The shell-shocked Democratic Party failed to conduct any kind of autopsy after the 2016 elections. The wounds, from both the nomination and the colossal disappointment in November, were too raw; the state of emergency was too acute. Now, with some distance and with midterms looming, into the breach comes Jon Favreau.
From 2005 to 2013, Favreau served as chief speechwriter for Barack Obama. His voice is now his own, as a podcasting superstar on Pod Save America. In January 2017 Favreau founded Crooked Media with fellow speechwriter Jon Lovett and Obama spokesperson Tommy Vietor. Since then, the Pod Save America crew has found its role as a wise-cracking interpreter of the Democratic message to a certain kind of audience: young, educated but not necessarily intellectual, broadly liberal in orientation, Obama-nostalgic, politically aware but not hyper-engaged. Given the scale of their platform (as of November 2017, Pod Save America averaged 1.5 million listeners per episode) and that place in the partisan firmament, Favreau’s take on the Democrats serves as a kind of synecdoche for the party as a whole.
It is unsurprising that a celebrity podcaster’s preferred diagnostic medium for getting to the heart of the party is also a podcast, this one called The Wilderness. Its theme, one might say, comes from Lincoln: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Across fifteen hourlong episodes that fuse introspection with infotainment, Favreau’s auditory blue-ribbon commission considers how we got into our present straits, and how we might get out of them.
With the unpardonable omission of climate change, discussed only glancingly in the context of foreign policy, the series covers all the necessary ground, with episodes on history, the economy, race, gender, and foreign policy, along with a couple of focus groups, a guide to messaging, an hour on party-building, and the proverbial deep dive into how candidates can tell their story. Favreau finds guides from across the party—journalists and think-tankers and academics and consultants. Edited into soundbites, they tend to echo one another. There’s a lot of talk about how we can’t paper over our differences, but far more on shared values and shared vision. The Obama ’08 crew is heavily represented, whether or not the family reunion means much to the rest of us, but there are also Hillary people and Bernie people aplenty, lefty types (Symone Sanders, Van Jones, and Michael Kazin, among others) along with a veteran of the Democratic Leadership Council. Though some young elected officials take their turns at the mic, Barack Obama, who closes out the series, is the only big-time politician on the show.
The big theme is to “be bold,” which here means two things. The first, expressed more coherently on some issues than others, is to move away from the politics of the 1990s and embrace a more full-throated liberalism. In policy terms, that means shifting toward big, sometimes universal, programs with price tags to match. As Favreau explains, “a lot of the center-left policy folks and Democratic politicians who used to propose incremental, technocratic solutions like tax credits and public-private partnerships now seem to agree that we need substantial government investment.” Rhetorically, it means talking forthrightly about those commitments, without all the caveats about “access to” and “opportunity for” that confuse voters and fail to defuse Republican opposition. Although never stated in so many words, the idea is to move left where it’s relatively easy to move left, and to push the system wherever it’s easy to push. The banks and the donors, who come in for some intermittent criticism, are what they are, but there’s room for change there, too. The second meaning of “be bold,” closer to the speechwriter’s heart, comes in crafting a narrative that seeks to make sense of a frustrating and even scary present—and shows the way to a better future. We want, says Favreau, “Messengers that can break through the daily shitshow.” It’s a call for the Democratic Party to embrace its inner Joseph Campbell. “What moves people,” Obama says, “are not issues but values. Who am I, what do I believe, what do I stand for? What gives meaning to my life? How do I explain my time here on Earth?”
The chief virtue of The Wilderness is its consistent repetition of the idea that neither an emphasis on economics alone, with its nostalgia for a New Deal state that delivered best for white men, nor an emphasis on identity alone, forgetting the material pain that grips so many families of so many backgrounds, offers any kind of meaningful step forward. If Favreau manages to drill that essential idea into his listeners’ heads, he has performed a great service. Yet by the time he signs off from his concluding interview with Obama, The Wilderness has revealed itself as a much thinner product than is promised. The boldness, when actually fleshed out, isn’t bold at all, and the calls for a rejuvenated party are more sizzle than steak. The show’s vision of candidates true to themselves ends up feeling too small, unequal to the persistent calls for a grand story in a moment that demands a new vision of how to wield power.
