Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Democrats haven't realized they must do more than attack Donald Trump

Democrats haven't realized they must do more than attack Donald Trump


The 2024 presidential election continues to be perilously close between Donald Trump, the fascist ex-president who's been found guilty of numerous crimes and is indicted for many other ones, and Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential incumbent. But the close race that is happening right now is actually a function of a much larger problem that has existed for many years in which neither party has been able to gain the advantage over the other one.

While Democrats are closer to the political views of most Americans, the party has been dominated by centrist and conservative leaders who are unwilling to elevate labor unions and focus their attacks on Republicans' far-right ideology. Instead of educating voters about the extreme policy agenda of Republicans as a whole, they have focused their attacks on Donald Trump, a fundamentally weak candidate. They have also failed to advance an alternative to the powerful religious-racial identity politics that reactionary leaders have crafted.

For this discussion, we're joined by Mike Podhorzer. He is the former political director for the AFL-CIO union, and he's also the author of a newsletter called Weekend Reading, which we'll discuss later.

Scroll down to view the transcript of this episode. The video of the conversation is available as well.

Audio Chapters

0:00 — How Trump's weaknesses as a candidate masked Democratic weakness

08:56 — America's political divisions are primarily geographic more than income or education

16:03 — The influence of white Christian nationalism on the Republican Party

20:22 — The declining role of labor in the Democratic Party

30:48 — Neoliberalism broke "linked fate," the left's biggest advantage

36:13 — How Republicans tapped white Christian identity to win elections

45:04 — The challenges of creating left-wing media are about both funding and audience habits

53:37 — “Mad poll disease” and how to get over it

01:00:59 — Right-wing media and a “vibes recession”

01:05:16 — What can Biden and Democrats do?


The transcript of the audio is below. It is automatically generated and is provided for convenience purposes only.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Mike.

MIKE PODHORZER: Sure, glad to be here.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, before we get too far into discussing some of your work with Weekend Reading, let's maybe talk about briefly what it is for those who have not seen it yet.

PODHORZER: Sure. So the idea of it really started in the wake of Donald Trump's victory as a way for those of us who are, were political practitioners to try to understand what had happened and [00:02:00] how to prevent how to make sure that he lost in 2020.

And over the course of several years, it grew among the sort of the political practitioners. And when I retired from the AFL-CIO at the end of last year, I decided to make it available to all and what I try to do there is bring a very different perspective than I've seen elsewhere of understanding how politics works the moment we're in.

But most importantly, the, the proper way to understand threat of fascism in this country and what we have to do to push back against that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and the moment that you chose to start writing it, I think there were a lot of [00:03:00] people that were extremely surprised that Donald Trump was able to win in 2016 on the Democratic side of the aisle or the, the center to left, generally speaking. And I guess from your perspective, they ought to have seen this coming better.

PODHORZER: Well, I think those of us who were really very involved understood how close the election really what that all of the sort of models that forecasting models that were out there saying that it was, between 2 to 1 for Clinton to 90-10 for Clinton really had no idea what was going on in the country and reflected really just not having a handle on what was going on in the Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and those of us who are really very involved understood. There's going to be [00:04:00] razor thin and I think for the sort of broader public and this is something that has sort of stuck in the sort of narrative about Trump winning that's got to be really upside down is that if the Republicans had nominated anyone Trump, then they would have won easily.

They would have won the popular vote, the Electoral College, and probably would be finishing up their second term. Right.

Trump is probably the most successful intra party presidential politician we've had, and the worst inter party politician we've ever had. And he came as close to blowing a sure-fire Republican victory as you can without blowing it.

But what [00:05:00] was still the case was that he could have been beaten in terms, just in a political practitioner level. And that's really what we have to get our head around and figure out how to win in 2020.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And so just to be clear, you're you were you disputing or agreeing with the idea that another Republican would have won.

PODHORZER: No, I'm saying they would have easily that, that, that Trump was like such a unpopular candidate for them that he almost lost an election they should have won going away. And, and that there's a way in which the, to your beginning 50 yard line, I think Trump has created kind of illusion that.

Democrats have more support than they actually do.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Okay. Oh, okay. Well, one of the I guess [00:06:00] some of some of the ideas behind that. Let's maybe explore some of your ideas behind that. So with. With, with regard to Trump being kind of a weaker Republican candidate so, one of those obviously for Republicans generally in 2016 is just simply the fact that the Democrats had the White House for eight years and there's always a strong appetite for or motivation for the out party to come out and vote after eight years of the other people in the in charge and some dissatisfaction by the occupant party. So that's part of it, but what else was it from your viewpoint that they were well positioned in 2016?

PODHORZER: Well, in the context of the Electoral College being decisive I think, and I think this is still something that's not really understood. Remember when Obama won in 2008, which was [00:07:00] obviously a victory that was driven by Bush's unpopularity, the collapse of the financial system and so forth. It was still the case that places like Ohio were competitive, right?

