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The Joe Rogan controversy revealed something important about the American left

On Joe Rogan, Bernie Sanders, and the hidden moral philosophy of American politics.

Joe Rogan performing at the Ice House Comedy Club on April 17, 2019, in Pasadena, California.
Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders — and the subsequent outrage in gay, trans, and other communities over Sanders’s embrace of the endorsement — is one of the most intricate and multifaceted political controversies of recent months.

Rogan is known for his stints on the NBC shows NewsRadio and Fear Factor but more recently for The Joe Rogan Experience, an astonishingly popular podcast featuring hours-long interviews with comedians, politicians, journalists, and others — including an interview with Sanders that has racked up 11 million views on YouTube alone.

But Rogan’s popularity is owed in part for his vocal rejection of “political correctness,” which can take the form of transphobia (he once called trans woman mixed martial artist Fallon Fox “a fucking man”), Islamophobia (hosting guests like the far-right Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, who used his appearance to argue that Muslims are too inbred for the US to accept as immigrants), and racism (he once compared a black neighborhood to Planet of the Apes).

On one level, as Zack Beauchamp explains in his piece on the controversy, the fight is about primary politics: Sanders’s presidential campaign is surging, he has plenty of critics in the Democratic coalition (particularly ones who doubt his commitment to people marginalized for their racial, sexual, or gender identities), and this is a battlefield on which that fight can play out.

But the fight also reflects a sincere frustration in the trans community over transphobia being treated as marginal and forgivable; my colleague Katelyn Burns makes the point brutally and succinctly:

Of course, Rogan’s bigoted statements are not limited to transphobia; on top of his penchant for anti-black and misogynistic jokes, as Slate’s Aymann Ismail notes, Rogan has made his show a safe space for anti-Muslim bigotry as well. Islamophobia, like transphobia, has a history of being more tolerated in mainstream media outlets than other forms of bigotry, and the backlash against Rogan reflects frustration over that double standard as well.

But I think the debate has also been profoundly revealing about a divide within left-of-center American political discourse, a divide that maps closely but not perfectly with the divide between socialist-identified, Bernie-supporting leftists on the one hand and more traditional liberal Democrats on the other. The divide concerns the latent moral theories that each side uses, and in particular whether they think political disagreements regarding discrimination and bigotry can be understood using the same moral language as disagreements about, say, tax policy or foreign affairs.

Most liberals have what I would characterize as a deontological opposition to discrimination. That is, they think that discriminating against or maligning someone on the basis of membership in a protected class — women, trans people, black people, and other racially oppressed communities, etc. — violates a rule that should be inviolable.

In this view, such discrimination (be it legal, or expressed through hate speech, etc.) is not just wrong because it has bad effects, or because it harms members of the groups in question; it’s wrong because we have a duty to treat humans as equals, and it is never acceptable to violate that duty, even when doing so seems politically expedient.

This mode of moral argumentation came through in the Rogan controversy when Sanders and Rogan’s critics took pains to stress that accepting a Rogan endorsement was not merely unwise but immoral, and that these two judgments were distinct. Accepting the endorsement was not wrong because it hurt more people (by amplifying bigoted speech against vulnerable people) than it helped (by increasing the odds that a pro-trans Sanders administration comes to power); it was wrong because it is wrong to coddle and amplify bigots, full stop.

Would you embrace an endorsement from Henry Kissinger?

Within the field of moral philosophy, the main rival to deontology is a school of thought known as “consequentialism.” In this view, the morality of actions must be judged by their consequences: The more grievous the consequences (be it in terms of human happiness, or suffering, or human freedom, etc.), the more heinous the action.

Here’s how that disagreement plays into the Rogan controversy. Shortly after the Rogan controversy broke out, Sanders fans started pulling out references to Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and arguable war criminal whose counsel Hillary Clinton welcomed in 2016.

The objection is straightforward: Kissinger was responsible for the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of innocent people over the course of his career, between his complicity in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, his push to carpet-bomb Cambodia, and his support for brutal dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Surely that’s worse than whatever Rogan has said, no? So is it really fair to condemn Sanders for trumpeting Rogan’s support when Clinton trumpeted her connections to a morally far worse individual?

My colleague Ezra Klein was the rare liberal making the leftist-style argument in this case. He pointed to Colin Powell, the former secretary of state who was at least in part responsible for the Iraq War and the hundreds of thousands of deaths it has caused, and whose support Barack Obama trumpeted in 2008:

This comparison, suffice it to say, did not go over well, particularly among many black liberals:

There are a couple of ways to understand this backlash. Part of it is umbrage at the idea of equating a bro-y podcast host to someone with Powell’s résumé, particularly someone like Powell whose success in the military has deep historical significance to some in the black community. Part of it is an understandable objection to a white pundit using a black icon as an example in an argument.

