Next month, things finally start getting serious in the political realm as many states begin holding their presidential primaries. But at this point, things are not looking so good for Joe Biden in comparison to Donald Trump.
Less than a year removed from the election of 2024, Biden trails Trump in a number of public opinion surveys that have been released by reputable organizations. So what's going on here? Is this just the way things work in American politics or are there mistakes that Biden has made? What is the status of public opinion on Joe Biden?
And would it do any good for the forces of democracy for Joe Biden to be replaced on the Democratic ticket or Kamala Harris, the vice president? We'll talk about some of these questions in this episode, and continuing with our series about what is going on with the Democrats.
Joining me to discuss is David Atkins, he is a contributor to Washington Monthly magazine, and he is also a member of the Democratic National Committee, although he is not speaking for their behalf in today's conversation.
The video of this conversation is available. The transcript of the audio follows.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, David.
DAVID ATKINS: Happy to be here. Thank you.
SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, as I mentioned in the introduction, there [00:02:00] is a lot of concern among people of the, let's say center to left perspective about a passel of polls showing that Donald Trump is doing better when they ask people about who would you vote for next year?
And it's causing a lot of panic and making people try to dust off their priors, it seems like usually. Are people responding to these polls in the right way?
ATKINS: This is a challenging and complex question because I think it depends on, on who you're talking to.
I think there are changes that need to be made to more forcefully communicate the message about what the Biden administration has accomplished. And there's a lot of discussion that's happening around what the best way to, to message and communicate that so that it actually gets through to persuadable voters, right?
There is, I think a lot of deer in the headlights, and everything is going to be okay-ism that happens from folks who are more [00:03:00] sort of in the establishment and think, you know what? Everything's going to be okay. We just have to get through to the next year. We've been here before in the polling and we're just going to keep sort of doing what we're going, what we're doing.
And I think both sides are making a mistake. I think panicking too much based on polling a year out from the election is unwarranted. There's been multiple times in American history where the incumbent president was not polling so well a year before the election, and things ended up being fine, because ultimately, the incumbent, if there are issues in the economy or whatever, the incumbent doesn't do so well, but then when there becomes a real choice with the opponent, then that changes things. On the other hand, I think the issues are serious enough that strategic adjustments are absolutely necessary.
SHEFFIELD: One of the proposals that a lot of people are really, some are putting forward is the idea that Joe Biden needs to resign and not run for reelection. And he's just too old and people don't like him. [00:04:00]
And if he did, then everything would be magically perfect somehow and Trump would lose. This seems to be rather naive. There's this idea that, that it would have no impact on the Democratic coalition if the currently serving president abruptly abandoned his campaign right before the primaries start.
ATKINS: I mean, so full disclosure here, I'm not a big Biden stan. I was for Bernie in the 2016 primary. I was for Warren in the 2020 primary. So, you're not hearing this from like, Oh, a Democratic establishment Biden guy. That having been said, I think you're absolutely right. And I have said this in, in my updates in, on my DNC page and elsewise.
There is talk from some progressives about, wanting to replace Biden because he's not far enough to the left. There's also a lot of talk among more sort of establishment voices this worry about him being perceived to be too old in the media or whatever, [00:05:00] but I think you're right. All of this talk is a mistake.
Because while there are challenges for any incumbent, but the perception of any incumbent and Biden's perceptions among the public certainly have their challenges as we've seen from the approval ratings, I think anything that, if he were to step aside, the battle that would take place to replace him would create massive rifts in the Democratic coalition.
And it would be less healthy for the party than to continue forward with Joe Biden, absent some obvious, serious health concerns, serious scandal, but based on current information.
I think that going in a different direction would do more harm than good. And even talking about it doesn't serve us. We need, regardless of the person at the top of the ticket, I think the most important thing is for us to be concentrating on the [00:06:00] real massive legislative victories that have been achieved for the American people under the Biden administration, which, whether from a moderate perspective or a progressive perspective have been truly enormous.
Biden has been a much more progressive president than I would have given him credit for. I have some disappointments, but mostly the administration has done very well with serious challenges, having a razor-thin Congress and all the rest. So, I, I don't think there's a lot of gain to be had from having those kinds of conversations at this point.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and it is interesting because, this discontent, it's coming from both wings of the Democratic Party. So, the centrists say that Biden is too far to the left, and then the progressives say that he's too far to the right. And of course, there's the logical fallacy of the excluded middle. That doesn't mean of course that he's doing everything perfectly, but it does mean that perhaps people making these criticisms are not entirely able to see things, that [00:07:00] they're seeing things from a biased perspective, perhaps.
