Jane Coaston is the new host of The Argument, a massively popular New York Times podcast that seeks to showcase civil and informed discussions about the most pressing issues of the day. A 33-year-old Cincinnati native, Coaston has worked at Vox, MTV, and the Human Rights Campaign, among other places. She is the daughter of a black father and a white mother, was raised Catholic, and identifies as queer. She's also a registered Libertarian who is "especially distrustful of efforts by the state to get people to do things." As she puts it, "at some point, a regulation or a law with the absolute best of intentions will be wielded by people who may not have the absolute best of intentions."
Coaston says growing up in a liberal household in a conservative part of the country made her reluctant to give the authorities a lot of power. Adding to that was an experience of being isolated because of her race and sexuality. "My libertarian sensibilities really came from a sense of: I know what it is like politically to always lose," she says.
One of Coaston's goals for The Argument is to bring in a lot of new voices—partly to hear different perspectives but also to model true pluralism. She says she is sick of performative politics in which people act out predetermined roles rather than actually engage with one another, and she aims to change that in her new role.
In April, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Coaston via Zoom about how her libertarianism came to be and what she sees as the defining issues of the current era.
Reason: So we have a registered Libertarian running a major podcast at The New York Times. What drew you to libertarianism, and how do you define that term?
Coaston: It's interesting. I think of myself as an adherent to libertarianism and less so to the Libertarian Party. It's the same way that people use the word liberal and liberal in many different ways. For me, it comes from a certain degree of circumspection and a certain degree of skepticism. That is what my libertarianism looks like, which is that I am distrustful of efforts by the state to get people to do things. I mean that even of the things I want other people to do. I think that's one of the biggest challenges of libertarianism. I've talked about it before: In many ways, everyone's a personal libertarian. Everyone thinks they should be able to do whatever they want, but other people should not.
If you accidentally run through a stop sign in your car, you're like, "Ugh, that's annoying, but I didn't mean to." Because it's you. You see someone else doing that and you're like, "They should lose their license; they're terrible drivers." That goes to extensions of state power as well. We too often think of state power as a cudgel that we can use against our enemies or a way in which we can benefit our friends. And that will flip on a dime depending on who the administration is. I joked a lot last fall that a lot of people who, in 2020, were post-liberal conservatives were all of a sudden going to become libertarians again in January. Now they're all like, "Well, we're spending too much money." I'm like, "Are you? Are you now?"
In 2016 there was that brief moment, as it became clear that Donald Trump had won the election (or "Russia handed him the election"), when suddenly a lot of liberals were like, "Maybe we gave the president too much power."
Right, right. And it was a great moment for federalism.
When I was at Vox—I was at Vox before I was with The New York Times—I focused on the GOP, white nationalism, conservatism, and the right. There were a lot of people in right circles whose understanding of what the presidency was supposed to be was very much "We won the presidency. We'll be able to start putting all of our enemies into camps." And I'm like, "No, that's never—no." But I do think that it's interesting how we cherish executive power when our team has it. And we decry executive power when our enemies have it, even though it's the same power used similarly.
My libertarianism really is an effort to remain skeptical and to remain challenging of the use of state power, even when it's for stuff that I would really like. Because at some point, somebody I absolutely hate is going to do the same thing, and I'm going to be really mad about it.
What are the specific types of state power that worry you the most?
I think it's what the ultimate extensions of state power can result in. We've seen that most concerningly with regard to policing. It's very easy to talk about policing with regard to race, which is an incredibly important discussion, because African Americans are in general overpoliced while being simultaneously underpoliced.
Yeah. That's one of the most paradoxical things: How can people who are constantly being rousted by the cops never have a cop when they need one?
Exactly. I was doing some research last week on the police and what the police do. If you look at homicide clearance rates, they are abysmal. For instance, in Honolulu, Hawaii, serious crime, murder, assault: 25 percent clearance rate. And that just means an arrest or the case is closed. Not that the case was solved in Law & Order style, but that someone was arrested.
