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The American Government is a *little* complicated
But we know that being a good financial feminist means that we engage in the civic process –– which means we need to understand how the civic process works and what we can do to make it better.
To learn more, we sat down with Sharon McMahon –– you may know her as America’s Government teacher with over 1 million followers on her Instagram, SharonSaysSo. In this episode, we talk about some of the biggest questions we have about how the government works –– from the roles of congresspeople to the overturning of Citizens United to who controls your school’s curriculum and so much more.
If anything, we hope this episode gets you fired up for the midterm elections and helps your parse through the often purposefully confusing narratives from political candidates.
Get more election information: https://www.rockthevote.org/
What you’ll learn:
The pros and cons of the electoral college system
Why politicians often listen to corporations over the concerns of their constituents
A lot of shocking facts about Aaron Burr
Who is actually in charge of what (and how to find out)
Tori Dunlap (00:00:00):
Hello, Financial Feminist. Welcome back. We got a great episode as always for you today. This one’s especially incredible if you’re just trying to figure out how the American political system works and you’re trying to figure out what you can do to support the kind of candidates and issues that you want to support. Before we get into it, some housekeeping. One, as always, please feel free to subscribe, review, rate the show. It helps other people discover the show and discover our movement of financial feminism. Speaking of the movement of financial feminism, we also have a book called Financial Feminist that is available wherever you get your books.
Not only as a hard cover, but also as an ebook or an audiobook. In case you’re living under a rock and haven’t figured it out, if you’re based in the United States, we’re just a few weeks away from midterms. It has been impossible not to notice how contentious these last few years, or really last decade has been in US politics. You’ve probably seen the, oh my gosh, the amount of texts I get every day from the Democratic Party, and I love you all, but oh my gosh, they’re texting me like crazy. They’re like, “Hello, I need this. I need this. I need this.” It’s just crazy. The ads I’m seeing as well on television, and I feel like we’ve been in midterm season for months. They’re coming up here.
In addition to the advent of rampant disinformation on social media and conspiracy theories and political stunts, and politicians just ignoring the values and needs of their constituents for payouts from lobbying bodies and super PACSs, we wanted to bring on someone to talk about all of that, and how we can see through the bullshit and make our political system better for people. Sharon McMahon is on a mission to curate facts, fun, and inspiration by educating Americans on democracy, politics, and history. After years of serving as a high school government and law teacher, Sharon took her passion for education to Instagram with a mission to combat political misinformation with nonpartisan facts.
Sharon has earned a reputation as America’s government teacher and quickly amassed over one million social media followers affectionately known as the governerds. Sharon is also the host of the top rated Here’s Where It Gets Interesting podcast, where each week she provides entertaining yet factual accounts of America’s most fascinating moments and people in history. She has also led her community in various philanthropic initiatives that have raised more than $4 million for teachers, domestic violence survivors, terminally ill children, victims of COVID-19, medical debt forgiveness programs, Ukrainian refugees, and more.
She’s a total badass. We’re just so excited to have her on the show, and I was so impressed by this interview and so impressed by her work. We brought her on specifically now because as we get closer and closer to the elections in November, we felt it was really important to talk about how the government actually works, how to spot disinformation and misinformation, and including what is the difference between those two things, and how we can get money and lobbyists out of politics to encourage elected officials to work for the people and not big corporations. As I mentioned in her bio, she does a great job of distilling facts that are nonpartisan.
Regardless of where you fall or where your friends or family may fall on the political spectrum, this will be a powerful episode to just better understand elections, how government works, and how we can make sure we’re getting our information from places that are factual. Sharon is an incredible teacher, so full of knowledge and just a great example of someone making a difference, and I can’t wait for you to hear this conversation, so let’s go ahead and get into it. All right. I’m going to dive right into it. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about how government works?
Sharon McMahon (00:03:32):
Well, of course, there are a lot of misunderstandings about how it’s structured, whose jobs are what. I think people greatly overestimate the power that a president has. Somebody asked me last week, they were talking about this potential Supreme Court decision that might overturn the precedent that Roe versus Wade established, and their question was, what good is being the president if you can’t change things like this? Their opinion was that it should be changed. I think that’s the attitude a lot of people have, is do you remember when you were in elementary school
? They’re like, “If you are president for a day, what would you do?”
It was always like, “Give everybody candy. Give everyone money.” There’s this perception that presidents have a lot of power that in fact they do not have. I think that’s one of them, for sure, is a misunderstanding of whose power we’re talking about when we’re talking about governmental action.
Tori Dunlap (00:04:35):
What is your favorite quirky fact about the government or something that the average person wouldn’t know?
Sharon McMahon (00:04:42):
Oh my gosh, there are so many of them. Well, I’m sure most of your listeners have seen Hamilton or listened to the soundtrack, at least at the minimum, familiar with the concept.
Tori Dunlap (00:04:55):
What song do you want me to sing? I’ll pop off right now and I’ll give you the entire three-hour musical
Sharon McMahon (00:05:01):
Guns and Ships, go. Go with the hardest ones.
Tori Dunlap (00:05:05):
Guns and Ships, and so the balance shifts. Yeah, I can do it. I’ll do it. I’ll try to do Lafayette’s rhyme. It won’t go well, but I can do it.
Sharon McMahon (00:05:15):
Well, Rendezvous with Rochambeau, consolidate their gifts.
Tori Dunlap (00:05:19):
Sharon McMahon (00:05:21):
Okay, so let me give you a couple interesting Aaron Burr facts that were not in the show.
Tori Dunlap (00:05:26):
Sharon McMahon (00:05:27):
You want to hear some? Okay, so everybody knows that he married this woman who was already married to a British officer, and they had a child named Theodosia, right? Well, her name was also Theodosia. His wife’s name was Theodosia, and their daughter’s name was Theodosia. What the show does not tell you is that she already had five children and that she was 10 years older than him. She was 35 with five kids when they got married. That’s one thing. We could spend this whole episode talking about Arron Burr. I got so many facts. Here’s another one. When they got married, Theodosia had a servant.
She was not enslaved, but she was a servant. She was of Haitian descent, was raised in India, and had lived with Theodosia for a long time. Well, they have now definitively established through DNA evidence that Aaron Burr had a secret family with Theodosia’s servant.
Tori Dunlap (00:06:42):
Not shocking, but also, oh my God.
Sharon McMahon (00:06:44):
Yes. Right? This is the 1700s, how much agency did a woman of color who worked as a domestic servant, even though it wasn’t technically, she wasn’t technically enslaved, how much agency would she have had over a powerful white vice president? That is, I think, interesting. There are a couple people who have been able to established definitively that they are his descendants through this woman, through Theodosia’s servant. Then, here, I’ll just give you one more, which is that after, of course, he shoots Alexander Hamilton, he goes back to being the vice president for a couple of months because he was the vice president when he shot Alexander Hamilton.
Imagine that today, imagine Mike Pence or Kamala Harris shooting a political rival and then never being charged with anything and going back to resuming their duties as vice president. That’s absurd, first of all.
Tori Dunlap (00:07:48):
Well, because everything’s legal in New Jersey, right?
Sharon McMahon (00:07:52):
Yup. Still is. Still is. Then, he decides he’s going to head west. He’s going to head down to what is now Texas, the border of Texas and Louisiana, and he is going to try to seize land in an effort to make himself the ruler, have this region secede from the United States, and make himself the ruler of that land. He was later put on trial for treason by the United States government for attempting to seize land and make himself essentially the emperor. He was never tried for killing Alexander Hamilton, but he was put on trial.
Tori Dunlap (00:08:33):
No, but he’s like, you tried to take what is now Texas, you’re treasonous.
Sharon McMahon (00:08:37):
That’s right. He wasn’t convicted. He was never convicted of that. I could continue, but I won’t.