Although there’s occasional talk about a “durable governing majority,” more commonly Favreau asks his guests how to “get to 270,” which is to say, how to garner enough electoral votes to win back the White House. It’s a telling phrase. Though various interviewees floated through Congress at one point—including Favreau himself, while working in Obama’s Senate office—Capitol Hill is not the focus for The Wilderness. Nor do we get much insight into how an unpopular institution that runs on rules, procedures, and the delivery of particularized benefits could tell a bigger story. Despite all the paeans to getting involved, and some serious talk about the assaults on unions in red states, there’s very little sense of how or why federalism matters. For Favreau, the problem of a party too scarce on the ground is a thin bench, and “less exposure to progressive policies in the smaller towns and the redder states that we need to flip.” That hardly does justice to the sustained assaults, from redistricting to reproductive rights, that began in Wisconsin in 2011 and have reached their apotheosis in North Carolina. The war that the 1 percent has launched against the rest of us—or, in less dramatic language, the orthodox Republican agenda to reshape the structure of power via an array of superrich donors against the rest of us—has found its greatest success in red states. And while criminal justice policy comes up, there’s nothing about housing and education, on which Democrats find themselves at odds, especially in blue states, in ways that pose knotty questions in the present and may portend deeper division once the current moment passes.
Some of the episodes push further than others. The episode on immigration, which rehashes every twist and turn of the failed attempts in the 2000s to pass comprehensive reform, seems particularly out of phase. The big questions go unanswered, even as we hear more than we needed to about Karl Rove and John Boehner. Give the Democrats unified control and (in a point that ought to be far more central to The Wilderness) axe the filibuster, and the party will protect DREAMers. But how, more broadly, should we reconfigure our immigration regime? How, in a question of increasing urgency, should we respond to refugees and asylum seekers in light of the disasters engulfing our warming planet?
On foreign policy, too, The Wilderness devotes more time to the question of when to invade than to why the Democratic Party, a half century after Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy ran for President to bring American troops home from Vietnam, is still so eager to intervene abroad. There’s a lot of talk of Trump ceding territory—“the Ronald Reagan territory” of promoting American values, in Obama aide Ben Rhodes’s words. It’s necessary, but also too easy, to oppose a Trump strategy that goes easy on murderous dictators and retreats from any commitments to human rights or democracy. To ask an unanswered question that looms over the episode: Should the neoconservatives, including many leading proponents of the Iraq War, who write with eloquence and verve about American values be welcomed inside, tolerated at the door of, or excluded from the Democrats’ tent?
The episodes on the economy are stronger. They begin with FDR’s call, in 1944’s Economic Bill of Rights, for “equality in the pursuit of happiness,” and give a sense both of a promise never fulfilled—the conservative coalition running Congress made sure of that—and of a postwar political economy that came unglued, with the Democrats offering too timid a response. As Heather McGhee of the think tank Demos says, “The big thing that Clinton did to fund the sort-of new Democratic Party was to line up the economic agenda with the business class.” While David Plouffe, who has gone from the Obama campaign to Uber to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, worries about the robots (“a third of American jobs are going to be lost in the next decade”), a bevy of wonky types talk about strengthening unions and breaking up monopolies, and gnaw at the dilemmas of a Universal Basic Income and Job Guarantee.