The way in which Obama's policies address a breakdown of the financial system, which was essentially leaving it to Federal Reserve to supply liquidity through quantitative easing essentially meant that there was no new investment in rural America for that entire time and a lot of the sort of popular commentary talks about Democrats losing it with By extreme margins in rural areas, simply because they're too woke or something, but in fact, these are places that many of those places were devastated while Obama was president, and we're not really getting any kind of [00:08:00] attention.

And so there's nothing unusual about people in that circumstance, even putting aside social issues, not wanting more of the same. In 2016 when Clinton was running in e there's, there are various ways of classifying geographic areas. And if you a common one that divides it into six from most rural to most urban in all, but the most rural employment had recovered from the Great recession mostly by 20 12, 20 13.

And there was still less employment in the most rural areas of the country in 2016 and yeah, and that just changed the Electoral College math in a way that are barely able to get out from under right now.

SHEFFIELD: Speaking of sort of regional classifications, that's [00:09:00] something you've been writing about recently talking about how there's this very common myth that has settled in in both media and among political practitioners that the Donald Trump has somehow made the Republican party a populist party. And that they are sort of the, the, the party for the less economically Prosperous people, and you've kind of tried to puncture that in a number of different ways.

Let's talk about what you're you wrote a long piece about trying to basically making the contention that. The different, yeah, the, the idea that the congressional districts have been sort of flipped but it's maybe not completely false this idea, but you, you really unpacked it quite a bit.

So let's can you briefly summarize what your, your.

PODHORZER: Sure, right and I think there's [00:10:00] 1 of the things that makes but this kind of unpacking a little challenging is because there's a difference between describing a set of people and saying that that description represents causality. What has happened since 2008 is that mostly because of the sort of the MAGA, first tea party, the MAGA reaction that really returned the country into its sectional alignment between sort of the red states in the South, the blue states in the North and West.

Consequentially means that Democrats now represent more prosperous people because they represent a more prosperous region of the country. Right? And so it's not [00:11:00] because prosperous people are going to Democrats and not prosperous people are going to Republicans. It's that the preponderance of Prosperity is in one region and press ponderance of sort of lower socioeconomic achievement is in a different region.

And so the challenge is, though, that if the only way you can that the media generally tries to understand what's going on in the country is through the prism of national polls, which may no geographic distinctions. Right. You have an effect being treated as a cause. Right. But to go back, the 1 of the places, this sort of, I think, maps to what you're saying where people look at.

Republicans being the party of non college [00:12:00] Americans and Democrats being the party of college, right? In blue states, white non college voters supported Biden at a higher level than white college voters did. In red states, right? It really have to get around the idea that the 1st important division in the country is sort of where you live right now.

It's true in both places. Non college voters are more Republican than college, but--

SHEFFIELD: We're talking about whites were

PODHORZER: Yeah, that but that that that doesn't explain what's happening in the country. Right? Because. You, and as I was saying, even with the rural area, Biden almost won rural blue America, which no one would think because of [00:13:00] the way we just generalize from national numbers when, in fact, national numbers are just sort of tallying up what happened all over the country.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it's true. And in that such that the core differences really are more about the approach that the voters in these regions have their epistemologies, if you will. And, and you can really see that with, when you look at the, the, and, and you note this in, in, in your pieces about this, that, when you look at the Republican, Operative class, the people who run the Republican party, they are from all the same, expensive elite schools the Josh Hollies of the world, JD Vances and Peter Thiels and, even Donald Trump himself.

And so it isn't about education itself in education of itself is not dispositive. And I think that, a lot of that oversimplification [00:14:00] has really made a lot of people on the left not understand how to respond to MAGA and sort of the rise of neo fascism.

Would you agree with that?

PODHORZER: Yeah, I think I think that's part of that. I also think that the that

I think that. When you, this is a thing, something through in sort of how you were talking about Republican operatives and what operatives, I think it's really important to understand to not to anthropomorphize the parties like. They are making a decision. There's a, like, a person making a decision. We're going to do this instead of that, right?

The way politics works in America, because we only have 2 ballot lines, is that all of the organized interest in the [00:15:00] country on the big ones understand that the way to have access to the enormous resources the federal government has to the enormous power it has is to advance candidates that will carry their agenda.

And when people say, well, the Republicans took this turn here as if there was a Republican who changed their mind about the best tactic, they miss the fact that what happened was that a different faction of the Republican Party gained the upper hand and it's new people. Right, like, all the, the Ryan's and everyone, like, they leave, they either lose outright or decide they can't stay.

Right? It's not like someone sitting in a DC headquarters saying, aha, we're going to look at this poll and say, well, we really need to be more fascist. Right? It's the fascist taking over the [00:16:00] party and in the, in terms of the house, right?

It's really the white Christian nationalist faction that has. That is hacked Congress.

Basically 1 of the pieces I have shows how, our Byzantine 18th century way of figuring stuff out really enables any sort of big interest. That is. Sufficiently geographically clustered right now, because of how gerrymandered and partisan sort, the districts are that you can basically ladder from, 18 percent of the population nationally so Control the house and, the Republicans in the house because in red districts in the South event, white evangelicals make up, between 30 and 50 plus percent of all primary Republican [00:17:00] primary voters and to win a Republican primary on average, if you didn't come in over the last dozen years, only has taken 50, 000 votes.

