If Teachers Took Over the Government with Sharon McMahon (Transcript)

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Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
If Teachers Took Over the Government with Sharon McMahon
November 1, 2022

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Sharon McMahon, better known as America's government teacher.

She used to teach high school government and law to classrooms full of students. Now, she's beloved for sharing nonpartisan facts with millions of fans. She hosts the podcast Here's Where It Gets Interesting and shares insightful, witty videos with her Instagram followers. They call themselves “the governerds”.

With her intellect, knowledge, and openness, Sharon gives me hope for politics. So with the midterm elections around the corner in the US, I figured it was time to ask her some of my many questions about the quirks of our democracy. Hey, Sharon McMahon.

[00:00:54] Sharon McMahon:
Hello. So happy to be here.

[00:00:56] Adam Grant:
Well, we'll find out if that's true.

[00:00:59] Sharon McMahon:
We, we will in short order.

[00:01:00] Adam Grant:
I can't wait. I think the place I have to start is to ask, and I've never asked you this before. How did you become a governerd?

[00:01:12] Sharon McMahon:
Mm, great question. Maybe it was when I was 12 and I had a paper route, and I spent the entire paper route reading the newspaper as I walked along in the 5:30 AM Minnesota morning.

Maybe it was when I was 15, and I spent my babysitting money buying a copy or buying a subscription, to Newsweek. Maybe it was in college when I had a lot of professors challenge what I thought were very legitimate viewpoints. Maybe it's all those—it’s probably more teaching high school government, though. That's probably the real genesis of it.

[00:01:46] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I love that. I think these patterns always make sense in hindsight, even though you can't see them as they're happening, right?

[00:01:53] Sharon McMahon:
That’s right.

[00:01:54] Adam Grant:
So how did you become the queen of the governerds?

[00:01:58] Sharon McMahon:
Great question too. I don't know how that title was bestowed upon me. Uh, but the truth is that, of course, 2020 was a challenging year for everybody, right? In a huge variety of ways.

I was running another business and was very busy prior to 2020 with my other business, and 2020 forced me to take a break from that business and gave me the opportunity to do things like notice the amount of misinformation on social media about very basic government topics, like how does the electoral college work?

And I decided that instead of twisting at windmills and wasting all my time arguing with strangers on the internet, that I would do something about it. And so I started making little explainer videos that were not partisan. They weren't telling you who to vote for. They didn't even use the real candidates’ names because the candidate names are triggering to people.

And, it turned out that people were hungry for that kind of information. Like, I just wanna understand what's going on without being told what I should be thinking.

[00:02:59] Adam Grant:
Well, I, I could not have imagined it coming at a better time or from a better source. Yes.

[00:03:05] Sharon McMahon:
Thank you.

[00:03:06] Adam Grant:
Yes, someone is bringing facts into politics. I did not know that was possible.

So I have a lot of questions about facts about our government system. We're at the midterm election window, and I should say, I normally avoid politics. I find it extremely divisive. I don't believe in political parties, to begin with, but I think people should think for themselves.

But you know, that aside, there are things I'm curious about, because as an organizational psychologist, a system of government is a kind of organization and ours does not make sense to me on a whole bunch of dimensions. So I'm hoping you can demystify some of it.

[00:03:49] Sharon McMahon:
You might be disappointed, Adam, really, you might be disappointed at the end of this. I don't know that your organizational psychology brain is gonna be satisfied with the answers that I give you, but I'll do my best.

[00:04:01] Adam Grant:
I, I don't expect to be satisfied. I do expect to be enlightened. Can you do that?

[00:04:06] Sharon McMahon:
Okay. I, I can help you with that. Absolutely.

[00:04:07] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Okay, so I guess my first question is, why are there no qualifications to run for office? Like, this is an important job that has a big impact on lots of people's lives.

[00:04:19] Sharon McMahon:

[00:04:19] Adam Grant:
I would never let someone fly a plane without a pilot's license or perform a surgery without a medical degree. And yet, you can run the country, no training required. Did the framers and founding fathers not think about these issues? Was there no such thing as qualification in that era?

[00:04:37] Sharon McMahon:
Okay. So a few things. The first thing is that they pre-qualified themselves by determining who was going to be able to vote for things like president, right? Like they created an electoral college and who could be in that electoral college? People who were already qualified and that was wealthy, white male landowners.

They already narrowed down their qualifications when they determined who was gonna be able to actually choose the president. So that in and of itself, right there lays the groundwork for determining who is qualified. I would argue that in fact, they did have qualifications because they narrowed down who could actually make these kinds of selections.

