As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Webb.
Jeff Webb is an acclaimed business entrepreneur, founder of Varsity Spirit, and President of the International Cheer Union. He is the author of the Amazon bestselling book American Restoration: How to Unshackle the Great Middle Class and co-publisher and executive news director for Human Events — a longtime Washington, D.C.-based conservative website.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My childhood was just about as blessed and what you might call “traditionally American” as you can imagine. I grew up in Dallas, Texas in a middle-class family with my parents and brother and sister. My father was in the oil business and eventually became an entrepreneur. Despite being a Texan, I attended the University of Oklahoma where I was involved with the cheer squad. That’s where I had the seeds sown of the idea that would eventually become Varsity. After college, at the age of 24, I decided to start what would eventually become that company. I raised a little bit of money from friends and family and ran the business out of my apartment for the first two years. Those very sound and very humble beginnings led me to this conversation with you today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
There wasn’t a light bulb moment or single sort of mentor. The idea started to take shape within me during college and ultimately that idea evolved into action with a little courage and a lot of commitment. I was fortunate to have both my parents support my decision and that is rare for a young entrepreneur, especially back then when the typical path was for someone to look for a good job out of college. To be perfectly honest, both of my parents were very supportive of me. I do remember that my mother, who had been a Dallas tennis champion, said to me when I was deciding whether or not to take the entrepreneurial plunge, “so what if it doesn’t work. So what? You tried it. You want to do it. Just go for it.” If I had an inspiring inflection point that might have been it. Her words have stuck with me my entire life.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am currently the president of the International Cheer Union, which is an international sports federation who are in the process of working to get cheerleading accepted into the Olympic games. If we succeed, it will create an incredible expansion of the sport all over the world. I believe it offers young people the opportunity to get involved in something greater than themselves, and being a part of making that happen would be a crowning achievement of my career.
I have also entered the world of politics in a couple of different ways. I’ve partnered with a rising star in the opinion world by the name of Will Chamberlain by joining Human Events, a respected political publication that has roots all the way back to 1944. In my role there as Co-Publisher and Sr. news Editor my team and I have a news division to compliment the opinion side that Will had already well established. I also founded an organization called Middle Class Warriors for the purpose of working on political and economic policy issues that can help support the middle class.
Finally, I recently wrote and published my first book, American Restoration-How to Unshackle the Great Middle Class, which sets out the ideas that Middle Class Warriors will attempt to promote. I was fortunate to have the book become an Amazon number one bestseller in six different categories.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
If I try to give credit to any one person, I will most certainly miss hundreds. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is able to attain the level of success that I have been so fortunate to experience without the help and support of so many people along the way. When it comes to the characters in my life’s story, I’m a debtor, not a creditor. That said, I do have to give very special thanks to my family. I have always had their full support and that has been critical to me as it allowed me to focus on building the organization and helping thousands of student athletes achieve their dreams.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Books are like people in that the impact they have on you is cumulative, so it is hard to pick just one. I can say that as far as getting me interested in being involved in the political sphere there is one that really hit home. It is a book called The Revolt of the Elites: And The Betrayal of Democracy, authored by Christopher Lasch. His thoughts on how we have abandoned both the American middle class and the poor drove me to become more active and focus my attention to make a difference.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I don’t have one life lesson that stands out above the rest. At my company however, we have about 15 sayings that I’ve used so many times throughout the years that my team knows them by heart. Most of them center around practical steps in building a high-quality organization while at the same time helping those in need and helping people achieve their dreams. I do find myself quite often quoting Stephen Covey and his line “begin with the end in mind.” Wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders and politicians followed that simple rule more often?