And the national media doesn't see it because he's They treat sort of the Congress as a kind of national constituent assembly, because they're looking at polling.

Well, the Republicans are this percent this and this right, but they don't get votes places, get votes and the right cred by Christian nationalism is extremely strong in enough places that they get to control the Republican caucus.

SHEFFIELD: And they spent, the better part of Donald Trump's entire presidency. Kind of saying, Oh, he's not that extreme. He doesn't really believe this.

He's not really a fascist. You guys are overreacting. There's no, this isn't racism. This isn't, whatever the, I mean, he would come out with all these horrible statements and they would just excuse them and pretend that it was overreacting.

So yeah, [00:18:00] so, but that said. It's also that I think to your regional point and with regard to the white evangelicals, I think a lot of people also haven't realized that southern white evangelicalism sort of colonized white Protestantism outside of the South just through its sheer business prowess, whether it was Christian bookstores like Lifeway Christian Resources, which is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and they've got stores in every state and they, they just, their, their sheer power of organizing and entrepreneurship.

They just overwhelmed all the other Baptist factions and, kind of, ate the lunch of, of mainline Protestantism to a large degree. And so, yeah, go ahead.

PODHORZER: No, I was just saying, and it's like, really not recognized part two is that And sort of Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana there's been significant [00:19:00] migration.

So, which is another element in why those states went from kind of purplish to red.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, the Southern parts of rural generally speaking and that's, that is true of Illinois as well outside of the Chicago area. So, yeah, but, but I guess to a large degree though, I do think that, when you look at the responses of, of let's say left of center operatives to this stuff.

It, yeah, it's, it's, it's about generally kind of have wanting to have the same narrative in every place. And, this idea that we can, we can create the perfect message. And, and the reality is there is no perfect message. What there are is, is many messages. And you have to, you have to tell, you have to relate what you want.

To what the people want and, to your, your point [00:20:00] about and we were talking about before we were recording this, that, the, the two parties really haven't tried, they're not trying to create Oh, hold on. I hear an echo the, the, the two parties are not trying to create. Policy platform and even a message or a coalition that that includes a majority of Americans seems like.

PODHORZER: Yeah, I think that I think that, somewhere around the mid 70s and something that was happening in other countries to business interests, which had. Really been centered in the Republican Party basically expanded and won the battle for the Democratic Party and forced labor out in the way it's been in a lot of other countries.

And so there's no party that actually is advocating for working people, right? There's no question that, that Democrats have been [00:21:00] better for working people economically than Republicans. But neither has actually, especially relatively recently been at all concerned with their working lines and that's a like, complete change.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and now to what degree though, is that. Does labor have responsibility for that situation?

PODHORZER: Well, I think that, that, that, and it's a really important question. I think that to, to get at it, I think that many people talk, you talk about it, people who often, Are very much feel as allies of the labor movement that sentences like, quote, the decline in membership. And I think that [00:22:00] when we do that, we miss the that it's sort of.

It makes it sound like it's something that labor to itself when, in fact, right since the 1940s, the business corporate community has been relentlessly attacking the ability of. People working people to act collectively in unions, and they've been very successful in because there's been essentially a bipartisan consensus that has prevented.

Union organizing in each new part, each part of the economy as it expands. Right? So there but in 1940s, General Motors was fully unionized. It's fully in nice today. But through a set of policies, right? [00:23:00]

With right to work in the South, you create a context to have auto plants that aren't, or you do NAFTA so that you make it easier for foreign companies to take union market share when we started having the service sector exploding there were new barriers erected to make it more difficult to organize service worker right now it's very difficult to organize gig workers, even though they want it because. Laws, regs, whatever are trying to make them independent contractor.

And so I think yeah, labor that's labor's job, but we shouldn't be blind to the billions of dollars that have been spent empower exercise to prevent people from joining unions.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's true. I mean, [00:24:00] but this has been a thing that's been going on for a long time. I mean, I guess you could maybe say it kind of started with the so called Atari Democrats of the 1970s.

And this is not my place to say any of these things, but, I mean, the reality is that I don't know, I mean, it's, it's tricky because I guess to some degree, the Democratic party kind of welcomed these new people to come in and especially after the Nixon resignation and 70 and the 74 election in 76, those it so they liked it, they wanted these new members in, but fundamentally they kind of changed the Democratic Party from what it was and, it's been kind of the same to a large degree since then. What do you think? [00:25:00]

PODHORZER: Well, I think that Biden has really been a break with that neoliberal Democratic tradition so far thing.

We don't know what's going to happen in the longer run, but I think. It was really significant that he went to the UAW picket line, right? That's something that Obama never would have come close to, that Clinton never would have come close to, that Carter never would have been come close to. And I think it, it stems from the fact that there was this period and there's still a lot of it of, and this is what really galls me about people who should talk about appealing to working class voters is that.