That concerns me in a whole different way. But I think about what policing and what those extensions of state power can mean, because the state is not just an objective entity. The state is controlled by people.
We've seen time and time again that there will be a law or regulation, and we'll see some people who can get away with having expired tags and some people who can't. And the people who can't are at risk of being killed over it, at a traffic stop or in any other interaction with law enforcement that another person might not even have for the exact same offense. I wrote about it for the Times a couple of years ago, but there was a case in Florida of a man who was pulled over while walking—well, allegedly jaywalking. And you can see in the video that someone jaywalks just behind him and is not stopped. And this man is told that it's illegal in Florida to walk without a license, that you must be carrying ID. That's not true. That is, for the record, absolutely not true. But we can see how extensions of state power [can come] from someone or by someone who wants to do ill, even [under] the absolute best laws.
I think that's what concerns me about the we've-got-to-do-something impulse, which everyone has. It's very understandable. [But] "we've got to do something" means at some point that a regulation or a law, with the absolute best of intentions, will be wielded by people who may not have the absolute best of intentions. That concerns me a lot.
Did you have a moment where you became a libertarian or you started thinking libertarian thoughts?
I grew up in a very conservative state, Ohio, and in a very conservative area, Cincinnati. The famous Mark Twain reference is that when the world ends, he wants to go to Cincinnati, because then he'll have 10 more years. I was very well acquainted with what it was like to be in an environment in which, if the government did something, that would probably be something that I was not going to enjoy. I started out in journalism as a sports writer, and so I think about a lot of things in terms of sports. My libertarian sensibilities really came from a sense of: I know what it is like politically to always lose and to see what the winners look like.
I've realized how effective this is. Republicans, their understanding of events is that they lose all the time. And that was part of the argument for Trump, like, "Oh yeah, we lose and we lose and we lose, and we never fight back." I'm like, "I don't remember any of that. I've been alive for 33 years. I had two Bush administrations." Well, three, technically—with H.W. Bush I was very small, so I didn't care.
And in Ohio, how many Democratic governors? I think there was one term of somebody in there?
Yeah, and then you're left with people essentially arguing that [Republican former Gov.] John Kasich, "Oh, he's a liberal." And you're like, "No. No, that's—no." I think that for me, it was the growth of a sensibility that I understood that power can be wielded at you and the people who are powerful can present themselves as being the real victims here.
I worked at the Human Rights Campaign as a speechwriter for a while. And you saw right after the Obergefell decision [legalizing gay marriage nationwide] that the conversation among conservative Republicans became, like, "We're the victims of this decision." I'm like, "Six months ago you were very powerful, because America wasn't ready for marriage equality. And now you're like, 'We're very sad. We control a majority of governorships. We control state houses across the country.'" The Republicans had just done really well in 2014, but now, "We're losing all over…."
My personal libertarianism, because I don't want to postulate about others, is to really take a step back from myself and think about, "Who would be impacted if I got everything I wanted politically? How would I be impacted if the person I hate most got everything they wanted politically?" Limiting the power of government to make anybody super happy seems to me to be the best way where I might not get the very grasp of power, but neither would the person who wants to hurt me the most.
I always thought that many of the concerns that libertarians espouse—things like the police power of the state—these should speak well to African Americans. But if we're being honest, libertarians have made very little headway with blacks. Why do you think that is? I hate to accuse you of being too individual, but why do you think your belief system isn't more widespread among people of your age and your demographics?
I think there are a couple of reasons here. I think it has to do with the context in which libertarianism has existed in this country. And I think it has to do with my own personal context.
First and foremost, I think it comes from growing up where I kind of expected that people who had my politics and my parents' politics would always lose. If I'd grown up maybe in Massachusetts or New York, and I had an expectation that Democrats—my parents are Democrats—win elections, I might not be as meh about the state holding power, because as far as I knew, the state holding power could only result in things I liked happening.
