When Rachel Maddow rose to prominence in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, she was an obvious role model for me. I was a 16-year-old lesbian Democrat. I lived for Model Congress. I even had a dog-eared pocket Constitution. I admired her eloquence, her learnedness, and the confidence with which she argued against older, mostly male, conservative bullies. I read in a profile of Maddow that she had met her girlfriend, Susan, while working as Susan's gardener in Northampton, Massachusetts. This girl I was obsessed with claimed to be "really hot for Rachel Maddow," despite otherwise dating boys whose biggest interest was Olde English 40's. I admired Maddow's political savvy; she gave me romantic hope for the future.
I'm not a Democrat anymore (I don't identify with any major American political party), and Rachel Maddow has gone from renegade pundit to cable-news fixture. She has covered two presidential elections on her namesake MSNBC show, won an Emmy, and written a book on the role of the military in postwar American politics. She's carved out a space for herself in public discourse as more of a pragmatic interrogator than a leftist ideologue, developing long-standing relationships with both conservative and progressive politicians.
Last night, she co-moderated a Democratic debate at the University of New Hampshire. I called Maddow last week as she rode to work at 30 Rock, hoping to get some insight into her journey from AIDS activist to sparring partner of Pat Buchanan. We spoke two days before she hosted a town hall on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. I was, as always, struck by the way she speaks and how much she knows. She was warm, curious, and receptive. She wanted to have a conversation, not be interviewed. By the end, I understood better why she loves her job and why she's been so successful at it.
Grace Dunham: You've had so many iterations of your political life. You worked in academia. You were an AIDS activist. Now you're an analyst of mainstream American politics. Did you expect when you were in your 20s that you'd end up doing this kind of political work?
Rachel Maddow: Never in a million years. I feel like I don't want to model this form of ambition or behavior. There's nothing about the way my life unfolded that should be seen as at all prescriptive for what anybody else wants to do. I never thought when I was a kid that I would become an adult. I never thought of myself as having any sort of distant horizon. I have sort of leapt without a master plan.
I think part of it is that I realized I was gay when I was a teenager and I couldn't imagine what it meant to be a gay adult. I just did the next thing that seemed right, and that led me from activism to media to the kind of media I'm in now. But I like where I've ended up.
GD: What did you think about America, and about mainstream politics, when you were coming of age?
RM: I didn't think about it that much. I never cared that much about candidates, with one exception: I remember when Bill Clinton topped Bush. I was in college at the time. That was in 1992. I remember saying to my roommate's parents in New Jersey, "I don't really care. I don't think things are going to change, but it's nice to think that the president probably doesn't hate me."
My idea of what was going on in politics was driven by activism. I came out when I was 17, and right away I started working in the AIDS activist movement. For me, politics was about getting drugs approved and getting prisoners access to the same kind of drugs that you could get on the outside. It was about getting needle exchanges approved. That was politics. These were policy problems that were killing people, and we were trying to get them changed.
GD: I'm at a place of deep cynicism about American politics. That's why it's interesting to hear you frame the difference between politics and policy that way. I'm really curious about the journey you took from activism to where you are now. What compromises have you had to make to be in more mainstream politics?
RM: Let me think about that very seriously. I don't feel like I have had to invent a fiction about myself or become something that I'm not. I definitely feel like it took me a while to learn the baseline things you have to do if you want people to hear you. That's why I've had the same haircut for the entire time that I've been on television and that's why I wear literally the same jacket every day. I keep all the clothes I wear on TV in my office on a little hanging rack. My girlfriend calls it all the colors of the German rainbow. Grays, blacks, a slightly greenish gray for the days that I'm feeling particularly festive. I'm not trying to accomplish anything in the way I look other than to be boring enough for people to hear me.
The other thing that is more of a compromise, but again I don't resent it, is that the issues which mattered to me as an activist, mainly things like prison reform and AIDS, have less of a chance of getting covered on my show than things I don't have a personal interest in. It's because I don't trust my antenna about being a good storyteller on those subjects, because I know a lot and therefore lose touch with what the average person might find interesting about them.
GD: The issues and the policy problems that you worked on really don't have so much space in mainstream politics. I've wondered from afar about what that's like for you, whether certain issues become personal and other issues become public.
RM: Yes. I did my doctoral dissertation on social movements around prison reform, AIDS, and health reform. One of the things that I wrote about is that there are some political issues where mainstream press attention only hurts. We think about activism as being this generic model of consciousness-raising, then hopefully media attention, attraction of new people to your cause, building public support for your cause, then decision-makers reacting to that change in public opinion. That's true for some types of activism, but it is not true for all of them.
If you're working on better conditions for prisoners, if you make that a popular issue and you invite mainstream media to weigh in on that subject, you're going to end up with a much more regressive public-policy environment than if you approach it in a quieter way. It's not because the public is stupid, it's just that people with only a cursory interest in something are going to have a knee-jerk reaction to it. That's impossible to explain in a cable-news media … it doesn't make sense.
GD: Do you experience your belief in America, in the American legal system, as optimistic?
RM: I think of my job on television as explaining things. We have this unofficial motto at my show: can we increase the amount of useful information in the world about this subject? I like explaining things, and I believe that you can do very high-level explanation on basic cable news provided you are willing to work hard enough to be a good storyteller.
