In her new book, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It,” Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin tackles one of the most pressing problems confronting the modern Democratic Party: how to reverse its decadeslong backslide in rural support. Maxmin and her co-author and campaign manager Canyon Woodward join Ryan Grim to discuss.
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Ryan Grim: Alright. On this week’s episode of Deconstructed, I’m joined by Maine State Sen. Chloe Maxmin and her co-author and campaign manager Canyon Woodward. We’re going to talk about their new book: “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It.”
Chloe and Canyon, welcome to Deconstructed.
Canyon Woodward: Hi, Ryan, thanks so much for having us.
Chloe Maxmin: Thank you.
RG: And so first of all, congratulations on the book and your rollout, so far. You wrote a widely read article in The New York Times that I encourage folks to read, an appearance on the Bill Maher show —
Bill Maher: What’s the message to Democrats from your book?
CM: I grew up in a House district and a Senate district in Maine that voted for Trump. And we just went out and started talking to folks and listening to people who did vote for Trump. And we won in both of those seats. There were Trump signs next to Chloe signs.
BM: You can win Trump voters, or you thought you won actual Trump voters over?
CM: Yes, we did.
RG: And really this conversation around the Democratic Party and its relationship to rural America is an extremely important one and I think maybe the most important electoral question of our era, if the bottom just continues to fall out in rural America, it’s hard to see a path back for Democrats.
CW: Yeah, that’s totally right. I think I think people don’t realize enough the extent to which our democracy privileges the party that can win votes over a wide geographic area, and you look at everything from the Electoral College, to the Senate, to state legislatures, and all of it, the rural vote has a magnitude of power more influence than more populous areas.
Right. It has this outsized influence. And also, for most of my life, Democrats were getting beaten in rural areas, but they were still winning high 30s, low 40s. So it was enough to kind of stay in the game, but as they fall into the low 30s, 20s — and then once you get down to the 20s, it feels like there could be, and, in climate terms, there could be some kind of feedback cycle that once there’s no base for Democrats at all, in these rural areas, you could just see them almost completely vanish.
But also, of course, as you guys know, but the listeners might not, at The Intercept we published a fairly critical review of your book by a former Maine lawmaker named Andy O’Brien. There was also this review published on Medium by Julia Brown, who is kind of a Democratic operative, a campaign director for Senate Democrats in Maine, that was also a bit critical. And I want to give you guys a chance to respond to all of that.
But first to kind of set things up, let’s talk about who you guys are, and what the book says, what it argues. You’re both climate activists. And Chloe, I actually remember when you were elected to the House in Maine back in 2018, I remember seeing that news and thinking how cool it was that a young climate activist had just flipped a Republican seat.
So let’s start with you like, how did you first become political? How’d you get into this?
CM: That’s a very good question. I grew up in Maine in a small town of 1,600 people. And really everything that I do, all of my work is really rooted in just such a deep love for my home. I love Maine so much. I love its natural beauty and everything that has always been here; I just also really love my community. And the kindness that I grew up with.
And it was something that I didn’t really appreciate until I went to college in Boston, at Harvard, but I never really remember politics being a big issue when I was growing up — that’s certainly changed now. But back then, it really shaped so much of how I think about the world and how we can find that common ground and how relationships, really meaningful, deep relationships with people who we might disagree with when it comes to politics.
So my background is mostly in climate change organizing, and the more that I’ve done work on that front, the more that I’ve circled back to politics, and how so many of the issues that we’re confronting — the most dire and urgent issues of our time — they all require political action. And that means that we need good people in office up and down the ballot at every single level of government. And it means that we also need Democrats to be winning more in rural spaces. The consequences of losing the rural vote on the national level and in so many states means, like you said, that state legislatures get captured by Republicans who are trying to undo climate policy, pass extremely pro-life, rigid laws, all of the things that we’re fighting against right now and we are at that tipping point.
So, in 2016, when Trump was elected, I realized that my hometown House district went for Trump and the Senate district did go for Trump by a little bit. But Trump still won where I grew up. And so I decided to move back home and really dig into local politics there to try and understand what was happening in these more rural spaces that are swaying to the right, and if there was a way to turn it around.