ATKINS: Right. I mean, part of the problem, too, is that every strategic move comes at potentially at a coalition cost.
There is no question, but what younger and more progressive voters are not very enthusiastic right now, but some centrist voters also have a perception that you know, that if things shift too far to the left, it may not be to their liking for various reasons.
So, if you look at the Israel Palestine issue, for instance just from an electoral coalition every politician sort of gets it coming and going, no matter which side of it they take.
So, speaking not in terms of absolute moral terms, but in just purely strategic electoral terms, it's not entirely clear what the best path forward always is. That having been said, I think that progressive policies, most of which the Biden administration has absolutely embraced, that are popular and overwhelmingly popular for the American people, for instance, this [00:08:00] recent push to get rid of lead pipes, which should be universal. I think that's a positive thing that we can carry forward.
And with inflation drawing down, I think the economic policies have been fairly successful, and that what we see at the macro level will begin increasingly to be felt in people's pocketbooks at the micro level. And that's sort of the path forward to try and repair the polling damage. And that says nothing about the damage that Trump is going to be experiencing over the next year going forward with his trials.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and actually, and that is actually the next topic, Trump, I would, that I wanted to talk about, because I do think that, especially a year before the election, whoever is the president is automatically, there's a, there's always inevitably a buyer's remorse on the part of the supporters.
And we did see that with Trump. I was running polling operations for the Hill and doing a show about public opinion surveys, and we ran [00:09:00] surveys asking Republicans, would you want somebody else to run for president in the Republican party? And most of them said yes. But that didn't mean that they weren't going to vote for him when he eventually got the nomination.
So that's a factor, but then there's also, I think that the, the way that the Republican primaries have been operating, these candidates essentially have been telling the Republican people who tune in, you should vote for Trump. The message of every single one of these debates is, we're just here as a backup but we still support Donald Trump.
And that's the message that just keeps getting reinforced, especially by people like Nikki Haley, who basically never say anything bad about Trump. And DeSantis barely says anything bad, and certainly Ramaswamy says nothing bad about Trump. Like that's basically the, Chris Christie is the only one who says anything, significantly critical of Trump in these debates. And then of course, he's not there to take the slings and arrows himself because he's too afraid.
So [00:10:00] ultimately this has been more of a prolonged coronation for Trump rather than a real primary, I would say. What do you think?
ATKINS: No, I agree. These candidates are all sort of waiting in the wings. They know that if they say anything negative against Trump, that it will actually hurt them. Chris Christie is the only one, as you mentioned with the courage to do that, but it's obviously not redounding to his benefit in the polls and the among the Republican electorate.
So, it is sort of a show primary. Donald Trump is easily going to be the nominee, unless of course he has some massive health problem. You would normally say massive scandal or health problem, but of course that's not going to affect anything at all.
So, it would, it would require a health issue for him to not be there. He is going to be the nominee and everyone else is an also-ran. And these debates are functionally pointless, no matter how much the media and many Republican donor sets try to advance either Ramaswamy, or, or now, Nikki Haley is the flavor of the month. But [00:11:00] no, it's going to be Trump.
SHEFFIELD: And I would say that these debates, to the extent that that legitimate news organizations are putting them on now, they are actively helping Trump by doing these things. Because they're not, there's, they're not filled with any substantive criticism or discussion about it, even discussion about any of his ideas.
There will be perfunctory things about, various comments that Trump says, such as his, oh, well, I'll be a dictator only for one day vow, which was cheered by the audience of Fox News when he was there with Hannity, that's important to note. They didn't think it was a joke. They thought it was great when he said that.
But nonetheless, it's just continually reinforcing this meme that Republicans have created for themselves, that the only thing people don't like about Trump is mean tweets. They, and they really have, they've said this so many times that they really believe it.
And it's an incredibly insidious but powerful argument because [00:12:00] it's very simple. It's easy for people to understand that you think he's mean and that's why you don't like him. And the mainstream media is actively helping advance that, I think.
ATKINS: No, I absolutely agree. And, when you look at persuadable voters, from having done polling, persuadable voters often are not the best-informed voters. And so, there's a lack of awareness generally of the danger that Donald Trump represents to democracy itself. There's a lack of awareness of just how extreme his policies are. There is this perception that Donald Trump is this social liberal, all over the map, he just wants to, to do the right thing from a business standpoint-- businessman good for the economy kind of perception that's sort of vague in a lot of people's minds who don't pay very close attention.
But of course, the man is a wannabe fascist tyrant, with terrible policies across the board that would be devastating to the American economy and [00:13:00] devastating to our standing in the world on foreign policy. He wants to ally with dictators around the world to basically put the United States on the wrong side of global democracy.