Tori Dunlap (00:08:45):
Oh, maybe we’ll do it at the end. We’ll do like an Aaron Burr … Yeah, we’ll make an Aaron Burr sandwich out of this episode. Those are great facts. I think I knew the Theodosia, the one … Yeah, I knew about his, because I think I actually saw it on TikTok, that Theodosia’s servant had fathered the “illegitimate child”, but multiple-
Sharon McMahon (00:09:07):
Yeah, oh, that’s so interesting.
Tori Dunlap (00:09:08):
… illegitimate children.
Sharon McMahon (00:09:11):
One daughter was named the same thing as Theodosia’s children from her previous marriage.
Tori Dunlap (00:09:18):
It’s like when you have a dog and then you have another dog and it’s the same dog name?
Sharon McMahon (00:09:23):
Yeah, except, what’s unclear of is how much Theodosia knew about … She had to know that her servant was randomly pregnant because ultimately they ended up not living together anymore. But then Arron Burr, and her name is Mary Emmons, they named their daughter together the same thing that Theodosia had named her other child. Moving on from Aaron.
Tori Dunlap (00:09:47):
Lots of drama and I love it. What got you to the work that you do on Instagram? What was the catalyst for that work?
Sharon McMahon (00:09:57):
Misconceptions about how government works. It was leading up to the 2020 election, and I saw a lot of people spouting off on social media about how the electoral college worked, and they were just straight up wrong. It was just like, that is not even real. That’s not a fact. Where did you get that? The certainty with which people were wrong was a little egregious. I decided I could either argue with five million people individually or I could just start making some videos that provided some resources and facts, and then people could share them if they wanted to. That was the catalyst. It was being tired of listening to other people be certain, but they were also certainly wrong.
Tori Dunlap (00:10:41):
Was this a issue with just one side of the aisle or you saw this lack of information or this getting it wrong regardless of somebody’s political standing or political views?
Sharon McMahon (00:10:56):
Both sides of the aisle tend to believe different wrong things. They tend to believe different wrong things, but there are some things that they both get wrong. The things that they both get wrong are the things that I really started making videos about. Like not understanding what could happen as a result of an election. Lots of people thought that, “Well, if we can’t decide, then this thing, this thing, this thing will happen.” None of that is real. Certain people on one side of the spectrum tend to believe different things about the government than people on the other side of the spectrum.
I think this is a pretty well documented concept, that the left tends to view government as a useful change agent, that government programs can make society better, that things like social safety nets are needed and necessary.
Tori Dunlap (00:11:58):
That the government can and should be relied on for these sorts of things?
Sharon McMahon (00:12:02):
That’s correct. That’s right. That the government, although sometimes it gets it wrong, has created programs that are in the best interests of its citizens. People on the right tend to believe that self-agency should be relied upon instead of the government. That much of the time, not 100% of the time, because they do believe that certain government actors do have their best interest at heart. But just this overarching belief about the government as a whole, that it does not have your best interests at heart and that it should not be used as an instrument of societal change.
Tori Dunlap (00:12:41):
Right, so we’ve been dancing around the phrase or the word disinformation. Can you define what disinformation is for us and how do you spot it? Are there telltale signs of like, “Oh, this is disinformation.” Are there common tactics that they use? How can we discern what is or is not disinformation?
Sharon McMahon (00:13:04):
Well, it’s challenging. If it was super easy to spot, then nobody would fall for it. Most of the time or much of the time, disinformation appears plausible. It appears like, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s real.” That said, disinformation generally speaking is somebody or something that is spreading information that they know to be false to achieve some larger endpoint. Misinformation is perhaps you share the wrong statistic about something, but you don’t have a nefarious intent. Maybe you’re like 25% and in reality is 15%. Perhaps you don’t have a nefarious intent when you are sharing misinformation.
Tori Dunlap (00:13:51):
Oh, I didn’t realize the difference. Disinformation is the intent to spread information that you know for a fact is false versus misinformation is ignorance or just not knowing something or getting it wrong without the intent to get it wrong?
Sharon McMahon (00:14:08):
That’s right. Yes. There’s usually a malicious intent with disinformation. I know this is a lie and I’m spreading it anyway. It’s not a mistake. That’s part of what makes disinformation even more dangerous, is because there is that nefarious intent behind it. That nefarious intent is usually aimed at trying to achieve some objective. Russia is one of the biggest purveyors of disinformation in the world, and it can take a variety of sources. A lot of times we think that it’s going to just be somebody typing something absurd, and you’re going to read it and be like, “Well, that’s absurd.”
Most of the time that’s not true. They’re very sophisticated at it. They’ve been at it for a long time. They know what it takes to make something go viral. They know what it takes to make something, to make an idea spread. It can also take the form of promoting the posts of other people who they believe are aligned with their interests. When I say promoting, gaming the algorithm so that those posts go viral. Let’s say they determine Person X has goals that are aligned with their chosen objectives.
Creating so much interaction with their posts that the algorithm is like, “Whoa, popular, push this out far and wide.” That’s a very prominent way that people spread or box or these kind of comment farms, et cetera. Spread disinformation is with gaming the algorithm.
Tori Dunlap (00:15:50):
Let’s talk about the role of social media in all of this, because I’m sure there was disinformation or misinformation, of course, before social media was prominent, but it feels like social media’s like the rocket ship for all of this. Can you talk about what changed about disinformation or misinformation when Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et cetera, started becoming popular?
Sharon McMahon (00:16:15):
Sure. Of course, disinformation has existed since the dawn of humanity. It just was way more difficult to spread your message. If you were not a government agency, let’s say you’re not the Third Reich where you have the ability to make videos and spread your information via newspapers, you’re not a government agency with a propaganda department. It would be very difficult for just a normal, average everyday citizen who works in a factory to spread their whackadoodle ideas. How are you going to do that? Just tell the five people to know it works.
Tori Dunlap (00:16:53):
Go to the printing press and put it then to do a thing.
Sharon McMahon (00:16:57):
Right. Who’s publishing that? Who’s buying it? How does it get out? How would you convince somebody to buy it, publish it, all of those things? It was much more monumental task to spread disinformation. It doesn’t mean it never happened. It was just much, much harder to do. Now, we can spread it with the click of a button, truly. Social media has made it much more easy to encounter mis and disinformation.
Tori Dunlap (00:17:24):
Well, and you can share other people’s work too. It’s not just you being able to create, right? Because I think the vast majority of people who have of course are consuming social media I don’t think actually create much social media. I think, yeah, it’s the wildfire effect of one person creating something, but then the ability to have it shared to the entire world.
Sharon McMahon (00:17:45):
The criteria for shareability is what? I like it. I like it. Thus it’s shareable. That’s what most people are using as a criteria of like, “Oh, yeah, I like that. I believe that.” Even if it’s not necessarily supported by any evidence or facts or whatever, if you like it, it’s shareable. That’s now the criteria, is are you speaking directly to the deep-seated fears of a certain subset of people so that when they read this they feel seen, they feel like this person gets me. That’s the criteria for shareability.
Tori Dunlap (00:18:27):
It reminds me, I think it would shock a lot of listeners to know, I studied terrorism in college for two and a half years. I majored in theater and communication, but I took a 400 level poli-sci class my sophomore year, because I wanted to, and it was called the Politics of Terrorism. It talked about how terrorist groups use certain propaganda to recruit. A lot of the things you’re saying are very similar. This was my whole senior thesis, was specifically the messaging that ISIS uses to recruit Western women to come and join ISIS. To your point, it’s all about being seen, being heard, love and belonging.
Typically, reaching people who don’t have an established community already. We see this on a minor scale with churches or just any community in general. We are all trying to be seen and heard, and so we’re trying to find the places where that can be given to us and where we feel accepted. Especially for people on the fringes of society or who don’t feel love and connection. These groups I think are especially dangerous. It sounds like misinformation is very similar, where it’s reaching people who have a deep seated fear of something and it’s either validating or confirming or unconfirming that fear or that belief and stoking the fire of that fear.
