Coaston’s own individuality should be unmistakable, particularly among her left-leaning media peers in heavily Democratic D.C. The former political reporter for Vox and MTV is a registered Libertarian who got her start in right-leaning college media and professes “a healthy skepticism of state power.” She also happens to be a happily married queer person, a former speechwriter for the Human Rights Campaign, a churchgoing Christian and a fitness buff who works out roughly twice a day. In November, she joined the New York Times, where she hosts the paper’s relaunched opinion podcast “The Argument.”
In her new role, Coaston says she aims to “add a lot of external viewpoints that maybe haven’t been as well represented on the show, because it has been very much about the left, right and center perspectives that are featured at the Times largely.”
The D.C. resident made her name as a beat reporter covering the multifaceted American right — understanding that, as she puts it, conservatism is “an ideology whose own adherents debate what it is.” (This is especially true since Donald Trump arrived on the scene.) But other ideologies are no less ripe for exploration or interrogation, especially for someone with her politics. Robby Soave, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, says he’s seen her “productively challenge liberal assumptions, in the way libertarians tend to do.”
Coaston grew up in Cincinnati. She describes her parents as “union Democrats” who “were giant hippies” — her father a Black librarian, her mother a White woman who has worked with neglected and abused children. Her grandfather served in the only Black U.S. Army unit to land on the beaches on D-Day. Her grandmother, whose childhood home was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, was one of the first Black people to work at the Pentagon and desegregated the church Coaston’s family attended.
“My politics were shaped by the fact that I grew up in a very liberal family in a very conservative area,” Coaston says. “That’s why I’ve always been so interested in understanding why other people think the way they do. I was on such an ideological island with my family, where we were very strange, and yet my parents thought Republicans were very strange.”
She ventured far off her ideological island at the University of Michigan, where she edited the Michigan Review, a libertarian paper supported by the right-leaning Collegiate Network — despite the fact that she wasn’t a libertarian in those days. “I thought [the Review] would be a good place to learn to write persuasively, because I’d be surrounded by people who didn’t think the same way I did,” she says. But over the years, she gradually became more libertarian in her politics.
On “The Argument,” Coaston hopes to model persuasion — and an openness to being persuaded — as well as disagreement rooted in good-faith engagement. She says there’s too much bad-faith performative posturing in arguments about politics today. Americans often get a distorted view of politics they don’t share, which she likens to the misleading shadows cast by the burning fire in Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Coaston is under no illusion that argument necessarily leads to persuasion even when it’s done well, and she doesn’t fetishize agreement or national unity. “We can better understand each other without seeking a commonality I don’t know if we’ve ever really had,” she says. “Commonality has generally existed in this country when you just quietly shut some people in a drawer.”
But she does think improved argument can lead to people being more informed about difference — to Americans “looking at the flames, not the shadows.” Coaston is good at explaining the nuances of difference, including around questions of race. “Racism has played a role in the growth of conservatism,” she observes, “but that leaves out the fact that many African Americans espouse conservative viewpoints,” even those who support Democrats. Her knowledge of these issues lets her intricately parse the distinctions between “neocons,” “paleocons” and “tradcons” — or argue that, notwithstanding the Trump phenomenon, “there is no such thing as Trumpism.”
Coaston’s coverage of conservatism won her respect on the right. “She’s had a well-deserved meteoric rise,” says Soave, a fellow Michigan grad who worked at the Michigan Daily around the time Coaston was at the Review. “There are very few people who write about conservatives and conservative media who are liked and respected by people in conservative media, and she’s certainly one of those. She’s such a fair-minded and independent thinker.”
Her politics reflect that independent thinking. She’s skeptical of gun restrictions, in part because she believes they’re enforced unfairly against Black Americans. She notes that “much of the early gun-control movement was aimed at controlling the guns of African Americans and not the guns of other people.” She generally believes America needs fewer laws.
Yet Coaston is at peace with the idea that her fellow Washingtonians — and fellow Americans — won’t agree with her on everything. “The great thing about this country,” she says, “is it’s always had the capacity to contain great multitudes.”
Graham Vyse is a contributing writer for the magazine and an associate editor for the Signal.