Jane Coaston, host of The New York Times’ podcast The Argument, understands why most people shy away from arguing. Good arguments are hard to come by, she told Sojourners, and that’s part of what motivates her interest in hosting the podcast.
“You kind of want to create what you aren’t seeing right now, and I think that for me was the act of good argumentation,” she said. “I’m definitely one of those people that’s said before, ‘I hate arguing,’” Coaston said, adding that she hopes the show will model better arguements than the ones she sees. “That’s a skillset I’ve always been working on and developing. It’s like a muscle.”
Getting guests to talk with each other, rather than at each other, is one of Coaston’s specialties.
“The Argument is an opportunity for people’s views to be challenged by people who are just as smart and just as passionate about the exact same issue, but on the opposite side,” she said.
Take the episode “Republicans Are Very, Very Close to Driving Democracy Into a Ditch,” where Coaston talked with two people with different views on the value of Biden's approach to bipartisanship: Jason Grumet, who is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Aaron Belkin, the director of Take Back the Court, a campaign that seeks “to rebalance” the Supreme Court by adding four more seats.
When Belkin suggested that bipartisanship would be appropriate during a “moment of normal politics,” Grumet replied that “the idea that we should let four years of one president kind of break our democracy and give up on it, again, is kind of shortsighted.” At this point, Coaston interjected.
“[Belkin,] you said that bipartisanship was appropriate for a time of normal politics, but this isn’t that moment. When did we have normal politics?” Coaston asked. “I was born in 1987. I have never known normal politics … So it seems to me that we keep thinking about this halcyon time of normalcy. But has there ever really been one?” By challenging her guests’ assumptions, Coaston pushed them to expand and reconsider their argument.
The Argument has been produced since 2018, but Coaston took over as host earlier this year. She said the job is the “culmination of a dream,” and described her role on the podcast as part moderator, interviewer, antagonist, and ally. The job, she said, is not just to explore disagreements on a given topic, but to “get people to recognize some of the flaws in their own arguments.”
Before joining the Times, Coaston was a senior politics reporter at Vox, writing primarily about U.S. conservatism, the Republican Party, and white nationalism. She previously reported on politics for MTV News, worked as a speechwriter for the Human Rights Campaign, and wrote about football for SBNation.
Coaston’s reporting for Vox often led her to write about Christians, specifically white evangelicals. Coaston grew up Catholic and now attends a Methodist church; she is also queer and biracial (her father and mother married in the late 1970s, when American support for interracial marriage was less than 40 percent).
“My parents are very liberal Democrats, union Democrats. We went to church every single week, and my mom was on parish council,” she said. “... Whether I’ve been close to [Christianity], or walked away from it for a time, it’s always existed in this context — it’s kind of like a web or netting around me.”
Though she often covers Christians who have acted with antagonism — rather than ecumenism — toward Christians like her, she remains compelled by the faith. The messy, complicated, imperfect nature of Christians tracks well with the story of the Bible, which Coaston describes as a story of “people who were beloved by God, even though they drove him absolutely nuts.”
Coaston often finds that Christian arguments, especially political arguments, subscribe to a view of God that is too narrow.
“I think there are aspects of people attempting to discuss politics in Christian terms, or people interpreting their politics through a Christian lens, that’s always going to lead to terrible arguments,” she said. God cares about politics, Coaston said, but not in such a literal way that God has an opinion on something like Medicaid expansion. To those using God-talk to drum up votes, Coaston asks: “Why would you want God to be that small?”
Where some Christians — of all political persuasions — can be hyper-specific and declarative in their application of biblical themes, Coaston sees faith as larger than modern policy debates. The faith of those who committed themselves to the liberation of the poor, for instance, has always inspired her.
Coaston understands that some would find liberation theology — which some associate with Marxism — objectionable. But she said she “always looked up to” people like Jean Donovan and St. Óscar Romero, who were both murdered by U.S.-assisted forces of El Salvador because of their commitments to the poor and resistance to state power.
“These were people who were living out their values, and they were living out, I believe, what Christiainty was supposed to be, [and] especially what Catholicism can be.”
The desire to protect the marginalized and those with less power in society is also what drives Coaston’s political philosophy: libertarianism.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that seeks to reduce state interference in lives and markets. While Coaston acknowledged that many of her fellow libertarians might be self-interested in their pursuit of limited government, “one of the nice things about libertarians is that you don’t have to agree with other libertarians,” she said. And true to character, her own politics don’t conform to cultural conceptions about libertarianism.
For Coaston, libertarianism is a way to empower others, especially minority groups. Take, for example, her approach to policing: In an opinion piece for the Times in 2017, she wrote about how too many laws can contribute to racial oppression and injustice.
“For millions of Americans, laws can be safely ignored. Jaywalking is sometimes the easiest way to cross a road without sidewalks or where the crosswalk is far away. Speeding, though unsafe, happens when you’re late for work. And sometimes you forget to signal when driving into the grocery store parking lot. But for other Americans — black Americans — any of these simple decisions can result in arrest, fines or even death,” she wrote. “If some people can ignore a law, and others can’t, that law is not being enforced fairly. And if some people can flout law enforcement and survive, and others obey it and die, law enforcement is not doing its job properly.”
Where others are seeking to limit the control others have on their lives, Coaston sees libertarianism as a statement about power: who should wield it and how.
“I understand the corrupting nature of power, especially for myself, and I think about what if I had everything I wanted politically, what would that mean for someone else,” she said. “And if someone else had everything they wanted politically, what would it mean for me, and why should either of us have that much power over one another’s lives? I think that’s the basis of it.”
These are some of the meta-questions behind political debates, and Coaston isn’t planning to shy away from those with different perspectives.
“Too often we get ourselves hyped up by the people who already agree with us … but this show is something where I can be the entity that asks the right questions; I can be the entity that raises the right points to challenge both the minds of the people on the show and the minds of the audience,” she said. “This is an opportunity to have the conversations I’ve always wanted to have.”