But I think the core of this disagreement, between the Sanders fans and Klein on the one hand and Sanders’s detractors/Powell’s defenders on the other hand, is about whether we should have deontological or consequentialist standards in thinking about politics, and whether the standards we use when thinking about discrimination cases ought to be the same as the ones used in thinking about war and peace.

From a consequentialist standpoint, it is very difficult to construct an argument that Powell’s overall impact on the world is positive. By being an instrumental figure in the launching of the Iraq War, he contributed to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. Trying to compare his moral legacy to Joe Rogan’s is like comparing Jeff Bezos’s net worth to mine. The damage done is just orders of magnitude deeper.

But the fact of the matter is that liberals normally don’t use that kind of moral language in thinking about war and peace — and they certainly don’t use it in trying to weigh discrimination harms against harms in war and peace. Talking about the harms of discrimination in purely consequentialist terms comes across as odd, so trying to compare a consequentialist case against Powell to the case against Rogan — which to many liberals is fundamentally different, and based on inviolable rules about discrimination — scans as a category error.

Why is harming the poor different?

A similar split sometimes arises in thinking about class and poverty. North Carolina faced a large-scale boycott, backed by the NCAA among other heavyweights, after passing a discriminatory “bathroom bill” targeting trans people in 2016.

But it faced no such boycott for deciding not to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare, a decision that effectively deprived 600,000 people of health care; nor did any other state that failed to expand Medicaid face a similar boycott. There exists an activist infrastructure for boycotts in cases that involve discrimination. There is no such infrastructure when it comes to taxes and redistribution.

The leftist writer Matt Bruenig has a well-earned reputation as a fervent Sanders supporter and Hillary Clinton detractor, but I think a 2015 post of his on this subject is a useful description of this divide. Quoting Hillary Clinton making pro-welfare reform statements like “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives,” he noted:

The ceiling-breaker pundits coming out for Clinton did not come out for McCain-Palin even though that would have given us our first female Vice President. Emily’s List, whose mission is to increase the number of women in elected positions of power, categorically refuses to support Republican women altogether…

Thus, even ceiling-breakers hold the view that, as good as having women elected is, there are certain things that should disqualify women from receiving support. It’s just that the ceiling-breakers have different opinions than I have about what kinds of things are bad enough to be disqualifying. Being an anti-choice Republican woman is bad enough that you should be denied support, even if it means electing a man instead. But being a viciously anti-poor bigot like Hillary is apparently not bad enough to warrant withdrawal of support.

Emphasis mine. Bracket, for a second, your opinions on whether this is a fair assessment of Emily’s List, or if you think Clinton’s comments qualify her as an “anti-poor bigot.” Bruenig is making a very important point: Liberals do not usually classify disagreements about welfare policy as disagreements about discrimination and bigotry, and thus do not tend to rule out people for statements about welfare in the way they will rule out people like Rogan as acceptable coalition members because of statements about black, trans, female, or gay people. Liberals have specific deontological rules about those forms of discrimination, and those rules don’t apply outside that sphere to questions like welfare policy.

You can interpret Bruenig’s argument as one for expanding the cases where absolute, deontological anti-discrimination rules apply, to cover cases regarding poverty and redistributive policy.

But the main objection philosophers have raised against deontological restrictions is that they’re overly rigid. Immanuel Kant, the originator of this school of moral philosophy, famously argued that it was immoral to lie in all circumstances, even to a murderer who’s asking for your friend’s whereabouts so he can kill her. Few people today think a rule that rigid is viable. But if we as a society accept more and more forms of discrimination and animus as absolutely unacceptable — adding poverty to the list, say — we are left with an ever-more-restrictive moral code that forces us into ever-thornier moral dilemmas.

You could also interpret it as a case for abandoning these hard constraints altogether and trying to think of all these cases in purely hardheaded consequentialist terms. On this logic, it’s okay for Sanders to woo Rogan for the same reason it was okay for Barack Obama to invite an anti-gay pastor to his inauguration and to play into racist stereotypes by urging young black men to “pull their pants up”: These accommodations with bigotry help Sanders and Obama, respectively, to gain power, where they can do more to undermine bigotry than they can out of power.

This view, understandably, strikes many people as repugnant. There is a reason most philosophers are not down-the-line consequentialists: Most people think there are some rules too fundamental to be subject to means-ends reasoning.

I am not here to claim one of those positions. I’ll turn in my pundit card and say this is vastly complicated terrain, and I am not sure what the rights standards to invoke are. But I think it’s important, in this dispute and similar disputes that are sure to arise as 2020 proceeds, to recognize that these are not just disputes about the facts. They’re deep moral disagreements about which standards should apply, in which spheres of politics.

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