Heather McGhee + Matt Kibbe
Repairing the Breach
Heather McGhee is president of the public policy organization Demos. Her writing and research appear in multiple outlets, including The New York Times, The Nation, and The Hill.
Matt Kibbe is the president and chief community organizer of Free the People. His books include Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto and, more recently, Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto.
April 6, 2017
Krista Tippett, host: I’ve been looking for an honest, revelatory, and enjoyable conversation across distant points of American life, and I got it at the Citizen University annual conference in Seattle. I spoke with Matt Kibbe, a Libertarian who helped activate the Tea Party, and Heather McGhee, a millennial progressive leader. Together, they disrupt the divisions of this moment.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: So, repairing the breach. Heather McGhee and Matt Kibbe I see as bridge people across the social ruptures, the breaches of this moment. And I suspect that that’s true of everybody in this room. I suspect this is a gathering of bridge people, which is a pretty exciting thing to be part of. These two model a particularly 21st-century way of being that. They hold deep passion and conviction, and that coexists and, in fact, is in a creative interplay with an enthusiasm, an enthusiasm for engaging difference. And they carry their questions as openly and vigorously as they carry their answers.
They also both do a lot of refreshing truth-telling, both to the culture at large and within their own communities. And from where I sit, despite all the post-game analysis and breaking news of the last few months, we’ve had far too little searching analysis of what went wrong on every side, and how good people with pains and fears and promise are on every side of that failure, and on every side of the possibilities emerging now to create the realities we want to inhabit.
So let’s just plunge into this. I just want to know — as we start, I’d like to hear a little bit — and Heather, maybe start with you — about where you grew up and the roots in your life, the early roots in the background of your life, not to your positions but to this sensibility that you carry, that you embody.
Ms. Heather McGhee: Thank you so much. That is a really great question. It’s always good to start at the beginning, and we so seldom do. So, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a sort of post-Civil Rights, beginning-of-Reagan-Era moment where, in some ways, the movement had just become a daily part of life. There was a sense, when I was growing up, that all of our hands were still needed to push and keep the world turning in the right direction for black people and other folks who struggled.
My mother was a holistic healer at the time, so she was this sort of alternative doctor, really before that was very popular, on the South Side of Chicago. And I was a vegetarian. It was terrible. I ate tempeh. [laughs] Sorry, Alice Waters, but it was a terrible thing to have to grow up that way in the early ‘80s.
Ms. McGhee: Nobody wanted to trade school lunch with me. And when I was 6 years old, my father remarried and married a white woman who had grown up in a very interesting family, one of nine children, who had taken a vow of poverty to do social justice work. And I suddenly had white cousins. And I think that that experience early on, and the sort of immediate integration of my family, and the bonds of love reaching out of my very black, South Side neighborhood, and expanding the notion of family across race was probably a pretty formative early event.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you. Matt?
Mr. Matt Kibbe: So I mostly grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but I was born in Florida. And I lived in Detroit, actually, during the riots because my dad was constantly being transferred from one dying Rust Belt factory to another. And as a result, I’m not sure exactly where my hometown is, but mostly in Pennsylvania. And he was a Reagan Republican. He was pro-Reagan before it was cool. And we had some interesting conversations because as young as 13, I discovered Ayn Rand and libertarian ideas, and I was a very difficult child, and I drove my parents crazy.
But for me, finding people that wanted to have a conversation about ideas, when I was a kid, was virtually impossible to do. And one of the reasons I’m such a romantic about technology and social media is I think it’s the great equalizer. It allows people to connect with each other and share ideas that they didn’t necessarily get from the boss. And the boss could be a professor; the boss could be Walter Cronkite on TV. So I spent most of my youth — wasted reading books because I couldn’t find other people that wanted to talk about the same kind of stuff that I wanted to talk about. And part of that was moving all the time, and I was a very shy kid. So one of the upsides of that is I started forcing myself to do things I didn’t want to do like talk to other people.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, great. I’m really glad we started there too. You used the term “Rust Belt,” and I feel like it’s so important for us to step back, even from the language we use. How demeaning it is that we have defined places people come from in that way. And that’s just reflexive and unreflected.