Sharon McMahon (00:19:49):
Yeah, you absolutely see that even prevalent in communities today, like the QAnon communities. These are people, again, I’m painting with the broad brush here, but they tend to be people without a lot of social capital. This becomes social capital for them, that they know the secret truth. You see this with terrorist groups as well. They know the secret truth and they can look down upon and pity the rest of us who are not purveyors of the secret truth. Then, the others that know the secret truth become their social community. Then, to turn their back on that is turning their back on an identity. That identity is difficult sometimes to walk away from.
Tori Dunlap (00:20:38):
Oh, I have so much I want to talk to you about. If this is happening on social media, do you believe that social media companies have a responsibility inherently to curb disinformation? Because there’s a lot of debate about that right now.
Sharon McMahon (00:20:51):
There’s no question that social media companies have to have some content moderation. They must, because otherwise it is just going to devolve into child porn and Nazis. That’s what it would become. They must have some content moderation. There’s a profit motive in having content moderation. It has to be a pleasant and enjoyable experience for the user. I’m not going to go on a social media platform that’s all child porn and Nazis. My time spent on that platform would be zero. There’s a profit motive in content moderation.
They need to keep you as a user, but there is also, there’s federal laws they need to follow. But the real debate is not should we have any content moderation at all, the real debate is how much and what kind. People have different perspectives on how much and what kind of content moderation is the right amount to have. You’re seeing this very strongly in the news right now with Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter, and people continuing to interview him with how much content moderation would you have? Would you ban this person? Would you ban that person?
He’s strongly in the camp of, we will only ban irredeemable accounts that are like a hundred percent spam and bots. If you’re just controversial, then we’ll keep you.
Tori Dunlap (00:22:17):
Right. I think Twitter’s been the one, weirdly, the social platform that I think has done the most clearing. They’ve banned probably the most people. Famously, Donald Trump no longer has a Twitter account. It’s really interesting to see how that might shift under different leadership.
Sharon McMahon (00:22:34):
It is, and it’s very interesting to see the American discourse around whose job is it to moderate this content? Some people think it’s the government’s job, and who is in charge of moderating the content? Because those people have a tremendous amount of power, not just on the social media channel, but just in the context
of American political dialogue, cultural dialogue. They have a tremendous amount of power in controlling that narrative.
Tori Dunlap (00:23:01):
Tremendous. Yeah. Facebook, we’re only now, I think, truly starting to understand how much sway Facebook has on election outcomes. Right?
Sharon McMahon (00:23:11):
Absolutely. Even the intelligence community in the United States is like, “Heads up. There was significant election interference from Russia, from Iran, from China in the 2016 election via social media.”
Tori Dunlap (00:23:40):
How are we currently or not currently holding people and companies accountable for dis or misinformation?
Sharon McMahon (00:23:50):
I don’t know that the average user really is, other than refusing to give them their eyeballs. The eyeballs are the currency for a social media channel. It’s very difficult to hold, aside from like, “Well, I’m selling my Twitter stock.” You know what I mean? I refuse to own Meta.
Tori Dunlap (00:24:10):
Yeah, I’m deleting my Twitter account. I’ve had a bunch of people say that.
Sharon McMahon (00:24:12):
Right. Until those things happen at large scale, Twitter doesn’t care if you sell your shares. You know what I mean? It’s not affecting them. Until there is some larger movement where they really start getting hit in their bottom line, which again equals users, eyeballs, until that happens, we’re not holding them accountable. The only entity with true power over them would be some government regulation, which they are frankly quite afraid of.
Tori Dunlap (00:24:46):
The social media companies?
Sharon McMahon (00:24:48):
Yes. Yes. Quite afraid of what that government regulation might look like.
Tori Dunlap (00:24:52):
Because of their profit margin? What are they afraid? I can guess what they’re afraid of, but if I am, let’s say, I’m Mark Zuckerberg and I’m not actually Mark Zuckerberg in the fact that I am not a robot, and I actually care about my users, and I actually care that they have a good experience, if I’m Mark Zuckerberg in that scenario, which again, doesn’t exist but if I am, I want the best experience for people. Of course, I want what’s best for the world. Again, I’m talking like not a billionaire. Like, is it the threat and the control that worries them of like, this platform will change, our bottom line will change if the government oversees it.
Sharon McMahon (00:25:39):
Right now, there is a portion of a federal law that governs internet communications. That portion of the federal law is called Section 230. That law, it allows social media companies to not have the responsibility of acting as a publisher. Instead, they are reviewed or believed to be a platform. If you are a publisher of whatever it is …
Tori Dunlap (00:26:14):
Like the New York Times, they go through certain due diligence of ethics of reporting.
Sharon McMahon (00:26:22):
That’s right. It’s incumbent upon you. You’re not allowed to knowingly publish false information. But a platform is different, and so users can come on and post whatever they want. It’s up to Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, to determine to what extent they want to allow that on their platform. What they’re afraid of is the government taking away Section 230 that grants them platform status and making them a publisher or creating additional regulations that say things like, “You must allow this kind of content. You must not allow this content.”
Then, to speak to your point, yes, if the government says, you must allow this kind of content, but their current user base hates that content, that hits them in their bottom line. Then, you’re affecting the user experience. If it’s telling me, I have to see content about how to change the oil in my car and I don’t care, because I pay someone to do that, I’m not going to stay on your platform. Especially Meta, especially Mark Zuckerberg have been very out and front being like, “We want a seat at this table.
We want to tell you what kind of regulations you should have for us because we own all
of this data. That’s the other thing, of course, is that they own a tremendous amount of data on their users, so they’re trying to be proactive.
Tori Dunlap (00:27:58):
Then, we get into the cycle that I’m sure is very easy to find, where Zuckerberg has enough money to sway entire elections. It’s like these companies, these individuals who have this money and who have this influence can hypothetically and probably most definitely are buying certain electoral positions in order to affect the change that they want to see or not cause the change that they want to see.
Sharon McMahon (00:28:29):
There’s no question that there are billions of dollars pumped into elections in the United States from all industries promoting their own self interest. Yes, these huge tech companies absolutely do the same. They absolutely pay a lot of money, totally. That’s how the system is set up.
Tori Dunlap (00:28:51):
It makes me mad. Okay, so it’s not shocking what my politics are. This podcast is called Financial Feminist. It should be pretty obvious. When I hear you say that there’s a line item in federal law distinguishing what’s a publishing company or what’s a publisher versus a platform, there’s misinformation or disinformation on both sides completely. But I think about Fox News, where I’ll take a very specific thing in my own life. When Black Lives Matter resurgent happened in June of 2020, there was so much conversation about Seattle in particular as this very, especially on Fox News, as this very unsafe place.
I would literally walk to the neighborhoods that they were talking about, and yes, there was protests, there were all these things, but it was not the dramatic big picture that they were trying to paint. What regulations or hoops do these publishers have to jump through in order to maintain, I’ll put integrity in quotes, but integrity, journalistic integrity. Because when I’m seeing a lot of institutions, seemed to not have much journalistic integrity or not meet a lot of the ethics of reporting a true story. What does that look like?
Sharon McMahon (00:30:14):
There are two things at play here. The first thing is that when you are publishing something in a newspaper, generally speaking, or let’s say even a media company’s website, and the website is there to provide news for people, that is subjected to different federal regulations than entertainment is. Specifically related to Fox News, and this is not me picking on Fox News, these are just facts that have happened in court’s of law. Fox News has been sued on multiple occasions and is currently involved in a lawsuit.
To be fair, other people on the left are sued as well, but they’re currently involved in multiple billion dollar lawsuits, over 2 billion against Fox News, against specific hosts on Fox. The ones I’m thinking of most recently are related to things about the 2020 election, but they have been sued in the past. The defense that they were successful in advancing was that this is not news, this is entertainment, and that anybody watching this would not take it to be the truth. They would take it to be entertainment.
Tori Dunlap (00:31:31):
Yeah, which, no, the average consumer, it’s called Fox News. It’s called Fox News.
Sharon McMahon (00:31:40):
Do you see the difference there between a media personality?