It’s when The Wilderness gets into candidates and their stories, however, that it becomes something more cutting than a mere barometer of the Democrats circa 2018. Favreau wants a principled politics of personality counterposed against a transactional politics of party elites. Good candidates who tell their stories, our guide through the dark wood tells us, will lead Democrats out of the titular wilderness. But with partisanship increasingly determining voting behavior, the candidate effects (that is, the differential performance in similar electoral settings between a party’s stellar and so-so candidates) central to the relatively freewheeling politics of the 1970s and ’80s have notably declined. This is a central theme in study after study on the rise of polarization and the return of party identification as the central predictor in voting behavior. So while good candidates might concatenate into a party that voters trust, the model of candidate-centered politics, though resonant with Obama’s primary victory in 2008, feels both out of date with our changed politics and out of sync with Favreau’s own charge to reinvigorate the Democrats as a party. Though the call for authenticity gets pitched as brave and new, it feels, at a moment of crisis, like we’ve gone back to the future. It’s innovative only in the way an app might get called innovative.
The Wilderness offers an unanswerably strong pitch to let candidates be themselves—and to tell consultants to cut the crap. (In an irony Favreau acknowledges, the podcast repeatedly turns to consultants even as it bashes the consultant class.) The process begins with candidate recruitment. Amanda Litman, a Clinton alum whose group, Run for Something, gets progressive millennials to run for office, rightly bemoans recruitment as insufficiently diverse. It’s “rich, old white men, often lawyers.” And then on to the campaign trail. The journalist Rebecca Traister tells a winsome story about a candidate “who had purple dyed hair and everybody said if you run for office you have to undye your hair, and she did. And then people said ‘Wait, that’s not who you are,’ and so she dyed it back.” On the other side, Tanya Somanader, an Obama aide now working for Crooked Media, recounts the tale of an Ohio politician who, asked on Reddit whether he supported the Bengals or Browns, typed back a cringe-inducing answer about loving all Ohio teams. Sure, good riddance to that sentiment and everything like it. But, really, faced with the specter of something like fascism, does it really matter—the mind turns to Al Gore’s sighs, back in 2000—that politicians can banter about a favorite football team?
Authenticity gains a kind of talismanic quality. Those who enter politics “for the right reasons” will have the fortitude to resist the snares of consultants and lobbyists. But politics doesn’t work like that; go read All the King’s Men. Good intentions at the beginning aren’t enough. Power corrupts. Seth Moulton, a second-term House member from Massachusetts who knocked off a corruption-tarred, nine-term liberal incumbent, gets featured in the episode on “The Bench,” talking about his post-partisan vision, long on service. It’s a starchy notion of leadership that has won him fans like David Gergen and David Petraeus. To sound a very old note, however, if only internal restraint checks ambition, the door is open for sycophants and flatterers.
This podcast about the Democratic Party expresses curiously little interest in the workings of that party, of delegates and committees and platforms, of Robert’s Rules and the rubber-chicken dinners no longer named for Jefferson and Jackson, of the niceties, beyond everybody working together, in relations between parties and outside groups. Tom Perez, the DNC chair, says his piece, and the obligatory call for state and local infrastructure gets made, but without too much passion. There’s a single, cursory mention of the convention ratifying the party platform, but nothing whatsoever about the idea that Democratic candidates, as they’re searching for what positions to espouse, might follow the platform’s lead, or that activists might use the party as a vehicle to make principled stands. Tellingly, Hubert Humphrey appears not as the young Minneapolis mayor who electrified the 1948 convention with his speech on the platform’s civil rights plank, telling Democrats “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” but only as the hawk railroaded through in 1968.
But The Wilderness’s disinterest in the party isn’t purely theoretical. Party renewal has been happening since 2016, led by ordinary citizens organizing themselves and their neighbors, though perhaps not according to the terms Favreau sets out. Every day, and especially between now and Tuesday night, voters are bringing us out of the Wilderness. Two general themes predominate. First are the mostly young and mostly urban activists, linked to the myriad social movements of the past decade, who have given so much hope to the American left and opened up new horizons for the party. This is the coalition behind the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Where Bernie Sanders still spurns the party’s label and hierarchy, they are Democrats for the long haul. Second is the genuinely nationwide organizing, including in many areas Democrats have long neglected, to join together and beat back Trumpism up and down the ticket. This the work, disproportionately but by no means exclusively, of college-educated older white women, working both inside and outside the formal party. Though the consultants and wonks, many of them from an activist background, sprinkle talk of these trends throughout The Wilderness, that’s very different from going straight to the source. We don’t, say, hear from anyone who’s gone from direct action to party work, or else visit a party committee revitalized since 2016 and now hard at work to turn the county blue.
