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Bernie Sanders Isn’t Scared of Fox News. Why Is the Democratic Party?

Appearing on the network has a limited upside, but it won't legitimize Tucker Carlson either.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Howard Schultz has it all figured out. The real problem with Democrats is that they don’t reach out to the other side. (This, incidentally, is also the real problem with Republicans.) So Schultz is showing them how it’s done. On Wednesday, he appeared on the Fox News rundown podcast, where he made the case that he would work with both parties. On Thursday morning, on Fox News’ website, he published yet another one of his deeply misguided diatribes about the national debt; in the evening, at a Fox News town hall hosted by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, he parroted Clint Eastwood with an empty-chair shtick. There’s an implicit message in all of this political theater: The Democrats are too afraid to appear on Fox News, but Howard Schultz is not.

There’s a bit of truth to that. Last month, the Democrats said they wouldn’t invite the network to host any of the party’s upcoming primary debates. But one Democratic candidate is willing to dance with the devil: Bernie Sanders. Fox News announced on Wednesday that Baier and MacCallum will host a town hall with the Vermont senator on April 15 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Sanders has taken heat for his decision from Democrats of all stripes. “WTF is Bernie doing?” tweeted ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser. Daily Kos’ Carolyn Fiddler told The Washington Post the move was “unfortunate and dismaying,” adding, “I don’t know why he would lend his considerable presence to a network that routinely pushes sexist and racist tropes about progressives and his supporters.” Splinter’s Katherine Krueger cast the town hall as a waste of time: “The chance that Sanders brings over some Trump voters is a spectral vision that remains to be seen, but I’d argue that the ones who are already tuned into Fox News when that town hall starts aren’t going to move an inch on this pinko socialist.”

The debate over whether Democrats should engage with Fox is a microcosm of the broader debate within the Democratic Party about engaging with Trump voters. Just as many Democrats believe that appearing anywhere on Fox legitimizes the network’s most offensive bloviators, many believe that courting Trump voters will require legitimizing the president’s views. Both fears are understandable, but quite overblown. If Democrats want to win back white voters—and that’s a big “if”—they need to meet those voters where they are.

In early March, Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, released a withering statement that cited a recent New Yorker investigation into Fox News’ symbiotic, often propagandistic, relationship with the Trump administration. “I believe that a key pathway to victory is to continue to expand our electorate and reach all voters,” said Perez in a statement. “That is why I have made it a priority to talk to a broad array of potential media partners, including Fox News. Recent reporting in the New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates. Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.”

The announcement was more than a little opportunistic. It’s not as though Perez and the DNC were oblivious to Fox News’ relationship with the Trump White House until the New Yorker story came out. Nor is this a novel stance for the Democratic Party. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, the DNC hasn’t scheduled an event on Fox News since 2007—a debate that was canceled after then-honcho Roger Ailes made a dumb joke comparing Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden. If anything, Perez was underscoring his party’s longstanding position that it would not cooperate with a news organization that has a nakedly partisan interest in supporting the opposition.

It’s a defensible strategy. Fox News’ primetime and early-morning lineups have always been a parade of right-wing nitwits, but under Trump the network has practically become the communications arm of the administration. It pushes stories—often fished from the far-right web—that inflame or excite the president, who then tweets about the story. Fox News then covers his tweets, which inspires more tweets, and so on. As Jack Shafer argued, “the ensuing feedback loop serves both the man and the network, making both seem larger than they really are.”

Fox also pushes racist narratives to its viewers, particularly on its primetime shows. Tucker Carlson’s program has been criticized repeatedly for its sympathy toward white nationalism, and for his attacks on diversity and feminism. Jeanine Pirro was recently suspended for being a raging Islamophobe. Sean Hannity, meanwhile, is a blubbering hype man for Trump who has more in common with Flavor Flav at this point than a journalist. For most of the last three decades, Fox has retained a patina of credibility by employing real journalists like Shep Smith and Chris Wallace. But even that fig leaf has been stripped away during the Trump administration: As The New Yorker reported, the network killed a damaging story about Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. The argument against Democrats appearing on Fox News is that it would only serve to legitimize a network whose existential purpose is to excite Republican voters.

The argument for Democrats appearing on Fox News is that winning back the older white rural voters is important if the party wants to win back the White House in 2020, something that has obsessed some in the party since the midwestern “blue wall” crumbled in 2016—and how can you do that without engaging with those voters? Sanders created a handful of viral moments in a Fox News town hall in 2016 when he evangelized about universal health care.

His team surely hopes he can recreate that magic later this month, albeit with the same old message. (Sanders’s message has remained largely unchanged since he became Burlington’s mayor in the early 1980s.) But the broader goal is to figure out what kind of messaging works with Fox’s almost exclusively white audience.

This, too, is a defensible strategy. Rural voters have abandoned the party in recent years. As many as nine million Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump four years later. The Democrats won a landslide victory in the 2018 midterms in part by converting voters with retrograde beliefs on identity issues. Although the midterm results suggested the upper Midwest may return to the Democratic fold in 2020, the results of a recent judicial election in Wisconsin, where a deeply conservative judge won thanks to overwhelming rural margins, show that it’s not guaranteed.

Fox News’s influence is probably overstated. Its prime time programs consistently draw between two and three million viewers—increasingly old ones. “Fox is in essence a retirement community,” New York magazine’s Frank Rich wrote in an astute piece about Fox published back in 2014. “The million or so viewers who remain fiercely loyal to the network are not, for the most part, and as some liberals still imagine, naïve swing voters who stumble onto Fox News under the delusion it’s a bona fide news channel and then are brainwashed by Ailes’s talking points into becoming climate-change deniers.”

Letting Fox News host a Democratic debate doesn’t make sense for the DNC, given the network’s antipathy toward the party. But there’s no reason for candidates to cower, either. Pete Buttigieg’s appearance on Fox News Sunday last month certainly didn’t hurt his standing within the party, which has rocketed upward in recent weeks. Sanders’s town hall is a low-risk, and probably low-reward, move. He might produce a viral moment or two. He might even convert an Obama-to-Trump voter or two. But he won’t suddenly make Fox News seem legitimate. Sanders has accomplished a lot in the past three years, but even he isn’t capable of that.