Tori Dunlap (00:31:44):
I do, but I’m so mad.
Sharon McMahon (00:31:48):
A media personality providing their punditry about, “Tonight, Seattle is on fire.” That is, legally, if they can prove it in court that it’s entertainment, that’s different than opening up the Chicago Times that says, “Two fires were set at a federal building. They were quickly put out by firefighters.” That is viewed as the news. Recently, Sarah Palin sued the New York Times saying, “You printed false information about me.” Sarah Palin, of course, being former vice presidential candidate, former governor of Alaska, “You printed false information about me.” She filed a lawsuit against them.
People who have false information printed about them, the enforcement mechanism, here’s the other thing that people don’t understand, is that the enforcement mechanism for printing false information, putting fake news out on your channel, the enforcement mechanism is somebody suing you. It’s not the government showing up at your door and being like, “You printed fake information about Sarah Palin.” It is Sarah Palin suing the person, in this case, that she believed, the New York Times, that she believed was publishing fake information about her.
Tori Dunlap (00:33:05):
Which requires money on both sides too. That’s
the other thing. You need money to put a lawsuit against, especially somebody as big as the New York Times or Fox News.
Sharon McMahon (00:33:14):
That’s right. It requires a tremendous amount of resources to mount a successful lawsuit against a large media company. Then, conversely, it used a lot of resources from the media company to defend themselves against lawsuits. Sarah Palin lost. They determined that the New York Times did not knowingly … It also requires knowingly printing false information that then harms you in some way. If you print information that’s like, “Tori has $48 billion in the bank and she’s really gorgeous, and is a supermodel.”
Those things might not be true. You might not have $48 billion, but it would be difficult for you to demonstrate that that harmed you in some way. Where’s the harm?
Tori Dunlap (00:34:02):
It made me too attractive that no man would go on a date with me.
Sharon McMahon (00:34:06):
Tori Dunlap (00:34:07):
That’s what it was.
Sharon McMahon (00:34:07):
I’m so rich that I-
Tori Dunlap (00:34:10):
I’m so rich and so hot. Oh my God.
Sharon McMahon (00:34:17):
Yeah, it might be false, but it also probably didn’t hurt you. It requires both of those things. It has to be knowingly false, but also has to harm you in some way.
Tori Dunlap (00:34:25):
If I’m a listener, I’m doing the classic thing where I’m sitting down at the Thanksgiving table and Uncle Joe is spouting off some shit that he heard. How do we politely engage in conversation with people, especially people we care about, who are maybe, probably not knowingly, but spreading misinformation? Then, my second part is, if we want to engage with people online, how do we do that in a smart, respectful way as well?
Sharon McMahon (00:34:59):
Okay, so the first thing you need to ask yourself about Uncle Joe is, is this an argument I want to have? Do I want to argue? Because the answer might be no. You do not have to agree to engage in every fight you’re invited to. The answer can be, “No, thank you. I’m not getting into that fight today.” If your goal is to, “I don’t want to fight with Joe, I am just here trying to eat pie and take a nap.” You just want to have a nice little Thanksgiving. You can go with the like, “Oh, that’s fascinating. I’m going to have to look into that.”
Or, “Oh, wow, I’m going to have to give that some thought.” Then, don’t. Then, don’t give it any thought. Don’t look into it. Do you know what I mean? But that makes him feel better.
Tori Dunlap (00:35:52):
I want to give it some thought. Asterisks immediately, immediately lose brain.
Sharon McMahon (00:35:58):
That’s the answer. But it makes Joe feel better and then you don’t have to argue about it, right? It placates him. But let’s say you do want to get into an argument with him. Let’s say you do want to ruin Thanksgiving. That is your book.
Tori Dunlap (00:36:12):
Well, I think weirdly there’s a lot of talk, especially after 2020, with trying to be anti-racist. I know I’ve heard this from so many people, is it’s like in order to be anti-racist it’s all these things, it’s voting, it’s protesting, it’s donating, it’s discovering, and working through your own anti-racism, it’s also calling family members on the bullshit. That’s your responsibility. I, for a long time, especially the last two years, have caused a lot of family fights. I’ve tried to figure out which ones are worth “fighting”, which ones do I actually think are going to make some progress and which ones aren’t.
But I feel like, weirdly, myself and my friends when we’ve talked about this, there’s this underlying responsibility that you have to do this. I appreciate that you’re also like, “You know what? If you d
on’t want to do that today, that’s okay.”
Sharon McMahon (00:37:06):
Yeah, some things are not worth arguing about. But if you feel like, “Listen, this is one of my issues that I am not willing to set aside, I am willing to argue about.” Then, a great question that … Do you know who Nedra Tawwab is? She has a fantastic Instagram account and she has a book called Set Boundaries, No Peace. She’s a black therapist. She’s fantastic. I love her. One of the things that she suggests is asking somebody, “What do you mean by that?”
Tori Dunlap (00:37:36):
It’s my favorite question. Go tell me more about that. If you listen to this podcast, you’ve heard me say that. Tell me more about.
Sharon McMahon (00:37:42):
Yeah, tell me more about that. What do you mean by that? They’d be like, “Well, what do you mean?” What do I mean by that? Because sounded really racist, so I just wanted to make sure that I was understanding what you meant by that. I wanted to make sure I was understanding correctly so I was operating on the correct information. Even just forcing them to reflect and justify themselves, that in and of itself can be a great seed to plant. That can be a great tool to pry open a bigger conversation, if that’s something that you … If feel like, “This is my issue, I am willing to talk about it.” What do you mean by that?
Tori Dunlap (00:38:16):
Yeah, I think I’ve also realized that you can only have conversations, there will inevitably be a disagreement with somebody who’s willing to change their mind. It’s like if you’re going into something with curiosity and the other person’s also curious, great. But if you’re trying to, “Oh, I’m going to send you six links to different news articles to disprove the one that you just spouted out.” It won’t matter.
Sharon McMahon (00:38:45):
Yeah. There’s a lot of research actually that shows that the more you attack somebody’s deeply held belief, and I’m not talking about racism, I’m just speaking like, let’s say you believe a weird conspiracy theory or whatever. The more you attack somebody’s deeply held belief, the more deeply they believe it. That’s terrible. I hate that about people.
Tori Dunlap (00:39:07):
Is it because it’s like, to your point earlier of, I know something you don’t know, and weirdly, it makes me feel more powerful for this potentially smart person to not know that 9/11 was an inside job. Is that it?
Sharon McMahon (00:39:19):
That’s an aspect of it, but it is also another thing related to what I said before about it being part of your identity. But if you think about, let’s say somebody has a deeply held religious faith, and if I’m like, “Your religion is trash. Here are six articles about why your religion is trash. Here’s terrible things your priests or your pastors did in the past, your whackadoo beliefs.” I’m not trashing anybody’s religion, but let’s say somebody wants to trash your religion. Are you going to read those articles and be like, “Well, I’m not a Jew anymore.”
Do you know what I mean? No. You’re not going to be like, “I’m no longer a Christian.” What is it going to do? It’s going to make you mad at the other person. It’s not going to cause you to question your beliefs. It’s going to make you dislike them. Consequently, you then lose your ability to influence that person in the future. If you send them six articles about why their religion’s terrible, you lose your ability to influence them in the future. If the goal is like, “I would like to maintain this relationship so that someday down the road when you might be interested or curious in abandoning this conspiratorial thinking, I will be here.
I will be a resource for you. I might be able to influence you in the future.” But just sending them a bunch of articles is just going to make them believe it more in many cases. It’s terrible. I wish they could just read the article and abandon it.
Tori Dunlap (00:40:48):
Well, it’s just the general, the psychological need for us as humans to be comfortable. If someone is going to make us uncomfortable, even in a positive way, potentially, the outcomes, we will shut down and not do it. We know that from money as it’s so many people … we call it the ostrich effect in personal finance. They bury their head in the sand. It’s just so much easier to not look at your money. Even though it is temporarily uncomfortable, it ultimately betters your life to look at your money or to work out, or to go to therapy or all the other things, or to leave that toxic relationship that is comfortable now but you know deep down you’re not supposed to be with that person.