RG: And Canyon, what about you? Because you are the co-author of this book, the campaign manager on both these campaigns, how did you get into this? Where’d you grow up?
CW: Yeah, I’m from a super conservative, rural part of Western North Carolina, Madison Cawthorn’s district, actually.
RG: Soon-to-be former district.
CW: Yes. Yeah. Former representative. Also Mark Meadows before that, Trump’s chief of staff. So unfortunately, from a place where we really know how to pick ‘em.
But yeah, growing up, I certainly came from a liberal family, and we were involved in environmental issues, but electoral politics, to me, was a bit of a black box. It felt like something I generally wanted nothing to do with.
I remember one of my super-early encounters with it was around the project of the DOT, where they were trying to take out this beautiful, historic truss bridge in our community and replace it with a big slab of concrete. And for some reason, like, that was the thing that really brought the community together from both sides of the aisle. And we just packed the basement of this Baptist Church with probably 100 people and just went at it for three hours in this public hearing. And at the end of it, this guy got up at the front, he was like: I’ve just been sitting here and listening all evening. I’m one of your county commissioners, and I just want to say that the people showing up tonight, this is democracy in action, this project is not gonna go through. And he got this huge standing ovation from us. We were like: Yeah! Our voices have been heard.
And then he turned around, and he voted in favor of the project shortly after that —
CW: [Laughs.] And, for me, being this — I think I was probably around 16 at the time, and that was just such a gut punch of like, dang, this is exactly what I’ve always imagined politicians are like, and, and it felt, yeah, felt really tough. And I think a lot of us have had experiences somewhat like that, and it makes us just want to have nothing to do with it.
And it wasn’t until getting really involved with climate issues with Chloe in college, she co-founded the fossil fuel divestment campaign at Harvard, and we got to co-coordinate that together. And it wasn’t until being part of the climate movement that I realized: Whoa, nothing’s gonna get done on anything that we care about unless we change the people who are in office. And so, I graduated from college in 2015. And got to work on the Bernie campaign. And then with Chloe shortly after.
RG: And so the book is about lessons that you learned in these two campaigns, the state House and the state Senate campaign. And so what’s the difference between the two of them? And what was it like getting into the state House campaign? Like, what does it mean to really run for state House district and in Maine?
CM: It was a life-changing experience. We were underdogs by 16 points, the district that we were running in, district 88, has a 16-point Republican advantage. Also, most of the district lies in Lincoln County, which is the oldest county by age in the country — I’m sorry, oldest county by age in the state, and Maine as the oldest state in the country. You have to forgive me, I have Covid. So I’m working through my Covid fog here.
RG: How long have you had it?
CM: I tested positive on Tuesday. So I’m on the upswing right now.
And at the time, Canyon and I were both 25. So we were facing some pretty interesting dynamics. But I think we were both just so rooted in this vision for what politics could look like in a rural space: Could we build a movement? All of these questions just felt so exciting to unpack.
And it’s an interesting dynamic because we had a primary first, so for the first few months of door-knocking since, at the time, we had closed primaries in Maine — but I just fixed that with one of my bills. So I was only talking to Democrats, and it was really easy. I mean, it wasn’t easy in the moment, but in retrospect, we won the primary with 80 percent of the vote. We broke record turnout.
And after that, we started to talk with Republicans and independents. And because the district was so conservative, we were talking with very conservative folks. And it was through that experience in having to talk with so many people who are really different than I was, and that that we were, it just completely opened my world as a someone who identifies as progressive as to everyone who I feel like has been left behind, because we have so much in common with many folks who are voting for Trump, who have voted for Trump.
But sometimes those conversations just aren’t happening. It was really eye-opening every day to be talking with folks who had literally never been contacted by a Democratic candidate, or canvasser in their entire voting history. So having those conversations, being the first Democratic campaign to have these conversations with folks, finding common ground and building relationships and being able to win that district — I mean, it was inspiring. It was hopeful. And it just meant to me that there is space to do this work, even though sometimes you feel like it’s been lost.
RG: And Canyon, maybe you can take this one: for people who aren’t in the nuts and bolts of campaigns. Can you talk a little bit about the ideas of a voter universe or a list of voters and talk about the kind of disagreements that you had with the party over which doors you were going to prioritize? Or which people that you were going to hit?
