN was wrong to frame the story this way.
After his appearance, Gupta appeared to be compelled to justify his appearance on Rogan’s podcast. He was dragged onto Don Lemon’s show a couple days later. The purpose quickly became apparent. Lemon began the segment by calling Gupta’s appearance on Rogan “tongue-in-cheek.” He insisted Gupta recant his concession to Rogan. Gupta attempted to explain Rogan’s position more fairly, but Lemon immediately shut down any opportunity to defend Rogan before abruptly ending the segment.
If Don Lemon was genuinely interested in convincing vaccine skeptics, he certainly didn't appear to take an effective approach. A majority of skeptics don't watch CNN. Sanjay Gupta should have been applauded for going to a platform trusted by the people they wanted to persuade. Instead, CNN seemed more intent on signaling to their audience and asserting their legitimacy as the SOLE authority in this exchange. But for many, including liberals like myself, it only served to further diminish that authority. Even the Washington Post took issue with their reporting.
We Need New Institutions
The reality is that digital technology gives voice to many alternatives to mainstream narratives. Contrary to popular fears, the democratization of media does not have to lead to further polarization. In fact, it could be our way out of our current dysfunction. But it’s our political institutions that stand in the way of progress.
Legacy media institutions that fail to adapt to a more competitive marketplace of ideas will render themselves irrelevant. Our top down party controlled politics, on the other hand, will remain a threat to progress because they have a monopoly on legislating American society. We will be forced into one of two ideological boxes as long as the duopoly persists. And we will continue to fight obsolete battles as long as they are controlled by career politicians whose politics and relationships were formed in a bygone era. Technology and other advances in society allow us to imagine new possibilities.
CNN is right about one thing. We need institutions. Technology is making the marketplace of ideas more democratic. Anybody can tweet, record a podcast, share an article or write a newsletter. But, democracy is messy. Without institutional guardrails, it can devolve into mob rule, as we often witness on social media. However, our existing institutions are generally ill-equipped to make the necessary innovations to serve us effectively. We need to build new institutions.
Our new institutions can no longer function as top-down hierarchies based on authority. They need to reflect a new reality created by technology and a globally connected society to form bottom-up networks built on trust.
That means we need to break the political duopoly. We will never accomplish that, as long as we are drawn into symbolic conflicts over meta-narratives and memetic identities. We will certainly not get there by blaming Joe Rogan.