Sharon McMahon (00:41:28):
I know people that don’t even open their mail because the bills are too uncomfortable, because they know that they maybe don’t have the resources to pay them or whatever. The human brain’s desire to avoid discomfort, don’t underestimate your brain’s desire to avoid discomfort. It re
quires a concerted effort on your part to wade into that discomfort with the long game in mind. That is true of money and a variety of other things.
Tori Dunlap (00:42:10):
Switching gears a little bit. Let’s say that I as an individual am trying to figure out how do I affect change on a personal level. What can I personally do on a hot button issue? Abortion, critical race theory, if it isn’t the president that’s in charge, who is in charge of making these decisions that affect my life? What can I do to make change beyond voting or emailing my representative or calling my representative?
Sharon McMahon (00:42:42):
I hear that all the time. People are like, “I emailed and nothing happened.” You know what I mean?
Tori Dunlap (00:42:48):
I emailed this very busy person who got 60 million other emails.
Sharon McMahon (00:42:52):
I emailed and he didn’t listen. I get it. Just the advice of email and vote, those are important things. Voting is actually extraordinarily important. It’s frustrating when that’s all you have. It seems like those are your only tools that you have. I will tell you that there is always power in numbers. The more people that are involved in something or advancing a cause, the more likely you are to get noticed. For many people, that looks like joining an organization that supports what it is they want to achieve. Racial equality, whatever that is, whatever it is for you.
Joining an organization with infrastructure, with money, with contacts, with all of those things, the power and the numbers of that organization, and then perhaps that organization can provide you with information, tools, resources, et cetera, that you can then be like, “I am going to this thing. I’m going to go to this hearing at my state capital. I’m going to sign up to be on this board. I’m going to engage in this media opportunity because, of course, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Anytime you can bring media into it to draw attention to your issue.
Those organizations that align with your beliefs can often provide you with a lot more opportunities than you could just get by firing off an email or voting one time every two years. You know what I mean? There are other things absolutely as well. But I think people overlook the importance of organizations in civic engagement, organizations that align with your beliefs, the causes that you care about advancing. I would also tell people this, we have a lot of things that we care about. Humans care about a lot of things, and we should, but it is okay to care more about one thing.
You could have more impact on the one thing. I’m sure you have many interest, Tori, but money is your thing. That’s your thing. That’s where you have the greatest level of impact, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to step away from your highest impact because there are other things to care about. It is okay that this is your thing. Just like it’s okay that my thing is government and current events, et cetera. It’s okay that that’s my thing. That’s where my highest impact is. Maybe somebody’s highest impact is homelessness, and you care so deeply about it.
The things that you care so deeply about are given to you for a reason. We need people to care about different things. We cannot all care about only microplastics in the ocean, but nobody’s over here caring about children who don’t eat. Do you know what I mean? We all have to care about different things, and that is okay, necessary, and needed.
Tori Dunlap (00:45:44):
Well, yeah. I think what I’ve tried to do, especially with the donations, is for me, I focus on two causes and it’s climate change or rainforest saving/women’s issues. Those are my big two. I love the ASPCA. I need to take care of all the doggies and the kitties. That is so important to me. But also, I can’t spread myself too thin. It’s like, yeah, finding the things. Yeah.
Sharon McMahon (00:46:09):
That’s right. That’s right. It’s okay to do that. That’s right. You don’t need to feel guilty. I have three dogs. I absolutely love animals, but I don’t need to feel guilty that it’s not actually my job to save all the dogs in the world. We, especially as women, I feel like, tend to get stuck in this, “I want to fix everything. I care about all these things.” Then, we get stuck in this, “I can’t fix it all, so I will fix nothing. I will spin my wheels because I feel overwhelmed.”
Tori Dunlap (00:46:38):
What is it, Ron Swanson, “Don’t half-ass two things when you can whole-ass one thing.”
Sharon McMahon (00:46:44):
That’s right. Your whole ass will have more impact, that’s right, than one eighth of your ass will. Tha
t’s right. That’s right.
Tori Dunlap (00:46:57):
Half a cheek, half a cheek to a bunch of different things as opposed to the whole ass to one thing.
Sharon McMahon (00:47:03):
You don’t have to commit to rainforest for the rest of your life. Your season of donating to the rainforest can be now. Then, in five years, your season of donating to something else that, or working for a cause that deeply impacts you, it can change. Just like your career can change, don’t think you have to work at the telephone company for 40 years. You’re not getting locked into a cause today, forever more. You can change down the road.
Tori Dunlap (00:47:31):
Amazing. We talked to, I’m not sure which episode will come up first, but I spoke to Amanda Litman, who’s the co-founder of Run for Something yesterday. Incredible. She’s incredible. But one of the things that she highlighted is focusing too on local, very specific local government, local issues, because that’s where you can, one, affect the most change, and two, where the change is actually going to impact you the most. These huge national elections, especially presidential elections, are very flashy and don’t not vote in them, please God.
But also, they’re not going to affect you a ton. You can’t, of course, as one individual, have a ton of sway or effect change. But you can run for your school board or support a certain person who’s running for your school or library board or the district attorney’s office or something like that.
Sharon McMahon (00:48:19):
Those positions then become stepping stones to bigger things if you want them to be. Joe Biden was on his city council. You know what I mean? People get an experience and then they can move up, if someday that’s your goal, but you’re 100% correct that the issues that impact your daily life the most. What good is talking about the ASPCA if nobody is actually picking up your trash? Do you know what I mean? Somebody needs to pick up your trash and make sure you have clean drinking water.
Tori Dunlap (00:48:55):
Or, who’s banning a certain book for the children who are being educated at the elementary school three blocks from you?
Sharon McMahon (00:49:02):
That’s right. Those are all very real things that impact your daily life. Trash pickup, roads, clean water, homelessness in your community, healthcare, that also impact your life at the micro level on a daily basis and those happen in your own community. The president has nothing to do with picking up trash at your community. You know what I mean? Those are very important things.
Tori Dunlap (00:49:27):
Right. You’ve talked about how candidates are using sometimes these hot button topics as rallying points, like critical race theory in schools, but they actually have no control over a legislation that has to do with schools. How can we look out for this? How can we find, I don’t know, how can we fact check that?
Sharon McMahon (00:49:49):
Okay, so this is where education on government, why I think it’s important. Because if you don’t know that the person who’s on city council has nothing to do with the school board, then you might vote for them based on what they want to do for schools. When in reality, they have zero control over the schools, and they absolutely do use wedge issues, whatever it is there, what they believe their voter base wants to hear. They use those wedge issues that differentiate themselves between them and their opponent in an effort to try to galvanize their base.
One of the ways you can fact check that is to figure out what actually are the responsibilities of this candidate. This person is on the water board. He has nothing to do with critical race theory at my school. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s not obvious that congressional candidates actually have no say over what happens in your community schools. Because those rules are set by states and local communities. Those are not set by the federal government. Congress is not making laws about what’s happening in Seattle public schools or any public schools for that matter.
Outside of a few narrow areas like special education, the vast majority of what happens in schools is done at the state and local level. If you are voting for congressional candidates based on their beliefs about schools, you’re going to be disappointed when they don’t deliver on anything related to schools.
Tori Dunlap (00:51:26):
Yeah. Can we talk about the electoral college for a second?
Sharon McMahon (00:51:29):
Of course. Absolutely.
Tori Dunlap (00:51:31):
Probably your favorite topic. Okay. What are the pros and cons of an electoral college system, and is it something that is actively disenfranchising voters or is it something a little more complex than that?
Sharon McMahon (00:51:43):
Well, okay, so the 2020 election did align with the popular vote. The 2016 election did not. Hillary won the popular vote, and there were a couple of elections where Barack Obama did win the popular vote, and he did win the electoral college. George W. Bush is another example of a differential between a popular vote,
Tori Dunlap (00:52:08):
Sharon McMahon (00:52:10):
The 2000 election.