That these are the same people who are have tried and been pretty successful at trying to tell a story of America in which there are no class divisions. Right that weirdly, the only [00:26:00] class division is over sort of gendered bathrooms and a sort of social vibe that has nothing to do with people's economic lives, and that that kind of that's kind of the problem.

SHEFFIELD: Let's can you clarify what you mean? Yeah.

PODHORZER: So here's a clear way of thinking about it, right? Before the mid 70s, right? You had through the consensus worldview was that unconstrained capitalism brings you the depression horrible outcomes, but that what was called us for pluralism that That working for this for democracy to function for an economy to function.

Well, you have to create institutions like unions that allowed people to act collectively to have at least some relative balance in power [00:27:00] with the corporations and the most wealthy. Right and that's an idea that goes back to Jefferson everything you can't how can you have like democracy when people aren't political equals and the sort of fix that came in the new deal was that while each working person wouldn't have the power of a Carnegie to if you put them all together, you're sort of starting to get a balance and you have some.

Guardrails on capitalism, right? And, but it was very much understood that there were two classes. There's like an ownership class and a working class. And their interests were not the same and that the role of government was to make sure that that contest happened in a balanced fair way. You get what you call the Atari Democrats, get the neoliberal, whatever you're going to call them, right?

They decide [00:28:00] that that's like, that's so yesterday. And that in fact, all we have to do is rely on the market and everybody's going to have better, more prosperous lives and, and all of that. Right. And so now there are not 2 sides anymore. There's just private public partnerships and, the era of big government is over and so forth.

And so at that point, right, you have what Piketty and others sort of call, a, a, an elite. Yeah. Duopoly of parties, right? Both are parties of different factions of the, of the powerful, you have the Republicans putting aside the white Christian nationalists, they're the party of the extractive industries of a set of industries that have worked to keep the regional low wage economy.

Democrats are captured [00:29:00] by, the tech and finance and knowledge economy, right? And they've created. That's why the 2 pit areas are so different, right? There's a different theory of everything, but they're both believe that the market is the best way to do things and like, and really want to avoid the idea of class war.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, and then now you mentioned the idea of so where does gender and race fit into that? This framework that is the divisions you're talking about

PODHORZER: That there are, I think, in a fundamental way, I think that the, the, the through line for. What's red America, from the founding was an idea of a kind of theocratic state that the purpose of the government is to make sure [00:30:00] that people follow an already revealed law, right?

And that and that that law has a very clear cut. Social hierarchy

SHEFFIELD: That they know their place, yeah.

PODHORZER: Right. And then you have a more like classically sort of liberal blue states where people don't think there's a reveal truth already and are willing to try to have. Systems to get to the best place by working it out together, and so that's obviously going to be much more conducive to gender equality, racial equality and so on.

SHEFFIELD: Well, yeah, and I think 1 of the other things, though, that the neoliberals did is that they. That they de linked the struggle for justice such that [00:31:00] that basically they wanted to remove. what Martin Luther King and, and, a bunch of other people, Bayard Rustin and others like him understood, which was that this is all, this is a collective struggle here that, things may not impact one set of people the same way.

But if you don't support their struggle, then you're, then you won't win the thing that you want. And the neoliberals kind of broke that and basically tried to, and, and, tried to get people to focus only on whatever in particular one day we're interested in and, and, and that's, and that's kind of how the, the, the, the Democratic Party became broken and non majoritarian, I would say,

PODHORZER: Right. No, I think that it was a switch from parties that were fairly about advancing their bases, aspirations and.[00:32:00]

Uh, to sort of to sort of consumer parties where each sort of saying, well, here are the reasons to vote for me. And here are the reasons to vote for me, but not actually, which is antithetical in a way to real democracy, because. You only have real democracy when people are engaged in a practical functional way more than every two years when they get to choose between the same two choices.

And then really have no handle on it in between and--

SHEFFIELD: Well, and also, and sorry, also take that. They get something that is more than just semiotic. In other words, that, that having the symbology of your preferred group. As sort of in people's faces that actually doesn't really do very much for you.

So, like, the white Christian nationalism doesn't actually help the lives of the [00:33:00] Republican voters who, who want it. And then, but, but by the same token, it also doesn't really help it doesn't really help black Americans to have the CEOs be black of these corporations and then they exploit the workers just the same.

PODHORZER: Yeah. No, that's a really important point is, and that's, I think, sort of the sort of genius of neoliberalism is by really insisting that everybody only has their individual interest, rather than that. There's any kind of collective interest or responsibility to a collective. Right, you essentially split within racial groups or gender groups, or you're, you're basically what you just said, it's like the 4 people who don't have the access to pre K.

Or decent education, knowing [00:34:00] that that there are black CEOs is of limited value.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it also, the other thing about that, the, the neoliberal bargain, if you will, was that, yes, it did bring some more educated, higher income Workers into the Democratic coalition, but what it also did is that it made it easier for the much larger group of, blue collar workers of all races to leave because, that for them for, for many of these people, like they were motivated by, like they were Christian fundamentalists and, and you see that and you first saw that with, with white blue collar workers, but now you're starting to see that with, yeah.