In their mind, there was a right and a wrong kind of person to be able to hold those higher offices, and so perhaps they didn't think it was necessary because they never imagined a time in the future where women would be allowed to participate at an equal level, or people who didn't have a lot of money, or people from a different economic or social background.

Perhaps they didn’t think that that would ever become a thing. And so it wasn't necessary. But there's also one other thing, which is that democracy, of course, comes from Greek word meaning “of the people”, right? And the government has the power that is bestowed upon it by the citizens. There's no birthright sovereignty, which is the opposite of monarchy, the opposite of where people were coming from in Europe, where sovereignty is bestowed upon you as a birthright.

So, again there, there's also this idea that we don't want to restrict and have a long list of qualifications because that tends to remind us too much of what was happening in Europe where there was a strong sense of like, “These are the right people, they were born the right people, and those are people who are, you know, peasants.”

So it's all those things. Perhaps a lack of looking into the future, perhaps misogyny, racism, and a backlash against monarchy.

[00:06:38] Adam Grant:
It's an unusual backlash against monarchy, though. Because when I think about the alternative to birthright, I don't think we'll just, “We're just gonna let anyone do it.” I think, “We’re gonna let anyone earn it.”

[00:06:50] Sharon McMahon:
This idea that -- that the United States is a meritocracy is also not real. That's not real.

[00:06:56] Adam Grant:
But we could be closer to one.

[00:06:59] Sharon McMahon:
Well, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's a lot of things we could do, and we choose not to because it's safer to maintain the status quo than it is to disrupt the applecart.

[00:07:06] Adam Grant:
Okay, so let's think about the bare minimum of qualifications then. Maybe some of these wouldn't upset the applecart. Why don't I have to pass a civics test in order to run?

[00:07:17] Sharon McMahon:
Yeah, great question. Why don't you have to know the three branches of government? There are people in Congress right now who cannot name the three branches of government. That's not hyperbole.

[00:07:27] Adam Grant:
And they belong to one of them. Right? So they already have a head start.

[00:07:30] Sharon McMahon:
That, that’s right. Additionally disturbing, once you have been elected, there's a congressional bootcamp for new members. It's not called a bootcamp, but it's run by a nonpartisan foundation. Everybody goes to Washington, and they learn how to be a congressperson.

How do we get money for desks? How do I get my employees paid? How do I introduce a bill? And so you would think that as part of the training process, so that people can arrive on day one knowing how to represent their district, you would think that they would learn the three branches of government.

Apparently, no. In some cases, apparently no, but I agree with you. There should be some minimum qualifications. Like shouldn't you at least be able to pass the same citizenship test that new, naturalized citizens have to take?

[00:08:12] Adam Grant:
Yes, please. How do we make this happen?

[00:08:16] Sharon McMahon:
Well see, this is the perpetual challenge is that Americans have a lot of great ideas, but it's incumbent upon the people who are representing them to make changes that affect them.

So it's a little bit like asking people to, you know, vote to raise their own taxes. People tend to not wanna do it. They don't wanna make rules that negatively affect them. But the answer is that we would have to amend the Constitution in order to create some kind of minimum qualifications. And that's a very lengthy process, and I think there's a lack of political will on the part of Congress to wanna do that.

[00:08:52] Adam Grant:
Okay. I actually wanna ask you a question about that. Constitutional Amendments, I counted 27 of them.

[00:08:58] Sharon McMahon:
That’s right.

[00:08:59] Adam Grant:
Okay, good. So far, I passed. Then, I counted the number of years it's been since the Constitution was written, and I started thinking: in the past 250 or so years, surely we've learned more than 27 things. Why are these amendments so rare?

[00:09:18] Sharon McMahon:
They are rare. We haven't passed one since the nineties, and that one was just a change in the way Congress was gonna, like if they wanted to increase their pay. It was not anything that the American public was like, “We really must change this amendment.” The good news is that every time, with maybe one exception, every time we have amended the Constitution, we have made it substantively better.

Every time we have made amends for our past wrongs, we have substantively increased the amount of rights that people have been given. I'm sure people wanna know like, which one wasn't the good one? And most people agree that that was the prohibition amendment, which we quickly repealed. So that is the upside to making it difficult to change the Constitution.

We don't have this Michael Scott's snip snap snip snap, back and forth, back and forth of like, every time we have a new administration, we change something back again, and it… We don't have this whiplash effect of constantly changing the Constitution, but I would absolutely argue that changes are needed and necessary, and most Americans agree with that.