So, but people just don't know. And you've started to see traditional mainstream sort of media like New York Times, Washington Post come out more forcefully and talk about this recently and talk about this actual statement that Trump has been making. It's a little bit late though, because I think people's perceptions are, are a little bit baked-in on that front, but the more people can be talking about it, the better, because his statements about what he intends to do have grown much, much, much more extreme just in the last year compared to even all the statements he used to make in the past.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, I agree with that. And I do think while these prosecutions that he's, he's facing are certainly well deserved and are, are substantive and, they continue to be [00:14:00] generally victorious in, in court rulings they should have happened immediately after he left office.
And that was perhaps the biggest mistake that people who were concerned about him coming back. Because if we go back to the second impeachment that Trump faced, which Mitch McConnell deliberately stalled to be conducted after Trump had left office. (There was plenty of time that this could have happened while he was the president. And then he deliberately chose not to make that happen.) But nonetheless, the argument that the Trump defenders made at that time was, we're not going to impeach him because he's going to be held legally accountable in the courts for his behavior, but then nothing happened for two years.
ATKINS: Right. No, I've had many arguments with people including Marcy Wheeler and others about this topic. Because the two sides of the argument are: Well, if you prosecuted too quickly, you wouldn't have all the facts in hand. It takes a long time to roll up these sorts of [00:15:00] prosecutions. Mafia prosecutions, for instance, take place over the span of years.
You don't want to have a prosecution that goes bad, because you didn't have your ducks lined up in a row. And I hear all of that. On the other hand, some of these crimes were very obvious. Some of the evidence was right there. I, I don't understand why it should have taken so long. And I think there was a significant amount of political reticence to go after Trump.
I think that a lot of people felt for a little while, like that threat was passed. We'd move on; re-opening all of this would only inflame tensions further. Trump was going to take an exit on the stage. What's the point? And I think there was you don't want to make it look Like the Biden administration is influencing the Justice Department to go after its political enemies, even though that's, of course, not what's happening, the man Trump committed massive crimes and any other person in the entire [00:16:00] United States who had committed those crimes would be immediately hit by the Justice Department from either party,
SHEFFIELD: Which and yeah, and I'm sorry, just to inject we saw this happen in Brazil, a similar thing was done by Jair Bolsonaro, that his supporters invaded their capital and rioted and tried to, to stop him from, from being forced out of office after the voters had kicked him out. And after he had instigated that invasion of the Capitol, he was permanently banned, or at least, I'm sorry, he was banned from at least like 10 years for running for office or something like that, by the, the Brazilian government and that's what should have happened to Donald Trump.
I think it's the biggest mistake in dealing with him, because Donald Trump, he's, he's not going to go away, as you said, that unless he is physically unable to, he has to run for president in order to avoid being jailed. That is ultimately why he will do this.
And his megalomania and whatnot, [00:17:00] aside from that, combined with that. But yeah, something should have been done faster. And, and it's later than it should have been for, for sure, I would say.
ATKINS: Yeah. I think one of the most challenging things looking at this is the American system has not shown itself resilient enough as it should be in dealing with this sort of potential totalitarian threat. Presidential systems generally, which we're as opposed to parliamentary systems tend to have challenges with these sorts of threats and our system is, is no exception and the fact that the Justice Department did not immediately come down with a hammer on Trump for obviously January 6th, but his other crimes shows that we have this sort of sense that all of these problems will sort of be taken care of at the ballot box and that you don't have to step in with actual administrative or legislative ways of dealing with a potential fascist threat.
ATKINS: Remedies, exactly. These sorts of remedies. And the problem is you [00:18:00] cannot, in fact, count on these problems always being resolved at the ballot box. You're in a losing battle because all it takes for a fascist is to win once. We've seen that over and over again in history and the world over. And the vagaries of elections, how the economy is doing, whether your incumbent has, a scandal or an image problem, whether, things that happen in October surprises, the vagaries of what happens in elections are not witnesses Amenable to keeping fascists out of power permanently if they intend to be fascists.
So, this is a challenge and the system needs to do a better job of being resilient. And one of those would have been the Justice Department should have come down much faster on this stuff.
Right privilege, why Republicans never have to reveal their full agenda
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, so I, I am, as my audience probably knows, a former Republican activist, and, um, one of the things that I've been thinking about in this context is that the American political system since the Goldwater-ites took [00:19:00] over the Republican party has, has been premised on a fiction that the Republican party is a normal political operation. When in fact it has not been the case. It is a party that was taken over by a reactionary extremist movement that has been subverting the constitutional order, whether it's disenfranchising people in various ways, or to seize power through a unitary executive theory or seek to enshrine various Christian theocratic principles in the, in the legal system and call that religious freedom. In other words, call religious oppression "religious freedom."