And I feel like both of you, a lot of what you say and are out there talking about, has to do with the fact that the political landscape and what gets covered, in fact, is not what’s really going on, that politics is a symptom. And again, you come at this from very different directions. Matt, here’s something you’ve written: “It’s important to understand that Trump is a symptom, not of a country that is inherently racist, sexist, or bigoted, as some have claimed, but of a political system that just doesn’t work in a world where everyone is freer to think outside the establishment’s box.”
Mr. Kibbe: Yeah. I think that Trump, whether we like it or not, is part of the sky falling. And there’s a paradigm shift going on, not just in American politics, but in culture, in how we get our knowledge, in how we get our news, in how we discover music. And it’s very much disintermediated. It’s democratized. It’s people doing things for themselves that they used to depend on some institution to tell them what to do.
And that hasn’t happened in our politics. It’s old, and it’s crusty, and it’s all of these incumbents and interests that are protecting the status quo. And starting, maybe, with Howard Dean, but certainly Ron Paul, the Tea Party movement, Bernie Sanders, and now Donald Trump, are very much outsiders railing against the status quo. And some people call that populism. I think it’s people all over the place discovering that Washington has lied to them, that it’s not what they say it is, and they don’t do what they say they’re going to do. And that’s where all the rage against the machine comes from. And I see a lot of similarities and differences between a Bernie Sanders stump speech and a Donald Trump stump speech. People are pissed. They know that the system’s not working for them, and they want to do something about it.
Now, do I think Donald Trump is a rational response to that? No. But as a guy that was early roadkill on the Trump train, I’m now sort of interested in talking to some of my Trump friends to figure out what exactly is going on there.
Ms. Tippett: And Heather, you’ve been very focused on political dynamics now as symptomatic of deeper questions of meaning and identity. You often describe yourself as — I guess you’re at the front end of the millennial generation.
Ms. McGhee: I’m like a millennial grandmother.
Ms. Tippett: You’re a millennial elder.
Ms. McGhee: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right.
Ms. Tippett: The millennial — “a turn-of-century generation,” as you say, a transformative generation, and a generation that kind of saw its view of the world and the ground on which it was standing unsettled, shifted, very rapidly and bluntly. But also, this sense that, I think, for you, that millennials, in their bodies, carry at least the potential for a whole different experience of difference, that our country — this is beautiful language of yours: “This is a country where ancestral lines of all the world’s communities have met and been offered the audacious promise that out of many, we could become one people.” But the idea that — language like “intersectionality” — the idea that this generation will be able to appropriate that and live that in a different way.
Ms. McGhee: This feels — this is just something that, when I took over as the president of Demos three years ago, at the age of 33, we had the chance to say, “Maybe we should change our name,” because an ancient Greek word is maybe not the most consumer-friendly, maybe makes us a little bit obtuse in the public debate.
But demos means “the people of a nation,” and it’s the root word of “democracy.” And I truly believe that this country’s great promise, the thing that truly makes it the possible home of a new world, is what is happening now and has happened since the Immigration Act of 1965, that there’s someone in this country with a tie to every community on the globe. And even though that is causing great political, economic, and social angst, I think that’s because of a lack of leadership, not necessarily because of something inherently wrong.
And I think there are sort of two visions in the world right now and in our politics of what we’re supposed to do about that increasing racial and ethnic diversity. Is the reason why America is the place where we’ve all met so that we could compete here? Or is the reason that maybe, just maybe, the existence of so much proximity will finally allow us to accept our common humanity?