I would also say, with regard to race and libertarianism, I think it's because, in some ways, people who have espoused libertarian values in the past have been people who also said, "Well, if a private business wants to exclude African Americans, who am I to say no?" That's something that's come up quite a bit. I think that's a challenge.
I will say there's a ton of great work happening in libertarian circles on criminal justice reform. Those are the people who have been leading the way on a lot of these issues and have been real guides to me. And a lot of the work they've done has really helped to shape a lot of my thinking. But libertarianism also has a history of the people who were like, "Well, why can't you own people? What's wrong with that?" I think that that is the sense where libertarianism—
"We need to take a second look at secession."
"Let's not throw the baby out with the Civil War," or something.
Right. If you're the one guy at Columbia who starts a Students for Strom Thurmond organization, people are going to ask a couple of questions. And so there has been—and I think you see this when you talk about being a libertarian on the internet—a perception of selfishness, [an idea that libertarians are] just, like, "Well, you deal with it. I'm fine." That's not reflective of what I think, and I don't think that's reflective of what most libertarians think. I think libertarians are thinking about cases like Tony Timpa [a man killed by Dallas police in 2016]. We're thinking about people who have endured state power. The most depressing tag on reason.com is the one about dog shootings, because it just goes on for pages.
I have a sense that, even from a decade or a dozen years ago, people today seem more mired in a political or partisan identity. The idea is that politics is what we need to be talking about because it's so important. Do you think there will ever come a moment where people realize that politics is never going to give you what you want, and maybe it's better to de-emphasize the things that get solved through a system where 50 percent plus one vote gets to force the other side to do their bidding?
I think it's interesting that you say that. I was just thinking that I feel as if what you're going to get, actually, is people who will make "I'm apolitical" an identity, instead of finding something else to do. Because I think that there is this idea of not finding so much of yourself in politics. But having been really invested in sports in my life and understanding that for many people, politics is their sports, I'm like, "You'll hate it, but you'll come back to it."
I think also it's worth saying that for the vast majority of Americans, this is not how they live. One of the things that you've seen from even just ratings for cable news over the last couple of months is that they've dropped across the board. Because the Trump administration was a boon for cable news, and for people talking about politics or thinking about politics, but people didn't want that. It was kind of like everyone adopted a feral fox, and you had to just keep watching your nanny cam to be like, "What's the fox doing? What's the fox doing? Has the fox destroyed everything in my house?" And now the fox is gone. And you're like, "Whew, don't have to think about the fox so much."
Now, you should be. You should be thinking a lot about politics. I think that there are a lot of people for whom they have been invigorated by this, by recognizing that they could take part in politics or take part in political conversations. And they find that to be exciting. I don't mean exciting as a positive or as a negative, but as something that provides excitement.
Let's talk about the podcast you're hosting now with The New York Times. It seems you're trying to make The Argument a place where people can actually meet and get beyond performativity and get down to, "OK, what's really going on here?" Can you talk about what you hope to accomplish?
That's exactly it. A lot of times we do politics at each other, not with each other. It becomes about a positioning statement. I saw someone on Twitter a while back say that "you can never trust the people who seem to have a position on absolutely everything, because that means they don't really believe in anything." There are lots of things about which I'm like, "I just don't know." One of the great things about the show is we have a bunch of episodes, and will in the future, where I'm like, "I don't know, but you both know a lot about this thing. Why don't we talk about it, and you guys talk to each other, and I can shape a perspective based on the information that I have and the research that I've done?"
We all too often hear the most strident voices on whatever it is, either for or against any subject. But I've gotten Instagram direct messages that are like, "Could you please talk about this? Because my boyfriend and I were arguing about it, and then we realized we didn't know what we were arguing about." You might not have your mind changed. You might even be more certain than before. It's funny, we did an episode on student loan forgiveness, and the number of emails I got from people who were like, "This totally changed my mind" and "Actually, I was right at the beginning. I completely believe the exact thing I believed an hour ago." And I'm like, "Great. That's fine."
