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Dan Pfeiffer: Battling the Big Lie

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Dan Pfeiffer: Battling the Big Lie

Dan Pfeiffer served as Communications Director and Senior Advisor in the Obama Administration, and now co-hosts Pod Save America, a podcast that helps listeners make a difference. His new book, Battling The Big Lie, describes how we nearly lost our democracy in 2020, and how the fight to preserve it continues.



You can find Dan on Twitter at @danpfeiffer, and on Instagram at @pfeiffer3342

Dan Pfeiffer:

Whether climate change exists or not is not a question of opinion. It is a fact. Whether vaccines work or not is not a question of opinion, is a question of proven fact. And we just live in this situation where it is nearly impossible to solve problems if we can't agree on what problem we're trying to solve.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

Ken Harbaugh:

My guest today is Dan Pfeiffer, who served as Communications Director and Senior Advisor in the Obama Administration, and now co-hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast. He recently released his third book, Battling The Big Lie, in which he describes how we nearly lost our democracy in 2020, and how the fight to preserve it continues.

Dan, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

So I… Well, I was going to sayI loved reading Battling the Big Lie, but mostly I stayed awake at night thinking about it because it's terrifying. And I actually began taking notes before I even cracked the book. It's not often that I do that, but the blurb on yours got me, because we often talk about the need and a democracy for a shared set of values or some shared sense of identity. But you argue and the fundamental argument of the book is that we face an even greater challenge today and you write, and this is the cover, a functioning democracy depends on a shared understanding of reality. That's where we are right now.

Dan Pfeiffer:

That's right. I wrote the book to try to get at the core question of why is it that the world's richest country, the one with some of the most skilled workers in the world, what was forever thought to be one of the best functioning, strongest democracies, is unable to tackle problems big and small from a pandemic, to climate change, to the simple, orderly transition of power in this country. And it is that because we have a crisis of disinformation in this country. It's a crisis that's being exploited by a combination of political actors, profiteering tech companies, grifters in the media space, just playing on some of our worst instincts. And it is, I think we've really... It's hard to think of something a worse outcome or perhaps a better piece of evidence of just how much we are struggling than you had a couple thousand people storm the capital of the United States to try to prevent the certification of an election based on an obvious and provably false big lie, but they all believed it and people died because of it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's stick with that for a minute because I think it highlights the depth to which we've descended, departing from a political landscape in which we're arguing over values into one in which we're arguing over what's actually real, because I think in a lot of ways you could argue that some of the people at the capital that day honestly believed that they were the ones fighting for the preservation of democracy. As a vet, I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and even talking to folks who on the other side say that they're the ones upholding their oaths. So in that sense, there are shared values, but there is a totally separate reality that they live in. And I think they is a fair description here, and I'm going to point to your words from the book. You say that people like to say that Democrats and Republicans now live in two separate realities, but that is incorrect. Democrats live in the real world. And Republicans live in a deeply delusional alternative ecosystem.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah. And let me explain that, because some people will hear that and say, that's like, I am obviously a wholly partisan democratic operative. I've dedicated my life to electing Democrats and serving them when they work in office. And obviously I don't pretend to be unbiased in the situation, but there's actual specific data that backs this up. So the Pew Research Foundation does a study every year on media and people's media diets. And when they look at self-identified Republicans and conservatives, their media diet is almost exclusively right wing partisan media, Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart Daily Wire, the Drudge Report. And when you ask a similar question of Democrats, the answer is primarily traditional mainstream, journalistic news sources, local television, local newspaper, CNN, ABC, NBC, that sort of stuff. And there was obviously partisan media in there too. I mean, NPR is not partisan media, although the right likes to say that it is at least liberal in its selection of topics. But NPR is in there. Obviously there's some group of people who listen to Pod Save America, and other things like that. But it's this diverse media diet which ensures that for the time being at least, there's a mainstream media objective journalistic check on what reality looks like to the typical Democrat in America that does not exist and has not existed for a very long time in the right. And that is whether climate change exists or not is not a question of opinion. It is a fact. Whether vaccines work or not is not a question of opinion, is a question of proven fact. And we just live in this situation where it is nearly impossible to solve problems if we can't agree on what problem we're trying to solve.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have, in addressing this, talked about the root cause and put the lie to this notion that it's education or demography or even geography where people are the underlying cause is consumption of right wing media. And you have a great phrase. I don't know if it's in the book, but I heard you say it, that their brains have become pickled by this.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah. I mean, that is- I mean there is this tendency, I think, among a lot of liberals, particularly college educated liberals to say like, "Oh," it's like this very demeaning view that's like, "Oh, these uneducated people keep having the wool pulled over their eyes." And the problem with that is that's not actually what the facts say, right? It's not a bunch of people living in rural parts of the country who are more susceptible to this sort of inspiration. The number one predictor of whether you're going to believe the big lie, you're going to believe a whole bunch of conspiracy theories about COVID and the vaccines, is not whether you went to Harvard or you didn't, or you never finished high school, it's whether you consume right wing media. And you have Harvard graduates or college graduates, people with PhDs who consume right wing media who believe the same things. And then you have people who maybe never finished school or whatever else who consume a broader, more diverse media diet who do not believe those things. And that, I think, is really an important thing for liberals in particular to understand that it's not simply that if these people just had better education or just smarter, they wouldn't fall for this stuff. It's that their fears and insecurities are being exploited for profit and political gain by a lot of rich people with a real stake in how low our tax rates are, for instance.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're going to talk about that phenomenon on Facebook in particular, but let's stick with the right wing media. More generally, the former Republican in me would say, "Look, the marketplace of ideas should over time, punish liars, should punish those who present day after day unreliable information. Why does that not work either in this particular economy or in this particular time in this day and age we're living in?