And I think that our generation, the most diverse generation in American history, has the potential to see this country’s possibly very beautiful destiny be made manifest. And I think if we were to do that here, in this country, really give lie to the belief in a hierarchy of human value in this country, this country that was founded and codified that belief to a degree that we still feel today, then we will have proven that this country is exceptional.
[music: “Flying In the Hours of Darkness” by Spiro]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with two bridge people across the fractures of our time – progressive activist Heather McGhee and Libertarian Matt Kibbe.
[music: “Flying In the Hours of Darkness” by Spiro]
Ms. Tippett: Matt, to your invocation of what the internet has made possible: in the larger context, we, all of us, are part of the first generation of humans who actually have the tools to think and act as a species. We don’t always rise to that occasion. I wonder how, as a libertarian, how this aspect of us and of the present, how that resonates for you.
Mr. Kibbe: So you can look at the internet and social media, and you can see all the downsides, and you can see the silos and the — don’t ever read the comments on your Facebook page, by the way. It’s a devastating experience. But the upside is really profound and, I think, quite libertarian. There’s a cyberlibertarian who I love, because he happens to be…
Ms. Tippett: What did you say — a “cyberlibertarian?”
Mr. Kibbe: A cyberlibertarian.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, I love that.
Mr. Kibbe: Google that.
Ms. Tippett: Okay.
Mr. Kibbe: It’s a guy named John Perry Barlow, and he was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and that’s how I met him the first time. And of all things, we started talking about Friedrich Hayek and spontaneous order. And he was one of the first Romantics to talk about the potential of the internet. And he talks about something called “the right to know.” And there’s this great quote that I quote all the time from a couple years ago, where he says that “the right to know is the opportunity of anyone, anywhere, whether you’re in the uplands of Mali or Midtown Manhattan, to know everything about a subject of your choosing, only limited by your capacity to understand it.” And that is the great, radical equalization that comes from social media.
And to Heather’s point, I think this is the opportunity, particularly for young people, to grow up in a very — I don’t really like this word, but I can’t think of a better word — in a very cosmopolitan way. You understand that there’s all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and ethnic histories and all that stuff because of YouTube. And you don’t have to have enough money to travel to the corners of the globe to realize that there’s lots of differences, and there’s lots of nationalities and lots of traditions that are different from our own, but you’re used to that. It’s normal that we’re not all the same. And you’re not stuck in your tribe in your hometown, where you’re never exposed to people that are different from you.
And I think that’s natural for young people, and I think the way that they almost crowdsource community — they’re in this hyper-libertarian world where they can choose everything and do whatever they want, and that makes them crave community. But those communities aren’t necessarily the people that live across the street. They could be a global community. They could be people from all over the place. And I think that’s profoundly disruptive, but I can’t help but be optimistic about that dynamic.
Ms. Tippett: And also that kind of — this proximity, and a proximity and interdependence which is unparalleled, is also very stressful for human creatures.
Mr. Kibbe: Oh, yeah. We’re freaking out.
Ms. Tippett: We’re freaking out. Right.
Ms. McGhee: [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s one way to describe the political landscape now. I like the idea that we are in the adolescence of our species, and that if you look at a map of — a map of the teenage brain looks a lot like the map of the globe right now, which has these flashes of brilliance and creativity and energy and also this incredible capacity for self-destruction and recklessness.
And the truth is also — if there are — I hate making anything a choice of two — but if there are two ends of the American political spectrum, or even generationally, there is this openness, this capacity to be — diversity is too small a word, as well, right? But also, there’s a hardening on both ends. So Matt, you could very well — I don’t know if this has happened — it’s conceivable that you might be invited to speak at a liberal arts university and be booed off the stage.
Mr. Kibbe: It’s possible.
Ms. Tippett: It’s possible. I mean, that also is a feature of our life together now. And I wonder how the two of you make sense of that and what you offer up, in terms of how we all make sense of that and how we navigate that.