CW: Yeah, so when you’re campaigning, obviously you just don’t have the capacity to go and knock every single door. So you have to hone in on the folks that you think might be movable. And, you know, that’s called the voter universe, and that’ll look a lot different depending on where the district is. In the state Senate district that clearly won in 2020, it was a lot more moderate. So that was a different universe than the House district, which was super Republican in 2018. So to win in a district like that, you really have to expand the universe out to be talking to some folks who are fairly, fairly hardcore conservatives and trying to move them to vote for Chloe.
And really, I think, the disagreement with the party was — it was definitely a little bit overblown — it was mostly just that we were expanding our reach and reallocating a lot of our resources into what’s called field organizing, which is the the volunteer side of the campaign to go and knock on tens of thousands of doors which is not kind of standard party for campaigns, at least in Maine. And so we knocked every door that was in the state party’s universe, but then we also expanded way, way beyond that and went out to win over lots of more conservative folks, because that was necessary, especially in 2018.
RG: And so Julia Brown, the democratic campaigner who — what’s her role? She kind of oversaw every state Senate race, is that right?
CW: Yeah, she was the executive director for this Senate Democratic campaign committee.
RG: And so her kind of counter was that, in her argument she said: Look, if they wanted to talk to every single Trump voter in the district, we decided, look, they have so much energy, it’s a small enough district, they can probably hit those doors. But we don’t think it’s necessarily going to be useful. And we’re going to have our volunteers make sure that — the union members and others — hit all of the doors of the persuadable people. And she says that they’ve done all sorts of analysis to try to figure out if there was any upside in hitting some of these hardcore Trump doors, and they say they can’t find it. What do you find when you are going door to door in these places where the kind of metrics tell you like: This is a person that’s voted Republican for 20 years; they might be nice to you in person, but they’re not going to vote for you. What did you guys find?
CW: Yeah, I mean, we found a ton of space for connecting, and shared values, and common ground where a lot of folks would expect there to be none. You walk into someone with a Trump sign in the yard and a lot of people would just turn the car around and not even bother knocking, but there were Chloe signs going up next to Trump signs, remarkably, all over the district.
And in 2018, especially in a district that has a 16-point Republican advantage, you had to win a ton of those folks over. And it wasn’t quite the uphill battle against that kind of red lean in the Senate district. But it was going up against the Senate minority leader who was a really popular incumbent. And so it was still having to win a lot of those folks over.
Chloe knocked a phenomenal amount of doors. We didn’t have any of the folks that the party would normally go after, we just expanded our reach by talking to more folks and getting dozens and dozens of volunteers involved with the campaign rather than spending all of our money on consultants, and mailers, and TV ads, etc.
RG: And Chloe, if you did find anything that worked, like, was it case by case? Or was there anything that you found resonated more than anything else in these hardcore Trump houses?
CM: I think that’s the interesting thing about it is that it did feel like there were some common themes that emerged in many conversations.
And one of the things that struck me the most is that I’ve knocked about 20,000 doors in the past two cycles, and over 13,000 doors in 2020. And so I felt like I got a pretty good sense of where people were at. And the most common thing that I heard was just if people were Democrat or Republican, whatever part of the spectrum people were on, there was the shared frustration with the political system, the shared sense that we have been abandoned, that we have been let down by politics. And while we, of course, have amazing people in office who I respect, that’s just the general sense.
And so it was interesting, because that’s why I ran for office in the first place. I was kind of like a young, disaffected, progressive who cares about the future of everything and didn’t feel like politics was doing enough on the climate crisis — that’s why I ran for office in the first place. And so when I heard folks who were very conservative, saying the same thing, it was like: OK, we have something that we can work together on. And, you know, our relationship was built around values and not necessarily party. Because I think that the party narrative is really designed to be divisive. And instead, we focused on what can unify us.