Most Americans can think of a couple of constitutional amendments that they would be overwhelmingly in favor of, and those are things like term limits. Most Americans probably would support having some kind of minimum qualifications for a higher office—that somebody at least demonstrates an understanding of how government works or what, what democracy is. What are some of the fundamental tenets of democracy?

I also think most Americans, and this is born out with research, Americans want campaign finance reform. They do not approve of the way money works in our political system, and they would like to see that changed as well. So those are just a few examples of things that I would argue we should do to the constitution and haven’t.

[00:11:11] Adam Grant:
Uh, you mentioned term limits. I wanted to ask you about those. Why do we have term limits on the presidency, but not Congress or Supreme Court?

[00:11:20] Sharon McMahon:
Well, again, who's making the rules about the presidency? Right? It's Congress that's making those rules. So there's this idea of course, that if you're cynical, people are never gonna change to restrict their own power.

Now, are there people out there who go into the job being like, “There should be term limits, and I would vote for them. I'm only gonna run two times, or whatever it is”? Sure, there are people like that, but term limits were added to the Constitution in the 1950s. We didn't start out this country with term limits.

And the other thing too, when the Constitution was written, and you were gonna become a senator, that was not selected by the general public. The state legislatures chose who the senators were going to be. And being a senator was actually kind of a thumbs-down job. A lot of people quit during the 1790s. A staggering number of people quit Congress where they were like, “This is the worst. I'm living in a boarding house. Where is my family?”

So, being in Congress was not this, like, super prestigious, “I wanna stay here forever”, kind of job back then. And it is now, unfortunately. To a lot of people, it's a career instead of just a short window of public service. So perhaps they didn't see the need to include term limits in Congress because it was a job that not that many people actually wanted.

Like Andrew Jackson, for example, was in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and quit both times. Quit both houses of Congress, was like, “This is the actual worst job. I hate it here.”

[00:13:01] Adam Grant:
Wow. I wonder if we should make Congress less attractive.

[00:13:06] Sharon McMahon:
Yeah. Everyone has to live in a boarding house run by a cranky elderly woman who cooks you cabbage, and then the boarding house smells of cabbage for the entire week.

This is the new proposition. A lot of Americans are very tired of congressional insider trading, right? And that Congress enriches themselves with their insider knowledge of the economy and of businesses? If you look at the stock portfolios of some members of Congress, it's really shocking what they've been able to do for themselves over the years.

So that might be one way to make Congress less attractive, is make it so that you're not able to trade any individual stocks and you're not able to make yourself rich quickly and easily with your insider knowledge.

[00:13:55] Adam Grant:
Ooh, I like this idea. I think it might be a protection against something I worry about a lot in our electoral system.

I think we have an adverse selection problem. If I look at who's drawn to these kinds of leadership roles, and also who we favor for them, what jumps out consistently is what psychologists call the dark triad of, of personality: which is narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

If you, if you, I mean, seriously, if you are a narcissist, a Machiavellian, or a psychopath, you are drawn to power and you're also very good at making yourself attractive for that position of power. And that means we're systematically elevating the wrong people into power. And so your thought here of saying, “Well, wait, I'm gonna actually block the extent to which you can get enriched by this job”, maybe would deter some of those people from running.

[00:14:48] Sharon McMahon:
If it limited the amount of power that you could acquire, if you weren't allowed to have a book deal based on your experience in Congress, if you weren't allowed to have paid speaking gigs where you can get paid 100k to show up on a stage and you know, say a bunch of inflammatory things and have people clap and play a Bruce Springsteen song, if there was, if there we were not permitted to enrich yourself in that way, perhaps it would be less incentivizing. Absolutely.

There are other things that I can think of, too, that would decrease the amount of individual power that any given Congressperson would have, and that, going back to my previous idea about campaign finance reform, right now, some Congress people—I’m not gonna cast dispersions on character of every single member of Congress. I know some great members of Congress.

But there are some people who, who thrive on doing nothing but standing on podiums and standing on the steps of the capital using incredibly inflammatory rhetoric. And then, immediately, their coffers begin to fill, as soon as they go on camera. Immediately, it's like cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.

They make tens of millions of dollars off of that notoriety. It's fun for you to say things that are harmful to others. It's fun for you to have viral videos in which people are like, “Dear God. What is happening here?” And then is even more fun for you to watch the amount of money you make go up.

[00:16:23] Adam Grant:
Well you, I mean, you literally just described psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians in order.