None of those things are really talked about when you tune into any of the cable news channels or the Sunday morning shows. The Republican guests who are on these programs, not only do they not have to admit that Trump legitimately lost in 2020, they don't even have to present their full [00:20:00] opinions about anything.
So, like on abortion, for instance, the people who are leading the anti-abortion movement overwhelmingly have a theocratic christofascist agenda in which they want women to have no rights. They want to take away birth control. They want to take away a woman's right to have a job or own property. This is their agenda. And yet, the public never is being told that fact about them, and that's why I call it right privilege.
ATKINS: Yeah, I, I agree. And don't forget no fault divorce, which they're coming for as well.
SHEFFIELD: Oh yes, that, too.
ATKINS: And they don't want to allow that anymore. I think it's becoming clear. I think the end of Roe v. Wade did energize a lot of people, and we have seen Democrats doing much better in special elections, every single special election, basically in-between. So, you have this weird dichotomy, before I get back to your question, of Democrats doing very well in special elections, but the polling not favoring Joe Biden, which [00:21:00] brings us back to this conversation about people freaking out about Biden at the top of the ticket.
But if you look at the general mood of the public, a lot of the Christofascist groups like, Moms for Liberty and all the rest of that have done very, very poorly. People are starting to wake up to this sort of social, this extremely socially repressive agenda that not just the far-right conservative base, but now the Republican party itself is wholly embracing.
But there does, there does seem to be a problem with the perception of Donald Trump, because of his libertine past and his overall image, that he's not like that personally. The problem being that it doesn't matter what he's like personally. The problem is that if he's leading a coalition, a Republican party coalition that is being dominated by these sorts of extremely socially retrograde, repressive, [00:22:00] Christo fascist forces. The judges he nominates to the Supreme Court and on down the bench and all the other legislators that take action, you're going to see the end of no-fault divorce. You're going to see abortion bans all across the country, potentially a national abortion ban. You're going to see book bannings all across the country.
You're going to see all of these, these problems-- anti LGBT legislation, basically the elimination of gender affirming care to say nothing, I mean, that doesn't even get into immigration and his planned deportation camps and all the rest of it. So yeah, no, it's, it's a really big problem and then not enough persuadable voters are really fully conscious of the threat that Donald Trump individually poses, not just the Republican party generally.
Right-wing media holds up the entire Republican coalition
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, I think that's true. And some of that is the fault of the Democratic leadership class and progressive philanthropy [00:23:00] because over the past, let's say, let's say over the past 50 years or so, the reactionary right has built up a gigantic propaganda apparatus. And it's so large now that it has, many of these individuals in it, have larger audiences than mainstream media outlets. So, like Andrew Tate has more people who follow him on one social network than read The Atlantic. Or The Daily Wire website, which is owned by two brothers who literally want to overthrow American democracy and replace it with Christian dominionist, monarchist system, has more, more viewers and, and readers and whatnot on Facebook than almost anyone else. Than the New York Times and more than NBC or any of these other platforms.
And the reaction for a lot of Democratic leaders, number one, I don't think they know this [00:24:00] fact, this information. I don't think they realize how gigantic right-wing media is now and the reach that it has. And then number two, to the extent that they're aware of these individuals, they just think they're a bunch of clowns that no one cares about, they look at somebody like Steven Crowder, they look at somebody like Michael Knowles and, and these people are indeed, buffoonish extremists, that's true that they are, but nonetheless, they have millions of people who hang on their every word and will do what they say right up to the edge of saying it's okay to kill transgender people. It's okay to hit Black Lives Matter people, protesters, with your car. There's nothing wrong with that. And that's the, that is the media environment.
And generally, the reaction to, on the part of progressive philanthropy has been to say, ah, whatever. No one cares about them. They're just clowns. They're irrelevant. Am I wrong to say that?
ATKINS: No, no, you're not wrong at all. I've been shouting about this for, well, decades now, [00:25:00] which is that there is, you talk about, liberal philanthropy. It is very focused on winning the next election typically, and it's very focused on, on trying to, to appear to be morally forthright on the latest causes and all of that, which I am sympathetic to a lot of that.
