Is it Gen Z's moment to govern?
A conversation with Maxwell Frost, a Democratic candidate from Florida seeking to become the first Gen Z member of Congress (while driving an Uber to make rent)
As a student a decade ago, Maxwell Frost was awakened into political consciousness by the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He went on to become a leading young activist for gun reform, serving as the national organizing director of March for Our Lives. Today, the 25-year-old is campaigning to parlay his experiences pressuring the powerful into a seat inside the halls of power, running to represent Florida’s 10th Congressional Direct in the U.S. House of Representatives.
If elected, Frost would be the first member of Congress from Gen Z. The other day, we spoke about his campaign and his provocative view of what it will take to build a progressive movement that can win in places where it presently has no shot.
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“The South can show the way forward in the progressive movement”: a conversation with Democratic congressional candidate Maxwell Frost
How did your journey into politics begin?
My journey started ten years ago. I'm an artist and went to an art school for middle and high school here in Orlando. I was a drummer, and before every jazz band concert, my best friends and I would go to this Fridays across the street to load up on a bunch of junk food.
I remember that night specifically because we were sitting and eating when this silence fell across the entire restaurant. Everyone simultaneously looked up at the television screens and saw that somebody had walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 children and six teachers. Seeing that on the screen had a big impact on me. I couldn't play right at the show that night. I kept thinking about it in school.
I felt like I needed to go to the vigil that was going on in Washington, D.C., a few weeks later. It was there that I had my call to action. The night of the vigil, I sat with some of the victims' families at a hotel pool in Virginia. We were just wading our feet in the water, and across from me was a guy named Matthew Soto. His sister, Vicky, was a teacher at Sandy Hook. When she heard the gunshots, she hid her class in the closet and around the classroom. She saved their lives, but she was murdered.
I remember hearing Matthew talk about his sister. He was 16 at the time. Seeing a teenager cry with the demeanor of a 60-year-old over his sister who was murdered for just going to school changed my whole life. I thought about my little sister and decided that, for the rest of my life, I wanted to fight for a world where no one has to feel the way I saw Matthew feel that night. That's what got me into politics.
I started working straight out of high school on campaigns across the state. I worked for the ACLU at both the state and national level, then as the national organizing director at March for Our Lives.
It's been ten years of these predictable, foreseeable tragedies. It's also been ten years of consistent polling that the vast majority of people want to do something about it, and we basically can't. I wonder what that tells you about the larger state of our democracy. Are we already living in a society in which when most of us want something, we generally can't get it?
One hundred percent. When we talk about these issues about our democracy, all of these issues are connected. The opposition wants us to view these issues as siloed. When we look at healthcare, gun violence, and affordable housing as separate issues and struggles, you know what also gets divided? Our efforts and our organizing. That's when our opposition is at its greatest.
When you take a step back and look at how gun violence intersects with people having money in their pocket and how, if everyone had healthcare in this country, gun violence and crime would go down, you begin to see the bigger picture. There are so many things that the majority of Americans are for.
Most people in this country believe that we deserve safe streets by virtue of being human. That should be enough, but it isn't, and we know why. There is the issue of money in politics. There is the issue of corporate and special interests -- not the people -- deciding things. What it has done is create an environment where faith in our democracy is eroding.
The Harvard Institute of Politics recently found that more than a third of young people truly believe there will be a violent civil war in their lifetime in this country. That's not entirely out of this world to believe. A lot of that has to do with the state of our democracy, and so many people -- especially young people -- coming into this saying, "Why, when the majority of Americans are for something, does nothing get done?"
You've referred to Gen Z as "the mass shooting generation." Generations are tricky because they are diverse. Yet many political observers expect Gen Z to shake things up quite a bit. There's a sense that Gen Z has a different political style, a different relationship to establishment power. As a young Gen Z leader, what do you think is the particular fingerprint of your generation as it has emerged so far politically?
A lot of it has to do with the righteous anger our generation has. I think about my own timeline, which is very much the timeline of Gen Z. In elementary school, I remember turning on the TV and seeing a bunch of people sleeping outside Wall Street protesting wealth inequality. I remember hearing that Trayvon Martin, a kid who looked just like me, was shot dead because of the color of his skin, just 30 minutes away from where I lived in Orlando. I remember having these constant school shooting drills. For many of us, one day, it stops being a drill and becomes real life.
We're thrown into all of this turmoil and civil unrest. With the help of social media, we've realized quickly that things aren't okay here and that typically, in many other places, childhood consists of a simple life with your parents and community. Now, kids are seeing everything happening around the world, and they're seeing that people who look just like them in different communities have it differently.