Ms. McGhee: So, I think that things have gotten very complex. And with the, I think, really beautiful quotation that you gave, Matt, the ability to really know everything, we all experience information overload. And the capacity to understand, to filter, to test things that you learn, through mediated forms, in the real world, through human connection, is something that we can’t take for granted.
I was floored — I remember I was actually reading it on the subway on my smartphone — it was an article about a body of research that was showing how college students, because of their devices, had showed — I think it was almost a 40 percent drop in empathy. And it was because of just this simple thing. I mean, I’m sure there was more to it, but the most vivid example I saw that really resonated with me was, before you had the world at your fingertips, in your pocket, if you were sitting at a lunch table or waiting in line, and there was a pause in your conversation, you couldn’t just retreat into something that was deeply distracting and interesting. You would actually have to re-engage with the person next to you, look them in the eye and find something else to say, as awkward as that is.
But that that experience of having to go back to people at a moment of non-stimulation is something that we could miss and accidentally have a profound effect on our brains and our characters. So I think that we both need to embrace the limitless possibilities of technology and reaffirm the limitless possibilities of another human being that you’re next to in a room. And that is all the more important when the people that you might be next to in a room are different than you. How fascinating and interesting and bottomless that degree of knowledge could be.
Mr. Kibbe: As someone that’s spent a good deal of my life doing community organizing, nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. And one of the reasons that I do conferences like this is that I’ve also discovered this really wild discovery that it’s really hard to hate someone that you’re talking to face-to-face. And the opportunity there is that you could actually honestly discuss differences and maybe find common ground. And it helps to have a guy that was involved with the Tea Party with a progressive operative and to create the sense that we’re gonna have a fight, and then actually talk about something that we agree on.
I think that’s really cool because, going back to your question, young people choose everything a la carte. And they live in this sort of radical world, in that sense. And then they come to politics, and it feels like you’re shopping in a mall in Caracas or something. There’s absolutely nothing on the shelf for young people, and they’re almost offended by the idea that somebody that they don’t know just decided that they get two choices, and they don’t like either one of them. And so that’s why the system is breaking apart. And we should get ahead of that, but part of getting ahead of that is getting people that don’t think they have anything in common to sit down and actually have a conversation.
Ms. Tippett: You’ve said that one of your inspirations has been Saul Alinsky, who is also an inspiration to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — a community organizer. Eric said yesterday, “tolerance” is not nearly big enough a word. And I kind of think tolerance has helped get us to this place — we needed it in our toolkit, but we need other things in the toolkit because tolerance — the definition of “tolerance” in the medical context is “the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment.” But I’m curious about language or ideas or images that you feel might be a — not a successor to tolerance but the kind of robust companion we need to live into this potential of our age that we’ve been talking about.
Ms. McGhee: That’s a really great question. You should have a very successful podcast. [laughs] You really have great…
Ms. McGhee: That’s a really great question. So I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the ways that the “–isms” affect not just the subordinated groups but the dominant groups as well. And in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal Civil Rights case, it was a decision that rested on — and many folks will remember this — some social science research about the harms to the self-esteem of black children, of segregation.
There was a lower court case before it got up to the Supreme Court that also relied on social science research, talking about the harms to white children of growing up in a society where, a) they hear all these ideals about equality and liberty and opportunity and justice and yet are also given the lesson of hierarchy, that some people are worth more than others, that some people are “untouchable.” And the idea that as you’re growing up, you learn that there is a ladder of human value, and some people are at different rungs of it.
And so even if you’ve been placed by something you don’t control or understand, higher up on that ladder, you can always fall down. There are always rungs below. And so we run and we chase and we look for signals all the time about how we sit and how we fit, about who belongs and who’s out, how many likes we have, how much money we have, how close we are to power. It is, in some ways, an adolescent consciousness.
So when I think about what really needs to change, it’s not tolerance, right, because you can tolerate someone who’s lower on the ladder than you are. In fact, you kind of want them around so you know where you are. But we need to get to a place where there’s a real — it’s a pretty radical idea, but other societies have done it — just belief and acceptance of the fact that we’re all worthy.