I'm not, I don't take the Matt Yglesias side of this, of this argument that progressive philanthropy should not be on the forefront of the social issues of the day. I think the culture needs to advance regardless of what's happening in the electoral sphere. That having been said, uh, the fact that there has not-- the right wing has invested very heavily in creating an alternative media apparatus that is separate from the serious media that you see in sort of the main magazines, the Economist, The Atlantic, or the major newspapers, the New York Times or Washington Post, which no matter what you want to say about what their [00:26:00] bias may or may not be, they work very, very hard to at least give the appearance of non-bias, which means that they are bending over backwards in, in many ways not to tell the direct truth.
We saw this with climate change where it took them forever to just not take two sides of climate change, but to just say this is a thing that's happening, it's harmful and, and the science deniers are, are lying. The fact that liberal philanthropy and the major billionaire donors have not invested in progressive, reality-based media that that take a very specific side and are unafraid to champion that side; and that side is, is has the truth behind it, but just to be as partisan and as sharp as it needs to be in the same way that the right wing has done. This is a serious, serious problem because there are a large number of people who are yearning for a tone [00:27:00] in their media that they get from folks like Joe Rogan or Steven Crowder or whatever, and it doesn't have to be far-right, young disassociated male self empowerment stuff that they get from these sources that radicalizes these mostly young white men. It can just be the sort of direct talk that you see from, say, Gen Z on TikTok, for instance that you're not getting from the New York Times or from the Atlantic.
And there's a massive vacuum there that is not, that doesn't exist within either the center-left or for the most part, the progressive left. And what the progressive left does have is pathetically ill funded. So it's a huge problem. It's a huge problem that's gone back for decades and you can't fix it overnight.
But, there's the old Chinese saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now. And I think progressive funders have to begin [00:28:00] looking, as I've been saying for a long time, more seriously at also creating these sorts of communication networks.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, absolutely they do. And I think what is probably the root of their inaction and refusal to act, not just not acting is that they have a myopia of, of, intelligence.
That's basically what this comes down to that when they see people out there pushing things like "let's take away women's rights," "let's ban homosexuality," when they see that, they think no one would go for that. It just seems so ludicrous to them and that they, they don't even bother trying to counter it.
And, and they don't understand that in the information age, quantity matters more than quality. And so if I hear a hundred, if I'm a 13 year old, kid looking at politics stuff on the [00:29:00] internet for the first time, and I see a hundred YouTube videos telling me that women should be property, should have no rights. And, you see some, some girls getting sucked into some of these perspectives as well, like, through this trad wife content. But you know, if you see a hundred videos telling you women should have no rights, they should stay at home and do nothing.
And, we need to lock up gay people and you see one video telling you that that's not right. How is that going to work for a 13 year old mind when they see that?
ATKINS: Right. I mean, we it's a known truism of advertising that repetition is everything, right? You have to have a message that repeats and repeats and repeats. And it has to be delivered through credible messengers, and has to be delivered in a direct way that doesn't, that sort of jives with the, with the tone of the other messaging that the audience is, is typically getting.
So if you're at an elevated New York Times level and you're trying to talk to a teenager, [00:30:00] then that is not going to really work.
And you're absolutely right. Most of the messaging that they're getting from a direct political level is coming from these sort of far-right sources with these massive audiences. Now, the right wing would counter that the general culture, right, the general messages that you're getting from major corporations which, which is very frustrating, I think, to many sort of anti-corporate progressives, but the general messaging that you get from, say, a Disney or a Nike, tends to be in the more sort of center-left, generally acceptance, well, pro broad acceptance kind of thing.
But that is-- and of course, you then you do see that Gen Z is a very, very, very progressive generation across the board, especially in terms of social issues. So the penetration of this sort of right wing messaging that you get from the Steven Crowders of the world only goes so far to certain kinds of audiences. That having been said, those [00:31:00] audiences are very, very, very motivated because they're hearing these messages over and over again. And you're absolutely right about that.
And the other thing that I would mention in this context is the social media algorithms are not doing, uh, the forces of democracy and, and acceptance any favors because the, as you see, if you go down any sort of YouTube rabbit hole, or you look at at, well now obviously Twitter, but you look at most social media, Facebook, you start to look at the top pages on Facebook, right? The social media algorithms are prioritizing extremist content that generates eyeballs.
SHEFFIELD: And it keeps people on the site longer.
ATKINS: That's right. And anger keeps people on the site and controversy keeps people on the site. And it's not just this direct political stuff. Flat eartherism came up through this sort of way because it got, it got prioritized on the algorithms.
