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Dreams from their podcasts

In addition to serving as a bruiser for the Democrats on Fox News and writing a book while “most people were watching Tiger King” (🙄), Pete Buttigieg — the Democratic presidential candidate who flamed out in the last cycle after a strong early showing — has also found the time to record a podcast.

The Deciding Decade with Pete Buttigieg sees the former South Bend mayor conducting amiable interviews with a variety of guests, including the former ambassador Susan Rice, Trump firee and known podcaster Preet Bharara, and for some reason, Colin Jost. The podcast is a curious artifact, serving as a kind of patchwork platform for Buttigieg to signal his various interests and introduce more layers to his persona, broadening out his previous characterization as a rigid McKinsey type who gets accused of fixing bread prices.

Buttigieg is far from the only Democratic political figure to hit the podcast feeds lately. In April, the internet’s favorite candidate Andrew Yang launched an interview show of his own, Yang Speaks, not long after dropping out of the race. Julián Castro recently followed suit, releasing Our America with Julián Castro last month, which happened to be around the same time Hillary Clinton returned for podcasting seconds in the form of You and Me Both with Hillary Clinton. You might recall that Clinton had an “official campaign podcast” back in the infamous 2016 cycle, and it turns out that she’s not the only Clinton with a podcast today: Bill has got one too. Marianne Williamson, a politician much in the same way that Kanye West is one, is launching her own self-titled podcast as well this week as well. And then, of course, there is The Michelle Obama Podcast, which came out earlier this summer.

This emergence of the Democratic politician podcast isn’t quite unprecedented, but this recent glut is distinct for a number of reasons. Firstly, these shows tend to be significantly more polished than its predecessors. Secondly, they tend to be structured as highly-edited interviews, instead of free-flowing barely edited affairs. And finally, they tend to be distributed by for-profit publishers — iHeartMedia (both Clintons, Buttigieg), Lemonada Media (Castro), Cadence13 (Yang), Kast Media (Williamson), Higher Ground via Spotify (Obama) — as opposed to being released by the political figure independently.

This new take on the politician podcast is a tricky one to unpack, largely because it’s such a strange media artifact. It’s easy to engage in the analytical move of connecting these productions to the ongoing effort to create a liberal counterbalance to conservative talk radio using the podcast ecosystem, a push that can be primarily pegged to the ascendance of Crooked Media, which has spent the past four years building a formidable platform and following. But this emergent swathe of politician podcasts doesn’t seem all that similar to Crooked Media’s talk radio-style/conversational approach to programming at all. Rather, this new take on the politician podcast feels more like an extension of the political memoir.

Josh Lindgren, a talent agent with CAA, notes that the goals of the two forms are somewhat similar. “There is a long tradition of political figures writing books, and I think podcasting is taking on a very similar function,” he told me recently. “Through their podcast, a politician can speak directly to the public, which allows for nuance, complexity, and gives them a platform to go beyond politics and present a broader picture of themself as a human.”

The historian Nicole Hemmer, who co-hosts This Day in Esoteric Political History and who wrote a great book on conservative talk radio called Messengers of the Right, broadly concurs with that framing. “In many ways, both a memoir and a podcast are about creating a politics of intimacy, inviting readers and listeners into a story that the politician is creating,” she said. “Now, what’s different, of course, is that the political memoir is a finished story, a neat narrative printed up and published that readers can buy and read. A podcast is almost always an ongoing set of conversations with different people. It’s less about telling a story than creating a persona and a brand — one that might have potential uses even beyond a political career.”

Hemmer also offered a sharp contrast between talk radio and this new type of politician podcast, characterizing the former as being more engaged with the politics of entertainment as opposed to the politics of intimacy. “That’s what talk radio has done so well — blend entertainment and politics — and the best in the business tend to stay in that register, playing with satire and joviality,” she said, pointing to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as archetypes. (This analysis, I think, can be equally applied to Crooked Media, along with various conservative figures who have made their own podcasts as well, like Ted Cruz, making shows that are distinctly within the talk-radio aesthetic.)

She added: “You do have others who operate more in the politics of fear — Michael Savage, Beck again, Alex Jones (if we want to include him as a conservative) — but without the upbeat entertainment, it works less well.”

It’s also worth noting that the political memoir is itself a strange kind of media artifact. “It’s a weird genre of book that I usually try to avoid because there is not going to be anything interesting in there,” said Laura Miller, Slate’s books and culture columnist. There are exceptions, she noted: former president Barack Obama’s books, for example, are worthwhile, though they are themselves somewhat atypical for the fact that (a) they’re well-written and (b) they’re actually written by the figure in question, as opposed to being ghostwritten, which is the case for the overwhelming majority of politician memoirs. Furthermore, what’s usually interesting about political memoirs, Miller said, is all the information that can be gleaned that isn’t the information the author is actually trying to convey — the between-the-lines stuff.

Another aspect to consider, though, is the money. Writing memoirs happen to be a great way for political figures to cash in on their prominence, through both the book deal and the accompanying sales structure. Additionally, writing a memoir “seems to be a way that supporters can funnel money to a candidate or political friend outside of the regulations that apply to political donors,” said Miller. “Like buying someone’s book in bulk. Especially if they buy it directly from the author who gets it from the publisher at a discount.”

However, books aren’t the moneymakers they once were, Miller pointed out, which is partly why, I think, we’re seeing politicians angle towards taking up positions in other additional forms of media, including getting podcast deals with companies like iHeartMedia and Cadence13. But there’s an underlying question to all these media machinations, and Miller puts her thumb on it with respect to the political memoir: “The really big mystery is why anyone buys them.”

A related question can be applied to this new breed of politician podcasts, one that determine whether we’ll see the subgenre stick around for the long run: will anybody listen to them? Perhaps, maybe, probably — one could argue that it could be especially effective for political figures who have a certain cult of personality around them. (I’m thinking about Yang, in particular).

But there is a lane to argue that perhaps podcasting itself might not shake out to be a form that’s ultimately suitable for the political goal of these productions. “I think podcasts are at their strongest when they are exploring uncertainty,” said Jody Avirgan, who co-hosts This Day in Esoteric Political History with Hemmer. “They are the best medium in which to talk about what you don’t know, what you may only half-believe, to be curious and open and honest to admit that you might be wrong or not have it all figured out.”

He added: “Politics is the opposite. Political memoirs, and political messaging in general, is about certainty. ‘This I believe.’ ‘Here’s my answer.’ That’s mismatched to what makes podcasting special, in my opinion, so I’m a little skeptical that politicians can really embrace that more exploratory, curious, perspective. Some can, I’m sure, but it may be a challenge and it may come off as at odds with their political persona.”