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Why this political activist wants Americans to take a 24-hour break from politics (+podcast)

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FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Washington. Brandon wants Americans to put a 24-hour pause on politics this Labor Day.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript from the latest episode of “Therefore, What?” It has been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Labor Day is typically the beginning of the fall political season. This year, one prominent political organization is challenging the nation to stop talking politics for 24 hours, and instead celebrate America.  

I’m Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is “Therefore, What?” I’m very pleased today to be joined by my good friend Adam Brandon. He is the president of FreedomWorks, a grassroots service center to millions of activists around the country that support smaller government, lower taxes, free markets, personal liberty and the rule of law. Adam is just one of the great minds, and more importantly one of the great doers, in our nation’s capital. And your group, FreedomWorks, has been involved in so many wonderful things over the years. A real movement — not just a moment, not just an event, but a real movement. Adam, thanks for joining us today.

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Adam Brandon: Well, thanks so much for that introduction. I’m a little nervous and looking over my shoulder to see who you’re introducing there. That’s a lot to live up to.

BM: Oh, you are one of the doers. In my time in Washington, D.C., as Chief of Staff, you meet a lot of pretenders and a lot of posers. And then you had a few people who actually get it, and then even fewer who can actually do it. And that’s what your journey has been all about. You’re doing something really unique for this Labor Day celebration. As I mentioned in the intro, this is usually the big windup and everyone’s just raring to go into the political season. And you’re actually telling the American people, stop for 24 hours.

AB: Just for a short rest. We’ve got a lot of plans for the fall and we’ve already started with a lot of our work. But I think I’m pretty much represent most Americans. I have personal relationships that have been strained over politics in recent years. And it’s getting worse. I find that even my mother and I have had some strong conversations. I have a text thread going back from my friends in high school. These are guys I started hanging out with in 1994. That thread, which is usually one of the complete sources of joy in my life, has been infused with politics. That is getting strained.

I mean, I could go through these different relationships. And, frankly, I love these people too much. We’ve had too much history. Well, maybe we shouldn’t be talking to each other in November as much. But I would just like one day where my friends, my family, we could just be with each other and talk. It’s been a hard year. I just believe that America could do with a little bit of putting our phones down, turning off the cable news and just celebrate how great we are as a nation. 

BM: Over the last decade, you’ve had a really unique view as you’ve traveled around the country, as you’ve interacted with the over six million members of your organization, it’s taken you to places far away from our nation’s capital, to a lot of small towns and cities. And it’s one of the things that I always get back to, it’s like, Oh, yeah, this is this is what really matters. It’s not what’s going on in Washington. But share with us, Adam, some of the things that you’ve learned out there traveling the country that may be a little different than what we see on the nightly news.

AB: I would love to share that with you, because that is one of the great pleasures of my job. I’ve been to almost every major city and a whole lot of smaller towns in this country. Almost every state, from Alaska to Hawaii to Florida to Maine. In fact, my wife, when I met her, she was living in your hometown of Salt Lake City. The woman I married got her Ph.D. from the University of Utah. So I’ve definitely gotten around. But the main thing is, what a kind group, what a kind nation, what a forward-looking, defined by our future, not defined by our past country we are. I’ve traveled around the world and I’ve been in a lot of spots that are defined by their past. And when you tend to be defined by your past, you’re also trapped by the sins of the father in the past. And that’s something that the United States has done different.

When you come here, it is about you. It is about the content of your character. And that’s what’s made this country separate from the rest. Unfortunately, you know, that’s under attack right now from social media, when you turn on the TV. But at the end of the day, when you stop that, we’re still a great people that really care for each other and care for our communities. And that is our strength, and that’s the source of my optimism.

BM: I think that’s so important. I love that — defined by your future, not by your past. In so many of those places, outside of the bubble and the Beltway, where you can talk about principles. And many of the principles that you espouse as part of FreedomWorks and in your leadership role in the country, you talk about bigger citizens and smaller government. Those things still resonate and ring true — it doesn’t matter where you go. And to me, to quote our good friend, pollster Scott Rasmussen, we can we can be pretty pessimistic about the politics. Politics has failed, but America will not. And it’s because of those people and those founding principles that actually bring us all together.

AB: We have had great leaders in this country — people like Abraham Lincoln — but it’s not the politics, it’s not our politicians, that have made this a great nation. Period. It is the citizens. It’s the people who built the buildings who raised the families, who farmed the fields that have been the backbone of the country, and we often forget about that. I just think often, even when I watch the news, we’re always trying to figure out who’s at fault, who’s the person who did this. And there’s so much demonizing. And a lot of the challenges that we face are kind of natural challenges as the society grows and evolves.

