The first presidential debate of the 2020 US election cycle took place on 29 September. For over ninety minutes, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden traded barbs and interrupted one another. Many pundits and viewers described the debate as “chaotic.” Moderator Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchorman, was criticized for his performance. (Wallace later blamed Trump for the chaos.)
Dissatisfied Twitter users floated the name of comedian, MMA commentator and podcast host Joe Rogan as a potential moderator of future debates. “Regardless who you’re pulling for, I think we can all agree that Joe Rogan would do a much better job moderating this thing than Chris Wallace,” tweeted Blaze Media CEO Tyler Cardon. His tweet received over 100,000 likes. The Change.org petition “Get Joe Rogan to Moderate the 2020 Presidential Debate” has achieved nearly 300,000 signatures at the time of writing.
“If they wanted to do that—they both wanted to come here in Austin, sit down and have a debate —I would 100% do it,” Rogan said in his podcast with UFC fighter Tim Kennedy on 11 September.
President Trump has already expressed interest in a debate moderated by Rogan. On 14 September, he tweeted “I do!” in favor of a hypothetical four-hour debate between himself and Biden on the stand-up comic’s podcast. The idea isn’t as outlandish as it may seem. In this hyper-polarized climate, Rogan’s podcast has become one of the last bastions of nonpartisan political discourse.
However, another debate between Biden and Trump—whether or not it takes place on a podcast—seems unlikely, since Trump contracted COVID-19 right after the first go-around. Separate town halls for Biden and Trump are scheduled for 15 October and a third debate is scheduled for 22 October, although Biden’s advisers have requested it be modified to the town hall format. But we may need a new conception of what political discourse could become in the era of new media, now that a wealth of livestreamed and on-demand content is available online at everyone’s fingertips.
The 7 October vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, though better received, was similarly marred by interruptions and curtailed speaking times. One key moment—Pence’s interruption of Harris during a discussion of Trump’s tax plan—gave rise to I’m speaking memes and merchandise inspired by Harris’s pithy reply. A lengthy presidential debate on The Joe Rogan Experience or similar podcast, far away from the depths of cable news and free of time constraints, could effectively counter the incivility that has come to dominate American political spaces.
Launched in 2009 and currently one of the world’s most downloaded free podcasts, The Joe Rogan Experience has featured US politicians as different as Bernie Sanders and Dan Crenshaw, pundits on the left (Cornel West, Kyle Kulinski, David Pakman) and the right (Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro) and public figures in a variety of entertainment-adjacent fields, including Roseanne Barr, Kevin Hart, Robert Downey Jr., Miley Cyrus and James Hetfield of Metallica. Scientists like Sir Roger Penrose, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene and Geoffrey Miller have been guests—and so have conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, whose inane ramblings were recorded as recently as 2019 for the entertainment of Rogan’s audience. (The reason why highly regarded intellectuals, politicians and businesspeople have been so willing to appear on Rogan’s podcast despite the fact that provocateurs like Jones have also been guests is probably because Rogan does a good job of not only distancing himself from his more controversial guests, but tonally separating these episodes from the robustly educational ones, allowing subscribers to listen in an à la carte manner.) Apart from this wildly diverse programming, Rogan has hosted a livestreamed Fight Companion series and MMA Show on his podcast. In the MMA Show, he talks to UFC champions on whose matches he has commentated.
As crazy as it seems, Rogan’s kitchen-sink approach to guest selection has served him well. His podcast episodes regularly rank towards the top of the Apple podcasts charts and attract millions of views on YouTube, as well as 190 million downloads per month. His YouTube thumbnails—pictures of himself and his guests seated in front of microphones, captioned with titles like “Are Alpha Males and Beta Males Real?” and “What Was Happening Before the Big Bang?”—are ubiquitous in the site’s recommendations sidebar. He’s the constant subject of memes, including AI deepfakes, a frequent topic of discussion on the podcast. And in May of this year, he signed a $100 million exclusive licensing deal with Spotify. In 2020, Rogan’s name and eponymous enterprise are pretty much synonymous with new media.