Dan Pfeiffer:

It's a pretty complicated set of factors that make that the case. And I was talking on MSNBC a few weeks ago with Nicole Wallace, who had my job in the Bush White House during the second term. And we both reminisced about the days in which a bad fact check from PolitiFact or the Washington Post or something, could really ruin your day as a communications' director. Would be like, "You screwed up, the press is coming after you. If you don't fix it, address it, apologize for it. Never say it again." You would pay a political price and that's clearly no longer the case. Donald Trump told 10,000 lies or whatever it is over the course of his four years. He was averaging more lies than there were basically minutes in the day in the last 24 hours before the election and paid literally no price. I mean, he did lose the election, but he only lost by 40,000 votes over four states. And so it's pretty clear. You can get away with a lot of dishonesty. And so why is that? And I think it is a combination of three factors:

One is, particularly among right wing audiences, a distrust in the press. It's been a very specific strategy. It dates back to Goldwater to try to convince Republican voters and conservatives in this country they cannot trust the media. The media is liberal bias. And then they've been so successful in that fact that actually a fact check from an New York Times or a CNN is actually proof of the opposite to most voters. “Well, if The New York Times says it's not true, it must be true, right? Or they would only say that because they're biased against Donald Trump.”

Second broader one is just general distrusting institutions. There's an erosion in trust over many decades. And so there's just a natural assumption that everyone is lying and if you think everyone's lying, then you care less when individual people do it.

And then the third reason is this hermetically sealed information bubble, where a lot of voters will never be exposed to the fact che ck. They'll never see that what was said was not true. They'll certainly never see someone that they trust, say, that what Donald Trump or someone else said was not true. And so Donald Trump did a very good job of convincing his voters and he said it many times, like, "Don't believe what these people say, trust me." Right. And they did. And that has created a situation where you pay little consequences. And I guess the last thing I'd say about that is, and we will get to the Facebook part, is that the algorithms that now power information distribution in this country, do not penalize dishonesty. And in many cases, and we're talking about how, amplify it more so than you would honesty or factual or facts.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, those algorithms not only amplified dishonesty, they skew towards favoring conservative stories in demonstrable well researched ways, right?