So there was… a couple of years ago, there was a study published by Leanne ten Brinke and colleagues where they actually coded political speeches by, I think it was roughly 150 US Senators, for these dark triad traits. And they found that, um, once you became a senator, basically, if you had more markers of the dark triad, you either failed to gain influence, or you actually lost influence in the Senate.

Whereas senators who are more, uh, or at least weren't full of vices, were more likely to rise into leadership positions. And this, this was pre-2016, but it seems that there was a time in American politics, where once you got into Congress, you were rewarded for having virtues or at least penalized for having vices. Do you think that's changed?

[00:17:21] Sharon McMahon:
Absolutely. And one factor that has changed that is the internet. The internet makes it easy for me to be like, “Who's saying this? Oh, click!" And then be taken immediately to their mailing list, where they can immediately ask me for money to fight whatever evil thing they believe that they're fighting.

The feedback loop of the internet has made it in incredibly incentivizing for people to engage in those kinds of behaviors. Whereas before, in order to raise money, you had to build relationships with people. You had to earn their trust in order for them to give you money. Now, it's incredibly easy to just send somebody $5. It's like buying a pack of gum at a checkout line, now. It's incredibly easy to continue to incentivize people who act that way.

[00:18:12] Adam Grant:
All right, so last year, I was asked to testify before Congress, which sounded ominous, but it wasn't. There was, there was a committee on the modernization of Congress that was a bipartisan group of leaders who were interested in tackling this problem.

And we got together for a couple hours to talk about “how do you fight the rewarding of extreme and polarizing and divisive behaviors that's happening online?” And one of the ideas that bubbled up that I was intrigued by: what if we gave people a civility score for their tweets? There could be a bipartisan committee that rates them.

You could also write an open algorithm to assess civility and toxicity. We know how to measure these things, and then if you have high levels of incivility or toxicity, you're denied the opportunity to, to gain power or leadership roles within Congress. If we could get this implemented, do you think it would make a difference.

[00:19:08] Sharon McMahon:
Here's the thing. Leadership roles in Congress are not chosen by the citizenry. They're chosen by other members of Congress, and so, you know, like if you're going to become the Senate Majority Leader, that's chosen by other people in your party. If you are Speaker of the House, it's chosen by everybody in the House of Representatives.

So, it might make a bigger difference to citizens who are choosing who to vote for. If you're looking at the types of people who are in Congress, what they want is people to follow them, right? They want to grow and consolidate their own power, and so if you want people to follow you, you have to make the kind of speeches that people in your own party want to hear. And I think that the change that would come from that type of an idea would be a gradual change. It would be a change over a period of time, where citizens perhaps make different choices about who to vote for. And then slowly Congress becomes filled with perhaps different kinds of people.

I know we've talked about this before, that some kind of, like, third party organization that is like this person, number one, is qualified to do this job. Number two, this person has actual ideas. Like there's a certification process that perhaps somebody could undergo in order to be able to demonstrate that, like, listen, “I'm the right person for the job.” But if you look at who is incentivized and who is disincentivized for leadership positions in Congress, it's their own colleagues. So it has to start with who are we electing?

[00:20:49] Adam Grant:
I wonder if we could accelerate the, the gradual change you're describing by just saying, “Let's do a full reset. Let's vote everyone out of Congress. No incumbent will be elected, or reelected, I should say. No incumbent will be reelected, and we're just gonna start with a blank slate and try to reset the culture that way.” Not gonna happen, right?

[00:21:10] Sharon McMahon:
Of course not, but I think actually a lot of Americans would be like, “You know, okay.” You know what I mean? Congress's approval rating is abysmal. People tend to like their own individual Congress person, but they don't like Congress as a whole, you know? The approval rating is less than 30%. It's terrible. Americans don't feel that they're working in their best interest, that they're doing things for the good of the country.

I mean, I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of like, “We're starting over, and if you want back in, you better earn it, or earn your spot at the table.”We're starting to move into this idea that you will just become reelected. You'll just get reelected over and over and over. It's almost like a pseudo-birthright. That's what incumbency has become. You continue to be entitled to this position because you've held it for a long period of time.

[00:22:05] Adam Grant:
Ooh, that is a dangerous way to elect people. Well, okay, so part of what you're suggesting is that we need to help the electorate make better decisions about who's gonna represent them.

I've been thinking about this for a while with my organizational psychology hat on, and I think about an election as a forecasting task, right? What I'm trying to do as a voter is to predict how well is this candidate gonna rise to the challenges of the office, and what we do right now is basically a bad job interview process, right?