The Joe Rogan Experience, however, may be best known as one of today’s most forward-looking venues for political discourse. During the 2020 presidential primaries, Rogan provided engaging counterprogramming, amplifying candidates largely overlooked by mainstream media—he reportedly turned down at least three Democratic candidates in order to spotlight status quo-disrupters Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang. His platforming seems to have had significant effects on the public sphere: for example, it seems likely that the idea of universal basic income (UBI) would not have been catapulted into the public consciousness had Rogan not featured Andrew Yang on his podcast (Yang’s former campaign manager gives credit where it’s due). In the COVID-19 era, articles have been published with headlines like “Andrew Yang’s $1,000-a-Month Idea May Have Seemed Absurd Before. Not Now” and the US government has issued stimulus checks to citizens. We might not be seeing such headlines if Rogan had not initially given Yang the opportunity to platform his idea.
Joe Rogan’s outsized success raises another question: what makes his podcast appeal to so many people, especially given how saturated the podcast market is? Rogan is a dude-bro who hypes up elk hunting, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, marijuana, psychedelics and chimpanzees. How has he managed to court such a broad audience? His pluralistic guest selection must play some part in his mass appeal, and big-name guests like Elon Musk are perhaps too prominent for the general public to ignore. But his affable hosting style may also account for his popularity, especially when it comes to the political discussions that he is known for.
Rogan has a rare quality among media personalities today—a lack of interest in political tribalism. His disinterest in party politics provides a refreshing antidote to partisan commentary in an increasingly polarized US. His laid-back, chilled-out attitude allows him to connect with guests comfortably and informally, as he discusses ideas such as job automation, education reform, the legalization of sex work and woke language. Rogan, who describes himself as libertarian and “pretty fuckin’ liberal across the board,” has espoused diverse political positions: he endorsed Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party for president in 2016, and supported democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, praising Sanders’ character and staunch commitment to his cause. Allegations of fickleness are beside the point: his noncommittal politics make him the ideal interviewer. By not being devoted to any particular ideology, he can focus on making guests feel comfortable regardless of their views.
However, Rogan is no pushover. He tends to challenge his guests in a vaguely Socratic way: see, for example, his persistent push for clarity on Kyle Kulinski’s argument in favor of Medicare for All and Texas representative Dan Crenshaw’s argument against it. He has also civilly defended his own beliefs, rejecting Candace Owens’ climate change skepticism and disagreeing with Ben Shapiro on same-sex marriage.
Rogan also has another unusual quality in today’s media landscape—an openness to hearing from different points of view. He brazenly encourages political diversity— inviting leftists, rightists and centrists, as well as apolitical guests, such as comedians and actors. With no agenda to forcefully promote, except that of free discourse itself, Rogan has created a platform that allows every idea to be given a fair shake. His discussions with experts make for informative listening: Rogan recently conversed with police psychologist Nancy Panza in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and epidemiologist Michael Osterholm at the onset of COVID-19.
His podcasts frequently run for over three hours. Presidential debates are generally compressed into ninety minutes and conducted in a format that encourages mudslinging. A Joe Rogan podcast episode would make for a welcome respite, allowing candidates to provide nuance and detail without the theatrics and pressure of live TV, while doing much to ameliorate the friction and hostility between them. Also, the podcast, a paragon of new media infotainment, is incredibly fun to listen to. It is high time to usher in newer, more listenable, more enjoyable and more instructive forms of discourse that target younger demographics.
Considering how eager candidates were to appear on Rogan’s podcast during the primaries, and the madness of 2020, it’s barely a stretch to hope for a Rogan-moderated debate in some future election cycle. It would be a substantial upgrade from what we’ve seen so far—incendiary mudslinging, perpetual interruption—and would perhaps finally improve the paltry standards we have come to expect from our politicians’ public discourse. If President Trump has dropped the bar for civility, this may be our best chance to pick it back up—and maybe even raise it higher than it was prior to our ongoing decadence.