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me leadership has always been having a vision, being able to communicate what that vision is, attracting people who believe in your vision as articulated, and then being able to create a sort of egalitarian type of culture where people support each other and will do whatever it takes to support the vision that they each come to see, understand, and embrace. That is real leadership. Real life leadership, the type that sustains an organization over time, cannot really be described by one word or phrase. It takes a deep commitment to what you believe in and a relentless effort to achieve your goal.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
This did not just happen overnight; it only seems like it has because of the intensity of the past four to five years. The fundamental problem is that political differences have become so intensely personal. People tend to personally demonize those who have a different political viewpoint. We are no longer able to “agree to disagree” or to say that “reasonable people can differ.” Now it is more along the lines of “I’m good. You’re bad. Let me use my social media account to tell everyone just how bad you are.” The media has been complicit in the increased polarization which has been driven largely by money, but also by wanting to promote a different more collectivist ideology. The media’s actions are a sort of political corruption, and something from which our entire society is suffering.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, coworkers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
Fortunately, my own family and close friends have handled our differences, and we do have political differences, with a combination of love and respect. Sadly, I know that is not the case for many. I know one story of a family that cancelled Thanksgiving dinner in November of 2016! That’s just a few weeks after the election! They were already unable to sit at a table with one another! With some friends, it has put a new level of cautiousness and tension into the relationship. That is unfortunate as you want to be able to be open and say what you think with your friends and family. People are more reluctant to open up and share their thoughts with others which is problematic because substantive discussions are what lead to success.
Civil conversation has gotten so complicated. There are some people who look for ways to insult others, and there are those who are afraid to speak because they might insult others, and finally there are those people looking for an opportunity to say they were insulted so they can insult someone back. We have turned what used to be political debates into something akin to a bar fight in an old western movie. America needs to find a way to have someone step up onto the table in the middle of the room and yell “stop”!
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
Well, it has to start with our leaders on both sides of the political aisle, who we see on cable television 24/7, toning down the rhetoric and de-personalizing the political conversation. We watch them behave badly and then we think it is ok for us to behave badly. We need to make our conversations be about ideas, policies, and trying to find common ground. Most importantly, we need to try to replace emotion with reason; easier said than done, I know. Until we do, we won’t be able to break this stalemate that many families find themselves in as does much of the country. Neither side wants to work with the other. It’s going to take compromise, and it’s going to require that each of us get back to communicating with others in ways that are not hurtful.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
In the workplace, companies themselves and especially company leadership have become too political. They are getting too involved with taking sides on issues and cancelling their own vendors and customers. It’s a huge mistake for them to do so. The companies should stick to their basic mission which is to provide the best possible goods or services at a fair price and to make a reasonable profit to sustain their business. Now that won’t be a popular statement in today’s culture of corporate “workism”, but at Varsity we tried to create an environment where all employees were welcome, no matter their differing views, so long as they were respectful of others and dedicated to the company’s mission and vision.
Today, companies that have weighed into politics have in part been doing it because they feel it may position them as trendy or cool, but what they don’t realize is that they are potentially alienating half of their employees and their customers. It’s getting worse and the best thing to do is to just leave politics out of the workplace. Employees… even company leaders… should be free to get involved in politics on a personal level, but they should make it clear they are acting on their own behalf, not representing the company.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
The divide isn’t being caused by party affiliation. That is a byproduct. The real division comes from what people are experiencing inside of our institutions. Everything from our schools, to our healthcare system, to our large corporate boardroom, to our media, to our entertainment industry, all of it has become highly politicized. This has a very negative and divisive impact.
Party affiliation then develops based on how people feel they come down on one side or the other of all this division, and especially how any aspect of the division might impact their immediate family. Most People are not hyper-political, but they are hyper-real life. They are interested in what affects their daily lives and that of their family. Amidst all the chaos and arguing, much of which is not what they are really interested in, they choose a side they think is best for them and they join the fight.
It’s a misinterpretation that their political affiliation is the main driver behind who they are and how they identify themselves personally. Political affiliation is more derivative than causative for most people. It’s just one aspect of their life but it’s becoming more and more important to them because they have seen many of the institutions that have served their families so well over the years being attacked and torn down. They believe their future is at stake, and it is.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
The power that’s been accumulated by big tech and in particular the major social media platforms, has probably become one of the gravest threats to our republic and our civilized society today. The ability for any one or even a few companies to determine how our citizens can communicate with each other, in addition to being able to decide unilaterally what speech to suppress and who to demonize, is absolutely terrifying. It is tyranny of the highest order. This is something that people on both sides need to understand and address. Right now, those on team left have Facebook, Twitter, and Google in their corner and they’re cancelling out and suppressing speech of the folks on team right. While that makes one side happy right now, they should be mindful that things can change.