We get to see people do interviews and debates. We watch speeches and occasionally commercials, but what we're really supposed to do is get a sample of their work, right? If I were gonna hire somebody for any other job, like the easiest way to gauge whether I want you to fly my plane is to watch you fly a plane, right?

The best way to figure out if you're a good surgeon is to get data on your patient mortality rates. So, I was thinking about what the political equivalent of this is, and I thought, okay, uh, maybe low-hanging fruit, w e could do war games. We could create different kinds of policy simulations and then see how they do.

But nobody would watch that. It wouldn't be, it wouldn't be entertainment. And I think the debates, I find them exasperating, but people find them entertaining. They seem to be theater. So one idea I've been excited about for a while is I wanna challenge the candidates to play board games. And I wanna do this in part because I have learned a lot about my friends and family from watching how they handle board games, and I wonder if the same is true for a political candidate.

So here's my thought: I made a list of skills, then I tried to match board games to them. So critical thinking will play Clue. Diplomacy will play Risk. Strategy? We could do Chess or Settlers of Catan. Verbal fluency, I’ll take Scrabble, Boggle, even Taboo. Economic policy, Monopoly, which would also help with anger management.

If you throw the board, you're disqualified, and if we wanna do civics and history knowledge, Trivia Pursuit, Jeopardy. What do you think?

[00:24:13] Sharon McMahon:
Okay, so this is… operating on the assumption, this game theory, right? Operating on the assumption that Americans make decisions based on logical information gathering. Do you think that that is accurate? That that is how Americans make—

[00:24:33] Adam Grant:
I know you're where you're leading the witness, but I'm gonna, I'm gonna reject the premise of the question and say, I think we are capable of making more logical decisions.

[00:24:44] Sharon McMahon:

[00:24:44] Adam Grant:
And if most Americans watched a candidate have a temper tantrum meltdown in a Monopoly game, they might start to take that information into consideration. Maybe, maybe not.

[00:24:54] Sharon McMahon:
Maybe. Maybe. Are we capable of doing better and doing more? Yes. Have generations of Americans gone before us and done more with less and endured more hardship and made incredible change despite the headwinds that they were faced with? Absolutely. Does it have to be this way? No, it doesn’t.

We can do more and be better, but right now, we make decisions about political candidates based on purely emotion: Do I like you or not? The way to earn my vote is do you say things that I wish that I could say out loud?

[00:25:31] Adam Grant:

[00:25:32] Sharon McMahon:
We’ve talked about this before too. I don't give a crap about political parties. I don't care. I don't have any kind of allegiance to any party. Like I wish that we didn't have parties in the way that we do right now.

[00:25:43] Adam Grant:

[00:25:43] Sharon McMahon:
But that's the easy way for people to make decisions; what letter is behind your name? And you know, given the fact that I have not spent much time researching, I'm just gonna choose from a letter behind your name.

[00:25:54] Adam Grant:
I read recently that in ancient Athens, I think it was mayors were basically picked at random, like jury duty. And there's actually research on this in my field: Alexander Haslam and colleagues published a series of experiments showing that if you choose leaders of a group at random, the group actually makes better decisions. Completely at random. Instead of choosing the leader that we think is most qualified or most likely to represent our values and ideologies, if we just draw out of a hat, the group does better, and it seems to be because the randomly chosen leader feels more of a responsibility to do what's best for the group as opposed to feeling entitled to advance his or her own agenda.

And watching some of the characters that have been elected to office in the United States over the past decade, I don't think we would do worse if we chose it.

[00:26:51] Sharon McMahon:
A random selection would probably be better, and that is not hyperbolic.

[00:26:56] Adam Grant:

[00:26:56] Sharon McMahon:
Choosing a—

[00:26:57] Adam Grant:
You’re not hesitating on that.

[00:26:59] Sharon McMahon:
No, we would be better off, ‘cause guess what? We would get a lot of ordinary people who have to solve real problems in their lives, whose parents are sick with Alzheimer’s, and they have twins that are two years old, and they're just trying to, like, make it through the day. We would have a random selection of Americans and not this dark triad of people who are attracted to fame and power.

The first female mayor in US History, and her name, her name was Susanna Salter, and she was elected as a joke. As a joke. This was during a time in American history when women were not allowed to vote yet, but they were permitted to vote in, in some municipal elections, and Susanna Salter is from Kansas, and women had sort of just gotten the right to vote in municipal elections.

Susanna Salter lived in a very small town, and literally a day or two before the election, there was a women’s, like, temperance group that was meeting, and a bunch of men attended this temperance group meeting as a way of like intelligence gathering because women's temperance coincided with women's suffrage.