Tori Dunlap (00:52:11):
Both of them?
Sharon McMahon (00:52:12):
Yeah. In fact, George W. Bush won the 2000 election by 500, I want to say 538 votes.
Tori Dunlap (00:52:18):
There’s so much debate on whether he actually did win, right?
Sharon McMahon (00:52:22):
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It depends on how you want to recount the votes in Florida. He either won by 500 something votes or Al Gore narrowly won, but it depends on the criteria.
Tori Dunlap (00:52:34):
It’s like the simulation, right? Where it’s like, “What would this world be if Al Gore … ?”
Sharon McMahon (00:52:39):
Yeah, very different. It would be very different. It absolutely would. What would Al Gore’s leadership on 9/11 look like? Would 9/11 have happened if Al Gore … ?
Tori Dunlap (00:52:48):
Totally, with 9/11, I literally had the same thought. I was like, “What would he have done? Oh, would 9/11 even happened? The Iraq war probably wouldn’t have happened.” Oh my God.
Sharon McMahon (00:52:58):
Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t say 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.
Tori Dunlap (00:53:05):
I’m having a full on, like, “What is different then about the world and life if that domino had fallen differently?”
Sharon McMahon (00:53:15):
Yeah, the 2000 election is absolutely fascinating. It’s so interesting, but I won’t belabor the points of the 2000 election.
Tori Dunlap (00:53:21):
No, I’m just having a full on identity crisis, because I was born in ’94 and so that was the first election … We voted in first grade, we voted in our class, and I voted for Gore. I want to be on the record for that. Everybody else voted for Bush. I voted for Gore. But now, it’s so funny to think about that. Anyway, okay, I’ll have a full on crisis. I’m going to sit in the shower in the bathtub with just the water falling over me tonight for a while.
Sharon McMahon (00:53:51):
Make a TikTok video that’s like, when you realize how the world would’ve been different if Al Gore had won in 2000.
Tori Dunlap (00:54:00):
Yes, if they had recounted the votes again. Okay, electoral college, talk to me.
Sharon McMahon (00:54:06):
People ask me all the time, should we keep the electoral college? Is it worth having? Is it protecting people? If you live in a small state, and by small, I mean population small, your inclination tends to be that you want to keep it. Because it gives you a larger impact, larger influence on the outcome of the election than you would have otherwise. If you live in a big state, if you live in Texas, you might want to keep it. But if you live in a state like California or New York, the swing tends to be that you don’t want to keep it because you feel like your vote is diluted.
Your vote is diminished because you only have this tiny sliver of the pie when if you were going by pure population, your state would have more influence.
Tori Dunlap (00:54:58):
Well, in addition, it seems the way they’ve split districts, the gerrymandering that’s happened in terms of the electoral districts is, I think that’s the other big issue, is you’re seeing very specific topics to suppress votes from largely black and brown communities, and that affects the way the electoral college can operate.
Sharon McMahon (00:55:19):
It does. The question that we have to ask ourselves then, when we’re talking about this issue is, what is the most important thing to achieve in an election? Is it one person, one vote? Is it state identity, or is it something else? Because the electoral college props up state identity politics. It firmly establishes that we are South Dakota and our votes go this direction. Do you know what I mean? Whereas a straight popular vote is much more focused on the identity of a single individual, one person, one vote.
Younger people tend to be very against the electoral college, statistically, like Gen Z does not like the electoral college by and large. People older than me, the boomer generation, tends to want to keep it. They feel comfortable with it. Maybe they understand it better than Gen Z does, yeah. There’s also that differential that younger people tend to live in more urban areas, and they are more likely to feel disfranchised by the electoral college. That’s really the question we have to answer. Is it state identity or is it one person, one vote?
Because if it’s one person, one vote, the electoral college does not support that. If it’s state identity, then the electoral college supports that. That question of state identity, state’s rights is truly fundamental to the United States. That has existed since this country’s inception, is what is the role of state government? It’s something that people are clearly still arguing about today.
Tori Dunlap (00:56:58):
Yeah. One of the things that you can’t not hear about it is that this perspective or this thinking that so many of the issues with government would be solved if we would just move away from the two-party system. Do you agree with that? Tell us more about that, because yeah, I’m over here. I’m like, I don’t know. I obviously identify, it’s pretty clear, again, what my politics are, but I am much more, I think, left-leaning than a lot of people who identify as Democrats. It’s like, is that something that is necessary? Do you think, based on your vast knowledge, that that’s just the inevitable? What does this look like?
Sharon McMahon (00:57:43):
Okay, so this is, again, I love this topic. I love talking about political parties and if we should have more of them. I do think most Americans want more than two political parties. Most Americans feel like neither party accurately represents their views. You as a pretty far to the left, you probably feel like that moderate wing, that center wing of the Democratic Party, like the Joe Manchins of the world. You probably feel like he does not represent your views. I’m hypothesizing.
Tori Dunlap (00:58:19):
Yeah. Well, I think of, even the past presidential election, Joe Biden was not my first choice, he was not my first choice at all.
Sharon McMahon (00:58:26):
He’s much more moderate than a lot of people who are farther left.
Tori Dunlap (00:58:30):
Yes, but I understood, this is the nuance of it, I understood that Joe Biden was probably the best person to beat Donald Trump. I believed that, at least, because I was very much … Elizabeth Warren was my candidate, and it was like she is much more left-leaning than Joe Biden is. But I understood that just from thinking about the political sphere in general, not just what I personally want, who is more likely to beat the other person, who is more likely to appeal? I was like, “Okay, it’s probably Joe Biden.”
Sharon McMahon (00:58:57):
Sure. Yes. So many Americans are like you in that they vote strategically or they vote for the lesser of two evils, but they don’t necessarily-
Tori Dunlap (00:59:06):
Right, which is what happened with Hillary and Trump.
Sharon McMahon (00:59:07):
Right. They don’t necessarily feel like the candidate truly represents what they would like to see accomplished in the United States. I pretty strongly believe that the electoral college is one of the largest barriers to increasing the number of viable political parties in the United States. Because 48 out of 50 states operate on a winner take all system, where you’re going to get all of our state’s electoral votes, it makes it next to impossible for a third party candidate to gain viable traction for a presidential race.
They might have success at a local race, they might even win a governorship. But when it comes to the presidency, they’re not going to win unless the electoral colleges is removed.
Tori Dunlap (00:59:52):
I think famously about Bernie Sanders, who runs, I believe, as an independent, correct?
Sharon McMahon (00:59:57):
He does, he is an independent. Yup. He caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, but he’s registered as an independent. Of course, then the other issue is the money that’s associated with the two big political parties, that if you want to have more parties, they need money. They need money and they need viability. People don’t want to put money behind something that they feel has no chance. Are you going to just write a $10 million check that you know is going to go nowhere? No. You want to think, I at least have a 50-50 shot of my person getting elected.
You don’t want to write a huge check to something that has no viability prospects. As long as those two things are in place, the money that is … We don’t change anything about the way elections are funded, and we continue to have the exact same system of the electoral college, you will not see the prevalence or the spreading of more parties. We certainly have parties, more third parties, there’s lots of them. They just don’t win national elections.
Tori Dunlap (01:00:58):
Speaking of the writing the big checks, probably the biggest issue that we see is politicians working for personal gain, where it’s like money and politics are so entrenched at this point. It seems like so many politicians are not listening to constituents. They’re not serving the people that they were tasked with serving. They’re instead serving the companies and the donors and the billionaires. Is there a way that we can get back to the true public servant mindset of politics. Are there ways we can keep lobbyists out of politicians’ pockets? How do we solve it? Can we solve it?
