Only four months ago, the idea of shutting the government down to demand a deal on immigration was on the fringes of the Democratic Party. Many immigration activists wanted to tie protections for the so-called DREAMers—the 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children—to must-pass budget deals, but they really only had the support of backbenchers in the House. But last week, when an immigration deal failed to materialize, the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate stood firm and blocked legislation to keep the government open for business.
This week was a different story. Democrats got cold feet and allowed the government to reopen without a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But their brief stand was notable all the same. Immigration activists, who have kept the pressure on Democratic lawmakers since President Donald Trump ended DACA in September, deserve most of the credit for pushing the issue into the center of Democratic discourse. A handful of lawmakers, notably Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, also led the way. But among the more surprising of those who pushed Democrats to shutter the government were four white dudes who served in the Obama administration: The hosts of the popular political podcast Pod Save America and leaders of the burgeoning Crooked Media empire.
Since launching Pod Save America last January, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer have become stars of the resistance. Their show, which is recorded twice a week, has a reported 1.5 million listeners. They’ve sold out live events across the country—on Tuesday they plugged a show in Los Angeles featuring Jimmy Kimmel and John Legend. But Pod Save America and Crooked Media are also the latest attempt to create a progressive alternative to right-wing conservative media—a powerful political force that can mobilize voters and keep shifty politicians in line. The work done by Pod Save America in the lead-up to last week’s government shutdown shows how far it has come, but also how far the left still has to go to match the influence of the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world.
By virtue of its hosts’ connections (one of their first guests was Barack Obama), their very swear-y yet inoffensive charm, and their pedigree, Pod Save America was a hit from its inception, even in the crowded field of political podcasting. The hosts have an easy rapport, and their banter has the feel of peeking behind the curtain, of overhearing conversations between political operatives at the highest levels. The result is often funny and surprisingly intimate—straight talk from people who were, not so long ago, professionally obligated to give you anything but.
Pod Save America immediately became a destination for up-and-coming Democratic politicians: a place to plug books and show 2020 primary voters your human side. In May, at a live event, Senator Kamala Harris garnered headlines for saying “fuck” while discussing health care. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Chris Murphy—all potential 2020 contenders—have dropped by. So have fellow Obama alums (Samantha Power, David Axelrod), activists (Ady Barkan, DeRay Mckesson), and journalists (Julia Ioffe, Elspeth Reeve).
From the very beginning, the hosts have tried to translate that popularity into influence. They were heavily involved in the governor’s race in Virginia, hosting the Democratic candidate Ralph Northam and using their platform to push donors and door-knockers to his campaign. As The New York Times Magazine’s Jason Zengerle wrote, the “hosts were lending their activist cachet and charisma to Northam, a candidate who, Democrats worried, could use a lot more of both.”
Doug Jones was a guest on the podcast before he won Alabama’s Senate race in December in a massive upset. During the legislative fights over Obamacare and tax reform in 2017, the hosts devoted show after show to dissecting the various ways in which those Republican-sponsored bills would screw over their listeners (and just about everyone else). They’ve also partnered with MoveOn and Swing Left to raise money and do activism.
But the shutdown fight was the riskiest, highest-profile push yet. It was also a fight that, for the first time, placed them directly in conflict with other Democrats. Previously, Pod Save America had largely stumped for ideas and candidates that were already articles of faith within the Democratic Party, such as the Democratic candidate in a given race. Mostly, thanks to their profane wit, the hosts were good at highlighting the abuses of Republicans.
But with the shutdown fight, they kept a whip count. They noted the Democrats who were in the Waffle House (i.e., who were in danger of voting with Republicans to keep the government open) and who were in the Fight Club (i.e., who wanted to shut it down). Their website, Crooked.com, pushed Democrats to force a shutdown over immigration. They filmed themselves calling the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a notable Democratic waffler, demanding that she vote with the majority of her colleagues. Feinstein did—though probably as a bulwark against the primary challenge she’ll face in a few months, rather than to please a gaggle of podcast hosts.
Before the shutdown fight, the hosts of Pod Save America had positioned themselves in the middle of the ongoing battles within the Democratic Party. Theirs was a show where almost everyone—leftist or centrist, establishment or insurgent—was welcome. There’s no reason to believe that the whip counts and bad puns in Pod Save America’s shutdown push have damaged that reputation, but the effort has pushed the podcast into a new role. The hosts are leading now, rather than simply offering a safe space for Democrats to talk shop and curse a bit.
As Ezra Klein pointed out earlier this week, this means that Pod Save America is essentially mirroring the dreaded conservative media. “This basic dynamic—outside media and activist groups driving members of Congress to use the continued functioning of the federal government as leverage—is exactly what Democrats condemned the Republican Party for in the Obama years,” Klein wrote. Doing so to push a government shutdown—previously an out-of-bounds tactic associated with right-wing ideologues like Ted Cruz—makes this all the more notable.
But in an age of polarized politics, this evolution was also inevitable. When one side regularly flouts norms, the other side pays the price for striving to uphold them. This imbalance only grows more strained as politics, activism, and media merge, which creates a huge megaphone for the base to direct politicians in the direction they want them to go. For all the hand-wringing in Democratic circles about the rise of leftist shows like Chapo Trap House, there’s really nothing that exists quite like talk radio on the left side of the spectrum.
But the shutdown fight also shows how far groups like Pod Save America have to go. For 72 hours, the Democrats operated like a different party. They drew a line in the sand. They fought for DREAMers. Then they cut a deal.
Conservative radio reaches tens of millions of listeners on a daily basis—a far cry from Pod Save America’s 1.5 million weekly visitors. But for a few days, it offered a glimpse of a possible new reality within Democratic politics, one in which activists, with the help of a few well-placed bullhorns, are able to exercise newfound influence. Democrats caved this time, but that will only make the activist media push harder the next.