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

David Pakman has become one of the internet's top progressive commentators, though you won't find him in many of the same places as other lefty personalities.
David Pakman
On YouTube or TikTok, you'll find David Pakman making the case for progressive politics, but he's more likely to get name-checked by Steve Bannon than Rachel Maddow. NBC News / Dan Fine Photography

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

That’s pretty rare for someone who makes a living talking about politics online, which Pakman has done for more than 13 years. Look across YouTube or TikTok and you’ll find videos of him forcefully but calmly making the case for progressive politics, sometimes in digital venues where those politics are not particularly popular.

That’s given Pakman, 39, a peculiar profile. He’s one of the few liberal pundits who is more likely to get name-checked by Steve Bannon than Rachel Maddow. He’s a more familiar figure to fans of Joe Rogan 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 also doubles as the studio where he records “The David Pakman Show.” “I don’t really consider that I’m playing a character when I do what I do. It’s really just my genuine demeanor. But it’s also calculated in the sense that I don’t think the audience is well served if I get into those shouting matches.”

Another surprise is where you won’t find Pakman. He’s a liberal — a progressive social democrat, as he puts it — but he rarely pops up in many of the places to which most lefty pundits aspire. He’s 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 the kinds of fights that could raise his profile.

Instead, he’s made his mark in places where liberal commentators have either struggled to gain traction or hesitate to go. Many are podcasts or web shows that aren’t household names but have dedicated fan bases that skew young and male. An incomplete list of his most notable appearances: Joe Rogan’s podcast (twice), the Lex Fridman Podcast, the Pomp Podcast, Modern Wisdom and PBD Podcast. 

Pakman said he is not on a crusade to reach people who might not otherwise encounter progressive politics, although he does hope to do just that. Rather, Pakman said he built an audience outside the mainstream, partly as a function of his style, which provides some relief to people who have grown tired of the toxicity of internet-based political discourse. He wrote a guide available for free called “Building Arguments Without Burning Bridges.”

Which is not 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 about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential announcement on Twitter, he called the event a “global humiliation” alongside a few wry chuckles. 

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

“I’m sort of in a different space,” he said. “And so the folks that are going to pay me six bucks a month for my premium content, there’s some overlap, but it’s 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 is either focused on politics or dabbles in it. Much of this media takes the form of shows that resemble the political radio programs of years past, anchored by magnetic personalities who have gained significant followings usually through some combination of YouTube, podcasting and, increasingly, TikTok.

And like the radio world, there’s a political imbalance, with conservative and right-wing commentators finding much more success than their liberal counterparts. The subscriber numbers of Pakman and most other lefty online commentators are dwarfed by those of Ben Shapiro (2.3 million YouTube subscribers), Steven Crowder (5.9 million YouTube subscribers), Candace Owens (3.7 million Twitter followers), Matt Walsh (2.5 million YouTube subscribers) and others. It’s a digital media world so lucrative Shapiro and Crowder recently engaged in a public feud over a contract offered to Crowder worth $50 million. 

The conservative part of that world is also far more interconnected than its liberal equivalent, both in terms of behind-the-scenes support from conservative donors and with more mainstream media like Fox News, according to Reece Peck, an associate professor in the department of media culture at the City University of New York. That’s something creators like Pakman can’t bank on.

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

Pakman, who was born in Argentina and moved to the U.S. when he was 5, started his show when he was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on WXOJ, an independent nonprofit radio station based outside 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 went on to become one of the most successful news shows on YouTube, now counting more than 5.4 million subscribers. 

Since then, it’s been a relatively slow grind to where he is now. Pakman’s YouTube channel stats show more than 30,000 videos uploaded, which have accrued more than 1.5 billion views. He hasn’t had any particularly viral moments that have propelled him suddenly into the spotlight. Pakman said even some of his most high-profile appearances offered only modest subscriber bumps, but he did see considerable growth during the pandemic. 

Pakman said he sees his primary audience in three groups: die-hard fans who may support him vocally online and possibly financially, then more casual consumers of politics and news content who sometimes encounter him in places where he receives vehement opposition, and, lastly, people who completely disagree with him.

The audience for online news has continued to grow, particularly among young people, many of whom list YouTube and TikTok as parts of their media diet. That audience has become more lucrative as social media platforms became more commercialized, said Becca Lewis, an academic who has studied digital political subcultures. 

Lewis added that many of those creators have flown under the mainstream radar, but that this dynamic is shifting.

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

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

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

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