Transcript: Chloe Maxmin on how the left can reclaim rural America
Talking with the former Maine state senator about why the right is winning the battle for rural hearts and minds and her playbook for a "Democratic resurgence"
In 2018, Chloe Maxmin, a progressive Democrat then in her late twenties, won a seat in Maine’s House of Representatives, in a red district that, as was noted by observant national publications, contains the most rural county in America’s most rural state.
Was it a fluke, or a new path through the woods?
In 2020, she sought and won elevation to Maine’s State Senate, again on the strength of deep, slow, patient engagement in a district full of Republicans and independents.
By doing what was becoming ever more rare for Democrats in general to pull off, she became a ray of hope on the left. Did Chloe Maxmin have a formula for stopping the blue bleed-out across rural America? She believed she did, and, along with Canyon Woodward, her friend and campaign manager, distilled that formula and their campaigning experiences into a book: “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It.” (She recently left office, declining to run for re-election to pursue a law degree and launch a nonprofit focused on rural organizing.)
I talked with her about her background growing up on a farm in Maine, about her view of the Democratic Party’s posture toward rural America, about the complex intersection of the very real racism in rural America and the very real neglect of rural America by urban and moneyed and governmental elites, about the power of canvassing, about what it will take to build a movement to beat American fascism.
The audio podcast version of our conversation was very popular with subscribers, and you can find it here. Today I’m offering all Ink recipients a compressed transcript.
Above all, it is a conversation about something we all struggle with nowadays: how to stay true to your values while reaching out.
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Writing rural America back in: a conversation with Chloe Maxmin
You won a State House seat in Maine in 2018, in what was regarded as a breakthrough because it was one of the most rural counties in one of the most rural states in America -- Maine House District 88. You were the youngest member of that legislature. You've since gone on to become the youngest female state senator in Maine history.
The first time I think I heard of you was when you came out and said a quite provocative and very important thing to say. You said while you had won this victory in red America, your party, the Democratic Party, had abandoned rural America and the communities you won in. What did you mean the Democrats had abandoned rural America?
When I say that the Democrats have abandoned rural America, I really mean it from a national and institutional perspective. In 2009, there was almost no partisan lean amongst rural voters. But by 2019, rural folks were voting Republican by 16 points. In that same period, the Democrats lost almost a thousand state legislative seats in majority rural districts. In 2022, 70 percent of rural voters voted for Republicans.
So there's a pretty clear shift happening in rural America towards the right. That shift is happening for so many reasons, but our U.S. democracy really favors the power of the rural vote. We've seen that in Donald Trump’s election, really riding the wave of red rural America. We're seeing that in state legislatures trending towards the right and all the scary policies that come with that.
In your book Dirt Road Revival you talk about 2009 as a crucial pivot point where Democrats really began to bleed support in rural America.
One way to tell the story is that a Black man won the American presidency and a lot of white Americans had various forms of coronary attack over the ensuing years about the cultural changing of the guard in the country. That is the primary story a lot of folks would use to explain the 2009 fate of Democrats in rural America onward.
In the book, you nod to that, but you tell a different story, which has to do with a more conscious choice Democrats made to not help rural America in the financial crisis and other forms of neglect. Can you talk about those two stories and how you land on your preferred explanation for what happened?
I think that both explanations are very true and very valid. About 25 percent of rural America is not white. Seventy-five percent is. I'm white, and I'm from a white community, and I think that, yes, of course, there's racism and xenophobia, and those are deep stories that we have to tell and confront.
At the same time, rural America has lagged behind in almost every economic benchmark since the 2008 recession. When we're looking at the Democratic Party's investment in rural campaigns and candidates, even if they're in districts where folks might not win, rural campaigns are under-resourced. An incredible infrastructure that Obama built up during his amazing campaigns, all of that has disappeared. Without that continual grassroots investment in rural organizing and rural campaigns, our political power on the left really suffers.
INK READERS — WHAT DO YOU THINK? DID RURAL AMERICA QUIT DEMOCRATS, OR DID DEMOCRATS QUIT RURAL AMERICA?
How do you think about the story of a rural America that feels alienated by social, racial, gender, and other forms of social progress versus the story of a rural America that feels failed by government programs that don't work or don't reach them?
If I go back to my experiences door-knocking in my rural community, I knocked about 20,000 doors in the course of my two campaigns, almost all of which was talking to Republicans and independents. I didn't tolerate hate or racism or bigotry. I had so many conversations with people who did vote for Trump or who really had never voted for a Democrat before. When I was talking with these folks about their experiences, all those complexities that you just laid out existed in their stories. There was just a profound sense of being left behind, of being unrepresented, of being unheard.