Evangelical Hispanics, and you're starting to see that with black, evangelicals as well that they're not, and they say this, when, when people, and I think focus groups are a very limited value, but nonetheless. The idea, some of, some, you do hear people [00:35:00] say, I don't see a difference between the parties for me.

And some of that is a failure of democratics people letting people know that Biden's very pro union and he, did all these things that's, that isn't a democratic sort of. infrastructure of communication problem. But it's also that, that again, that they, the fact that people would even think this at all, it shows that the, the Republican party has identified what for them, these individuals is their, they view as their primary identity and, and, and, and basically they've, that's why they constantly are, talking about.

Social controversies and whatnot. Like there's this myth that the democratic party only talks about, racism or gender equality or, transgender participation in society. None of that's true. But the Republicans want you to believe that. And Democrats, I don't feel like they understand that, [00:36:00] they think that people will just figure it out.

That they don't have to be told what's actually happening, that they'll just, the marketplace of ideas, the good ideas will win. And it just, it seems kind of naive.

PODHORZER: Yeah, I mean, I think it's 1st of all, I think, but 1 thing that I want to pull out is it's going to go there anyway, but I think it's really important is that is when you talk about identity.

And I think that almost all the discussion about the appeal of the parties and politics and messages and everything miss the fact that the most powerful way to realign the electorate to win elections is when people. Feel that their identity is fundamental and core to 1 of the other parties or candidates, right?

That people aren't out [00:37:00] there sort of looking at sort of side by side of where the. Candidates or parties who are on issues, whatever, when they think that this is the party. If you're a white, you're evangelical, right? The reason they're 80 plus percent for Republicans is because Republicans tap into their white Christian nationalist identity.

And so for people like who, for whom identity is dry is politically salient. Right, they're not going to say, but maybe Democrats are good on this issue or what they don't you don't think past that and what and so identity when people like you people you feel are like you are all one party or the other.

That's alignment. Right? And the. Right now, the very odd thing in terms of the way people talk about working class voters, [00:38:00] whatever, is that most of the electorate actually is voting on one or other identity, either their identity is MAGA or it's anti and, and that that's really got its grip on, over 85 percent of the electorate.

Which is just never going to switch sides, because it's not about either side's issue suite. It's people like me are or are not. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I had when I was I'll go ahead.

PODHORZER: No, I was going to say, I think 1 thing that, like, gets, like, left out of this kind of conversation is, let's not forget that in the 17 blue states, yeah that Biden Clinton and Obama 12 won by 2 dozen points and that in those states.

You have functioning democratic governors that [00:39:00] have actually been making life better for people over a period of time. The characterization of a dysfunctional party that can't do anything right really has to do with this national contest. Right, and the National Party, and one of the reasons why it is so dysfunctional is that in those 17 states, blue wins by two dozen points.

In the 27 red states, Trump won by more than a dozen points twice. And so did Romney, right? And they're two different types of politics. And there's like, no, not a middle ground that you could be smart in.

SHEFFIELD: Well, okay. So, but so then how can people who want to have more a politics that are, is for working people, [00:40:00] how can they succeed in that type of environment?

What do you, what do you think?

PODHORZER: Well, I think that it's going to depend on what working people rising again, like we did in the 30s and did before. And I think what we're seeing this summer and fall with for CPS, WGA, UAW is at least finally a stirring uh, You know, I was looking this morning for something I was writing that in 1974, there were more strikes than there were in the last 25 years that that, like, the world was just very different and working.

People had a very different sense of agency and were more engaged in getting a better life for themselves than. They have been in quite a while.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. [00:41:00] Well, and I, and I, and it's something that is tricky though, because, I, the other reason why Republicans have, created kind of a, I mean, the, the Republican party is a.

Identity politics party. And it was built that way, by the, the, the Goldwater ites and, the Reaganites they, they, they rebuilt the party into being that based on, on white Christian rural identity. And it was effective not just at getting the South, but it's also effective as a way of.

Preventing, worker uprisings and things like that, because essentially what it is, it's a, it's a divide and conquer

PODHORZER: 100 percent, right. It's like, right in this period, right? Where the, and this is essential. I have a lot of respect for Michael case and who you had on, but I think there's. Like a really, we have to take a hard look [00:42:00] that that the Democratic Party from Jackson on could be called the party of white working people, but throughout that period in the Confederate States in the southern states, those the people so named. saw themselves just as white, right? Now, when it push came to shove, their white identity was more important to them than their working class identity. And that the quote loss of white working class for the Democratic Party really happened in the 40s in the, in the South. And most people who like, try to tell that story are don't understand that Democrats continue to have.

Majorities of the members of Congress for those states for quite a bit [00:43:00] longer, because those Democrats in the House and Senate, they were electing were fighting against all the working unions and working class policies that would allow there to be multiracial unions in the South.