So they decided, after attending this meeting, that the best course of action would be to advance someone on the ballot who had no chance of winning. Like, let's put someone on the ballot as a joke because she will never win. You want power? Okay. Who, who's gonna, who should we pick? And they ended up choosing this woman, Susanna Salter, who had multiple small children.

She was hugely pregnant at the time, and word went around this small town. People burst into her home one evening while she's doing laundry and said, “Would you take the job if you won?” And she was like, “What?” And she was elected mayor without ever having run for mayor without any desire to have political power, and she was highly successful at being the mayor.

Even the men of the town were like, “Well, I thought it was a joke, but she actually did a pretty good job.” And she was only in office for a little while, b ecause she never aspired to be powerful. That was never her goal. She didn't have those power aspirations. Um, but by all accounts, she was a good mayor of the town. She had no preparation. She had, like, one day's notice, but she did her best. And I think an ordinary American doing their best is perhaps what we need right now.

[00:29:44] Adam Grant:
Like I'm, I'm thinking back to Washington and Washington having been a reluctant leader who, multiple times, resisted the presidency and said, “I don't want this job.” The problem with that is you can't know whether someone is truly reluctant, but are there other ways to, to identify those people who are in it for the right reasons, who genuinely want to serve? How else have you thought about it?

[00:30:07] Sharon McMahon:
One of the biggest challenges with running for office is that it has become something that only the wealthy are able to do.

It requires you to take a year off of your job to fundraise and to campaign for yourself. If you're running for like, let's say, federal office, most Americans can't do that. Most Americans don't have the ability to just quit their job while they run for office. This goes back to my idea that we need radical campaign finance reform.

Most other democracies in the world do not pump tens of—billions with a b—billions of dollars into the electoral process. So if we had radical campaign finance reform that made it so that everybody had the same amount of money to spend, and that money came from public sources where the money would then have to be tracked. Everybody gets the same. That’s all you get.

They would then be answerable not to the dark money Super PACs. They would be answerable to the taxpayers of the United States. It's their money that they're spending, and they have to be transparent about it. That right there, if, if we allowed people, the average American, the opportunity of access to publicly funded campaigns and shortened that duration, we might incentivize normal, quote-unquote “average”—I'm working an ER somewhere. We might incentivize them to consider running for office instead of only these Machiavellian millionaires.


[00:31:58] Adam Grant:
Alright, the lightning round.

[00:31:59] Sharon McMahon:

[00:31:59] Adam Grant:
You ready for this?

[00:32:00] Sharon McMahon:
I'm ready. I'm ready.

[00:32:01] Adam Grant:
Do you have a favorite historical government hero who might be an unsung hero -- someone we don't know enough about, and we should all go and learn about?

[00:32:10] Sharon McMahon:
Norman Mineta.

[00:32:12] Adam Grant:
Who’s that?

[00:32:13] Sharon McMahon:
Norman Mineta. He later became the Secretary of Transportation, and he is one of the only people who has served in the administrations of more than one president of opposing parties.

And it was Norman Mineta who made the decision on 9/11 to ground all of the planes. And it was also his call to say, “We are not going to begin racially profiling people who may or may not have perpetrated this attack on the United States.” He was incarcerated in a Japanese incarceration camp as a child during World War II, and he knew the dangers of racial profiling and insisted that we not do that.

[00:32:58] Adam Grant:
Wow, great choice. Is there a government policy that we no longer have that you would like to revive from the past?

[00:33:07] Sharon McMahon:
Fairness doctrine.

[00:33:08] Adam Grant:
I’m not gonna ask a follow-up because then it's gonna lead to a whole conversation and I'm trying to make this a lightning round.

[00:33:11] Sharon McMahon:

[00:33:13] Adam Grant:
Who’s on your dream team for Congress if you are drafting?

[00:33:18] Sharon McMahon:
Adam Grant?

[00:33:18] Adam Grant:

[00:33:21] Sharon McMahon:
Why not? Uh, my husband, Chris.

[00:33:24] Adam Grant:
People that you're not related to.

[00:33:25] Sharon McMahon:
People that I'm not related to.

[00:33:21] Adam Grant:
That was a good cop out answer by the way.

[00:33:29] Sharon McMahon:
That was a good cop thing. Well, he would be good in Congress. Geez. I'm gonna tell him. Tell Chris that you said no, you kiboshed his candidacy.

[00:33:35] Adam Grant:
I, I just think it might be a little bit nepotistic, and we're trying to make for a fairer system.