And I also just wanted to say that we’re not the only ones in Maine, or across the country, using these tactics and these strategies, or having these conversations, or talking with Trump voters. But I think that across the country, we just need more investment in rural politics, rural progressive folks running for office, it’s a very different type of campaigning, it requires more resources and a different type of support. And it’s so critically important at this moment in history. And as Canyon and I chugged along the campaign trail, we were just so struck by the conversations that we were having, that we just started to write things down, and take voice memos, and talk about it. And it turned into this really powerful story of how we can reconnect and build something really powerful and meaningful in rural spaces.
CW: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And I think it’s kind of a battle within the Democratic party a little bit for: Are we the party of consultants and the establishment? Or are we the party of grassroots organizing and really investing in communities? And that’s what young Barack Obama understood with his campaign in 2008. That’s the vein that Bernie Sanders, and AOC and, Stacey Abrams, and so many others are pushing with a ton of success. And there’s resistance to that, understandably, but for us that’s really the most most hopeful path forward, especially in these rural areas.
RG: Either one of you could take this. Let me get your response to one of Andy O’Brien’s more significant criticisms, basically he says that, when you think of like a Trump area, and the dirt roads, and the MAGA hats, and the rebel flags, there’s a certain image that’s conveyed. But this district, the House and the Senate district, kind of along the coast of Maine, where there’s absolutely a lot of rural areas and a ton of poverty, but also a ton of kind of wealthy liberal enclaves. And his argument was that, in order to win, you guys actually mostly ran up the numbers in the blue areas, rather than flipping Trump towns.
Now, in 2018, there was a huge blue wave, and obviously you had to close the gap on what had been a double-digit Republican seat before. And he makes the point that it’s true to say that you were the first Democrat elected in that district ever. But that district was brand new, it had only existed since 2014. And that there had been a lot of Democrats who had represented it before that, and that there are Democrats who represent all the districts around it, and so that it wasn’t as unique, and shocking as you guys were saying. So what’s the response to that claim of his?
CW: Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t a new district. But if you go back and you look at the results from recent elections, going back several cycles, as long as it’s available online, you see the same trend in the specific towns that make up the district.
Chloe did flip Jefferson and Whitefield which made up half of that district in 2018. She flipped those, which had gotten for Trump in 2016. And she was the only Democrat in a contested race to win in Jefferson. So I think Andy had a bone to pick. It wasn’t completely factual what he said; it was a huge uphill battle in those districts.
And yeah, Lincoln County is a really interesting case study. It’s not like a deep red county in Western North Carolina, for example. Rural America is not a monolith. And Maine is interesting, in particular. But it is an interesting kind of microcosm and it has gotten some national attention in that respect. Political analysts at The Hill in 2020 identified it as one of 10 counties in the country to look at with the 2020 election because of just this interesting mix of like working class farmers and lobsterman, and, like you point out, some of the wealthier communities on the coast, and how those dynamics are playing out.
RG: And I guess the reason that this is important is because it goes to the question of what lessons can be learned, and what can be scaled from your race? Another argument that he laid out was that the state party invested heavily in the state Senate race. And so it wasn’t the case that this wasn’t a seat that nobody thought could be won.
And in your book, you guys I think are pretty open about what can be scaled or what can’t be scaled. And I think that some people have maybe taken an impression from the book that it isn’t necessarily your responsibility, because you have been clear that there are serious limits to what can be drawn out of this and applied in other districts.
So what do you think are the things that you can draw? And what are the things that are kind of unique to that area?
CM: I think, first of all, we wrote the book and embarked on these two campaigns out of a deep love for our rural hometowns, and for the Democratic Party, and for democracy in general. We are really only interested in putting out a positive vision and really just feel disappointed by the more kind of personal attacks trying to tear down our work. And we don’t really want to get into the tit-for-tat of that. And I think we all just deserve better when we’re talking about a path forward and we can all do our work the way that we want to and treat each other with grace and respect.
I think our work is not only informed by our experiences going door to door and having tens of thousands of conversations with voters. It’s also informed by the campaigns that we’ve worked on in the past, Canyon’s experience working in the south on political campaigns. We’ve brought a lot of experience to bear. And through that we can kind of see this is what works in Maine, this is what works in smaller legislative districts, and these are some of the themes that that do resonate in other parts of rural America that we know from our experience and the dozens and dozens of candidates and campaigns and organizers that we work with in other states and who have reached out to us.
