This leftist commentator calmly goes where others dare not. Has the internet’s toxic divide been bridged?


David Pakman has become one of the Internet’s leading progressive commentators, although you won’t find him in many of the same places as other left-wing figures.

David Pakman can’t remember the last time he lost his temper.

This is very rare for someone who makes a living talking about politics online, which Pakman has been doing for over 13 years. Look on YouTube or TikTok and you’ll find videos of him forcefully but calmly highlighting progressive politics, sometimes in digital spaces where those policies aren’t particularly popular.

That gives Pakman, 39, an odd profile. He’s one of the few liberal pundits more likely to be vetted by Steve Bannon than Rachel Maddow. He is a more familiar face to Joe Rogan fans than Ezra Klein.

“I don’t get into the shouting matches or the screaming matches,” he said in a recent video interview from his home, part of which doubles as a recording studio for “The David Pakman Show.” “I don’t really think of myself as playing a character when I do what I do. It’s really my authentic behavior. But it’s also calculated in the sense that I don’t think the public is well served if I get into these fights.”

Another surprise is where you won’t find Pakman. He’s a liberal—a progressive social democrat, as he puts it—but rarely appears in many of the places most left-wing pundits aspire to. He has never been on MSNBC (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News and MSNBC) or written for the New York Times. Yes, he’s on Twitter (where he has 254,000 followers), but he doesn’t engage in fights that could raise his profile.

Instead, he made his mark in places where liberal commentators either struggled to gain traction or hesitated to go. Many are podcasts or web shows that aren’t household names, but have a devoted following that skews young and male. An incomplete list of his most notable appearances: The Joe Rogan Podcast (twice), The Lex Fridman Podcast, The Pomp Podcast, Modern Wisdom, and The PBD Podcast.

Pacman said he’s not on a crusade to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise encounter progressive politics, though he hopes to do just that. Instead, Pakman said he’s built an audience outside the mainstream, in part as a function of his style, which provides some relief to people tired of the toxicity of Internet-based political discourse. He wrote a free guide called Building Arguments Without Burning Bridges.

Which isn’t to say Pakman pulls his punches or is above a little snark. Many of his videos focus on Republicans and conservative media with a certain measured snark. In a recent video of Florida Gov. Ron DeSandis’ presidential announcement on Twitter, he called the event a “global humiliation” along with some wry laughs.

Pakman’s base is YouTube, where he has 1.7 million subscribers, followed by TikTok, with more than 485,000 followers.

“I’m kind of in a different space,” he said. “And so the people who will pay me six dollars a month for my premium content, there’s some overlap, but they’re not necessarily the same people who just have MSNBC on from 7 to 10 p.m. every day.”

Pakman is a small part of a large and thriving world of online media that either focuses on or deals with politics. Much of this media takes the form of shows that resemble the political radio programs of yesteryear, anchored by magnetic personalities who have gained significant followings usually through some combination of YouTube, podcasting and, increasingly, TikTok.

And like the world of radio, there is a political imbalance, with conservative and right-wing commentators finding far more success than their liberal counterparts. The subscriber count of Pakman and most other left-wing online commentators dwarfs that of Ben Shapiro (2.3 million YouTube subscribers), Steven Crowder (5.9 million YouTube subscribers), Candace Owens (3.7 million followers on Twitter), Matt Walsh (2.5 million YouTube subscribers ) and others. It’s a digital media world so lucrative for Shapiro and Crowder that they recently engaged in a public spat over a $50 million contract offered to Crowder.

The conservative part of that world is also much more interconnected than its liberal equivalent, both in terms of behind-the-scenes support from conservative donors and with more mainstream media outlets like Fox News, according to Reece Peck, associate professor in the department of culture of Media at the City University of New York. This is something that creators like Pakman cannot support.

“It’s very difficult for progressives to get funding,” Peck said. “They just don’t have that edge, and so they have to live and die by their algorithm and their audience.”

Pakman, who was born in Argentina and moved to the U.S. when he was 5, started his show as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at WXOJ, an independent nonprofit radio station based out of Springfield. Meeting Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks,” at a media conference convinced him to give YouTube a shot, launching his channel in September 2009. Uygur and his show became one of the most hit news shows on YouTube, now counting more than 5.4 million subscribers.

Since then, it’s been relatively slow to get to where it is now. Pakman’s YouTube channel stats show more than 30,000 uploaded videos, which have garnered more than 1.5 billion views. He didn’t have any particularly viral moments that have suddenly pushed him into the limelight. Pakman said that even some of his most high-profile shows have only delivered modest hits to subscribers, but he’s seen significant growth during the pandemic.

Pakman said he sees his core audience as three groups: die-hard fans who may support him vocally online and possibly financially, and then more casual consumers of politics and news content who sometimes meet him in places where he receives strong reactions and , finally, people who completely disagree with him.

Online news audiences have continued to grow, particularly among young people, many of whom cite YouTube and TikTok as part of their media diet. That audience has become more lucrative as social media platforms have become more commercial, said Becca Lewis, an academic who has studied digital political subcultures.

Lewis added that many of these creators have flown under the mainstream radar, but that dynamic is changing.

“Some of these figures, I would say someone like Ben Shapiro or Joe Rogan, have become household names in a sense,” Lewis said. “But a lot of people who are really popular and have a huge viewership, that really dedicated viewership, they don’t always get the household name recognition. It’s a different variety of fame, in a way.”

Like many Internet-based content creators, Pakman has a few streams of income that he said are relatively even: direct sales to advertisers, ads on platforms like YouTube, and subscriptions sold through his website, which are $5 a month.

It’s quite lucrative that Pakman said he has no plans to try to use his current platforms to move into a more mainstream role. He said he appreciates the freedom he has with his own operation and the ability to set his own schedule, which includes time to father his first child, who turns 1 in June.

“To be perfectly honest, 10 years ago, using this show to become a regular guest on some network and maybe eventually become a guest host to eventually get a show would have seemed like a logical path,” he said. “At my current level of success, it’s no longer attractive.”


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