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah, that's absolutely right. I tell the story in the book about how on the day that Facebook's oversight board, the self-appointed Supreme Court they have, which may be a sign that they might be a little bit too big, ruled that they were going to extend Donald Trump's suspension from the platform. Because if people may or may not remember, Facebook after many years of being pushed to penalize Donald Trump for violating their terms of service, finally suspended him from after January 6th. But it's a suspension, not a band. Other platforms have banned him. And so it's periodically revisited. So this was the first opportunity for Donald Trump to get back on the platform. And many people thought that Mark Zuckerberg et al, would put him back on the platform. But this oversight board they appointed decided not to. And everyone, every liberal cheered, "This is great, Donald Trump's off the platform. We don't have to listen to him. He is politically neutered," et cetera, et cetera.

And then every day I get an alert from an account that is set up by a New York Times reporter that gives you the list of the 10 Facebook posts with the most engagement over the last 24 hours. And right in the middle everyone's cheering and gloating about Donald Trump staying off the platform, I get the notification for that 24 hour period that includes Trump suspension continuing. And it is like Ben Shapiro, number one, Ben Shapiro, number two, Dan Bongino, number three, Tucker Carlson, number four. Eight of the 10 on that day, eight of the 10 most performing or best performing Facebook posts were from conservative media personalities. There were the two that weren't. One was from Rachel Maddow, great day for her. She's usually not on that list. And one was from an animal, like a cute animal's account, which I then visited to make sure it was not like a secret white supremacist site.

But that- I get that email every single day. And that it is a hellscape of disinformation and racially divisive outrage on a daily basis. That's what the algorithm chooses to show everyone.

Ken Harbaugh:

Understood. And I'm no fan of Mark Zuckerberg, but there's another possible interpretation, which is that conservative bias is just an artifact of human psychology and the fact that people are more likely to click through when they're scared or when something outrages them. And the conservative echo chamber is really good at generating that stuff. Fear drives human behavior more than hope. That's not reassuring. It's actually the opposite, but is the right word bias an accident of human psychology?

Dan Pfeiffer:

I think it's an exploitation of human psychology.

Ken Harbaugh:

That's a great, yeah, great way to put it.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Because the Facebook algorithm, it's an artificial intelligence program that is designed to show people... It takes everything it knows about you, right? Because the longer you're on that platform, it sucks up all your data, what you engage with, who you're friends with, where you live, what you've listed your hobbies on your profile. And then it makes predictions about what it thinks you will engage with most because their goal is twofold, keep you on the platform to learn as much about you as possible. Then turn around, sell that information to advertisers who will then keep you on the platform for the purpose of showing you the ads they've sold about you. And so they make a series of assumptions in choices about what to show people what to monetize. And so absolutely, human nature is ultimately the explanation for all things, right? People are like, "Well, why is it that reality TV shows on Bravo do better than News Hour on PBS?" Well maybe people like that stuff more. You could do a whole host of things. The reasons why we have laws and rules and regulations is to put some fence around the worst instincts of humans, right? And when we don't have those, like look at what happens when you have easy access to weapons of war at the age of 18. Facebook makes a series of choices about how they can make the most money by exploiting people's fears and insecurities. And because they are a, essentially, a monopoly, if not in legal determination, in just functionally a monopoly, there is no competition against that.

So this is the world we live in. And I just want to explain this to people briefly because I think there's this whole world where the right wing is like, "Well, our content's better," right. "We just make better stuff." It's a free marketplace, right? We're just like, it's a farmer's market of ideas. We all put out our stalls and people come to us because our tomatoes taste better. That's not what happens, right. Facebook decides what to show you. The average Facebook person sees almost nothing that they're on average 200 friends posts. They see only the things that Facebook wants it to see. So Facebook is making a decision to elevate that content. They believe that decision is in their best financial interest. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. They've never tested an alternative, but we have to understand that they have decided to do that. It's not just that people who randomly show up on Facebook go scrolling for certain things and they could look at the cat pictures.