We’ve got a demographic problem as the country ages. This is the first time in American history we’re getting older, not younger, as a country. That creates a whole unique set of problems. We’ve always been a country that has managed to keep its debt and its finances under control. That’s not the case today. So you look at these new and evolving problems that add new stresses. Also, the speed of change, the speed of dislocation, it’s not surprising to me that people feel those stresses. And then something you mentioned — that the strength of America is not in Washington, D.C. Washington is a lagging indicator. What happens in the culture is not shaped by Washington, but Washington is shaped by the culture.

So we do have a certain amount of work to go through as a nation, and because we’re working through that right now, Washington is a mess. And that’s a natural result. But again, I’m not looking to be saved by a politician. When I walk down the street in my neighborhood, it’s a great walk. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s a great group of people who are my neighbors. And that’s the strength of the future.

BM: I love that. You’ve been involved in so many of the policy battles. I always separate the principles, the policies and the politics into those buckets, because we should never confuse those. But you’ve been involved in some of those tough battles, whether it’s health care policy or tax policy, regulatory stuff, you guys have done some great stuff in. And so you’ve traveled the country in these policy and political battles. But what has surprised you about the American people as you’ve been going out into these battles? You always come back with something unique. So what has surprised you as you’ve traveled the country, having these kinds of conversations?

AB: When I meet with the FreedomWorks activists, what I notice as time has gone on, they’re less than less partisan. But they might be more and more ideological. Congressman Thomas Massie once said, “Adam, that’s your problem. You don’t get it. You’re an ideologue, you’re not a politician. And that’s what trips you up in Washington.” And I thought, you know, that’s actually an interesting observation. We do believe what we believe, but I think there is this trend going on.

When I was a young man and I volunteered, you had to volunteer through the Republican Party, if you wanted to be in politics. You pick your team, right? The Jets and the Sharks. The Republicans or the Democrats. And that’s kind of how politics was. But with technology — again, I mentioned how the internet has changed how we shop, how we do everything — but it’s also changed how we participate in our political culture. And in some ways, it’s been a difficult challenge. In other ways, it’s evened it out, because now you don’t need the party anymore. So the parties have become these empty vessels. And they’re a convenient vessel. I mean, we need about four hours on this podcast if we’re going to get through the future of the political party.

But when you look at it, it’s so easy to get involved now. And that’s a very good thing. But that also means the responsibility of the citizen has changed. And it’s much more than just watching the news and then voting. That’s not what citizen participation means. With the lowering barriers to entry, it means to be a good citizen, you have to be a little bit more involved than you were before. And that means a little bit more effort to get educated. But also, I think in our system now, it’s a lot easier to call your congressman, to learn about who is on your school board. And I think that we’re entering into an age where it’s more important to people to make sure that they carve off 15, 20 minutes a week, to try and find that time to be involved in process.

BM: I think that’s so, so important. I’m gonna give you bonus points for throwing in a Jets and Sharks reference on the podcast. I think that’s a win for sure. So I wanted I want to get a real practical, tactical application because, obviously, with the pandemic, we’re just coming up on six months from it really hitting our shores here in the United States of America. And I’m curious from your unique vantage point — again, as you’re talking to so many different voices across the country in terms of your activist but also your connection to so many in Congress — what has changed, what have you noticed and what gives you hope moving forward, coming out of this pandemic?

AB: Well, I believe sometimes when we experience a trauma, it’s a great opportunity to take a step back — both as an individual but also a country — and see what what of my assumptions were wrong, what is being challenged. A great example I always think about with my organization is when COVID hit and we all had to go home. I was really scared that we weren’t going to be able to operate as an organization. I was worried that the donations would stop. I was worried that we would lose communication across the office. And it didn’t happen. The donations, while down, were not significantly down. The outputs actually went up in many of the ways that we measure. And the communication changed, but it is strong.

So when I think about our relationship to politics today, I think a lot in Washington are going through that exact same metamorphosis. In fact, I think you may see in the coming years, a lot of groups that have dominated in politics, they may go away. I think there’s a changing of the guards. In fact, when you look at the old titans of of Washington, so many of those old institutions, I’m just not sure they’re relevant anymore. And some sacred cows are being slaughtered across the landscape. This is an opportunity for some of the dreams I had in the early tea party movement. I think we’re closer to seeing success than ever.

But with other things, it’s time to recalibrate, when it comes to issues like spending. I thought there was this huge hope for spending restraint in United States. I just don’t see it, which means we have a lot of work to do. A lot of politicians I know are serious about entitlement change, you know, fixing stuff like that. They’re out there wondering if there’s ever going to be a constituency to do that. Well, there better be or we’re in trouble. And I look at groups and they better figure out ways to be relevant or we’re in trouble.