Sharon McMahon (01:01:43):
Yeah. It is solvable. It requires a pretty radical departure from the way things work right now, and it would require a commitment to that, but there certainly is a path. It’s just a path that is difficult to navigate. There’s a few things that could happen. One is we could fundamentally change the way elections are funded in the United States, and that would require a constitutional amendment to change the way elections are funded. The reason it would require constitutional amendment is because there have been federal laws that have passed changing the way elections are funded, and they were determined to be unconstitutional.
Tori Dunlap (01:02:25):
Tell me more about that.
Sharon McMahon (01:02:26):
They were unconstitutional. One of the most famous decisions is a 2010 opinion called Citizens United versus FEC. That was a Supreme Court opinion that found that corporations have the same First Amendment constitutional rights as individual citizens, and that money is speech, money is the speech.
Tori Dunlap (01:02:49):
Do you watch Community, Sharon? Have you ever seen the show Community? I just think, how do I explain this? Community is such like, it’s so deep. There’s an episode where they open a Subway sandwich, they open a Subway location on campus, but because it’s a corporate conglomerate, they’re not allowed. What they do is they have a student enroll and his identity becomes Subway. His name is Subway because they’re not allowed to bring a corporation into the community college that isn’t associated with the community college in some way. They literally pay this kid to become Subway. Literally, that’s what it sounds like.
Sharon McMahon (01:03:37):
Yes, Yes. This is a landmark Supreme Court case.
Tori Dunlap (01:03:42):
The corporations are people?
Sharon McMahon (01:03:45):
Yes. Corporations as people and money is speech. That is why we have super PACs that can pump tens of millions of dark money into elections because we cannot infringe on the free speech rights of corporations. That’s why I say that we need a constitutional amendment to change that, in my opinion. Because just passing a law is not going to do it because the Supreme Court has decided that they have those free speech rights. Until the Constitution changes to say, the citizens have free speech, but this doesn’t include businesses. Until that changes, you’re unlikely to see the way elections are funded change. That’s one thing.
Tori Dunlap (01:04:38):
If we’re looking at the graph prior to 2010, is there a huge spike after 2010?
Sharon McMahon (01:04:43):
Oh, my gosh, yes. Oh, my gosh, yes. Absolutely. If you even look at, say, remember after the 2020 election they couldn’t decide? The race was too close between the two senators in Georgia. Both senators had come up for election at the same time. That’s normally not the case. It’s one senator at a time in a state.
Tori Dunlap (01:05:04):
Wasn’t there like a runoff? I’m trying to remember.
Sharon McMahon (01:05:06):
There was, they had runoffs. Yes. They had runoffs between a Democrat and a Republican in one seat, and the same in the other. The Democrats narrowly squeaked out a win in both of those seats. The amount of money that was pumped into just winning those two seats in just the runoff election between November 2020 and January of 2021 was over $700 million was spent trying to win those two congressional seats. 90 days, less than 90 days, over 700 million.
Tori Dunlap (01:05:45):
Who is this? Where is the 700 million coming from?
Sharon McMahon (01:05:48):
Tori Dunlap (01:05:49):
It’s not coming from individuals, right. Because I probably donated money to that campaign.
Sharon McMahon (01:05:52):
Tori Dunlap (01:05:53):
If I remember correctly.
Sharon McMahon (01:05:54):
Yes, and those are political action committees that are allowed to get donations from companies and individuals, conceal the identity of the company or individual, and allow them to donate large, large sums of money. There’s an actual limit that you as an individual can donate to one specific candidate. You can not write a 40 million check as Tori Dunlap to Rafael Warnock candidate for senate.
Tori Dunlap (01:06:22):
Because as we know from the previous part of this episode, I have so much money and I’m so hot. Yes. The obvious thought, right, if let’s say I am a huge corporate conglomerate and I’m donating money to this campaign, I am trying to support this candidate in the hopes that they are supporting my goals as an organization, supporting my goals as a company. Are they still anonymous to that candidate? Because you said they enter anonymous.
Sharon McMahon (01:06:52):
Generally speaking, yes. Generally speaking, yes, they are.
Tori Dunlap (01:06:56):
Interesting. Why donate?
Sharon McMahon (01:07:01):
Because you feel like … so for example, with these two candidates in Georgia, they wanted the Democrats to have control of the Senate, or desperately wanted the Democrats to not have control of the Senate. They donated to the opposing candidate. The idea is that if the Democrats have control or the Republicans have control, is of tremendous importance.
Tori Dunlap (01
Right, it affects tax laws, it affects regulations. Right, right. Okay.
Sharon McMahon (01:07:29):
That’s right. If the Republicans are more friendly to my industry or Democrats are more friendly to my industry or my cause. The idea that corporations or very, very wealthy donors have a tremendous amount of … like an outsized influence on American law and American politics is very evidenced between, I want to say it was January 5th of 2021 and November 3rd of 2020 that they spent $700 million, something in that range.
I do think that there could be federal laws passed that limit the impact of lobbyists on Congress. There are only two countries in the world that allow lobbying. All of the other democracies-
Tori Dunlap (01:08:14):
Can you define what lobbying is?
Sharon McMahon (01:08:18):
Yeah. It is an organization or an industry that employs an individual or a group of individuals. The goal of the individual or group is to advance the interests of the group that hires them, and they advance their interests legislatively via things like education. One of the reasons people say that lobbying is necessary and needed is because America is a very large country population wise, it’s a large country geographically. It is a very complicated economy, we’re not just a small tourist country.
You know what I mean? We have large amount of moving plates spinning. Lobbying organizations would say that they provide very needed and valuable education to legislators about what’s important to their mining industry or their medical industry.
Tori Dunlap (01:09:15):
Or, I’m Exxon Mobil and I have hired lobbyists to talk about oil.
Sharon McMahon (01:09:21):
That’s right. That’s exactly right. It is probably true. They do provide education on things, they do.
Tori Dunlap (01:09:29):
Education to representatives?
Sharon McMahon (01:09:31):
To senators and representatives, yes, about things like, “Here’s why the American Heart Association, or the American Medical Association would oppose this legislation or would want this piece of legislation. They want you to renew the Clean Air Act because it has negative impact on American’s health.” Or, whatever it is. They’re providing education on how that constituency, that group feels about an issue. Some people in Congress would say, “That’s useful to me. I want to know how doctors feel about this piece of legislation.
How will I know otherwise? Will I just send out a survey and be like, ‘Hey, doctors fill out this survey.’ How else will they get the information?” That’s the upside of lobbying. Could we take more steps to limit lobbying? Of course. Yes, we absolutely could. It’s an uphill battle though, because people get money from these organizations and they get money to run their campaigns. That all goes back to my prior point, that if we change the way that elections are funded, we will change the influence that lobbyists have.
Tori Dunlap (01:10:42):
Can you give us three quick things that we can do to be good consumers of media that we can do to determine where to get our media from, what information is dis or misinformation and any influence we can have on politics as individuals?
Sharon McMahon (01:11:08):
Sure. Yeah. I have one great quick tip, which is a media bias chart that your listeners might find interesting. There’s an organization called Ad Fontes Media, A-D F-O-N-T-E-S. I’m not affiliated. Yeah, I’m not affiliated. It’s free. Ad Fontes Media is Latin for to the source. They evaluate, they have a team of people left, right, and center that evaluate media sources, not just for bias, but also for accuracy. They have this big chart that shows you where, like your favorite news source, let’s say you love to read the New York Times.
They’ll show you, does that lean left? Is it strongly left? Is it super far right? Then, additionally, how accurate, how reliable, I think is the word that they use, how reliable is that source in reporting facts? That, I think, is tremendously useful. It allows you to see how reliable are my news sources. That’s one thing, very quick and easy that people can do to better educate themselves about the media they’re consuming, adfontesmedia.com. They actually have curriculum stuff for teac
There’s a lot of things that they … They have a lot of resources. Another thing is I always recommend reading your news instead of watching it, because what you read is more carefully vetted. There are multiple people looking at that. It’s not somebody spouting garbage because somebody had to write it, type it up. An editor had to read it. They had to format it for the web. There are multiple-
Tori Dunlap (01:12:37):
And it’s not as emotionally potentially jarring, because if somebody is presenting news to you, just like me talking right now, you can tell if I’m agitated or you can tell if I’m more calm. That’s a great point. Watching your news or your entertainment is going to be more emotional just because you’re watching somebody else deliver it.