SHEFFIELD: Well, so then it, I mean, because that is ultimately, I mean, you could argue that those are the two issues that the, a more, let's say, left leaning Democratic Party faced is that one, trying to include black Americans in the party, and then also, Trying to cleave off allow, the creation of a, of white Christian nationalism and not do anything in response to that.

I mean, and even now, like, I, I, the, when you look at the Democratic Party leadership, they don't really talk about it. White Christian nationalism at all and, and, and say that it's [00:44:00] bad and say that it's a manipulation and, and, and, and so because of that, because there is literally no countervailing message to say that, if you're a if you believe the Bible is literally true, you're not going to be imprisoned.

If, if Joe Biden gets reelected, you're not going to be imprisoned. If Bernie Sanders somehow became the president, nothing bad is going to happen to you. And, and it's what you'll, you'll, you'll get, better healthcare, you'll get more worker protections and things like that. Like they just, it's just like they, I feel like they pretend that they don't have to, if we don't talk about it, then it will go away.

And they've just had this, this naive approach to the Christian nationalism. And now because they've ignored it for so long and not tried to talk about, just how manipulative it is now it's starting to ensnare Hispanic evangelicals and some evangelicals as well.

PODHORZER: Yeah. I mean, I think [00:45:00] the, it's, it's interesting. It's just part of that. I really agree with part of that, man.

I think as long as you have a information ecosystem. Like Fox and all the other right wing media that has already that that really it's commerce. You should probably under were there like commercial model. They're making money selling sort of white grievance stories.

That is the white Christian nationalist worldview, and it's not like there's a billionaire or something that's like creating this propaganda thing. It, it, it makes money. Right? And so they're doing it. And I frankly, don't think that there's a way for Democrats to show people that, no, we're really not going to take your Christmas away.

I think that, like, that, that, that was gone. Right. And because of what you're saying is, [00:46:00] it's just really a powerful way to divide people. Right. And, and it's working by default, much more the mainstream media. For pretending that white Christian nationalism is in the threat to the country for such a long time.

And even now it has a tough time saying the words white Christian nationalism. That's really what's problematic and I think that's what makes. The presidential election as close as it is, or the country as close as it appears to be over Trump is the equivocation about how much of a fascist, how much he's really going to do the things he says he's going to do.

I mean, you know, the media is just about sort of telling people not to take what he says seriously. [00:47:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, they certainly do that. But at the same time, they've always been this way. So yeah, it seems like the left should be investing a lot more in media than they do. I mean, like, to me, as somebody who created multiple media organizations on the right, I can tell you, it is So easy to get people on the right to be interested in starting up some new media business.

Whereas on the left, there is this idea that, ah, well, we can put a we got an interview on NPR the other day. We got to start ABC news to do a profile of us or 16 minutes did a story about it and it's, it's, it's incredibly naive and they don't, and they don't understand most people.

Especially, in this internet age, most people don't see those stories. They, they don't know about them. So you have to take the message to the people, but they don't want to, they don't seem to want to do it because it's beneath them.

PODHORZER: Well, I'm not quite sure that's completely fair because I know a [00:48:00] lot of people who have tried to do it and failed, I think from, and there are some really good rigorous sort of studies of.

Like, what happens and I think that 1 of the handicaps that those who tried to do what you're saying on the not on the right is that the mainstream media, the times, the journal, Washington post, whatever right basically have the most lucrative audiences locked up. Which means that there is, like, no one's really found the equivalent of a 3rd of America.

That's a untapped commercially available market for the left wants to like. Spend their time [00:49:00] in the car listening to people brag on own the conservatives or something, right? It's very asymmetric, right? And, and so, yeah, I think it is, it is both are true. There are many people on the left who are too condescending and self disqualifying for the job.

I know a lot of people who are really serious. Invested money a lot of time and just can't find a market for it. It's really just a symmetric.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I mean, well, I, I, I don't disagree with that. But, I mean, I would say even, to the extent that the, like, the web has built. It has enabled some people to build pretty large audiences and on the left and they don't share their audiences.

They do not engage in cross promotions. They don't invite other people on their podcasts or, invite them to write articles. It simply does not happen. Like they invite their personal [00:50:00] friends. To come on their show, a hundred times or whatever. And then unless you're their personal friend, you don't get invited.

And so as a result, the ecosystem doesn't like here's, here's the paradox is, and I can say this, having been, how things work on both sides, that the left. is actually, the left media ecosystem is far more capitalistic and far more dog eat dog than on the right. The right does not practice capitalism in its own affairs, and the left does.

So like, almost all the largest center to left media operations are owned by corporations,

PODHORZER: right, yeah, of course, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And, and, whereas on the, on the right, they will go and sink millions or tens of millions of dollars, year after year into, into these organizations that they know will not ever be profitable, but they serve a valuable purpose.

And so they continue to do that, but in some cases, like the daily wire or [00:51:00] talk radio, these things that were unprofitable. For a number of years eventually they, they can, they get to the point where they are profitable and, and extremely. So in Fox news is another example of that. I mean, it was an enormous money loser for Rupert Murdoch for a long time.