[00:33:40] Sharon McMahon:
More transparency. More transparency. Okay. All right. Um, here's, here's what I think. Scratch the whole Congress. Install 535 American government teachers in Congress, they will whip that thing into shape so fast. Every single one knows that three branches of government. Every single one.

[00:34:00] Adam Grant:
That is such a good idea.

[00:34:01] Sharon McMahon:
Every single one. Everyone is, every single one is very adept at listening to really dumb, poorly thought out opinions, because that's, that's what most ninth graders have, right?

[00:34:12] Adam Grant:
I'm gonna quote you to our ninth grader this afternoon. I can't wait. I think this is the first policy position of the Governerd party that you're gonna start. So we're gonna, we're gonna replace Congress with government teachers. I love this.

[00:34:26] Sharon McMahon:
I fully support this idea

[00:34:29] Adam Grant:
I do too.

[00:34:29] Sharon McMahon:
Scratch all of y'all. We're gonna get a bunch of people who are well educated and make almost no money. They're gonna come in, fix it up, and then they're gonna leave.

[00:34:38] Adam Grant:
You know, of course if this is successful, you're just gonna attract a bunch of dark triad characters to become government teachers.

[00:34:48] Sharon McMahon:
It's their villain origin story.

[00:34:49] Adam Grant:
Yes. Like what? That's right. Why are all the ninth-grade government classes suddenly being taught by sadists? Like, how did this happen?

[00:34:58] Sharon McMahon:
Why is he wearing a cape?

[00:35:02] Adam Grant:
Okay. Last lightning question. You are on my list for the people who should be in charge of setting up a government on the Moon or Mars. When you do that, what will be your first policy proposal?

[00:35:19] Sharon McMahon:
I was not aware that I was on this committee.

[00:35:22] Adam Grant:
Well, I don't think it exists yet, but I'm, I'm thinking at that there will be.

[00:35:27] Sharon McMahon:
Um, okay. Okay. I think the first thing we need to do is establish the boundaries, right? Like there's a lot of evidence that shows that boundaries actually increase the amount of creativity, within the boundaries, right?

If it's just like,“have at it, do whatever you want”, people get paralyzed by indecision. So we need boundaries, and we need boundaries that uphold the principles of democracy. And as that needs to be established, of things like limited government power comes from the people, you know, all of these kinds of things. And then within there, I would love to see what other people come up with.

[00:36:00] Adam Grant:
I think that is right on target. You're hired.

[00:36:06] Sharon McMahon:
Thank you. Oh, perfect.

[00:36:07] Adam Grant:
I don't have the power to hire you, but you're definitely hired.

[00:36:10] Sharon McMahon:
But see, if you ran for Congress, you might.

[00:36:13] Adam Grant:
Good. Good -- good. That was a really good try. Not, not processing, not happening.

[00:36:21] Sharon McMahon:
It’s not happening.

[00:36:22] Adam Grant:
Good luck for that. I wish you the best.

[00:36:23] Sharon McMahon:
When you become a surprise Congressperson, we’ll see who laughs last.

[00:36:28] Adam Grant:
There are a lot of other countries that have run their own experiments in democracy, and I imagine there are some things that other countries have done better than us. What are your top picks from around the world of, of reforms that we should think about in our government?

[00:36:42] Sharon McMahon:
Uh, I was in Jamaica a few years ago when it was election season, and there are actual commercials on Jamaican television that tell you to call a hotline number if you hear a political candidate making disparaging remarks about their opponent.

You report them. You report them if they are, like, at a campaign event saying, “Adam Grant is the worst and he should never -- Like, here's all the terrible things I have to say about him.” Like, people are gonna pick up the phone and call the hotline number.

Now, am I suggesting that we need a hotline? Um, not necessarily, but it just goes to show that the American way of looking at the political system of like, it just needs to be all mudslinging 24/7 is not the standard around the world.

[00:37:33] Adam Grant:
You're really careful about neutrality. You're very careful about not being partisan. As you mentioned earlier, you stand for facts, not opinions and ideologies. And yet there are times when you take a stand. Um, I feel like I'm in the same boat here. I have found that there are some people who get very upset when I don't comment on a politically relevant issue, and some people who get very upset when I do comment on it, and the people who get upset when I don't comment say, “But, we know what your values are, and this situation is unambiguously a violation of your values. How can you not say anything?”

The people who do get upset say, “but one of your core values is standing for evidence. And we don't have systematic data on this yet, so stop being a pundit.” And the way that I've tried to navigate that tension is to say, “I'm not a pundit. I'm gonna speak if I have social science to bring to bear on the issue.”