I'm always willing to be challenged and willing to be wrong on the show, because I think that's important. That's the only way we can get things done. We don't have to perform certainty for one another. There are going to be moments where you might raise a point where the other person's like, "I hadn't thought about that." And that's awesome.
That's the goal, to encourage people to think and talk across politics. And not even doing that performatively. Because I actually really hate when people are like, "Well, at the end of the day, we're all just—" I'm like, "No, no, no, no." At the end of the day, some people are going to really suffer because of some policies. You can't at-the-end-of-the-day everything. I think it's worth saying there are ways in which we can talk about a lot of aspects of our politics, and we might not come to a resolution. There is likely not an answer. But we can come to some sort of, "Here is my best case. Here is your best case. Let's let people figure it out from there."
One of the things that seems to be in short supply right now is a willingness to be tolerant of other people who are very different and oftentimes very hostile to your way of life and your most cherished beliefs. Where does your optimism come from?
I think it comes from an understanding that—I've seen a lot of people who are willing to write a lot of checks on the internet, and then when you meet them, they don't want to cash those checks. I think it comes from the fact that I know that there are many people for whom their politics are the reservoirs for a lot of feelings from a lot of other places, and that a lot of people have endured a lot of things.
For me, it is very important to understand that people come to their politics in a lot of different ways. And for the vast majority of people, they do so with an approach of "I think things would be better if it were this way." They are not existing as a Marvel villain who actually wants to destroy the world. They are thinking it would be better for my family or my community or my existence in some way if this thing were different. If you are coming into your politics through that lens…you might be wrong, you're probably wrong, but that's a nice instinct.
What do you think are going to be the defining issues of the Biden era? We're coming out of the pandemic—hopefully, anyway. But we have economic issues. We have geopolitical issues. What do you think are going to be the big things that will be dominating both the argument and your Argument podcast?
A very basic question will be, "What is politics for?" What are we trying to do here? We're an extraordinarily diverse country and an extraordinarily large country, and we know it. We're aware of it. And yet sometimes we talk about our country as if it is like a two-bit town with 10 politicians in it, which is just not true. This is an entirely side issue, but the nationalization of local politics is really concerning to me. People will be like, "I'm very concerned about this thing happening in Portland." And I'm like, "I've only been to Portland once. It's very far away from me. Please explain how this has a direct impact on my life."
The expectation of politics as something that is supposed to get things done has been lost in some ways. The idea of actually passing legislation and then paying for that legislation and doing the thing, when we have so many people who are aware that the performance of politics can get you way further. So much of the Trump administration was about -Donald Trump performing a politics that people both loved and loathed, but he didn't actually do it.
One of the hallmarks of the early Biden administration is a sense of expanding the size, scope, and spending of government, on top of what Trump did, which itself was gigantic and against the rhetoric of Republicans generally. There is a government payout, there is a government program, there is a government watchdog for every aspect of every inch of your life. Do you think that's going to end up just continuing the hyperpoliticization of virtually every time you say hello or not to somebody?
I think that we are doing the politicization of our lives. Joe Biden is not doing that to us. The federal government is largely not doing that to us. We are doing this. When we are having conversations, especially on social media, where we become flattened into just chimeras of our political opinions, we are doing this to ourselves. And we can decide whether or not to do this to ourselves. That really is an individual question. The urge to identify and exist as a political entity alone—that's a you decision.
Millions of people don't do that. I keep thinking about the "shy Trump voters," and I'm sure there are shy Biden voters. But it's not shy to just not lead with that. That's how most people are. The parents of the people I played lacrosse with, I would guess that most of them voted for Bush in 2004. But I wouldn't know that. The world in which we exist is a politics-heavy world, because this is what we do. But that politicization, that's an individual decision, and people can make that decision or not.