They could send a birthday message to their friend or they could engage with COVID conspiracy theories. No, it's that Facebook's algorithm has decided that the best way for them to make money is to show them the conspiracy theories, the disinformation, and that's how they make money.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you explain how much more dangerous that is to democracy than say channel a content provider like Fox News or Tucker Carlson, which requires an opt in?

Dan Pfeiffer:

That's exactly right.So a lot of dangerous radicalization happens with Fox News, right, where you're a right leaning person. You're a Republican. You want to consume information from people who share your worldview. So you decide, you know what you're getting into when you go to Fox. Now the danger of Fox is that all of a sudden they have to keep amping up the level of rhetoric to keep you engaged. And you end up with Tucker Carlson spreading the replacement theory that has fueled a lot of mass shootings in this country, all these things like that. But you are choosing to enter into a world that is very clearly right of center and pretty clearly partisan.

The problem with Facebook is, you are not opting into this news, right? The people who follow the Fox News page or follow Breitbart or Dan Bongino they're doing the same. They're choosing to engage. But the average person is just scrolling through their phone or on their laptop or their tablet and they're seeing headlines, and they don't know even the most media literate and sophisticated consumers can't distinguish between fact and opinion, between obviously partisan propaganda and traditionally objective news. They're just seeing headlines over and over again. And oftentimes they're not clicking on it, but so you're not opting in. They are just pumping that to you without you choosing it. And that's where it gets very dangerous because people just see this array of misinformation and disinformation without knowing where it came from, what the origins of it is, who funded it, that it's from a discredited source. They're just seeing it. And people don't have time to click the link and read all the stuff and figure out who it's from. They just see these things that say things about Democrats or it's like the classic COVID vaccine one is that the merchants and misinformation around it will do is they'll take someone who is vaccinated and died. They didn't die because they were vaccinated. There's no evidence of that. They'll just say, "Recently vaccinated Illinois man found dead at home." And then you're like, if you're just a person scrolling, well, that seems like maybe people are dying from the vaccine even though those two things are true, but they are not true together. He was vaccinated. He did die in his home, but he didn't die because of the vaccine. And you see, same thing with the big-

That's a big way in which the big lie spread is just this constant pumping out of headlines. It would say out of context headlines from partisan operatives. It would say things like, "Box of ballots found outside of Chipotle." Oftentimes that's not even true, but if it is, it's like, "Well, they weren't filled out. They weren't opened. There's no evidence of fraud." You just see a bunch of... Steve Bannon calls this strategy, flood the zone with shit and you just do it and Facebook allows you to flood the zone with shit at scale to unsuspected audiences all around the world.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I have that in my notes. I was going to ask you about it in relation to Sinclair Broadcasting and their flood the zone with consistent messaging. The decimation of local news has really been a boon to Facebook.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah, that's right. So local news has been forever the most trusted of all news sources for decades, incredibly influential. Like I tell stories in the book about how, when I first started in politics 20 years ago, the person who was in charge of the regional press, the local like liaisoning with the local press, figuring out that strategy, how you got on the front page of this paper, how you led the news was an incredibly important position of campaigns, because the view was that's how you could communicate directly with voters without running through the national horse race filter about who's up, who's down. You could actually do an interview and talk about your plan to create green jobs in rural communities and things like that and not respond to whatever the Tweet of the day of your opponent is. Over the course of time, for a whole host of reasons they have to do with technology and changes in the advertising business, whole bunch of other reasons, local newspapers have basically been gutted to within an inch of their lives.

