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.
I remember when Trump won, and that week I went on television. Like all of us, I was trying to find language and frames to understand what was happening. The phrase that came to me live on television was that I think he had mustered a coalition of people who feel mocked by the future. You can feel mocked by the future for different reasons, and you can feel mocked by the future for more meritorious reasons or more socially unacceptable reasons from your and my point of view.
I wonder if that resonates with you, that feeling, that emotion, of being mocked by the future — and the ways in which you can get there from a racist place, you can get there from a place of really legitimate feelings about the system not working, or some dynamic mix of the two.
I think all of that is so true and definitely resonates with my experience.
I've done a lot of research around what's happening in rural America, the political trends, and what academics say about what rural folks think. There are some ways that we think about rural America that I found to really resonate on the ground. For example, I often hear folks say that Democrats really talk about policy and Republicans really talk about values. That’s one of the reasons why the Dems have lost some foothold in rural America.
I remember this one really specific story where I was talking to someone in 2018, and they were telling me about why they voted for Trump. They were like, "I listened to both of the convention speeches, and Hillary just talked about all of this policy that I didn't really understand and Trump talked about self-resilience and independence and being American. I resonated with that more than I resonated with what Hillary said, so I voted for Trump."
I often found that it was as simple as that. I think that was really painful, because I felt like people were genuinely looking for something to save them, but the vehicle that was saving them was really so deeply destructive and awful. That broke my heart.
I really, really connected with this particular point you just made in your book. There's a contempt that a lot of folks on the professional left -- people who are working at the core of the Democratic Party apparatus -- for connecting on these levels that are below the cerebral and the wonky and the policy-oriented.
Somehow, again and again and again, I feel like Democrats are shy about speaking on more guttural levels. There's greater comfort in dwelling in a realm of policy and big ideas. What do you think is the cultural problem behind that?
This is just speaking from my own personal experience, but I think when you run in circles of folks who are really similar to you, you have assumed values. Once you have assumed values, you can say, OK, let's talk about policy. I feel like it's almost a product of an echo chamber.
But when you're talking with people who are different from you, you can't always assume that you have the same values or that your values are going to be manifested in the same way.
For example, I haven't talked to a single Republican in my community who thinks that healthcare should be inaccessible and very expensive. Not a person thinks that. But I certainly talked to a lot of folks who really didn't like the term Medicare for All because of its connotations. So what I found is that really connecting on the level of values, especially if you don't know the person, you can't assume that you have everything in common, that that's how we form human relationships in the first place, is trying to assess where are our shared values and how can we build a relationship off of that.
I want to go into your really interesting backstory. Tell me about your background growing up on a farm in Maine and how it led you into activism, and climate activism specifically.
My dad started a small farm when I was little. I grew up helping him. The honest short answer is that I just love my home. I do love my community, and I do love the land and the woods and the rivers and the lakes. I would just do anything for it. As I grew up, I got to understand how the climate crisis is, in my mind, the greatest threat to every place in the world, including my home. So I started to devote myself to climate organizing, and that is ultimately how I ended up running for office in a long, winding way.
The story that was really interesting to me is you went to Harvard College as an undergraduate and got involved in this movement to divest the Harvard endowment from fossil fuels. Can you talk about that work, which has since become a very successful and effective and even somewhat contagious campaign?
The summer before my sophomore year, I was working against this proposed tar sands pipeline that was going to run through Maine, and I learned that 76 percent of the pipeline was owned by Exxon.
When I went back to school that fall, the divestment movement was in its early stages. I went back to school, and I was like, Oh, I'm here in Massachusetts, and I really don't want my university to be investing in these bad companies.
I was one of the co-founders of the Divest Harvard movement. It's where I learned to organize. Where I grew up, I never went to a protest. I became enmeshed in this world of progressive organizing that I fell in love with. But there was still something inside of me that knew that no matter how much I loved the work, I couldn't just transplant it back home, that it wouldn't land well in my rural community.