They see these shootings and are asking, "Why do we live in this world? Why did those before us not prevent this? What am I going to do to make sure that we create the better world we deserve?" It really is righteous anger that I believe we're morphing into a love of the most vulnerable people.
When I was working at March for Our Lives, I was working with young people across the country. I was on a national call with hundreds of students. We were talking about an event, and I asked, "Does anyone have any questions?" Then someone unmuted and asked, "How will people with disabilities be able to access this? How are we working to make sure we're accommodating them?" I believe she was 12 or 13 years old.
There's a natural sense in my generation of seeing the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable. As more Gen Z-ers get into positions of leadership -- whether it's in politics or roles like a store manager, a clergy member, or a teacher -- I think we'll see more people interpret the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable and work to ensure that things are easier for everybody. That's really what gives me hope about Gen Z. We've been through all of this, and we recognize that, to stop it, we've got to take care of one another.
I want to ask you about the complicated politics of age. How do you look at this problem of gerontocracy, specifically the one in Congress that you're trying to disrupt?
I think a lot of times folks like to believe it's either/or. It's either you believe young people are here to save us, and they should run everything, or that young people should just take a step aside and let people with experience run everything. I actually fall in the middle.
I don't believe there shouldn't be older people in Congress. I don't believe young people should have a complete takeover of the United States Congress, either. I do think it should be proportionate and young people should be represented. But we don't have that right now. Only seven percent of House members are under the age of 40. Republicans actually have Democrats beat on getting younger people into leadership. For me, it's less about kicking all the old people out and more about letting the new voices come in. The fact of the matter is that the things we're experiencing now are just different from what many of the older leaders experienced at our age. We need that representation at all levels of government, business, churches, schools -- everywhere.
Diversity of race and gender are important. But we also need diversity of age. I think that provides a healthy body of folks with different experiences who can come to the table and offer fresh perspectives. During an interview a few weeks ago, I was asked what issues I thought young people cared about and how they're different. I actually don't believe young people care about different issues from older Americans. I just think we see these issues through a different lens.
There's a different urgency associated with the issues because we know that we're going to grow old in this world, and our kids are about to come into it. We want to fix it quickly so we have a better world. I think generations before us have often worked quickly to provide Band-Aid approaches to many of our country's biggest problems. I'm not here to blame anyone. I think that there's a lot of work to do, but the thing about our generation is that we're really thinking about, How is this going to impact folks in the future?
I follow something called the Seventh Generation Principle. I plan to follow it as a member of Congress, too. It essentially says, "Every decision we make should positively impact people seven generations in the future." Imagine the world we'd live in if all of our leaders were operating with that mindset.
People often come up to me and say, "The young people are going to save us." But that idea misses the point. I'm not here to save everybody. People shouldn't expect young people to just save everybody. We need to work together. We need older folks. We need everybody at the table so we can attack these issues. It's less about the young people who will save us and more about the young people who will join us.
I want to ask you about a communication challenge that I hear many progressives struggle over in private. How do you tell an honest story about America without being depressing and becoming a turnoff? No one wants to be told everything is doomed, even if everything is doomed. No one wants to hear their country is evil or wrong deep in its bones. Yet there is unavoidable truth in some of these ideas — and yet the imperative of winning elections.
How do you think about that challenge of telling the truth about the sins of this country without becoming a Debbie Downer?
I completely understand that. When we talk with folks on the campaign trail, we like to give people something to vote for -- not against. This is something I learned a lot about working at March for Our Lives. When we did our research, we found out that young people didn't just want to be scared of Trump or scared of what was going on and shamed into voting a certain way. They wanted to hear about the future that could exist if we collectively got together and built power.
But I believe that message rings true for everyone, no matter the political party. Instead of an antagonistic approach where I'm just yelling about my issues, I try to start by explaining what we're in. It is important to talk about the country's issues, but I think it is crucial to tie those back to the folks you're speaking with.
When we connect these issues to everybody, people are more interested in having that conversation about the negative parts of our country, but then we quickly pivot to the future we deserve. That's when people get the most excited. They're eager to be a part of that power building.
Oftentimes when we talk about the bad things in this country, there are people who feel left out of that conversation. There are groups in this country that are more marginalized than others -- we have to recognize that. But at the end of the day, there are issues that impact all of us.
People just want to feel heard. Everyone is going through things. I think the problem a lot of folks have with progressives -- and I am a progressive -- is that they don't feel heard. That is something that I'm dedicated to changing here in Florida.