Everyone needs to be smart enough to know there are some basic rights, in particular those First Amendment rights, that are essential to preserving a free country. Freedom of expression has been at the core of our nation’s two hundred-plus year run of success and prosperity never before seen in all of human history. If we allow fundamental rights to be chipped away at for political expediency or political gain, we do so at our own peril as a society.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
Well, it is going to require a whole lot of people with the inclination and willingness to push back the other way. The media has never really been apolitical. For a long time we might have thought it was, but that was because it was so limited with so few outlets. We all listened to almost the same thing since the evening news was on one of three possible networks and their reporting was remarkably similar. Today, however, there is a proliferation of media, so we get a chance to get more looks at the partisanship.
Also, with more media there seems to come a need to be more partisan, more outrageous, in order to attract followers. There is a game of one upmanship taking place to see who can gain people’s attention. Many of the people in the media have become such demagogues and are so arrogant that they actually likely now believe that what they are telling is the truth. Hopefully, we will begin to see some media platforms try to be objective and as balanced as possible making sure to show both sides.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
It starts with dialing back the rhetoric. We need to make it unacceptable to have people attack those who disagree with them personally and force them to focus on differences in policy. When you talk to people who are not involved in politics and you lay out the policies, without mentioning a political party, you find out a lot of them are on the other side of where they thought they were. That is where we need to focus. People have become too wrapped up in the personality and the demonization of individuals. This has happened at the highest levels of our trusted institutions. When you have the government trying to demonize certain people and using its power, especially the Justice Department, to pursue political “enemies’’ what are regular citizens supposed to think? We need a group of people to come together from both sides and talk about saving the country. They need to do it by talking about policy. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean they are the devil.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
People must make a conscious effort not to personalize their political position and have respect for the positions of others. This means controlling your initial reflexive response to ideas and positions that are uncomfortable or disagreeable to you. Tell someone out loud before you begin to talk to them that you are going to be open-minded and listen. Not only will they hear you say it, you will hear you say it. This can change the entire tone of the conversation.
When discussing an issue with someone, ask them these three questions: What do you believe? Why do you believe it? Why does this matter to you personally? If you make a real attempt to ask those questions and listen to the answers, and if you can get them to do the same, you can solve most any problem, political or otherwise.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
It will take people making a conscious effort and coming to the realization that if they don’t depersonalize politics and return to a focus on policy, then bad things are going to continue to happen to this country. We will lose the opportunity we have been given to have our children and grandchildren to live in the greatest country on Earth. It is a fundamental part of human nature to be concerned about legacy. What on earth are we leaving to our children? We need to realize we have to make the effort to be respectful and understand people and positions that are different than our own. The nature and substance of our legacy is in real jeopardy.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
It’s a tall order that will take time. I’m worried that there might have to be something very dramatic happen to our entire society in order to get people to realize that not trying to work together isn’t the answer for any of us.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
Young people need to be reminded that they will get more out of making a positive impact on society than they will by choosing a negative approach. More people will listen to you more people will follow you, and more people will likely be inspired by you and remember you. If you set your sights high, are willing to exert the effort, and provide the leadership to overcome the obstacles you can make a difference. This isn’t to say there won’t be setbacks or challenges along the way, but you can make a difference. Having that feeling, knowing you made a positive difference in the world or in one individual’s life, is just about as good as it gets.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Nigel Farage, with whom I have had the opportunity to dine but would like to again, as I think he is one of the most incredible leaders I have ever seen. People don’t realize that he started working on Brexit over 20 years ago as a voice in the darkness. His courage and perseverance in first launching the idea that the UK can become freer and in charge of its own destiny, and then seeing that idea through to its realization, is simply unbelievable. Certainly, Donald Trump has had a lasting impact on what is being a called a conservative populist movement, but if you go back to where it all started, I think it’s with Nigel Farage.