So that's not doing anyone any favors either. So [00:32:00] there has to be much, much, much more effort made to sort of combat that at a social media level, bringing social media companies to the table to stop doing harmful things with their algorithms. And it also has to come to being much more direct in terms of repetition and political influencers who are willing to talk in a more direct way with progressive messaging to younger audiences and especially to a lot of these disaffected white men who are being radicalized into dangerous positions to say, look, there are alternate models for masculinity. You don't have to do what Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder or Joe Rogan are telling you to do in order to be the sort of man you want to be. That that's also a very important place to be going.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it is. Because I mean, ultimately we're, it took a long time for the feminist [00:33:00] revolution of the 1970s to actually completely redound such that you have generations that have never known anything different. That, that women could have any job that they were able to do or get hired for and not have restrictions on their access to birth control or divorce or abortion. It really hasn't, been the case except for maybe like the past 15 years or so where you had a complete generational change with that. Because Gen X wasn't that, and the millennials were a little bit left over with some of their parents, they knew the former way of doing things.
And so, like, the latter end of the millennial generation is really when a lot of this stuff happened when women had full equality. And the right, they did see this coming in terms of their, especially the more theocratic ones. That was why they were so pushing against abortion and things like that.
But [00:34:00] nonetheless, it, it did finally happen. There's still problems, of course, we'll say, but, there's not nearly the oppression that did formerly exist. And so now you do, as you said, that there are a lot of men and, and, Gen Z is a much less white so in fact, there are a lot of Asian and black and Hispanic young men who are also being, especially as the right has put forward people who are not white, like Andrew Tate or like these other-- there's a dating podcast called Fresh and Fit hosted by two black brothers that is just constantly spouting white nationalist and misogynistic content to these young boys.
Is religious proselytizing the root of the right's bigger interest in advocacy media?
SHEFFIELD: I think that the right, because they're so heavily tied to religious organizing and proselytizing, they do feel an innate urgency and need to proselytize their ideas more than the sort of academic-derived, reality based community of the left, because I think people on the [00:35:00] left, a lot of them, especially, sort of nonpolitical people who will just vote for Democrats because they know they're not insane. But they don't understand the stakes and they don't, and they don't feel the need to evangelize just in the same way that the "New Atheist" movement of the 2000s, it was the first time that there was any real advocacy by atheists. Because no atheist felt the need to make advocacy because they thought it didn't, it wasn't necessary.
ATKINS: Yeah, no, I, I agree. And this is we're all facing the same problem here that there was this perception that advocacy is not necessary that, and this is maybe one of my biggest frustrations with what I will call sort of the center left Democratic establishment political point of view, is that for decades, there's been this idea that if you just do the right things and you're very careful with your messaging to not say anything that would offend anyone, and you perform [00:36:00] legislative victories, or the very least seem like the adult in the room. That then, journalists and traditional media will cover you appropriately as the adult in the room or will cover your legislative accomplishments and that will filter down to the voters in a virtuous circle in such a way that direct advocacy is not really necessary outside of doing ads during campaign season, right? The advocacy happens during campaign season. You run some ads. Other than that, you do your thing and it filters out through the press.
And that's just not the way things work. It's certainly not the way things work in the modern age. And it wasn't really the way things work even going back. FDR did his fireside chats. He did his fireside chats for a reason, because you need to be able to communicate directly to people without what the right wing calls the filter. And the filter does exist. It isn't as biased against the right wing as they like to believe it is, but it is a [00:37:00] filter. And you, you actually do need a significant communication advocacy apparatus to bypass that and communicate directly to your audiences. And we have seen that, uh, that, that not putting that in place has had harmful effects across the board, not just for partisan politics, but as you mentioned, for religion, for lots of other things.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, you have to, you have to tell people what you've done for them and what you want to do for them and then what the other guys are going to do to them.
If you're not able to get those out and get everybody to understand that, then you're going to have this discontent that you see, because, you constantly see laments from various people saying, oh, well, Biden did all these things here and nobody knows that he did. And even though they like the ideas.
And, and then, of course, the obvious rejoinder to that is whose fault is that, that they don't know that? Is the [00:38:00] mainstream press, is it their responsibility to flack for you as a Democratic advocate or a progressive activist? It's not their, and it's not even their business model. Their business model is simply to get people to read their stuff or watch their stuff. That's it. That's what they're in it for. And so, of course, they're not going to go back to where you're saying about Roosevelt, the NBC's or the CBS's, radio of the time, they weren't going to take apart their newscast and dedicate it to this is what the president has saying, and let's listen to him for 30 minutes here.
They were never going to do that. And they never did. And you can't expect them to do that. Like, that's that is actually the paradox is that the right, they understood that. Because I mean, the American right has always been, dominated by Christian fundamentalist reactionaries and from the very beginning, and they understood that the mainstream press wasn't going to promote that perspective.