One big change I’ve noticed is that money in politics is not as important as it once was. It used to be, if you’d get elected you would need to raise a ton of money to run TV ads. Well, I just don’t think that’s the case anymore. You look at AOC up in New York. Several other challengers who I’ve worked with — Sen. Mike Lee in Utah — they all won their races being outspent because they had such a great connection to their voters and to their constituency. Well, the problem for Washington is, you take money out of Washington, the old guard, the lobbyists, that’s what their power was — money. And so we have this unique moment in our history right now where the importance of money is going down. And trust me, you still need to raise and spend money, but you could win being outspent three- or four-to-one.

I think this is an opportunity, again, where my call is for people to get involved more is because your actions, your activity, that’s what the money is chasing. I think this old adage that politicians don’t listen — the problem is they listen, and they listen too well, maybe.

BM: In our in our closing couple of moments here, I want to do two things. You have called for people to take Labor Day and take 24 hours off of the political. In typical Adam Brandon fashion, you not only ask them to stop doing something — you ask them to start doing something, and that is celebrating America. So what is it that you’re going to celebrate? As you push the pause button on politics for 24 hours, what are you going to celebrate?

AB: You know, COVID was very hard on my family. It’s been very hard. I haven’t seen my parents very much. There’s a lot of things to look at. You can look at this as a real crisis. But because I wasn’t on the road, I had the blessing where my wife is pregnant, that we’re going to have a COVID baby. I think I was so caught up — I put on about 250,000 air miles a year for my job. And I just really want to reflect on the good things that happened, even in this tough year. You know, our family getting started, we were able to take the time to buy a new home during this period. I think it’s this change in my life that has started.

And you know what, Boyd, when you see me next time, you’re going to notice I’ve dropped almost 15, 20 pounds. Not being on the road, I’ve been able to get healthier than I’ve ever been before. So when I look at my personal life and the beginning of my family, that’s what I’m really going to be celebrating. And then as I look around this great country, I think I’m going to be celebrating with a little neighborhood that has just welcomed us in. You can’t make this stuff up. One of the first nights that we were living in our new home, the doorbell rang, and it was the young teenagers next door that baked us a dozen cookies. We ate just about every cookie that night. And I’m very thankful that this is the country I live in, that these are the types of neighborhoods it produces. 

BM: I love that. And we’ll have you back for another conversation about all of those different things and just what you have seen around the country. I know that our family, on Labor Day, we will push a pause button on politics and there’s so much to be thankful for. This is such an extraordinary nation. And the people of this country are just so extraordinary. Far away from the spotlight, in the day-to-day moments. We always talk about it in terms of the fifth grader standing up to a bully, the teacher who’s staying after class to help a struggling student, the pastor that’s helping a struggling soul. It’s all of those things that are so far removed from the politics of it all. But it’s the people. Politics matters and it’s important, and organizations like yours play that vital role. Policy is really important in terms of framing how we move forward. But it really gets down to principles and to people that really drives innovation.

“There is a place for politics — there’s a time for it. It is incredibly important. ... But at the same time, there’s a balance.” — Adam Brandon

AB: One thing that’s helped me out a lot is a philosophy I use during the day, which is when you wake up, let’s say you’ve got 100 energy points that you’re going to expend throughout the day. When you go to bed, you are down to zero. It’s like a video game. And certain activities take points from you and certain activities give you more energy. And when you pause for a day, you get a chance to see, OK, what habits have I developed that I’m just draining energy on uselessly? And unfortunately, this is funny coming from someone who does politics and policy for a living. It is so easy to drain energy reading the news and getting upset and arguing — arguing with a loved one, especially, over policy and politics is probably the most draining enterprise you can get into, because you accomplish nothing and you feel terrible. But when you actually spend some time with your phones down and you cook together and you know have some fun, it actually adds points to your energy score for the day.

So that’s what I’ve learned, that there is a place for politics — there’s a time for it. It is incredibly important. I’m actually asking people to do more there. But at the same time, there’s a balance. And I think when you have the moment to have a day off with friends and family, absolutely take it. Tune the negativity out and the hardness of the debate — turn it off for a day.

BM: Therefore, What? What do you hope people think different, what do you hope they do different as a result of listening to this podcast today?

AB: What I’m going to challenge people to do, what I hope people do, is think about one person in your life, that you have had a strained relationship with over politics. And I hope on Labor Day, you give them a call. And you just tell them that you care about them. You’re thinking about them. You’re sorry that the political climate has strained the relationship, but you’re hoping before the end of the year to connect on everything that friendship, that relationship, was based on, that was not political. So my call, my “Therefore, What?” is please reach out to someone with whom you’ve had a strained relationship about politics.

BM: Love that. Absolutely fantastic. Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, again, an extraordinary organization, political in many things, policy on everything, is asking all of us as people to take a day off. Hit that pause button, as Adam said. Let’s take Labor Day 2020, pause the politics, focus on people, especially any that you might have had a strained relationship with. Adam, love your leadership. Appreciate your insight and we’ll have you back again real soon.

AB: All right, talk to you soon, Boyd. Really appreciate this opportunity to speak with you and your wonderful audience.