If he hasn’t made you mad yet, he will! Ra-Tan Lines, with Ratan Varghese
So before we start, there is something that has to be made absolutely clear. This is not the Ra-Tan Lines review of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which I needn’t remind you is probably the best podcast, ever. This is also not a review of Dan Carlin’s book. It’s definitely not a review of Dan Carlin’s War Remains, a virtual reality tour of World War One. And no, this is not a review of Dan Carlin’s relatively new Hardcore History Addendum podcast, which recently released an episode with an interview between Dan Carlin and Tom Hanks.
This is a review of his other podcast. You know, the one about American politics? Yeah, that one.
Relatively Recent Episodes
Common Sense with Dan Carlin shares a lot of the fundamentals with Hardcore History. Dan Carlin’s somewhat rough voice is one common factor. So are his colourful metaphors. The episodes are long. He tries in earnest to “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins”, more on that in a moment. Perhaps the most valuable common trait with Hardcore History is the context.
Dan Carlin has been described as being “addicted to context” and this is one of the things that really sets Common Sense apart. So often when we encounter a news story the long term trends contributing to the story are ignored. Dan Carlin really likes to delve into the origins of issues he discusses, particularly when it’s a foreign policy or constitutional issue. Episode 275, The Specter of Dissent, even includes a bit of an overview of protests in the 1960’s. Not an overview of the actual political issues, but of the emotional experience of participating in them and responding to them. That segment of that episode was very much like Hardcore History in modern times.
Dan Carlin takes the American Constitution very seriously. If some policy proposal is unconstitutional he will argue against it, strongly. Obviously every political commentator does this when their political opponents are being unconstitutional but Dan Carlin is everyone’s opponent, and will call out everyone. He will sometimes defend the amendments of the US constitution that neither of the major American parties are good at respecting.
So if Dan Carlin doesn’t like the two big American parties, then what are his political views? Well, they’re a bit elusive. He’s been described as a “Neoprudentist”, a “modern Whig” and even a “political Martian”. He seems superficially libertarian, but in any situation where free market economics would cause widespread suffering he’d prefer a government to step in. Labels are of little help here: perhaps an issue-by-issue description would be better.
Dan Carlin often says he wants an America that “matches the marketing material” which means, among other things, a reduced role of the Federal government, more respect for personal privacy, crackdowns on political corruption, and demolishing the political duopoly of Democrats and Republicans. He described himself as a fiscal conservative, but argued strongly for universal healthcare (from a fiscally conservative perspective) in episode 314, Unhealthy Numbers. He has no tolerance for torture, also known as “enhanced interrogation”. He’d prefer if America intervened a lot less in wars around the world, which probably sounds great to a lot of people until you realize how much America’s allies might have to spend to defend themselves. One of his least-likely to be respected views is that the President should defer much more to Congress: of course, he knows that no President will ever be elected by promising to limit their own power.
In short, Dan Carlin is willing to absorb ideas from across the political spectrum, but isn’t really a moderate or centrist in a policy sense. He has strong opinions on many political topics, but they don’t fit neatly into a labelled ideology. He didn’t like Bill Clinton, nor George Bush, nor Barack Obama. He views Donald Trump as a terrible president: a blatant authoritarian and a narcissist. However Carlin is unwilling to dismiss all of Trump’s supporters as fascists and racists. In fact, he is unwilling to outright claim that the left is better than the right, or that the right is better than the left: this is partially because of the aims of the podcast, and partially because of the issues that Dan Carlin happens to care about.
Carlin’s aim in making Common Sense was to encourage people with different political beliefs to work together to fix a broken, corrupt political system. The idea was that no matter what issues you hold dear, nobody benefits from a political system that doesn’t respond to the needs of voters. However to most people, such systemic issues are not as important as the problems caused by their political opposition, so Dan Carlin ends up seeming wishy-washy to a lot of people. In fact, I feel wishy-washy just writing about him. Carlin’s criticism of both sides and calls for cooperation are unappreciated in these politically polarized times, and he knows it.
How can someone who has always wanted a third-party victory deal with a political outsider he despises? How can a man who has spent his life studying issues of policy adapt to a world where political hatred seems commonplace? How can a podcaster who agonizes over research make the most of his work when nobody even agrees on the objective truth?
Carlin’s response has been long periods of inactivity. He currently views all the constitutional issues, all the corruption, all the stuff he spent his entire career railing against, as secondary to the problem of political polarization. However he has no proposal on how this greatest of problems (as he sees it) can be solved, and the only people who care are those who think like Carlin. He keeps trying to make a new Common Sense episode, only to feel that it’s all wrong and throw it away.
Okay, but this is Dan Carlin we’re talking about right? The person who famously releases two episodes per year on his most famous product? Well, there were 5 episodes of Hardcore History between January 1 2018 and today, and all of those were longer than 3 hours and 50 minutes. In the same period there have been only two episodes of Common Sense, both much shorter.
The most recent episode, released on April 1 of this sordid year, was ostensibly about the coronavirus but eventually led to Carlin decrying political hatred, apologizing for not making new episodes, and worrying about the long-term implications of people hating their countrymen. He criticized Trump but, as usual, held back on criticizing the American right in general. There wasn’t a follow up episode about George Floyd or police violence, though he tweeted about it quite a lot. We’ll be lucky if there’s a new episode after this year’s election. Or perhaps unlucky: if Dan Carlin really feels this defeated, and really can fit his remarks in tweets, then maybe inactivity really is the best policy.
The Old Days
The present-day silence of Common Sense is much more strange considering its distant origins. The podcast feed “only” stretches back to 2016, but as usual with Dan Carlin old episodes are available for purchase on his site. The earliest episode you can buy is episode 50 Pork me baby, and its only available as part of a compilation with 24 other episodes. All of them were released in the same year: 2006, deep in the Bush administration. In those days, Dan Carlin sounded a lot more bombastic and energetic. Yet, many of his political stances were the same: the two parties are corrupt, American interventionism has to be dialed back, the government should stop using terrorism as an excuse for mass surveillance, maybe if people of differing political beliefs work together they’ll meet their common goals. There is at least one changed stance: he didn’t support universal healthcare back then for somewhat roundabout reasons, which are described in episode 64 (You) Fat Bastards. In one of those old episodes, Dan Carlin had discussions on-air with some of his listeners, which hasn’t happened in a long time.
I have no idea where the earlier episodes from 2005 are. Even such early episodes of Common Sense would only be the tip of the iceberg. Consider this article from 2003 about Dan Carlin’s talk radio show. When he says “I’m not going to call anyone names, but I’m an opinionated guy.”, he’s not talking about his views on the Code of Hammurabi. Carlin once claimed that “journalism is the first draft of history”. For good or ill, his days of writing that first draft may be behind him.
Except, again, on Twitter.