One of the things that risks being forgotten in this incredibly dangerous moment is that a lot of the present negativity grows out of remarkable progress we’ve made. It’s a backlash to progress. The status of women and people of color and LGBTQ folks and others has changed drastically. And this necessarily requires people to adjust. Your community looks different. Your office looks different. You have a boss that you didn't expect to have. There are a bunch of ways men behaved at work 20 years ago that they can't get away with today. There's an awareness you have to have of other people's perspectives in a meeting that maybe you didn't have to think about before. I think that's left millions of Americans — especially white Americans and men and, of course, white men in particular — confused about their place in society.
One of my great frustrations is that the right understands this basic sociological fact. And so leaders on the right cynically get all up in there and talk those people through what they're feeling in a way that leads them towards fascism. My assessment is that the left is essentially absent from that process of sorting out what many of those folks are processing. It's just not in the conversation.
Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump are all up in those people's heads. I'm not sure that we are telling an equal and opposite story about why these are good changes, why people need to go to these trainings at work, why their town looks different. What are your thoughts on whether or not liberals and progressives are participating in that kind of meaning-making process?
You hit the nail on the head. This is something that I've noticed a lot, especially being a progressive from the South. I was adopted at birth. My father is from Kansas. My dad's side of the family is mainly Republican. I have an interesting approach to these things because I've had the experience of having some family members that were kind of racist. Yet I still have love for them and try to explain things, which I think is important.
I believe that at the end of the day, it's about the battle for hearts and minds, because I refuse to throw out any group. Does it mean I will tolerate bigotry and racism all of the time and just turn the other cheek? No. I'm human. I also need to protect myself. But I do think some conversations need to be had that a lot of times are not had on the progressive side or the Democratic side. That leaves a lot of people out who are almost there.
The struggle of unlearning and learning is constant and difficult. People don't want to be told that they're bad. People don't want to be told that they're racist. Does that mean you can't be told that? No, but it also means that conversations need to be followed up with constructive, restorative criticisms that pull people into that bigger picture so people feel like they're being spoken to. That's the chord that Donald Trump struck. He had these big rallies in these small towns with a lot of white people who, yes, benefit from white privilege and white supremacy, but are also poor and working-class people who are the victims of other systems that impact us all.
I think many of these people have felt ignored for so long that they've come into this bubble where they just want to hear about themselves. It's a problem, and we need to fix it. I don't mean that we need to appeal to racists or bigots. But I do believe we need to have conversations because there is this sense, I think, of hopelessness among many of these folks.
You mentioned your adoption. Can you tell the story of how you came to understand its full dynamics and how it educated you about race in America?
I was adopted by a Cuban mother and a white father who was born in Kansas and raised in Bermuda. I've always had problems navigating my identity, who I am, what I believe in, and where I stand. There have always been times in my life when I was acting, I guess, "too white" for Black folks in my life, and other times where I was "too Black" for white folks in my life. I constantly found myself in this state of being an anomaly where I didn't know necessarily where I fit in.
I really found myself through art when I entered high school and got more in touch with my Blackness and with who I am as a Latino man, and just seeing the beauty of all these cultures coming to mesh together to make Maxwell Alejandro Frost.
My dad's the guy who yells at the news, and I always grew up in a very liberal household with very Christian values. I was dedicated at a Southern Baptist church. I wanted to be a youth pastor for most of my life. I'm still a Christian, and I am very rooted in those values and actually see a clear connection between my faith and Progressive values.
One of my first jobs was working for Hillary Clinton, and I remember going on Facebook and seeing that the pastor's son had tagged me in a post saying that I'm the devil because I was working for her. These are people I went to church with my whole life. They were all white folks who now saw me as one of the worst things because of what I believed in. It was a lot to navigate, but I think it has really helped influence my theory of change and how we can truly win the South.
When I say win the South, I don't just mean flip it blue. I mean bringing the South together around shared values and vision. I see so many similarities between my Black friends and my white friends. I hate to make it so Black and white or left and right, but in my circles, that's how it was a lot of the time. I see these similarities, and I've always spent my life trying to figure out a way to bridge that gap.
I'm the friend that would have a birthday party and invite my church friends, band friends, and all my other friends, and just sit back and watch them interact. I feel like doing the same thing politically, trying to figure out how we can get all these folks who couldn't have more different experiences to see the humanity in one another and recognize that we're all part of the same grand mosaic of humanity. At the end of the day, I want you to do well in this world.