I think the most important one is this idea that there’s so much space to find common ground, but we can’t find that space unless we’re having door-to-door conversations with folks in rural places. And we look back at National Democratic narratives, like in 2018, Tom Perez, who is the then-chair of the DNC saying you can’t doorknock in rural America, and just kind of how that has trickled down all across the country in the ways that campaigns have been run and just the lack of infrastructure in a lot of rural places. That is to our detriment and inhibits us from having the capacity to do a lot of door-knocking in rural places.
I think there’s some great examples here in Maine, and across the country of that trend changing. And we’re huge fans of People’s Action, and the deep canvassing program that they’ve done out in the Midwest. Things are changing now. And we’re just joining that movement and saying we need more: we need more money, we need more volunteers, we need more resources to go out and have these conversations all across the country.
Of course, we can’t win over everyone. There’s not going to be common ground with every single person that we talk to. But I think there’s more common ground than we think there is. And literally the only way to find it is face-to-face on someone’s porch. So that’s going to require a pretty significant shift in how we think about campaigning and how our campaigns are structured, and how our campaigns are funded. And that’s the call to action here.
RG: And that Tom Perez quote that you can’t knock doors in rural America, I think is really a perfect encapsulation of the way that the national party is failing so badly, to just understand rural America on even the most basic level. And I think that that is kind of the right element of the party to be in tension with.
And it sort of feels like — and let’s try to unpack this and tell me what you think — the reaction in Maine to the book, the kind of the defensiveness and the pushback, is different from the reaction from the national party, which the national party really is ignoring rural America. My read was that the the Maine party just felt defensive about because they said: Look, we’re the most rural state in the country, and we control the governor’s mansion, we control the state House, we control the state Senate, our Senate leader, represents a hardcore Trump district, is a Bernie guy and a trade unionist. And we do talk to Trump voters, we do win Trump voters, we do know how to win in rural America. And we prove that by being in control in Maine. And so the disagreement may be over just simple strategy. Like: If you can only talk to 1,000 voters, is it better to talk to moderate Republicans who you could win over or populist Trump people who you can win over? And maybe that’s a good way to ask the question: If you only had a week, you can only hit 1,000 doors, and it’s one or the other? Which would you go for? And do you think that my framing of that is right? Do you think that’s where some of that reaction is coming from?
CW: Let’s see, Maine has so many awesome examples of Democrats running and winning in fairly rural, more conservative districts. And so it is different in that respect. And I think a lot of the pushback, which has really just been from a very small, close-knit group of the Democratic establishment, is just folks taking things a little bit a little bit personal and getting a little bit petty. But the reality is, we are worried about control of the House and Senate there, and the governor’s race in large part because of the rural areas. So it’s not like we have it all figured out. But we do have good lessons for the rest of the country.
And I think it’s not a trade-off between those two options. Our approach is folding them all together and saying: We have to build stronger volunteer bases in every district so that we have the capacity to go out and reach both groups, because that’s what we did in our campaigns. We took this adjusted universe of the state party and we reached every single one of those people. But what made us different is we had a huge volunteer base and, of course, a powerhouse in Chloe. And we expanded way beyond that to reach a ton more folks. And so yeah, it’s really about doing both and investing in the grassroots so that you can expand your reach by a ton.
RG: Chloe, what do you think of that framing?
CM: I think Canyon is spot on. He’s so smart.
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s for sure so many incredible examples of Maine. When I decided to move back to Maine after college, so many of my mentors were like: You are never going to do anything for Maine. You can’t change the world from Maine. You can’t make a difference from Maine. I mean, so many people said that to me. I’ve always believed that Maine is and can be a leader. And we certainly are when it comes to really, like getting folks elected from all across the state. We’re writing about two very specific experiences that we’ve had in districts that have been very tricky for Democrats to win.
And our message is really about the nation and recognizing that we need power in Maine, yes, but we need power in state legislatures across the country, and we need to be protected at the national level as well. And the consequences of not looking beyond Maine are just really too dire. So our message is really about what’s happening nationwide, and not just in Maine. And I think it’s no secret that Democrats struggle in rural places, and how that’s becoming a calculus that is more and more urgent for the national party to really confront and that’s the challenge for this year, in the midterms, and even more in 2024. Things are not certain, things are not set in stone, we have a lot of work to do. And that’s what we devote ourselves to. And that’s so much of what we’ve learned and experienced over the last few years.