Sharon McMahon (01:13:02):
That’s exactly right. You’re way more likely to feel emotionally manipulated or fired up than you are if you’re just reading a fact based news source reading it. Those are two quick tips. Then, the other third thing that I would say is when people are like, “Oh, there’s so many things to fix. The whole thing is broken. Just light it all on fire. I hate it all.” That’s a very common way to feel. I would encourage people to not let the enormity of the world’s problems keep you from doing something.
It’s not your job to fix everything, but it also does not mean you have no responsibility. It’s everyone’s job to do something, but nobody’s job to do everything. Pick something that you love, pick a cause, rainforest, microplastic, whatever it is, and work on that one thing and do one small thing for that issue that you care deeply about. If all of us do that, that will have a much bigger impact than five of us trying to do everything.
Tori Dunlap (01:14:04):
That was very poetic, and I wish I could end on that. However, we have Aaron Burr. I need to know at least one more fact about Aaron fucking Burr.
Sharon McMahon (01:14:12):
Okay. Okay. Yes. Okay. When Aaron Burr was acquitted on his treason trial, he went to Europe. He was like, “These people hate me.” They were burning him in effigy around the entire country. He was a complete villain. He’s like, “I can’t stay here.”
Tori Dunlap (01:14:29):
It wasn’t after Hamilton though, because in the musical, it’s like he shot Hamilton and that’s his claim.
Sharon McMahon (01:14:35):
That’s the end of his story. No, no. The whole thing about, I’m going to take over part of Texas, that all happened after Hamilton.
Tori Dunlap (01:14:43):
People are pissed off about that, not the fact that he shot Hamilton.
Sharon McMahon (01:14:47):
Totally. Totally. Yes, totally. He’s acquitted for treason. He realizes, like, “I can’t stay here, I’m going to go to Europe.” While he’s in Europe, he attempts to convince Napoleon to help him take over Florida. Napoleon’s like, “No, we’re not doing that. Yeah, we’re not doing that. The Spanish already had it. I’m not fighting the Spanish on your behalf to help you become the leader of the Emperor of Florida. No.”
Tori Dunlap (01:15:17):
Really, it’s not a Napoleon complex, it’s a Burr complex.?
Sharon McMahon (01:15:20):
A Burr complex. Yes. Eventually, he writes to his … By the way, Aaron Burr and Theodosia, his wife, had four children together, only one lived, his daughter, who was his oldest. The other three died. He writes his-
Tori Dunlap (01:15:37):
Wait, wait, wait. Okay, hold on. This family tree is insane. Theodosia’s first marriage had how many children, do you know?
Sharon McMahon (01:15:43):
Tori Dunlap (01:15:45):
Right. She already had five. She had five. She had four. Only one survived with Aaron Burr. We got six children, either biological or stepchildren. Then, we have the servan
Sharon McMahon (01:16:01):
Tori Dunlap (01:16:02):
Two children, so we have two, three, what, eight?
Sharon McMahon (01:16:06):
Tori Dunlap (01:16:06):
Eight living, 12 total?
Sharon McMahon (01:16:10):
Yeah, or 11 total, 11 total. Yeah.
Tori Dunlap (01:16:13):
Okay. The gift of the swirling numbers is like me right now.
Sharon McMahon (01:16:19):
Okay. Theodosia, his daughter, has been keeping all of his stuff. When he flees to Europe, it’s not like he brought everything he owned with him. He left it in her care. His daughter was married to the governor of South Carolina, by the way, James Alston. His daughter only had one child whose name was Aaron Burr Alston. Then, after he’s been in Europe for four years, he decides, “I’m coming back.” Theodosia is excited to see him. She’s going to meet him in New York. She lives in South Carolina, again, she’s going to meet his ship in the harbor.
Well, shortly before he lands in New York, her only child died. Aaron Burr Alston, her only child, and Aaron Burr’s only grandchild died. She doesn’t meet him in New York. She’s like, “I’m too overcome.” Her son died in June. Aaron Burr was set to land in July, and she was too overcome and said, “I will have to come meet you later.” She finally set sail to meet him in December, leaves on New Year’s Eve, and then, of course, it’s going to sail the beginning part of January. She brought a bunch of his stuff, including a big trunk of correspondence that he had, and people kept letters back then. They just did.
Her ship encounters a storm or is ceased by pirates, one of those two things, and was lost forever along with all of Aaron Burr’s correspondence. All the letters he wrote potentially between him and his wife, Theodosia, his daughter Theodosia, potentially his correspondence with people like Hamilton, the people who were helping him try to seize Texas, that’s all gone. That’s all at the bottom of the ocean. Eventually, he was single for many, many years. Finally, in his late 70s, he remarried a wealthy widow and within one year had spent all of her money. She decided, “I’m divorcing you. I’m divorcing you.”
But the only way a woman could initiate a divorce and be granted a divorce during that time was if there was infidelity, so she accused him of infidelity. It’s unlikely that her 80-year old husband was actually having affairs. But she accused him of that. Eventually, after multiple years of being separated, her divorce was finally granted. She was represented in her divorce by the son of Alexander Hamilton, by Alexander Hamilton Jr., talk about a full circle moment. Her divorce was finally granted on the day Aaron Burr died.
You can’t make it up. If it was a novel, people would be like, “That’s not believable.” Right? Nobody would write that in a novel. It ends with him steals a wealthy widow’s money. Is that not fascinating?
Tori Dunlap (01:19:28):
Oh, my God. What I’m taking is Aaron Burr’s a fucking piece of shit.
Sharon McMahon (01:19:33):
Yes. It ends with you marrying a wealthy widow and stealing her money. What? He learned nothing.
Tori Dunlap (01:19:40):
Then, dying on the day of the divorce by Alexander Hamilton?
Sharon McMahon (01:19:47):
He never got to be in the room where it happened. He never got that chance.
Tori Dunlap (01:19:51):
Sharon, where can people find you?
Sharon McMahon (
@sharonsaysso on Instagram. My podcast is Sharon Says So.
Tori Dunlap (01:20:03):
Thank you. This is so good. Thank you. Thank you to Sharon for joining us and teaching us so much in this episode. I’m now going to read everything I can about Aaron Burr and about by extension Leslie Odom Jr. Please, if you’re a citizen of the United States and are legally able to vote, please vote. Please register to vote. Make sure your family and friends are registered to vote. Make your voice heard. This is a luxury, unfortunately, it is a luxury to be able to vote. It is a privilege, and we want you to exercise that privilege. Fight misinformation and disinformation.
Call out your elected officials when they put corporations over people. Get involved in your local political scene. We also talked on a previous episode with Amanda Litman of Run for Something about how to save our democracy. That’s a great also place to continue learning more. Go back to that episode. We really can make a difference from the bottom up, and voting is one of the most precious rights we have. Thank you for listening. Links to voting resources, Sharon’s links, and more in our show notes. Please check those out. Vote like your life depends on it you all, because unfortunately many do. Catch you later, Financial Feminists. Thanks as always for being here.
Thank you for listening to Financial Feminist, a Her First $100K podcast. Financial Feminist is hosted by me, Tori Dunlap, produced by Kristen Fields. Marketing and administration by Karina Patel, Olivia Coning, Cherise Wade, Alena Helzer, Paulina Isaac, Sophia Cohen, Valerie Oresko, Jack Conning, and Ana Alexandra. Researched by Ariel Johnson, audio engineering by Austin Fields. Promotional graphics by Mary Stratton. Photography by Sarah Wolfe, and theme music by Jonah Cohen sound. A huge thanks to the entire Her First $100K team and community for supporting the show.
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