There are very few of them left. Many places who have a local newspaper have what Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post media critic calls ghost newspapers, which is they're like, there's an actual paper with a headline and you can actually buy it someplace or you can go to their website, but they do almost no journalism. They've been bought by private equity firms who have just cut them. You basically cut all the journalism and it's just selling some ads and running wire copy in it. Which has created this huge vacuum for right wing merchants and Facebook in particular and using Facebook to exploit. In the 2020 campaign, there was this incredible story about these folks in Michigan. Obviously one of the key states that was going to decide the election, all of a sudden seeing news stories that came from local news sounding outlets that they had never heard of before. But they were all named something that was just somewhat adjacent to what the local newspaper used to be like. It's the Lansing State Journal is the actual paper in Lansing, Michigan that is in the capital. But that was when they're seeing something from the Lansing Sun and it is being shown to them on Facebook. Someone is paying money to put in people's feeds. And so, "Oh, look more local news." But what a reporter from the actual Lansing, real Lansing paper did some digging and discovered that it was all being funded by a network of right wing funders and operatives to create locally based innocuously named disinformation. And as we sit here today, there are 1,300 of those outlets around the country doing that, almost all aligned in battleground states. And so local news has always been this bulwark against polarization, against misinformation, a way, as someone who worked a lot many years for Democrats who were winning races in red states, the way you did that was you talked to your voters through the local press, right? And now you do not have the ability. All politics is national and that has created a dangerous vulnerability in our system.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's also led to worse governance. We had Steve Waldman, founder of Report for America a while back who cited this really innovative study that linked municipal bond in percentage rates, yield rates to the presence of a local paper and was able to demonstrate that investors had less confidence in municipalities that didn't have journalists covering City Hall.

Re-record:

It's also led to worse governance. I had the chance to interview Steve Waldman, founder of Report for America, and he cited this incredibly innovative study that linked municipal bond percentage rates, yield rates, to the presence of a local paper, and he was able to demonstrate that investors had less confidence in municipalities that didn't have journalists covering City Hall.



Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah. I mean, this is like, we're getting deep into history here, but in a lot of states the state capitals are far away from a lot of other stuff, right, because they were built on rivers for the purpose of commerce, right? It's why it's Pierre, South Dakota and Albany, New York, it's Sacramento, California and now it's San Francisco and whatever or New York City. And so they're like out there in the middle of nowhere and there used to be this huge number of every local newspaper in these days had a reporter who lived there, who went to the state capital every day and covered the legislature and the governor and they kept their eyes open for malfeasance and incompetence and corruption and they were watching what was happening. And asked the governors of Illinois why so many of them ended up in prison was because you have really good reporters in Springfield, Illinois minding the store. And now that does not exist. There are very, very few local reporters in Washington covering their congressional delegations now. Before every major, every local paper of significance had a bureau in Washington and they had a couple of reporters covering the delegation, every day watching what they're doing, what bills they're voting for, who they're raising money from, what are they saying? And now it's ghost towns in there. It's all national news and digital outlets.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. That's an important point because there's not a content vacuum. It's being filled. And I remember when it happened, this extraordinary story of Sinclair Broadcasting and these aren't papers. These are local news channels, but dozens of outlets being literally on the same message pumping out this fake news stuff.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah. So Sinclair, for folks who don't know, owns one third of the local television in the United States, and they would own more if there wasn't an FCC rule that limited you to the total amount of local TV stations you could own. And they are conservative. They are owned by a very conservative family and have been for a very long time. There was this incident, you mentioned where it was, someone super cut this basically like hostage videos or these anchors reading the word for word commentary that was written for them that was about the fake news attacking Donald Trump basically, at a time of great political vulnerability for Trump. But they had been using their platform to push their ideology for a long time, famously after the Iraq War, in the middle of the Iraq war, Ted Coppel was going to, on an episode of Nightline, read the names of every American soldier who had died in Iraq. This was during the Bush presidency and the Sinclair stations refused to air that Nightline because they thought it would be bad for George Bush. They run these must run segments for many years with former Trump White House aids, someone who was actually fired from the Trump White House for incompetence and being a bad coworker, which is like a truly phenomenal thing to accomplish. You have to work really hard for that. And so he would go on air and what's dangerous about that is this is the opt in problem, which is people turn to local news to trust it. Like this is an ideology free zone. I'm going to get some weather. I'm going to find out about the traffic. I'm going to hear some local stories, maybe the score of the local high school football game or soccer game or women's basketball game or whatever else. And instead, they're getting right wing propaganda. And what is incredibly dangerous about it is they force the anchors to read this commentary and the local anchors... For younger folks who grew up consuming political media in its more nationalized form, don't fully know the close relationship that a lot of anchors have with their communities over many, many years. And then all of a sudden you have this very trusted figure, reading this dangerous false content. And it's much more powerful than seeing a politician do it or a political additive. It is someone with 30 years of embedded trust in the community, passing along information for fear of being sued and if they don't, they'll get fired.