Mr. Kibbe: I like the word “tolerance.” And I feel, at this particular moment in the U.S., tolerance would be an aspirational goal.
Ms. Tippett: OK, touché. [laughs]
Mr. Kibbe: A little bit more of where we are. And Libertarians always struggle to explain what exactly they are. Gary Johnson said, “I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” I don’t think that really captures it. Others have said “fiscally responsible and socially tolerant.” And the thing I like about tolerance — and I happen to think that the U.S. does pretty well when it comes to tolerating different points of view — is it goes to my core philosophy. I love it when people come together in community and voluntary association because that’s where the good stuff comes from.
But part of that is being able to opt out. Maybe I don’t want to be part of that project or that group or that business or that church, and that’s cool too. We have to get to tolerance before we can get to what I think is even more aspirational, which is respect, mutual respect, understanding that just because you don’t go to the same church I do, that’s okay, and I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from.
To me, that’s — liberty does that better because you never want to have a five to four vote in a congressional subcommittee that’s going to decide that one side wins and the other side loses. I think voluntary cooperation — and particularly at the local level, where we’re looking each other in the eye — this is how you solve really complicated problems. And if you try to replace that with a one-size-fits-all, top-down solution, it leads to the kind of resentment politics that we’re living through today.
Ms. Tippett: You have spoken of something that — that there’s such a thing as bleeding-heart libertarianism, which also seems to me to be something a little more than mere tolerance.
Mr. Kibbe: Yes. Oh, absolutely. And I think — I grew up reading Ayn Rand. And the caricature of Ayn Rand is this individualistic person that doesn’t care about anybody else. And Libertarians have always been guilty of emphasis on individual freedom. But I’m also a student of Hayek and a lot of really interesting social scientists who talk about the power of community and how it is that the evolution of community and individual cooperation creates rules that say, “Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.”
And this is not because somebody a long time ago passed a law. It’s because people working through their differences actually came up with a common set of understandings about how we could get along with each other. And to me, that’s essential to understanding how we’re gonna get out of some of the problems we have today. But Libertarians are so guilty of deemphasizing the importance of community, deemphasizing the potential of — the value of helping other people. Because the way we’re safe in society is not by buying more guns. It’s by counting on your neighbor not to hurt you. And so it’s kind of a thing.
[music: “Ada Deane” by Origamibiro]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Matt Kibbe and Heather McGhee at civilconversationsproject.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Ada Deane” by Origamibiro]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today repairing the breach — with Libertarian Matt Kibbe and progressive Heather McGhee. He runs Free the People. She runs the Demos Think Tank and Advocacy Group. We spoke at the Citizen University’s annual conference in Seattle.
Ms. Tippett: I want to experiment a little bit here with the two of you. Frances Kissling, a name some people here may know, gave me a gift of a pair of questions. So she was, for many years, a very renowned pro-choice advocate. She was the head of Catholics for Choice. And when she left Catholics for Choice, she gave herself over to figuring out what it would mean to be in real relationship with her political opposites. And she has two questions that she says if you can get to — normally, you would have to get to this place, right? Most of our public spaces where we talk about hard things are not trustworthy. It’s really not safe or reasonable to ask people to be vulnerable and open.
But the questions are — and I actually think, because the two of you have been in conversation before, and I think this is a safe, trustworthy space, she says, if you’re really starting to engage difference, can you get to the point where you can discuss, out loud, what can you see that is good in the position of the other, and what troubles you about your own position and the position of your group. And I feel like we’ve already wandered into that territory, but I’d love to see what happens if we — if I just ask each of you to say a little bit about that. So I don’t know, maybe Matt, why don’t you start. What do you see that is good in the position of the other — obviously, the position of the other is — we’re not talking about just one issue — but what is good? And what troubles you about your own position?