Along with my campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, who’s also from a very rural, conservative place in North Carolina, we co-coordinated Divest Harvard. We would literally sit on the blockade being like, "What would this look like if we took it home?" That's part of why we ran for office in a rural space, to get into that translation work.
I want to ask you about a challenge you write about dealing with: the problem of purity on the political left. It’s the intolerance of the intolerant, which is a complicated problem.
You described feeling like you were betraying your core values to even have these conversations, where you were listening to certain things and not knowing whether you should hit back, not hit back, listen. How did you walk the line between wanting to stand for values of tolerance and inclusion and not tolerating intolerance beyond a certain line and, on the other hand, trying to build power in rural areas?
It was something that I constantly struggled with and tried to improve. I feel like I did learn how to engage in conversations with these issues with these folks and sometimes in ways that weren't always alienating and that were more of a dialogue than a preachy thing.
I would always hear people say like, "Oh, you're a Democrat. I just expected you to judge me and yell at me." That really wasn't my approach. But I did learn how to push back against it but still build a relationship based on what we did have in common. It’s a very tricky thing. It was difficult, and there were lots of times when I couldn't do it and just said, "We're not going to find any common ground here. I think you're being really hateful. I'm going to leave now."
INK READERS — HOW DO YOU DRAW THE LINE BETWEEN MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT WITH THE OTHER SIDE AND WALKING AWAY?
In getting to know your career and writing, you made a distinction that I think a lot of Democrats sometimes fail to make. You write that you "will never write off individual Republicans, even though we recognize that the Republican Party has coalesced around the deeply anti-democratic principles of minority rule and autocracy that present a grave threat to our collective future."
Why do you insist on this distinction between being very tough on Republican leaders and Republican institutions, but never writing off individual Republican citizens?
I think because I face the same thing as a Democrat. I identify as a Democrat because I believe in tolerance and inclusion and equitable and just democracy. I see those values as reflected in the Democratic Party. I want to see Democrats elected because of those values, but I certainly don't love everything that the Democratic Party does.
I as a candidate don't want people to see me as the Democratic institution. I want them to see me as Chloe, the individual who happens to have a D next to her name. I look at the folks in my community the same way that I think, yes, that they've been swept up into an ideology that's been really perpetrated by some really scary thinking at levels of power that are far beyond me.
In a lot of the reporting and talking to folks that I've done, there are these deeper questions of self and society that are really hard for people. We are a mostly white country that is quite quickly becoming not that. We're a country where white men used to dominate and, quite precipitously, that is changing, maybe not fast enough but it's really, really changing.
A lot of the resulting sense of dislocation and confusion feels like the base layer of so much of our politics that we don't actually talk about. We jump to the policy issues. But I wonder if you see that substrate of people in this moment of real social change and upheaval. How do you see that showing up in your community?
That’s such a big question. It's definitely there. I feel like one interesting things about my community and so many rural places is just this deep sense of place, community, and belonging.
My experience canvassing and watching this precipitous decline and incivility in my own community really shook my sense of place and belonging. I feel like the folks in my community feel that, too, but from a different perspective of the things that they've worked for in their life aren't coming true and that the promises that have been made aren't going to happen. There's really not a whole lot on the horizon that would tell a different story.
People listening to this will want to, like you did, step up in their own ways. What's a good first step to take if that's something that's crossing your mind listening to this conversation?
Yes. First, I would say running for office is awesome and so needed, but it is not always accessible or affordable or doable for everybody. There are so many ways to influence what's happening in rural America right now, whether it's just by organizing in your own community or volunteering for a campaign or joining a campaign as a staff person.
Canyon and I just started a C4 called Dirt Road Organizing, and we're going to be launching a training program for folks who are interested in being a rural staffer on a campaign or running as a candidate in a rural area as a progressive. We're really happy to support folks and we have other resources that we can provide for rural folks interested in this work.