I'm interested to hear you call yourself a progressive and a Christian. I think Pete Buttigieg spoke in similar terms about the Democrats not conceding faith to the other side, but it's complicated. There are always these debates about whether we should make a Christian case for progressive things like a Green New Deal or Medicare for All, or if that's playing into the right's hands. Do you think progressives need a strategy of appealing to frames other than the progressive moral frame, with, for example, the Christian moral frame, or is that dangerous territory?
I think it's very important. When we look at some of the most successful social movements in the country's history, it's all about winning hearts and minds. To do that, you need to meet people where they are a lot of the time. We know that there are many issues associated with the institutions of religion, religious texts and interpretations, and things that have pushed folks in institutions and governments to do horrible things. But I also see the beauty in it and believe that different forms of communication can make folks understand things.
On this campaign, I've gone to churches with folks, especially Black folks, who would consider themselves on the moderate end of the party. I go up and talk about my faith and Christ. I talk about how I see the agenda I'm fighting for as Christlike, that we deserve to be healthy just by virtue of being, and that we live in a country with the resources to make these things happen.
I can't tell you how many times I've had people walk up to me after the services and say, "I was never a fan of Medicare for All, but hearing you talk about it, I agree."
I think a lot of times progressives, and really just in politics in general, we get obsessed with our own virtue-signaling phrases. But I've found that if you explain things to people, especially in the South, and then you say what it is, you'll see a surprised look on their faces because folks did not realize what it meant. Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are great examples of that.
I always point to things locally. I'll say, for example, "Think about people here in Apopka. They need $2 million for an aquifer. They don't have clean water. Think about the problems we're having with our infrastructure and the flooding. We can hire folks to help us fix it, create better communities and better, good-paying jobs, and ensure that we are moving in a good direction to create a sustainable community." People often go, "Oh, wow. I never thought that's what it was."
I would observe that the right is very good at taking unhinged policy ideas and hooking them into values that people already have. The left often takes policy ideas that people would benefit from and frames them in terms of values they want people to have that they may not have right now. That's just really working against yourself, which is, by the way, why I think Medicare for All should instead be called Freedom Care. Let's appeal to a value people already have. People want to be free, right?
Free from their employer, free from the ups and downs of fate. Instead of naming it after a government program that many people don't entirely know about.
I agree. When I talk about Medicare for All, I'm hooked on always bringing it down to, "Do you think that in this country everyone deserves to be healthy regardless of their income?" The answer is almost always, "Hell yeah." Well, here's a policy that can get us there in the quickest way possible.
When we just say "Medicare for All," what's the first thing that comes to mind? It's usually, "How are you going to pay for it?" But when we talk in layman's terms about taking a program that's already efficient and exists and let's expand it year by year to people until we're all covered, people might go, "Wow, I didn't know that's what Medicare for All was."
We've just got to get off this culture of being okay with these virtue-signaling phrases that rev up the people who are already on our side. That's why I'm dedicated to building power in the South. I think the South can show the way forward in the progressive movement and how we can demonstrate to folks what these policies are really all about.
So many Americans in the pro-democracy majority of this country are filled with despair right now. They genuinely believe the country is doomed. The planet is cooked. We're sliding into civil war, as you were describing earlier. What do you say to the despairing? Are they right? Or would you make a case to them that there are grounds for hope despite all of this?
I've dealt with homelessness during this campaign, not having a place to live. My rent went up by 33 percent in October. I drive for Uber at night to pay my bills because this country seriously needs campaign reform so working-class people can run. Being on the campaign trail is the hardest thing I've ever done. Yet I'm still hopeful because of the people I've been meeting. Because I understand how this system works, and I know that to give up on government as a solution is basically to give up on any big solution.
I grew up a band nerd, and my band director, Mr. Weaver, would always say, "All the things, all the time." That's the motto of my campaign because we need everything, and that's why I'm going to work in Congress. I believe protest is important. I believe working in the system is important. I believe working outside of the system to take care of our people via mutual aid is important. When those things work together, we're able to build power and change things. It's going to take time, but we need people to keep the hope and we need people to know that it's going to take time.
People don't have faith in our voting system and our democracy because they've been lied to for generations. Politicians come out and say, "Vote for me, and this will happen." We know it's not that simple. It's interesting because you might think that taking a more measured approach and saying to folks, "Hey, it will take time, but this is our path there" would feed into pessimism. But I've found that it doesn't. We need to give people a bit more credit because voters are smarter than we think. They understand that it takes time. When politicians lie to them to get elected, and nothing happens, it does more damage than it does good.
Maxwell Frost is the former national organizing director of March for Our Lives and is running to represent Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.