Mr. Kibbe: So I think there’s a fundamental truth in what Hillary Clinton was trying to say when she said it takes a village. And I think the progressive side is stronger in the sense that they’re trying to defend the community, and they care about everybody in that community. And that’s part of their narrative that I think is so compelling. And our side — and the Libertarians in Congress, to you at least, sound like they don’t care. And I think it’s far more complicated than that. And we would, of course, argue that government-run programs don’t deliver on the promises that they make, quite often. But I think we have to be better at proving that liberty is a great way to care for the least advantaged people.
Ms. Tippett: And I wonder when you — so your Twitter handle is “Got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.” [laughs] And your book is called, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff. And I guess a question that raises for me — and I think you were pointing at this also — is, given the fact that human beings are very strange, complicated creatures, does there need to be a modicum of freedom and safety that’s guaranteed somehow before that level of freedom will produce the beneficial results for everybody that you desire?
Mr. Kibbe: Well, I think the American experiment is premised on the idea that there are some fundamental rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and those are very important to Tea Partyers and Constitutional Conservatives and Libertarians. But those are negative rights. It’s the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not the right to an affordable healthcare plan or a college education. And those are fundamentally different things. And that’s a lot what the two sides argue about: can you actually use a top-down approach to provide positive rights to all of this other stuff?
But I would take a step back and lean on Friederich Hayek again. And the “got no signs or dividing lines” is actually a quote from the Grateful Dead. I should make the appropriate religious thing right now.
Mr. Kibbe: St. Jerry, of course, sang that first. But really, the reason it’s up there is it goes back to libertarian discussions on the evolution of civil society and how that happened. And it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t somebody saying, “Hey, we’re gonna suddenly get along and stop killing each other and invading each other’s countries.” It was a natural evolution of people with no rules or signs. And to me, it feels a little bit like hanging out in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert. Nobody…
Ms. Tippett: That’s not an experience I’ve had.
Mr. Kibbe: Anybody ever been to a Dead show? Back me up here.
Mr. Kibbe: It’s a cool, spontaneous community where, by and large, people get along, and they don’t hurt people or take their stuff. And to me, that’s what the market is. That’s what “spontaneous order” is all about. It’s about people figuring out how to cooperate in a way that respects the rights of everybody, in a sense that everybody is tolerant of everybody else. And out of that comes a mutual respect and a sense that it’s not just my life and my stuff that matters; it’s the guy next to me, and it’s the guy down the street. And you get that only from peaceful cooperation.
I hope, by the way — to pivot a little bit, I hope we can have a conversation about the imperial presidency and abusive executive power. And I would globally replace every criticism I had of Barack Obama and put Donald Trump in there and argue that you never want one person to have that much authority. It’s dangerous, and it’s corrosive to community and civil society.
Ms. Tippett: Also, I think you’re saying the freedom that you passionately believe in is a freedom for as much as a freedom from. Heather, what you see that is good in the position of the other, what troubles you about your own position, the position of your group.
Ms. McGhee: So, I think that we would never be at the place where we are, with progress on decriminalization of drugs and, more broadly, criminal justice reform, and a step back from the terrible scourge of mass incarceration, without Libertarians. As Michelle Alexander writes so beautifully in The New Jim Crow, the mass incarceration state was one that was created and promulgated, really, based on racial injustice.
And the libertarian movement, which was so predominantly, at least in my experience of it, white men, for them to join and say, “You know what? This is not the system that we want” — that was an extremely powerful intervention, that it wasn’t just communities of color saying, “Stop this.” It was then the people who were part of the political and institutional system that really drove mass incarceration saying, “You know what? This isn’t good for the whole country, and our philosophy about liberty demands that we put an end to this.” And I will fully acknowledge that it was a bipartisan consensus to develop mass incarceration in this country. So that’s something that I’m very thankful to the libertarian movement for, and I think we’re gonna continue to see great progress. And I know you, Matt, personally care a lot about that.