To a certain extent, a substantive conversation about the party itself is simply at odds with the snappy Pod Save America brand. Exhortations for listeners to get serious and organize aren’t as much fun as banter that makes them feel like armchair (or, considering where podcasts get consumed, treadmill) strategists. But on a deeper level, all The Wilderness’s sermonizing about the party’s putative vision misses the real point, about exactly how, sleeves rolled up, to render the Democratic Party an effective vehicle for a politics of principle. The opportunity to think deeply and at length about the party ends up as just another race to 270.
Tocqueville distinguished between great parties, those “more attached to principles than to consequences, to generalities rather than to particular cases,” and small parties with their petty machinations. The Wilderness takes aim at the small party, which crowds out big transformation. One expects this objection from the podcast’s Sanders-affiliated guests, but they’re not the only ones frustrated by chronic insiderism. Politicians’ endorsements based around electability come in for special ire. We hear from various interviewees who are mad at the way party officials tell everybody else to shut up, all in the name of party unity. In the tradition of the reformers who remade the party’s rules following the ’68 debacle, Favreau calls the elimination of unpledged delegates (superdelegates) to the national convention “another step towards a Democratic Party where the power ultimately rests with the people, a party that trusts activists and organizers and voters to make the big decisions about its future.”1 And so the call for reform, the distrust of insiders, the lack of interest in party-building, and the celebration of candidates, even if they each cue somewhat different audiences in the wake of 2016, all come from the essentially same place, that stripping away all the accumulated detritus will make Democrats bold. Leaving aside all the particulars and grumbling about the small party might help Democrats become a bold party, but that’s not the same thing as being a great party. Boldness is not a mission and it doesn’t inherently make for coherence. Marketing-speak does not, will not, cannot, bring partisans across the land together in common purpose. The party’s vaunted story becomes less what it was for Lincoln, a narrative told by a good party loyalist, than something to fill the void.
If The Wilderness doesn’t ultimately sugarcoat where the Democratic Party finds itself, neither is there a sense of truly deep foreboding. We live in a fifty-fifty country, the show argues, and we can win elections in that country and make it not quite a fifty-fifty country anymore, and so overcome the limits in the Madisonian system. But partisan control is what ultimately matters. Unsurprisingly for an Obama alum, Favreau steers clear of vast arenas in the American state that are supposedly apolitical, from the Federal Reserve to the FBI and the CIA and the NSA to, critically, the Supreme Court. Donald Trump has no interest in leaving them as separate citadels of neutral competence. Democrats should think hard about what it would mean to go beyond the platitude about letting the professionals do their work and formulate a vision to expand the ambit of popular control.
The Wilderness came out before the second round of Kavanaugh hearings and before Pittsburgh, with their intensifying sense of racism and misogyny and plutocracy all rolled up together. One wonders darkly whether getting to what Favreau likes to call “that better place” for a few cycles does more than postpone some deeper reckoning, some sense of how to escape the gyre. And here the absence of serious discussion of climate change hits hard. It’s difficult enough to build a multiracial egalitarian politics against the twinned forces of hatred and plutocracy. Now add civilizational collapse. The Democrats, one realizes when the enormity of the challenge seems vast already, are the only party that can save the world. In other words the race is not, as Favreau would have it, to 270, but a race to “Break reaction’s grip,” in the words of Ben Shahn’s great poster for the CIO’s Political Action Committee in 1944. Some parties are born to greatness. The Democrats now have greatness thrust upon them. Making the Democratic Party more democratic and emphatic is not enough. The party’s mission now is to make the country more democratic—or else.
The final deal, stripping superdelegates of their vote on the first ballot for President, emerged after the relevant episode was finished. ↩