RG: The criticism that did resonate is actually around that exact point. This upcoming midterm, you have people saying: OK, we’re very glad that she flipped the seat, but now she’s stepping down after writing this book and putting the seat at risk, whereas if she had run again, she had a very good chance of holding on to the seat, could cost us the Senate.
And so why step down? I know you’re creating an organization that will work on Democrats in rural areas, is that right? Or: What’s next for you and why not continue the fight in this area of Maine?
CM: I think, first of all, if the entire Maine Senate hinges on one race, that’s not a great situation for anybody. [Laughs.]
RG: And that’s also not fair.
RG: It’s unfair, I think, for people to have to live their lives based on the fate of a particular chamber. But, on the other hand, it’s a reality.
CM: I mean, Canyon and I just started a nonprofit, (c)4, called Dirt Road organizing to support lots of folks running for office and doing rural organizing work, there’s a lot more power in supporting five 620 folks like us, all across rural America than there is and just getting me elected over and over again. I’m working to get another amazing young woman elected in my seat. And that’s really exciting and supporting her and making sure that she’s got all of our volunteer database, and all of that good stuff.
And being in the legislature as a young person is really tricky. And we’re a part time citizen legislature here in Maine, and so it’s pretty tricky to be able to do broader work year-round, and serve in the legislature. And I don’t need to be the one in power, I don’t need to be the one in the spotlight, I want to really make sure that there are lots of folks who have all the support and resources that they need to get elected in Maine and across the country. And I think that’s going to have an effect that’s just a lot bigger than me spending the rest of the year just getting myself elected.
CM: There’s lots of different ways to fight for our democracy. And that’s what we’re going to do.
RG: I’m also curious from both your perspectives, because you’ve had your feet squarely planted in the climate activism world, and not just climate activism, but in Harvard, and all of what that entails. Then you spent years talking to 20,000-plus people, just ordinary people, about politics. And I’m curious what you would tell people in the activist world who haven’t done that, because that is an experience that really, I think, changes people and shapes the way that they understand the public, the way that they understand what they’re trying to do. Because it’s so different from Twitter. On Twitter, somebody says something that’s a little bit off-key, everybody piles on them and drives them into the ground, and celebrates, and moves on. But when you’re talking to somebody in person, and you hear that same thing, but you’re looking the person in the eye, and you’re seeing: Oh, this is a person that’s actually coming from a place of good faith or they’re trying to get to the right place. They mean well. I disagree with them here. Let me see how I can approach them and find common ground, which is such a different experience than the kind of online world or some of the exchanges that people have when they’re just rooted only in the activist space. So what lessons have you learned that you would impart back to your comrades back in the movement?
CW: I love that question. It’s such an important one. I think, for me, one of the biggest ones is just realizing what a huge privilege my education has been, both in school and out of school in those activist spaces where we do a ton of talking and theorizing and learning together through the work, and learning a different language to talk about the world and these issues than I had growing up in my community.
And then going back into these spaces and realizing that this language that I have to talk about things doesn’t necessarily connect with folks at every door that I go to. And that’s not because the person I’m talking to is a bad person, by any means. It’s just that there’s a gap there in trying to jump from 0-60, and you have to have empathy on both sides, for where folks are coming from. I think on the right, it feels like folks on the left are really extreme, and that they will jump down your throat for saying a single wrong word, or just not saying something quite right, even if you have good intentions. And on the left, I think we have this view of [laughs] all Trump voters sometimes as being racist, and sexist, and that’s just not not the case at all. But when we’re in these echo chambers of an activist group or our Twitter feed, we’re rewarded for the behavior of slapping people down and dropping the mic on them, or what have you.
I mean, what we really need is a lot more empathy and listening and trying to hear where folks are actually coming from, and when we do that, I think that we find the common goodness, the shared humanity, that really most people share, of wanting the best for each other and for their communities.