I think the American people who are interested in politics are capable of absorbing an incredible amount of detail and of having sensitive and appropriate responses to all sorts of things. That's why I like doing this. That's why my opening segments are 17 minutes long, because I think we can do it, and people keep proving me right. Because of that, I end up liking politicians, both left and right, who talk about political matters as if they are addressing a bunch of adults, as if they are capable of handling both complexity and emotional responsibility.
GD: Do you think, at its core, that American electoral politics can accommodate everyone?
RM: Yes. I know this is going to sound very old-school identity politics …
GD: Identity politics isn't old school! It's still alive and well.
RM: There is a magic that comes from people speaking for themselves, on their own terms. The way that we make dumb decisions and discriminatory decisions is by employing stereotypes about groups of people. We don't see people as fully human when other people speak for them. When people get to speak about themselves and the things that matter to them, on their own terms, we see them as who they are. They can't be reduced to objects of derision.
It's like the secret sauce of democracy. I think it takes a while and not everybody progresses at the same rate, but there is room for everybody who can speak on their own terms to make their own space. Do you disagree?
GD: I agree with what you said about people having agency over their own stories and their own experiences. But I see a huge, huge divide between the people who are facing the most barriers and violence and the kinds of stories being told in mainstream American politics. The issues that I think most about — how many people's lives are being affected by prisons and policing, how many people's lives are being affected by immigration enforcement and deportation — those stories aren't being touched, let alone told, in mainstream politics.
In Obama's last State of the Union, he spoke about a young man who makes his way out of the criminal-justice system. That's the first time I've ever heard reentry mentioned in a presidential speech. That's the first time I've heard a nationally elected politician say that somebody who has been in prison is worth believing in.
RM: But you can see the way change happens just in the way that you're telling that story. You're seeing how it does get better. It's difficult to get there, but you can see how change is going to happen when that story gets told more effectively.
GD: But how long do you think it's going to take for us to get there?
RM: There's a good accelerant right now in our storytelling because it's getting cheaper to tell your own story in a way that's very successful. If everybody can author their own story, if media is democratizing because everybody can make a really good-looking website … that's the way we learn now instead of in books. It means that more people get to tell their own story in their own terms rather than having to go through publishers and editors and executives.
GD: Do you ever get impatient waiting to see the changes that you want? Whether that means a policy change or a massive change in people's deeply held beliefs and values?
RM: Yeah, especially on the stuff where people agree. It is hard to stay patient about policy matters where everybody agrees about what needs to be done and then it just doesn't happen, like reforming the immigration system and getting rid of family immigration jails and closing Guantanamo and criminal-justice reform. All these issues, there is basically consensus. There's no rational objections whatsoever, but it can't happen because of other stupid steps we have to take in politics.
GD: Yeah. So I'm impatient.
RM: I wouldn't expect my opinions to be of interest to you. I don't want to be rude, but I don't know why you want to interview me?
GD: You're of interest to me because I relate to the work that you did when you were my age. The things that I want to see happen get no play in mainstream American politics. My primary interests are the legalization of sex work and prison abolition. There aren't a lot of models for what it means to age as a politically radical person. I don't believe in America, but I believe in people. So I'm interested in you, your political path from the fringe to the center.
It's easy to set up binaries of who's good and who's bad, who is right and who is wrong. But I really don't think that way. I believe that people can change and grow. I see you out there having polite, cordial conversations with hateful, conservative people — someone like Pat Buchanan — and I wonder what has changed in you to make that even physically possible.
RM: I don't feel like I've had to turn myself inside out in order to be who I am, but I do feel like I had to make my own market in this business. When you think about me talking to Rick Santorum or Pat Buchanan or one of these old guys, part of what makes that a joyful experience for me is that in my head I'm thinking, He has to talk to me. Like, poor Pat Buchanan, all the things you've done and you end up having to talk to me.
I remember meeting Bill Donohue from The Catholic League before I was on MSNBC. I was doing some debate with him and he was talking about how AIDS is God's punishment and how gay people ought to apologize to straight people. I just got in the elevator with him afterward and talked to him about all my friends who had died, the number of people I had known by the time I was 25 who would never make it to 30. He was trapped in the elevator with me. I don't know if that made an impression on Bill Donohue, but it meant a lot to me to be able to say it to him. Not yelling at him and not protesting him, but him being forced to hear me as a human. I don't want to destroy those guys. I want to make them talk to me.
GD: Two radical activists in an organizing group sometime despise each other and disagree with each other as much as a Republican and Democratic politician do.
RM: I feel like I have more in common with conservative people who have activist causes in their hearts and who are interested in electoral politics than I do with somebody who doesn't care, doesn't have any political interests, doesn't know what policy is, and doesn't think any of it matters to them. If you care, we're actually going to have a basis of conversation. We might supplementally get along very well, and that might be complicated and fun in a way that is more constructive than you'd expect.
GD: Why do some people not care?
RM: I don't know. I really don't. Some people feel like stuff just happens to you and you cope as best you can. Some people feel like we can change what happens not only to ourselves but to other people. That's me, and I like that in anybody.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Grace Dunham is a writer from New York City; she ran for president of Model Congress on a sex-work-legalization platform and lost.