In terms of our side as progressives, what troubles me — we are a really big tent. I mean, you have to have the Oregon tree hugger, and the undocumented abuela, and the person who cares about marijuana decriminalization, and the person who wants to break up the banks, and the lesbian who just wants to get married and have a nice house. I mean, it’s really quite a big tent and grows ever more so as the polls get stronger and stronger on the right, as well.
I think that our side, as broad as that is — let me just say the Democratic Party, let me put it that way so it’s simpler — has not really contended with the divides on our side, with the fact that you can be basically tolerant, be a Democrat, but still have a view about the economy, because it benefits you, that puts you at odds with someone who is working two jobs and sleeping in their car in between, on a clopening, as they’re called now. That there is a cry in the Fergusons of the country, which are in every state, truly, whether it’s Native American or African American or Latino or poor, rural whites, that is just not being heard truly, in terms of the amount of transformative change that is needed — by the people who are currently calling the shots and setting the policy agenda on our side.
[music: “Single Payer” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with two bridge people across the fractures of our time – progressive activist Heather McGhee and Libertarian Matt Kibbe.
[music: “Single Payer” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: So, I feel like what is being unfolded, what you’re giving voice to up here, is a very different narrative from “the sky is falling,” from what’s in The New York Times today, from what’s on Fox News today. The story of our time is so much bigger, more complicated than the narrative — the official narratives, whatever that means.
So I guess I want to ask, as we draw to a close — obviously, I think everybody in this room is living the new narrative, making it happen. What’s not gonna happen is that — there’s that amazing scene in Atlas Shrugged where John Galt takes over all the airwaves of Earth for 70 pages. And I remember reading that, and the thing is, even if John — even if that could happen now — and it actually could happen now — that wouldn’t make the difference. Where are you looking? What are you reading? What are you listening to? How do you encourage other people to walk through the world experiencing a truer, harder, bigger narrative? Matt, do you want to…
Mr. Kibbe: The irony of John Galt is that it’s almost everything that we don’t believe in. It’s almost like there’s this benevolent dictator that’s going to step in and solve all of our…
Ms. Tippett: Everything that Libertarians don’t believe in?
Mr. Kibbe: Right. And it’s utterly contrary to what we supposedly believe. And I think one of the upsides of Trump — and I’m a student of public choice theory, which is this idea that if you really want to understand how politics and how public policy works, you need to appreciate that politicians and public servants are just as self-interested as the rest of us. And that’s where you get all sorts of distortions in public policy. You get the collusion between big government and big business and the bizarre outcomes that are utterly contrary to what everyone understands to be the public good.
But that’s the way it is. And so what I’m looking for and why I think community is so important to talk about today — and maybe it sounds different than what Libertarians in Washington are talking about — is that I don’t expect Washington to solve our problems. I think we’re gonna have to do it from the bottom up, and I think that politics is a lagging indicator of social change. So we got to Trump based on things that happened in the past, and if you want to fix the future, I, at least, have tried to step away from politics. It’s a little bit like the Precious. Once you put it on, it’s hard to take off again. But you got to get away from politics because it’s corrupting these conversations.
I think we’re gonna have to solve things from the bottom up, and it’s gonna involve people that think they hate each other to actually sit down and say, “OK, what’s — how do we work this out?” Because the revolution’s coming, and the old systems are breaking down, and if we don’t figure out how to solve these things even though we think we disagree with each other, we’re gonna end up with more Trumps, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be. And that’s bad populism. And if it’s a political campaign, everybody is gonna go back to their camps and start yelling at each other. If it’s about a common American value, people from all over the place are going to be nodding their head yes, and then they’re gonna look over and realize that the person that is also nodding their head yes is that guy that they’re supposed to hate. That’s how you do it.