RG: And Chloe, what would you tell your old activist self? And what are you telling people today that you learned from the dirt road? And was it a process? Or how quickly did things kind of start to dawn on you as you started hitting these doors?
CM: I definitely have so many memories of doing our divestment work at Harvard, for example, or joining large climate justice marches and feeling that power of the community that I was in and feeling like the rest of the world and people in politics weren’t listening, and having that thought of: Why don’t people agree with us? We’re so right.
And I think it’s so easy to feel that, especially these days when we’re just kind of living in an echo chamber of our own thinking, and we’re just kind of getting validated all the time. But when I started to talk with folks who were just so different than me, but we had the same values, it was just kind of a wake-up call for my own self, and I certainly didn’t start out the experience knowing how to have the conversation. Sometimes I didn’t know what to say, and the only thing I could do was just to listen. And through that act of listening, which seems so simple, I really began to understand a different perspective, to understand how my own judgments and prejudices have blocked me from empathy, even though I consider myself an empathetic person.
And so when we can let down our guard a little bit and just have the conversation, even if there’s disagreement, even if the person doesn’t vote the way that I would like, that conversation is so meaningful. And I just feel like with things so divisive right now, and so heated — I don’t think it’s naive, but it’s my form of hope — that the only way forward is to have these kinds of kind and empathetic conversations. That they’re not built on extraction of information from a voter. They’re not built on manipulation. They’re not built on a transaction. They’re built on an honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversation, where you are just telling each other what you think — and how far can we get. That is our strategy across the nation, as we’re running campaigns.
RG: And so much of this debate around the approach to rural America that your book sparked seemed to not actually get into the question of what the party was saying. It was more about who to talk to, and how to talk to them, like in what form. But what about the message itself? Is there something that Democrats are doing wrong when it comes to the overall message, or platform, or kind of substantial program that they’re running on that needs to change?
CW: I’m curious to hear what Chloe thinks, but I think my answer to that is nationally, especially as a party, it’s less an issue of what we’re saying or not saying and more of an issue of are we even in these spaces at all, having the conversations?
Back to your point at the very beginning of this conversation about the worry of the bottom dropping out of our margins in rural America. You look at, as recently as 2009, the partisan lean of rural voters was evenly split. And now it’s a 16-point Republican advantage. And I attribute so much of that to Democrats just not running strong campaigns and investing in grassroots organizing in rural spaces. We just haven’t been present enough, having the conversations and going door-to-door. And so what that’s created as a huge, huge void that Fox News and right-wing personalities and Trump have come into and filled. And that’s led to a lot of extremism, just because we kind of ceded that ground and haven’t been there to push back on those narratives.
RG: Yeah, Chloe, what do you think?
CM: Again, I think that Canyon is spot on. I mean, we’ve had this experience as Democrats campaigning in more red places. And we know that other candidates have had the same experience, too, where you’re like: I’m a Democrat, but I’m not like the national Democrats! I’m a different type of Democrat. And so I think there’s this space to really kind of reframe what it means to be a Democrat, and so that it is kind of improving the national party and the national reputation from the ground up instead of the top down. I don’t know if the top down is really going to work anymore.
Like we’ve been saying, so much of this is about grassroots organizing and grassroots conversation that can slowly change the way that we’re thinking about these issues. I think our theory of change is really rooted in the Democratic Party and getting more Democrats elected and really expanding the party as well and saying: Hey Democrats, like so many of the Republicans that we’ve written off, it doesn’t have to be that way. And we can find this common ground. And it doesn’t have to be based on party warfare, it can be based on a united, positive vision for the future, where we’re all just fighting for what we think is best for our families.
I mean, that’s the core of it, I think. There’s so much anger and strife, and so much of it is so needed and so justified, but I think in a lot of these everyday conversations that are happening on the campaign trail, people are just coming at it from the space of: what’s best for my daughter, what’s best for my child who’s in school right now, what’s best for my mother-in-law, who’s aging in place, what’s best for my family. And I think it’s so easy to lose sight of that. But we can fix it. We can fight back. We just got to build grassroots movements in spaces where we might not expect them.