And then eventually it, the, the audience finally found it. And has been printing money ever since. Whereas, so I think there are people who want this stuff. It's just that everybody on the left gives up too soon. And I would say Air America is an example of that, that, it was created if they had just stuck to it longer and not been so wasteful in their expenditures.

They, and you can see that with the host, like a number of the hosts who were there have been able to continue making a living and, and make do quite well for themselves because they kept going.

PODHORZER: Right. But remember that there's the, in terms of the, the, the financing of all of that, right?

Is that the other [00:52:00] asymmetry is that for the cokes for murder for all of those people? There's a corporate bottom line that creating a movement to lower taxes and reduce regulation has an ROI, right? And there isn't that on the other side, right? There's no sort of what the Left media, like, I don't even know how to say the sentence.

Right. A left media, that's a Trojan horse for pro billionaire policies. Right. Right. It's, that's the problem. And I'm, I feel awkward to defend. I'm not trying not to defend any particular people in this. It's trying to say that what I think is important is that to understand that the problem isn't like, finding people to do it better.

It's that we're in a system that kind of that is that that that's [00:53:00] here. Right? I mean, these are decisions that mostly Democratic presidents made to not renew the fairness doctrine to do the communications deregulation bill that, has allowed the test. Yeah. That loud cross ownership and all those things I didn't used to be the case are the case and that's a ditch Democrats built it dug for themselves.

But it doesn't mean, like, we're just looking for somebody to come in and transcend that. I mean, it's a pretty deep ditch.

SHEFFIELD: Well, okay. Yeah. I mean, I, I, I think that's all true. And yet, you're, you, in your writing, you have talked quite a bit about how things are not inevitable and Trump's not going to, to, he's not inevitable in terms of coming back.

And you've been particularly notable in [00:54:00] pushing back against people panicking about, Joe Biden's polling numbers you, you, you call it “Mad Poll Disease.” What, what does, what does that term mean for people who--

PODHORZER: What, what I mean is that I can't imagine there's much, very many people who are listening to this podcast and don't know about all the horse race polling that's been out there and the big splash at the New York times.

Created a couple of months ago now with poll showing Trump ahead in a number of battleground states. The point that I think Mad Poll Disease is that there are two things that we know about the presidential election: one is that it's going to come down to as it has in 2020 and 2016, less than a percentage point difference in 5 to 6 states that we know [00:55:00] which states they are.

We know it's going to be that close. And we know that polling can't really tell us. Anything valuable beyond that, but the, but when you think that polling can, you panic about it in an unconstructive way, because you're basically thinking, oh, my God, there is a noble outcome there and we're screwed, right?

When in a democracy without polling right now, we wouldn't be talking about how old Biden is. We'd be talking about Trump's fascist agenda. And getting everybody we know to make sure they should go out and vote against him, right? It's the wrong conversation to be having. And in the last couple of elections, right in the midterms, the 5, 538, which does a better job of [00:56:00] something, which really can't be done perfectly.

And if you've been following it, when they started their Senate in June, they said Republicans had a 60, 40 chance of taking Senate. But after the J6 hearings and dubs, they said Democrats had a 60, 40 chance of holding the Senate on election day. They said Republicans again had a 60, 40 chance of holding, flipping the Senate of the five races that mattered most, they got three wrong.

You literally would have been smarter not ever going to look at any of the forecasting and just knowing what everyone knew is it was going to come down to those states, right? And just go out and try to win. That any, all of these races are within the margin of error, and when they're there, they're in the margin of error.

And that's what Mad Poll Disease is. It's paralyzing. It keeps you away from being a small d [00:57:00] democratic citizen.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, it is interesting that the, the Republican Party and the right wing media ecosystem, they became completely disregarding of polls beginning in 2012 or so, and they've been that way ever since that they really say, well, it doesn't, it shows us behind, but that's fake and that's, that's not true, but they basically have said, we don't believe that.

We're just going to continue to, push forward.

PODHORZER: Right. And then we've had like, 200 years plus of successful elections without having polling a year out. Right? I mean, like, democracies do, actually can function without the media putting its central attention on trying to be the first to sort of say something smart about who's going to win.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, now, is this kind of do you think this is an [00:58:00] example of what, what decision theorists call analysis paralysis on the part of people on the left of center? Is that what this is?

PODHORZER: Um, I mean, maybe for some, but it's more that as a saying that the problem is that anybody who wants to think about, like, the basic, is America going to continue as a non fascist country in terms of, like, someone, a media organization talking to 1500 people to tell you something, like, that's just crazy, right?

The right, right. Like, if you believe That it's like that horrible for Trump to win again. That's all that matters. But the thing to be clear is, in what I'm saying [00:59:00] is not for the same reason Republicans say that, right? Republicans were saying that because they didn't like the poll number, right? And they were getting in the way of the story they wanted to tell.