Ken Harbaugh:

So let's pivot to what we do to counter that. You talk about the right wing media echo chamber as compared to the progressive media debating society. What's the difference and why does it matter?

Dan Pfeiffer:

Well, there has always been a long history in this country of ideological media, right? Whether that is the Weekly Standard, the National Review on the right or the New Republic or Mother Jones, The American Prospect on the left, we should have that. That is a good thing. And traditionally what those ideological entities existed for was their purpose was to move their party to the right or the left, right, to push specific policy, specific approaches or messages or even politicians and their audience was the party actors. That changed when Roger Ailes took over, started Fox with Rupert Murdoch and what Roger Ailes did, he didn't want to move the party right or left. He wanted to move it into the White House and keep it there. And then it went from ideological media pushing, whatever the conservative ideas to de jour was and turned it into a state adjacent apparatus designed to protect Republicans. And if you don't, and for anyone who says, "Well, Fox is conservative." Well, here's an example of how Fox's ideology is flexible based on what's good in politics is during the Obama years, they hammered the president in ways that are very familiar now about undocumented people at the border. They highlighted stories about completely out of context stories about crimes committed by undocumented people, obscuring the fact that undocumented people commit crimes at lower rate than the broader US population. A lot of fear mongering on immigrants. Obama wins reelection in 2012, wins by a much larger margin than Fox pretty much expected. The analysis of a lot of Republicans is that Republicans in order to win another national election, this seems quite quaint now, but in order to do that, they would have to improve their standing with Latino voters and would have to get better on immigration and have to support immigration reform. So on a dime, Murdock comes out for immigration reform. Sean Hannity comes out for immigration reform. Imagine that, Sean Hannity came out for immigration reform. The Fox News side started very much promoting and supporting the republican senators like Marco Rubio who were pushing to do an immigration reform deal with the Democrats. And then once they realized that that was going to be bad politics because of the way some primaries turned out, they completely switched and went right back to where they were.

There's been some progress and movement in this way since Trump won. Crooked Media and Pod Save America is one example. There's a number of others we can talk about, but primarily much of progressive media. Progressive media is definitely smaller than right wing media and by every measure, but where the real asymmetry is right now, the overwhelming majority of right wing media is designed to be a messaging weapon for the party and it's candidates and the majority of the Democrats remains in that core, well-meaning important ideological agenda shaping part of it, debating society, right? How can we get Democrats further to the left? Should we support Medicare for all or something else? Should we pass this? Should we pass that. That sort of stuff. Again, it's very important, but it is when it comes to election time, it means that when Democrats and Republicans face off on the ballot, that we are in a significant, significant messaging disadvantage.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, the outcomes have certainly borne that out, but I wonder if Democrats or the left in general is just constitutionally incapable of that kind of coherence and discipline given that our greatest strength is that diversity, is that willingness to debate each other internally, is the lack of message discipline, which turns in an election cycle into our greatest weakness. Can we turn that strength in who we are as a tribe, for lack of a better word, into a political strength?

Dan Pfeiffer:

I mean look, the Democratic party, the Democratic coalition is more diverse demographically, ideologically, geographically than the Republican coalition. Just the biases of the electoral college and the Senate mean that in order to win power, Democrats have to persuade voters who are five to seven points more conservative than the median Democrat. We just have to do that. Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, these are all states that the average voter is more conservative than the average Democrat. And we have to win some number of those states get to 270 or to have two Senate seats or all the above, right. But I think that we sometimes give the Republicans too much credit, which then causes us to misdiagnose the problem.