RG: And I wonder if — and this will sound pessimistic — I wonder if the brand of the Democratic Party can even be revived in some of these areas, I think in Maine, it’s still strong, in New England. Generally it’s strong even in rural areas. I grew up in a very rural area of Maryland, and when I was growing up, there were still these Blue Dog Democrats, and there was a legacy of Democratic power. Today, in those areas, it’s very hard to find anybody outside of the kind of very liberal potluck club that would even remotely want to associate with the Democratic Party. And I’ve talked to some candidates who are running in different rural areas of the country as Democrats, and they won’t say it on the record, but they’ll say that if they could somehow manage to run as an independent, yet still have the backing of the party apparatus, they’d be so much better off — that the brand of the Democratic Party, for better or for worse, for whoever’s fault it is, has just become so fundamentally toxic in some of these rural areas, that it’s hard to see them going back from there.
Like I said, that’s not the case in Maine, obviously. They’ve got a trifecta — which they might lose, as you said, in 2022, a big, red wave coming. But what do you think? Is it as bad as that in some areas?
CW: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. It’s a big question. I don’t know the answer to it.
RG: I mean, Canyon, what about where you’re from? I can’t imagine the Democratic Party has much of a shot no matter what kind of candidate they put up?
CW: Yeah. It’s not a good brand. But it’s not like the Republican Party is a great brand, either. I think, what comes to mind for me, is there’s a really broad frustration with the people who are in office and have been in office for years and years, and both parties, and just the system that doesn’t feel like it’s representing us. And I think party leadership on both sides has a lot to do with that, of just these folks who get in the office and have stayed in the office for years and years and years, and just a really strong inertia that has led to where we’re at today — and I won’t give up on it completely. I think it can be turned around to some extent, but I do also think things like ranked-choice voting, like we have in Maine and some other states, that allows independents or third party candidates to run without being a spoiler, are important reforms, or like fusion voting, like they have in New York, where you can be the nominee of multiple parties, you can be the nominee for the Working Families Party and the Democratic Party.
RG: Isn’t there kind of like an independent nearby you, Chloe, who’s a progressive, but isn’t part of the party?
CM: Here in Maine?
CM: Yeah. There are quite a few independents in the Maine House, who kind of buck party politics and pave their own way. And Maine is also very famous for Angus King who was our governor and is now one of our U.S. senators, who is also an independent.
RG: Do you feel like that is almost a requirement in some parts of the country for progressives to make a revival?
CM: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a requirement, per se. I think what’s more important is having values-based politics and trying to get away from this really intense party identity that prevents us from having conversations across the aisle.
One of the things that I’ve been working on here in Maine in my term here has been open primaries. Maine hasn’t had open primaries before, so independents have been left out of really deciding who’s on their November ballot. And so we’re changing that, which means that one-third of Maine voters are now going to be able to vote in primaries and decide: What does November look like? And maybe that will also help tilt things away from this hyper-partisan situation that we’re in. I really think that it’s okay to run as a Democrat. I think it’s okay to run as a party. I think it’s just about how we talk about, how we approach it, how we make sure that our allegiance is to the people and the values that we are talking about, instead of to a party infrastructure.
CW: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. And being willing and able to critique the party and the status quo and communicate to voters that you are not the Democratic Party or you are not the Republican Party, and I think that was a large part of the appeal of folks like Bernie, or even Trump, to rural voters is Bernie was an independent for his whole life. But he ran as a Democrat and was clear that he had lots of problems with the party, but that that was the best vehicle for his campaign.
RG: And, Chloe, before I let you go, for folks who don’t know, your mom’s Shoshana Zuboff, author of the great book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” It’s great — I have not totally finished it — but it’s very good. And when I realized that you were her daughter, the first thing I thought about was she writes about your home burning down, I guess when you were in high school, which just sounded like an absolutely terrifying experience. And I’m glad that everybody was safe when that happened, despite what sounds like the total destruction of your childhood home. So I’m sorry that you had to go through that.
CM: Thank you. Yeah, it was definitely an unpleasant experience.
RG: [Laughs.] I can only imagine. But Chloe and Canyon, thank you so much for joining me.
CW: Yeah, thanks a ton, Ryan. Really enjoyed the conversation.
CM: Thank you, Ryan.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. And that’s our show. Their book is, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It.”
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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