I can’t tell you where Joe Rogan’s studio is — his “guest information sheet” specifies that I have to keep that part confidential. I can tell you that when I showed up for my interview, I was greeted by a friendly and talkative nurse who was there to give a COVID test to everyone who walks in the door. While we waited for Joe to show up, I chatted with her for a while about everything from what my book is about to how she met her husband. I also talked for a while with a couple of guys I think I’ve since seen referred to in the press as “elite security guards.” One of them told me he likes to watch Cobra Kai in the morning while he exercises.
I was fairly nervous. Just to start with, I’d been watching Rogan on screens since the late 1990s when I was a regular viewer of Newsradio. (I’m very old.) For another, it’s a massive platform and if I said anything dumb millions of people would hear it. Finally, I knew there were a good number of people on the Left who wouldn’t like that I went on his show and talked to him. They might be OK with my decision to go on the show if I was planning to yell and denounce him, but I had no interest in doing that — I wanted to have a conversation where I pushed the kind of egalitarian political agenda that I deeply care about.
When Joe did show up, the conversation was worth the wait. I got to tell his giant audience about Medicare for All, about why the better working conditions teachers unions fight for are also better learning conditions for your kids, why the US Postal Service is important, why I support Bernie Sanders’s proposal to expand the postal service by offering basic banking services at the Post Office, why I’m so sure that Bernie Sanders would have won the 2016 election, why I don’t think the United States should play imperial world policeman having a role in diplomatic standoffs everywhere from South America to Ukraine, why economic inequality is bad in principle and bad for democracy, how the Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives work, and why we’d be better off in an economy where the norm was that businesses would be organized more like Mondragon than Amazon. And we got to spend a minute paying homage to my friend Michael Brooks.
Put that together with the fact that getting to spend three hours drinking bourbon and talking politics with the dude from Newsradio is just a very good time, and it was an afternoon well spent.
It wasn’t what I would consider a perfect conversation. There were times, especially in the second half of the discussion, when it would have been productive to either question assumptions that I disagreed with or at least refocus the conversation elsewhere. When the conversation did veer for a bit to hot-button social issues, it was more of a mixed bag. But there were still some great moments — for example he seemed to enthusiastically co-sign my argument that anti–Critical Race Theory laws are an unconscionable assault on free speech.
The bottom line: millions of people got to hear me and the world’s most popular podcaster spend at least an hour talking about core socialist policies.
In general, I tried to approach the conversation with Joe (and, through him, all the people who listen to him and see politics they way he does) the way I’d encourage everyone reading this to talk about politics with their coworker or cousin or brother-in-law who likely has ideological impulses we dislike on some issues, but who’s also open to appeals on material issues and is at least willing to hear us out on everything else.
If you don’t know at least three people who fit that profile, you really need to talk to more people. Don’t yell at them or denounce them. Don’t pretend that you know everything. Own it when your fellow leftists do things that are silly or misguided or counterproductive instead of dying on the hill of defending our most indefensible moments.
Talk to them like they’re a person, emphasize the points you think they’d be most receptive to, and even on the most sensitive areas of disagreement, if they truly do seem open-minded and not to be coming from a hateful place, listen carefully to what they’re saying and explain in a friendly way why you see things differently.
Don’t expect that they’ll change their mind about everything in one conversation but do nudge them in our direction. I don’t know how the Left can win a single strike or union certification vote or City Council election, never mind remake our entire society in a more just and egalitarian direction, if we don’t use this kind of rhetorical strategy as our default.
I know that some of my friends and comrades would have rather I didn’t have this particular conversation at all. There are people who consider themselves leftists or in some cases even socialists who want Spotify to censor Rogan for “disinformation” — a combination of views that seems wildly misguided to me for many reasons. For one thing, weakening free speech norms on platforms like Spotify will not go well for us in the long run. The billionaire CEOs that run such platforms are going to be implacable enemies of any even mildly redistributive economic agenda. They also have every incentive to maintain good relations with the national security state. The Left, meanwhile, wants to restore pre-9/11 civil liberties, end America’s overseas empire, redirect those resources to fulfill social needs at home, take away the wealth and power of economic elites, and empower the working class.
Why on earth would we think new censorship rules won’t primarily be weaponized against us — unless we’re so comfortable with our own irrelevance we don’t think we’ll ever be enough of a threat to the powers that be for them to bother censoring us?
I see Joe Rogan as a person who’s right about some things and wrong about others and who should book a lot more socialists on his show. But even with the Left’s actual enemies, there are excellent reasons for us to lean into the value of free speech and open debate instead of always trying to find a hall monitor to shut them up for us.
Even beyond the pragmatic reasons I’ve already suggested, there’s a deeper reason having to do with core socialist values. Don’t get me wrong: criminal law should include prohibitions on incitement and defamation, and Twitter is right to try to stop doxing and harassment. But ideologically, our very strong instinct should be to distrust any new proposals to weaken free speech norms.
If socialism means not just state ownership but the extension of democracy to the economic realm, if we really believe with C. L. R. James that “every cook can govern,” we need to trust ordinary people to read or view or listen to whatever they want and make their own determinations about what’s true. If we don’t believe that, we don’t really believe that every cook can govern. We believe that benevolent technocrats should govern. And that’s just not my politics.
My appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience happened during the last days of February. A couple weeks later, on St Patricks Day, I was bar-hopping in Atlanta with my friend Ryan Lake. The last place we went to that night is the kind of bar that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a time portal to 2005 (and not just because Georgia is one of the only states left in the union where it’s still legal to smoke in bars). The décor was a schlocky hodgepodge of often dated pop culture. The arcade machine had all but spiderwebs.
I sat with Ryan at the bar drinking Jameson. It’s a long circular bar, and the guy facing us from a few yards away starting squinting at us and then called out, “Were you on Rogan a couple weeks ago?”
The Joe Rogan fan ended up coming over and buying a round. He works in construction, called himself a “born and raised redneck,” and thinks of himself as a “fiscal conservative” — although after we’d talked for a few minutes I started to wonder what that combination of words means to him. He said that I’d said “like” and “y’know” too many times (fair enough), but he enjoyed the appearance. It was a good conversation. He knows I work for what he called a “liberal” magazine (Jacobin), but I still seemed like someone he could talk to — which we did for nearly half an hour.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t reach complete agreement in that time. He disagreed with me about how taxes should work, and he expressed deep discomfort with abortion. When asked what he wanted to do about it, though, he wasn’t sure — he certainly wasn’t prepared to send any women or their doctors to prison. Eventually, he agreed that the best solution was to provide more financial support for young mothers. I also got him on board with Medicare for All and universal pre-K — and, in a surprising twist, open borders. He said he’s all for people coming over when they do it “the right way”; we got into the obstacles facing most people who want to do that, and he’d agreed in the end that the rules should be liberalized to the point where pretty much any nonviolent person who just wants a shot at a better life would be allowed to come in legally.
I’m under no illusions that we can debate our way to a better society. Even the most modest of the changes we want are only going to be achieved by an organized working class over the course of a long and hard struggle. But if we’re going to expand the tent a little, never mind mobilize millions to fight for the things we want, we’re going to have to learn to talk to people like that guy at the bar — and Joe Rogan.