So we say, "Well, yeah, the Republicans are more disciplined." Are they though? Think of it, like we don't have a Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about space lasers and doing insane things. We don't have a Lauren Boebert. We don't have that lady who said at the Trump rally the other night that the Roe decision was a victory for white life. And the gap between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz and Mitt Romney, I don't think that is as wide in terms of policy agenda as the gap between AOC and Manchin but it's still pretty wide. And it's even wider out of attitudinally] right? Joe Manchin and AOC agree on the problems. What they don't agree on are the solutions to the problems or the hierarchy in which we should address those problems. Mitt Romney's got one foot in reality and a lot of Republican members of Congress don't. But what they have is this incredibly powerful messaging machine which ensures that our divisions are highlighted and their divisions are not focused on that. They can lift up a comment from one Democrat anywhere in the country and make it the story of the day. And they can change the subject from whatever insane thing... They've had two sitting members of Congress who are in Congress right now in good standing and certainly in better standing in the Republican Caucus than Liz Chaney, who attended a white supremacist conference three months ago. I promise you that if two democratic members of Congress attended some sort of separatist conference and remained in good standing in the party, it would be the number one story in right wing media for like seven years. And so it speaks to the fact that they can overcome their divisions and their differences much better than ours. I think speaks a lot about the power of their messaging apparatus.

Ken Harbaugh:

You write that political communications is not public relations. It's not press management. It's information warfare. And if you want to win a war, this is yoy in the book: “You need to be on a war footing. Republicans understand this. Too many Democrats don't.”

Dan Pfeiffer:

For much of my… In the book I read about this and I think about it a lot. My first major campaign was the Gore-Bush campaign in 2000. And I was one of those people who was in charge. I was in charge of regional press for the Northeast of America. Sort of New Hampshire to West Virginia. And every night at the end of the day the communications and political strategies, messaging staff of the Gore Campaign would gather in a room and we would watch on three TVs, the national news. And we would make a judgment about how we did that day in terms of getting our message out based on what those outlets said. Did they cover us? Was the coverage positive? Was it on our chosen message of the day? Was it not? And at the exact same time, we were doing this in Nashville, Tennessee, of course, headquarters was the exact same time the Bush campaign was sitting in Austin, Texas doing the exact same thing, making the same set of judgments, because that's how the world worked. It was the way you communicated your message, was you either bought television ads or, and primarily because television ads are expensive, you would go put your message out publicly to the media and then have the media, which was a largely trusted, respected source by much of the country and have them deliver that message. And that's public relations. That's press management. The world has not worked like that for a very long time. And the right figured that out long before Democrats. They have built up- I call it the MAGA megaphone, the combination of Fox, their Facebook sites, the media person that's on YouTube, all the everything pushing right wing content into the ecosystem. They built it up and we still, for the most part, Democrats continue to rely on an old outdated way of doing things. And we have to re... It's one of the reasons why I wrote the book, we have to readjust our mentality if we expect to compete and communicate in this environment.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about crooked media as the alternative model and less so about the information conduit than the activation function that performs to 300,000 listeners who signed up for Adopt A State. You've got the numbers. They're astonishing and if I'm not mistaken, even you were surprised the way they came through.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Yeah. So my podcast cohost and I hosted a podcast in 2016 on Bill Simmons', the Ringer Sports and Pop Culture Network. It was like a fun thing we did. We tried to encourage people to volunteer and do things. We were really doing just more traditional punditry. Maybe a little bit more profane, maybe a little bit funnier, we hope. Maybe a little or again, funny's not the right word. John Love is funny. The rest of us are not so serious, I guess, would be the right way to say it. And also from the perspective of people who had very recently worked in campaigns and White Houses and knew, had that perspective to it. And then Trump won and John, John and Tommy decide... We made two decisions. One, we were going to keep doing the podcast. We were going to rebrand it. And John, John and Tommy wanted to start a progressive media company to be the host of that. And the idea behind it was, we found these people who were listening to us like hundreds of thousands of people during the campaign, which was shocking to us. And what if we use that platform, not to tell them what was going to happen in politics and make predictions, but to give them information about how they could impact what was going to happen, right?