And so they [00:39:00] realized we have to build our own things to do it. Whereas I think, a lot of people in the institutional left. They just think it will happen automatically and, we'll have the marketplace of ideas and we'll, and we'll come out on top because our ideas are better. And that's not how real markets work either.
The technology industry is just rife with so many technologies that were superior but failed because of bad marketing or bad strategy, and that's the same. There's politics is no different, right?
ATKINS: And one of the most frustrating parts about this is that progressive policies are genuinely popular.
And when I say progressive, I'm not getting into the whole center-left versus progressive debate, single payer health care, all that. I just mean leftish policies generally are very popular, both on the social front and on the economic front. And young voters as you go down the generations toward, toward younger voters are increasingly progressive.
So it's not that there isn't. [00:40:00] It's not that there is this massive disconnect where the Democratic Party has to or the institutional left has to do a better job of convincing people that socially liberal values are good or that or that progressive economic values are good. They're sort of already there.
The disconnect is at the electoral level. Do they believe that--
SHEFFIELD: That change is possible.
ATKINS: Right. That, that voting, that, that, that donating, that, that, that all the things that go into being involved in electoral politics will actually achieve outcomes toward those things that they want. And do they believe toward what you said that, what the bad guys are going to do? Do they actually believe that Republicans and conservatives more generally are as big a threat to everything that they hold dear as they actually truly are. And that's where the, the, the communication problem lies. And, and the blame for that lays, [00:41:00] I think, squarely on the shoulders of as, as you said, a lot of the left donor class. And also the institutional Democratic Party and its consultants have a lot of work to do on this front, and it's one of the reasons that I'm involved to try to help make that better.
Why David decided to run to be a Democratic National Committee member
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, actually, and let's, let's do talk about that. So you haven't, haven't been involved with the DNC for too long. What was the, what was your motive for, for running for it as to be a member? And, and when did that happen and, and how's it, how's it been for you since then?
ATKINS: I, I've been an activist for a long time at the in the party level at the local and county and, and state party level. But I saw a need to, to help reform the, the national party uh, in order to give grassroots activists, but also state parties, more of a voice in the national process. And this isn't, [00:42:00] part of it is just, having more progressive voices in the Democratic Party. But part of it too is that functionally speaking, most of the party's policy is run directly out of the White House when the, when the party has an incumbent in the White House, right?
And that can be good if the decisions are good, but it also means that not all the decisions are made and in the best way, potentially. And it also means that not enough attention gets perhaps paid to building up some of these communications apparatuses or some of these voter outreach apparatuses in the areas where they may do the most long term good.
One of the things we saw in the past was this argument between, say, Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel in the past over a 50 state strategy versus dumping all the money into the into the most contested [00:43:00] elections of, of the day and of the cycle. And the challenge is that lots of money is going into these-- like the biggest Senate races are already tens and tens of millions of dollars. They're super, super, super expensive.
Whereas there are a lot of legislative battles, state legislature battles or congressional races that could have been won that, that weren't. Because people, because the national party and the forces that could have invested did not invest enough in the operations that could have been invested in at the ground level to help build the coalition.
And I think that the DNC could do more work on that front by having more voices from around the country able to have an influence. And I think that's one of the important things to be focusing on. And that's one of the reasons that I ran.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so now, when did you run and when did you start serving?
ATKINS: Oh, yeah, that was four years ago. So I'm actually running for reelection currently. But [00:44:00] yeah--
SHEFFIELD: In what state, I guess we should say.
ATKINS: Oh, I'm sorry. California. Yes, California. So the way California does it is there are 20 elected members of the DNC. There are also a variety of appointed members, but the executive board of the California Democratic Party elects 20 members from among, well, from among Democratic Party delegates to serve on the DNC.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. And people who do want to, keep tabs on you actually are filing occasional reports on how things go for you on your website.
ATKINS: After every meeting. Yeah, I file it at DavidAtkinsDNC.Com. So you can see my reports from the various meetings and my perspectives on it
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah. Okay, and so one of the, you know, you had mentioned political advertising, it is a an interesting topic to me because it's almost like the, the Democratic establishment has two completely differing or [00:45:00] contradictory ideas, which they believe are not contradictory, which is that political media if it's advertising is effective, but political media, if it's editorial is not effective. These are contradictory ideas.