Ms. McGhee: So I had this viral video experience…
Ms. Tippett: Right, Gary from North Carolina. [laughs]
Ms. McGhee: [laughs] Gary from North Carolina. It was not the cat videos that I watch a lot. It was this really unexpected moment when I was on C-SPAN. This man called in, said, “Hi, I’m Gary from North Carolina. I’m a white male, and I’m prejudiced.” And he went on to explain why and offer up a bunch of stereotypes. But then he ended, and he said, “But I want to change. How do I change and become a better American?” And I thanked him, and I, off the top of my head, gave him some thoughts — basically about how to sort of integrate his life. And then we went on to ten other calls. It was just a call-in show.
But the clip went on Facebook, and a million people saw it over the course of the weekend, and it took off from there. And I ended up getting a chance to talk to Gary on the phone. He found me on Twitter. His first tweet was, “How does this thing work?”
Ms. Tippett: There’s that healing internet again.
Ms. McGhee: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, exactly. And then I had a chance a few weeks later — we talked a few times — I was astonished to learn that he had really taken my off-the-top-of-my-head advice to heart and set on a path that would ultimately really transform his life. And he went from being a man who was telling racist jokes and had kind of avowed prejudiced beliefs and fears and anxieties, particularly about African Americans, to becoming a real friend of mine and someone who reads The New Jim Crow and Cornel West — and this was all in the past six months.
And Gary does something that I think is really powerful and anyone can do. And I want to maybe leave with this advice from Gary, if I can share this. He created this little system where he would see a person — in the waiting room at the VA, at the gas station, in line at the store. And if it was a person of color, he would sort of note to himself what his immediate reactions were, what he thought, just at the first, momentary impression, how intimidating or scary they were. And then he would force himself to say something to that person. “Oh, the traffic was really bad.” “When’s this line gonna move?” “How’s the weather?” Banal stuff. And get into a conversation.
It wasn’t always easy, depending on the person. And then he would think again, and sort of like a sliding scale of how much less intimidating that person seemed, or frightening, or anxiety producing after having had a basic, everyday conversation. This practice has been something that Gary has then done by really creating more relationships in his life across difference.
And that’s not the answer to institutional racism and structural racism and the deep economic divides and all of that, but it is a part of the healing that is necessary for those of us who live in a system that is hardwired to do exactly what it was set up to do, to be a part of the change. And I’ve been so inspired by having Gary in my life to show me the simple things we can do when we turn off the news and turn to the people in our neighborhoods and just ask them, “How are you doing?”
Ms. Tippett: But it’s also very sophisticated, what’s happened there, right? I mean, he’s changing his brain, in fact. In fact, he is reengineering. He’s rewiring.
Ms. McGhee: That’s right.
Ms. Tippett: I think it’s an amazing story. And we’re out of time, and I wish we could keep going. Was it Thoreau who talked about how “we contain multitudes?” I think it’s something that’s really come through to me in this is — the greatest antidote to reducing everything, absurdly, to two sides, is actually engaging another human being because each of us contains multitudes. So here, with the two of you, we’ve had much more than two sides presented. And the story of Gary, and the story of all of us, and every meaningful exchange any of us has had, like this is — there’s so much more complexity. And I thank you for embodying that and for a wonderful conversation.
Ms. McGhee: Thank you, Krista.
Mr. Kibbe: Thank you.
[music: “Kroost Kids” by Kettel]
Ms. Tippett: Matt Kibbe is the president and chief community organizer of Free the People. His books include Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto and more recently, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto.
Heather McGhee is president of the public policy organization, Demos. Her writing and research appear in many places, including the The New York Times, The Nation, and The Hill.
This conversation is part of On Being’s ongoing Civil Conversations Project. Learn more at civilconversationsproject.org.
[music: “Kroost Kids” by Kettel]
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuck.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Eric Liu, Ben Phillips, Sasha Summer Cousineau, Taelore Rhoden, Cary Wakeley, Tom Stiles and all the great people at Citizen University.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
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