It started out very simply in the early days of 2017, trying to save the ACA, right, trying to get people to call their members of Congress to convince them to preserve the Affordable Care Act. And we had got a great response to that. And then over the course of time built up under this Vote Save America program, a major fundraising volunteer recruitment voter registration effort to try to get the people who were tuning into politics for the first time after 2016 or returning in after 2016, who sort of saw like, "Holy shit, here's what happens if I don't participate in so much reform." But they have no idea how to do it. They find most traditional news to be disconnected from their lives either because they're not of an age where they turn on a linear television to just see what Wolf Blitzer is saying that day. They sort of engage on demand. And they're looking for something that more speaks to them. And so what we wanted to do was try to build an audience and engage that audience. And I mean, it's completely exceeded our expectations. I mean, tens of millions of dollars raised in both elections for candidates, causes, local organizations doing real grassroots work in communities, whether it's in cities like Milwaukee or on native American reservations in Arizona or in Latino communities all across the country, just like helping support organizers from the community, doing the work to build progressive political power.

One of the things that we take from it, I think, is really important is that politics can seem terrible, right? We have an entire pop culture, national history that's designed to tell us that politics is corrupt and terrible and there's mudslinging and fighting and all of that. But this is important stuff. It is an important righteous battle for the kind of America we want. And it should be an adventure. It should be a journey. It should be fun. It should be something we do together. And so like the tone of Pod Save America, which is often as we say, it's better to laugh than to cry as we deal with the news on some days. But it's to make it entertaining and accessible to people who want to get involved, but don't know how. And it's been a tremendous privilege to be a part of it and see the success and see how much we've been able to convince, get people involved to do things.

I just met someone the other day who was not involved in politics prior to 2016, tuned in to politics and then tuned into Pod Save America and was running for a local seat in Oklahoma where I was the other day. And so that is incredibly gratifying.

Ken Harbaugh:

Towards the end of the book, you write that, "There is joy in people coming together to improve the community and better their country." That clearly comes through in the episodes that you host and in your approach to politics. But lately it is feeling really, really hard to just be optimistic and especially joyful. What gives you hope looking forward?

Dan Pfeiffer:

Look, what I think we have to recognize is this country is not hopelessly divided, right? And we are not a 50-50 country where, just depending on which way the coin lands, that 50% will get what it wants. This country has a large and growing majority that is pro democracy, pro truth, opposes the MAGA movement and what Trump stands for or opposes what the Supreme Court has done this last week, program stuff, a whole hosting, so there's actually an emerging national consensus on a wide variety of issues. The problem we have is that our political system does not reflect that majority because its disproportionate power to the minority. And so we actually, if we can navigate this moment, if we can build up political power, we can put in place that agenda. I actually think we are coming together on a lot of really important things.

This country is becoming more tolerant, more diverse, more open-minded and it is up to us to decide whether what we are seeing from the right, right now, is the last throes of a dying political movement or the beginning of something much more bigger and dangerous, but that is within our power. And it's been really wonderful through the course of this book and much of this year where I've been able to actually get back on the road and see people, because that's always been one of the great joys of Pod Save America is, we travel, we tour, we meet our listeners and we meet these organizers and activists who are doing incredible work in their communities, trying to make things better and are having incredible success. And it may not always be reflected in the national news, but there's a generation of incredibly idealistic community oriented, really smart people who are committed to making this country better. And they give me hope and it's been great to get outside of my house after two years of a pandemic and see those people again.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that gives me hope too, Dan. It's been great to have on. Your book is at Costco a friend told me, so that means Republicans are reading it.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Oh nice. That's right.

Ken Harbaugh:

And more need to. Thanks so much, Dan, for sharing time with us.

Dan Pfeiffer:

Thanks for having me, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Dan for joining me. Make sure to check out his new book, Battling The Big Lie, and his podcast, Pod Save America. The link is in the show description.

You can find Dan on Twitter at @danpfeiffer.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.



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