Five Minutes With
Rachel Maddow is often times the only woman on MSNBC, usually surrounded by a bunch of pretty old white dudes. The awesome part is she more than holds her own. Maddow has her own show on Air America, a doctorate in political science, and a background in AIDS activism. There’s even a rumor (or demand) for Maddow to host her own show on MSNBC, especially after she guest-hosted for Keith Olbermann earlier this year.
Campus Progress caught up with Maddow to talk about gay marriage, Chris Matthews, and the youth vote.
CP: You started out in academia and doing some activism and then you made a transition to radio and television. What prompted that transition?
RM: I started doing radio almost on a dare when I was supposed to be finishing my doctoral dissertation. I was living in western Massachusetts. I was crashing with friends. I was doing odd jobs. My scholarship money had run out, and I was not done with my doctorate. Some friends I was living with were connected to this local morning show, and I just showed up to an open audition. I did an on-air open audition, got hired on the spot, and started the next day. At that point I thought it was just going to be one more odd job in a series of very odd jobs, but I really fell in love with it. And after having done that first radio job for a year, I quit so that I could submit my dissertation and do my oral exams and everything, and actually get the doctorate. And I thought that’s it, that would have been my one year in radio, but I missed it a lot. I was like an addict. And I ended up getting the morning show there, and I realized that radio was probably going to be a permanent part of my life.
And now you’re one of the more regular commentators on TV and you’re usually there on election night.
When Air America toured, we had a lot of celebrity hosts: Chuck D of Public Enemy, Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Liz Winstead from The Daily Show. [TV producers] would try to book all the famous people. You know, "Can we get Al Frankton? Can we get Janeane Garofalo? Can we get Liz? Can we get Chuck?" Ultimately, if none of those people were available, they’d eventually get to me. I think I was always like Plan G.
A lot of young women of color or young lesbians say they’re turned off by a lot of television punditry because they just don’t see anyone on television they can really identify with. What’s the problem?
If you could line up a roster of the hosts of cable television programs from end to end, it would be a pretty non-diverse group, but I think high-end media in this country is pretty white-male dominated just like a lot of other power receptors. But it’s not a static thing. And I think that it actually does matter that—Amen—we had this long, interesting, raving extravaganza of a Democratic primary this year with a white woman and a black man as the two major contenders. I think that it created sort of an affirmative-action impulse for pundits, which has been great.
Chris Matthews has come under fire for a lot his comments this year. Is he as mean in person as he seems on TV?
Oh, no. I don’t know any of these people personally. I get along with the make-up lady and the crew guys—those are the people in my television crew who I’ve actually kind of made pals with. I don’t have personal relationships at all with any of these people, but in terms of how people comport themselves at Rockefeller Center and on set, oh no, no, nobody’s mean. Everybody’s nice—Chris Matthews included. He’s a total sweetheart.
And rumor has it that people are talking about you getting your own show on MSNBC. Is it true?
I’ve made no secret about the fact that I would love for that to happen, but there isn’t a secret Rachel Maddow show on TV in the works.
In California, the Supreme Court has essentially legalized gay marriage. Do you think that this is the right strategy for this issue?
I think that in presidential politics when the constitutional amendments banning gay marriage were really used by the Republican Party to try to drive up Republican voter turn-out for George W. Bush, they made, they cast, they spun those constitutional amendments as if they were defense, as if they were building a defense against this gay rights movement which was marching and taking over the country. The fact was that in a lot of those states where the constitutional amendments were passed, the only political work that had ever been done on gay marriage was the anti-stuff. The right has used gay marriage as a political tool much more frequently—and to much greater effect—than the left ever has.
What I think is going to happen in California is like what has already happened in Massachusetts. Once the ruling went into effect from the Massachusetts State Supreme Court and gay people actually formed married partnerships, the whole strategy of the anti-gay marriage people just went out the window, because their whole strategy is based on the fear of what married gay people will do to change the state, will do the change straight people’s lives, will do to damage straight people’s marriages and culture. And once you actually see that gay people getting married doesn’t affect straight people at all, it takes away the fear factor.
This has been the year of the youth vote. Registration and voter turnout among 18-29 year-olds has been higher than it’s been in recent years. How do you think this has played into the election narrative this year?
Whatever the reason, there has been such incredible enthusiasm and turnout on the Democratic side, and the fact that they broke all the turnout records in almost every state, the fact that there are now—depending on which poll you look at—either 9 percent more or 11 percent more people who identify as Democrats in the country than there are people who identify as Republicans, it essentially tilts the playing field for the November elections toward the Democratic Party. And I think that, honestly, the youth vote is a very big part of that.
When you’re saying that this is going to be the year of huge youth voter turnout, you’re not making a partisan statement, but the fact remains that that does actually bode well for Democrats because demographically, young people do tend to vote Democratic, and the increased young voter turnout is in the context of this increased, huge Democratic registration and turnout. I think that it’s not a partisan phenomenon, but it has big partisan implications.
And what kind of advice would you offer to young people?
The thing that is most satisfying doing political commentary and political analysis is learning how to not be a common wisdom generator, picking your own specific, well-informed, thoughtful perspective on stuff out there. The fact remains that in the blog world today, you can be an influential political analyst and commentator without any institutional support if you write things that are smart enough and interesting enough, well-informed enough, and provocative enough, that other people are willing to link to you. Literally, the blog world has created a real meritocracy in terms of political commentary. You know, snark alone—it will not get you there. You have to really be contributing stuff in the debate, and that’s really the most satisfying thing about having this job—that challenge.
Kay Steiger is the editor of CampusProgress.org.
- Would This Make You Go To The Top Of The World And Back? [INTERVIEW]
- How School, Stigmas, And The Sequester Impact The Fight Against Hunger [INTERVIEW]
- Shane Bitney Crone; Young Marriage Activist [VIDEO]
- Jane Lynch: ‘Younger Generations Have Always Been Progressive’
- Tapping For Tuition: Penn State Student Dances to Fund His Education