But they also don't understand that the other thing about right wing media, besides being sort of a permanent communication vehicle to reachable voters for them, beyond being that, a permanent in a permanent campaign state, it is also a way of it is also self sustaining economically for them. So, Fox News makes a billion dollars in profit every year and talk radio hosts, are exceptionally profitable. And, of course, not everything they do is profitable, but a lot of their larger media properties, such as Daily Wire are profitable and, you just go down through the list.
So, so these, these entities, which were [00:46:00] initially funded at a loss, eventually no longer need any money from the donor class on the Republican side. So, and yet that success has been totally lost and missed by the center-left philanthropy class. It's just incredible and horrible from my standpoint.
Does the Democratic base think it's too smart to support advocacy media?
ATKINS: No, I, I absolutely agree. And we've been talking about this a lot over the last hour here. I think to defend them and how they got into this position, I think there is a difference between the Democratic, between the general center-left sort of coalition and the right-wing coalition, and one of the issues with the, with the center-left coalitions that likes to think of itself as more serious and more objective and not susceptible to that sort of partisan propaganda that the, that the right wingers are, are, suffering from.
And so there's a reticence to, to, [00:47:00] to engage as much with the sort of messaging that, that would function well. And that can be a problem. This is not just coming from the top down, that the donor class or whatever refuses to fund it, it's also partly that the, that the main audience, the sort of people who go to book fairs, think of themselves as too, as too elevated , right?
The problem comes from multiple sides. That have been said, I think you're absolutely right. A lot more effort, a lot more funding needs to be going into direct sort of advocacy at the messaging side that happens outside of political campaign advertising season.
Joe Biden's former image as a bipartisan dealmaker isn't helping him now
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I guess let's maybe end with just talking about, so you had mentioned at the top that you think there are some other things that Biden should be doing that he's not doing, and that might also help redound to his benefit beyond, expending more on [00:48:00] advocacy media. What else do you think he should be doing?
ATKINS: He's obviously talking a lot about the economy and talking about the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act and all of that. So I’m not sure there's much more to be done on that level. I think he's starting more to talk about the threat that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are to American democracy. That is to the positive.
The challenge is that Joe Biden has always been sort of, the bipartisan guy who's trying to get everything, trying to get things done. Like he's not the guy who's going to throw haymakers and, and toss, partisan bombs out there. He's going to bring everyone together to try to pass legislation that is good for the American people.
And I think that image sort of served him well in the last election. But it's not as combative an approach as I think is required for the moment. And to be fair, I think that he and his advisors are starting to recognize [00:49:00] that and they're starting to come out more forcefully about this as we approach campaign season, but it's going to require seeing a, a different kind of Joe Biden than we have been accustomed to seeing in the past.
And that's going to be interesting to watch.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I guess kind of related to that, that there are other people saying he should replace Kamala Harris on his ticket or, whatnot. And, and it's. I, I do find it very strange that when people say all these things about her and her polling or her favorability ratings, they don't note that her ratings are really not that different from Joe Biden's.
And it's relevant because I do think that if his numbers came up, then hers probably would come up too. People are trying to come up with all these special cases about whatever it is. That people might or might not like about her. I just, I just, I think people don't really care about the vice president. And if this is all a much ado about nothing in many ways.
ATKINS: [00:50:00] Correct. Yeah, people don't care. I think her numbers would come up as his numbers come up. But regardless of all of that, the damage that any move on that front would do to the Democratic coalition would be not worth what-- even if there were any juice to be squeezed out of going that direction, it's not worth it. And it would do way more damage.
So, that's just a non-starter. There's no point in even looking in that direction. And I think that a lot of the people who are suggesting that sort of thing may have suspect motives on, on, on the race and gender front. And I, there's just no reason to be going that direction; 2028, there's a different conversation. There should be a robust primary in 2028, but talking about replacing her or him on the ticket in 2024, I think is just foolish.
SHEFFIELD: Especially at this late in the game, if you really were serious about that, you should have said it in, 2022 at the [00:51:00] latest.
SHEFFIELD: Well, so for people who want to keep up with your stuff, what's your recommendation in that regard?
ATKINS: Oh Washington Monthly slash David Atkins. You can find me, Google David Atkins Washington Monthly. You can see my writings there. Otherwise, and in terms of the Democratic Party activism, my website at DavidAtkinsDNC.com is there as well.
And yeah, that's basically it. Oh, and obviously social media. I have not been tweeting as much. I refuse to call it X. It's still Twitter now that Elon Musk has done his thing, but also social media.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. And what other ones are you at?
ATKINS: Oh, “DavidOatkins.” I'm on a variety, Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Excellent. All right. Well, I encourage everybody to check those out. And thanks for being here.
ATKINS: All right. Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.
SHEFFIELD: All right. So that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us for the conversation.
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