In 2020, if you remember, the polling and media had Biden headed to a really big victory, and in October I was writing, and we can read it, the polls are wrong, right? It's going to be as close as it was. Right and right. It's like the polling. We are such a divided country and those states are so on the 50 yard line that to just keep going back over and over again and take, taking their temperature again and again, right?

Makes it seem more fluid than it actually is. [01:00:00]

SHEFFIELD: Well, okay, so for. There's no, as you, as you said, there's no magic wand for all these things. But I mean, so what are, what are the things you think Biden should be? Doing because the polls are right that that he has, the potential to lose.

PODHORZER: Oh, yeah. That's what I'm saying. We all know that, right? That's, that's the challenge of our life, right?


PODHORZER: Right. We don't need to know what I'm saying.

SHEFFIELD: What would you say that he should do to not lose?

PODHORZER: I don't know what he should do. I know that what we should do is in whatever roles we have, make sure that We understand what the threat is and that that's our central charge as citizens of this country to make sure that Trump isn't reelected, isn't elected again.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and what if people feel like that I mean, like, and you, and maybe we can end here with--


SHEFFIELD: [01:01:00] There's been a lot of discussion with in, in the world of economics about what some people call a vibes recession in, in regards to polling that when people. Are asked about the state of the economy.

They think that it's, almost depression level bad, for many people and the response and you know and the economic indicators do not really show that and you know to a certain extent I think or to pretty large extent I think this is the product of right wing media having completely sort of Uh, removed Republicans from all rationality when it comes to questions about the economy.

So in other words, when a Democrat is the president, the Republican respondents are now seemingly for the past several years maybe perhaps for the long term trend, they're going to say it's a depression. Just because a Democrat is the president and, and then when Trump was the president, they, even during the worst parts of the pandemic, they said the economy was great and [01:02:00] the prospects were amazing.

And it was like 70 percent of them, even, even at the very worst shutdowns and, and, and whatnot, they said it was fantastic. So I mean, what's your take on if the on this whole vibes session? Yeah.

PODHORZER: So I think that the, what, first, what you're describing about Republicans and Trump and no matter how about the economy as he's doing great is what I was saying before about identity.

Right. Once you see yourself as being on team Trump or team red, right? That's the power of, of identity and identification, right? And it, but that, that's the way human beings work, right? The on the other side, though, I think that there's that the, that the indicator economic indicators that everyone deals, That people are not [01:03:00] like, delusional for not realizing what of an economy.

It is just don't actually indicate that don't really reflect how people experience. Their lives, there was a time when something like GDP growth was a pretty good heuristic for how people were feeling because, as the economy grew with prosperity was fairly shared. Right? But when it goes from, rising tide, lifting old boats, GDP indicator.

Yep. That's a good thing when it's mostly if lifting yachts, yeah. Right. Why should people feel any better? And I think there's a way in which the people in the sort of media class really don't understand what rising prices due to people and the idea that someone who is. Like daily stressed by [01:04:00] wondering the uncertainty of whether in this season, they can avoid the afford the toy.

Their kid wants because they don't know whether they're going to have, rent's going to go up in January or something like that. Like, they're not. Like, whoopie, inflation isn't going up by as much as it was before, right? We're sort of in the media class. It's, oh, well, he's getting inflation under control.

Prices are still going up. They're not, and it's that disconnect. I think it's a real disconnect about how people really are experiencing the economy and what the indicators economists say should matter. And I think to the sort of larger point since 2000, in almost every institution, people just have less confidence.

People feel the society's broken [01:05:00] and then, which everybody sees in polling and then everyone's surprised about why this or that leader is in popular. People are not happy and that's being reflected in these polls.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So I guess what can, what can Biden or other people on the left do in response to that, or what should they do?


PODHORZER: don't know that I think that. The, in terms of our conversation about Trump and MAGA, white Christian nationalism, all of that, that just has to be the thing that unifies people and I don't have any particular advice for what Democrats should do to make themselves more popular. I think that's really, they've kind of put themselves in a position that makes it really hard for that to ever sort of succeed.[01:06:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, so then it sounds like they need to change their policies in your view, then to be more responsive. Okay. All right.

Well, appreciate you joining today, Mike. So if people what's the what are the best ways for people to keep up with,

PODHORZER: But basically my sub stack weekend reading.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, so we can reading dot net.

Yeah, everybody to check that out. And are you on any of the social media places? Yeah, I am.

PODHORZER: But mostly post that. So if you're getting the Substack, you're getting that.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Awesome. All right. Well, thank you for being here today. Thank you for having me. Take care.

All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us for the conversation, and you can always get more if you go to theoryofchange.show, where you can get the video, audio and transcript of all the episodes. And if you are a paid subscribing member, thank you very much. And you have complete unlimited access.

 Some of the episodes in order to keep the show sustainable are [01:07:00] not available to the general public. So I appreciate everybody who is supporting the show in that way. And please do tell your friends or family about. This program as well. I appreciate that as well. All right, that'll do it for this one and we'll see everybody next time.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.