So I will speak about Iran, because we have research on how to run a successful, peaceful protest. We have evidence that actually peaceful protests are more likely to succeed, even against dictators. Um, I will speak about what it means to be a servant leader in Ukraine in the face of this attack against Russia.

And I feel like then I'm drawing on social science, and I'm adding something from my expertise to the conversation as opposed to another uninformed opinion. So that's kind of where I've landed. What do you make of that and how are you navigating this?

[00:39:02] Sharon McMahon:
I think it's dangerous to both sides of every issue, right? There's some issues where it's like there's no legitimate other side. We're not gonna be like, “Well, what are the good sides of Hitler?” No. We’re not doing that. That's not a game we're playing. We're not gonna “both sides” chattel slavery. We're not doing that. That's dangerous. There is no legitimate opposing side.

Now we can sit here and argue about whether the top marginal tax rate should be 32% or 41%. We can argue about that. There's legitimate arguments on both sides. There's no legitimate argument to tyranny. There's no legitimate argument for repressive authoritarian regimes. There's no legitimate argument for genocide.

So there are absolutely a set of topics that I just cannot pretend that there is anything that you could say that would bring something fruitful to the table. And those were topics related to things like systemic oppression of people, like you were talking about with Iran. Those are things related to discrimination, antisemitism, racism, things of that nature.

When somebody is lying, I'm gonna say “You were lied to. That is a lie.” You know what I mean? I'm just gonna come right out and say that “I’m sorry you were lied to, but that's a lie. It's not happening. That was not real.” I don't think that we're serving anybody by pretending that some things have legitimacy when they don’t.

I mean, that said, I'm not gonna tell you what the top marginal tax rate should be. I'm gonna hopefully provide you with some education and allow you to come to your own conclusions on that, because I think it's much more valuable to have people who arrive at a conclusion that is different than my own, but they arrive at it by thoughtful means, than to just spoon feed you information that you parrot back to me. Like you, there are some things that are just non-negotiable for me. And those are some of them.

[00:40:58] Adam Grant:
Well, I think that obviously speaks volumes about your integrity. I'm a big fan of the way that you approach the question of when to engage and what it means for there to be a legitimate other side. The way you do that is really different from most people. Um, you don't blame and shame, you don't demean. Talk to me about why and how.

[00:41:19] Sharon McMahon:
We become blind to our own weaknesses when everybody is like, “I agree. I agree. I agree. I agree.” We need legitimate dissent in order to examine our weak areas and the idea that anybody is arrogant enough to think that they have a lock on the best way to think about every issue, the best way to approach every topic… That arrogance is a weakness. So I set aside everything else. If for no other reason, that it helps the, helps the world, not just the United States, it helps the world become safer and more peaceful to listen to legitimate dissent.

I find that valuable. The idea that the United States has always and should continue to welcome diverging viewpoints is in our fabric. It's in, it’s part of who we are.

[00:42:12] Adam Grant:
Long live Lincoln's team of rivals.

[00:42:13] Sharon McMahon:
That's right. Exactly. That's exactly right. We're all dumber if we don't ever hear something that is different than our current way of thinking. We’re all lesser for never having our viewpoints challenged.

[00:42:31] Adam Grant:
Sharon, this, this has been so eye-opening and fun as always. Thank you.

[00:42:37] Sharon McMahon:
I feel the same.

[00:42:38] Adam Grant:
All right. I'm ready to vote for you. Where do I, Where do I do it?

[00:42:42] Sharon McMahon:
The same place I'll be voting for you.

[00:42:45] Adam Grant:
Nowhere. Good.


There are a lot of takeaways from this conversation that I think Congress needs to be listening to. In particular, being a ninth-grade government teacher for at least a year as a pre-qualification for Congress. But for me, I think the most important message from this conversation is Sharon's perspective on taking a stand.

A balanced argument does not weigh two sides equally; it weighs the strongest evidence more heavily. Critical thinking is not about representing every view. It's about recognizing your own biases and then being willing to give serious consideration to facts that contradict your hopes and beliefs.

Rethinking is hosted by me, Adam Graham, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case, Banban Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Hana Matsudaira. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:44:00] Sharon McMahon:
Well, you know, if you think about like 1787 when there were finishing up writing the Constitution.

[00:44:07] Adam Grant:
I often think about 1787, by the way.

[00:44:09] Sharon McMahon:
I do, I do, I think about 1787 literally almost every day. Um, it's kind of my job.