Chloe Akers: Bringing politics back to the middle
U.S. politics have gotten more polarized, and more extreme. Today, Tennessee attorney Chloe Akers has a new plan to do something that can feel nearly impossible: elevate the voices in the middle. She tells Niala Boodhoo: "We're not using any other playbook to solve what we believe is the pervasiveness of extremism and how damaging that can be on the democratic process. We are creating a playbook."
One Tennessean's new solution to an old problem.
- Plus, what being a moderate today really means, and a reality check on other efforts to bring people back to the middle.
Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.
NIALA BOODHOO: U.S. politics have gotten more polarized…and more extreme. Today, a new plan to do something that feels nearly impossible… elevate the voices in the middle…who no longer feel heard.
CHLOE AKERS: We're not using any other playbook to solve what we believe is the pervasiveness of extremism and how damaging that can be on the democratic process. We are creating a playbook.
NIALA: One attorney's new solution to an old problem.
I'm Niala Boodhoo, and from Axios, this is One Big Thing.
Chloe Akers is not a politician. Raised in Tennessee, she spent some 15 years as a criminal defense attorney. That changed last year after the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson decision came down, reversing Roe v. Wade. Chloe made a video on her personal Instagram account explaining Tennessee's new resulting abortion law, and what it would mean for doctors and patients. The video went viral. And organizations asked her to come speak to explain the law.
CHLOE: Many people would come up to me afterwards and say some variation of, this law doesn't reflect my views. And many times they would start or preface that with, Or end it with, and I'm a Republican. And I was raised in a pretty conservative environment. I'm from East Tennessee. I'm from Knoxville. And I started to see this as well in my community. And I started to see this as well in my community. So many folks were coming up to me, men, women, and saying, this is really going to have these big impacts, and it doesn't reflect my views on this subject.
NIALA: In December of 2022, Vanderbilt University released polling that said an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans supported at least some access to abortion, such as in cases of rape and incest or when the mother's life was in danger – even though the law was a complete ban.
CHLOE: And then as I started down this road and really started to understand more and more, I realized that it wasn't just abortion, that we have had a proliferation of policy, and also a level of inaction on certain other subjects, such as gun safety in this state that are really incongruent with what the majority of Tennesseans actually favor.
NIALA: That was the driver behind what Chloe first called "The Liminal Plan," and has now been rebranded as "The Best of Tennessee" – moving away from a focus on specific policy issues like abortion and guns.
Chloe, who identifies as a Democrat, says the organization is non-partisan, and aims to chip away at extremism in Tennessee politics by funding candidates from both parties who better represent the people's views AND by reengaging disillusioned voters.
Pew Research has a name for a group of voters that's relevant here: so-called "stressed sideliners"...who are disconnected from the major parties and tend to vote at lower rates than others.
CHLOE: They don't identify with the Republican party. They don't identify with the Democratic party. They are completely without a landing place for their views. And so what would happen if we worked to reengage those folks in the middle, give them a landing place for their views, invite them back into the conversation, into the process, to get engaged as voters, to get engaged as candidates, to get engaged in all sorts of ways. And so that was the liminal plan.
Voters feeling unrepresented in state politics is hardly new – but Chloe believes she's tapped into a sense of desperation with the politics of today. We spoke recently about exactly how her plan is meant to work – and the uphill battle ahead.
NIALA: Chloe Akers is the founder and CEO of "The Best of Tennessee." Welcome, Chloe, to 1 big thing.
CHLOE AKERS: Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here.
NIALA: Chloe, you talk about a disconnect between voters and lawmakers in your state. What is behind that disconnect?
CHLOE: Think a lot of these laws are being passed as a result of a Tennessee supermajority that is catering to the folks that, by and large, elected them, which are the most extreme version of their party, which is who votes in primary elections in Tennessee, right? The polling has shown this repeatedly. And it's not just Republicans, I should add, um, we see this time and time again in states, uh, in primary elections, that the most extreme versions, and the most fringe wings of a party tend to be who shows up to vote in primaries. And for example, in Tennessee, which is a red state, you know, the Republican that wins the primary will generally win the seat.
And so you have folks being elected, who are catering to a base of people at the farthest extreme of their party. And that is who these elected representatives tend to speak for and that is not reflective of the majority of the constituents.
NIALA: And how does this plan address that? What exactly is it?
CHLOE: I think we need to repair what's actually broken, right? Like go let's go after the foundational issue, which in my opinion is the pervasive role of extremism and how detrimental it can be to good government, effective government. And so I thought, maybe we could create an organization that would meet people where they were and harness support for some degree of incremental change by appealing to, and talking to, and engaging with folks who find themselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, right? So I thought, I think we can do that with a super pac. I think we can utilize media and independent expenditures to sort of shape public policy and shape the way we talk about this topic and really engage with those in the middle. And one concern, that kept coming up over and over, that I kept hearing from people was, well, you're a Democrat and they were nervous that I was moving forward with a organization that was not political at all. And it was so- I think so reflective of the world we live in right now. People just couldn't believe that I didn't have some nefarious underlying agenda, right?
They couldn't believe this wasn't some Trojan horse designed to just, like, destroy the Republican Party. And of course it wasn't. And the more I would try to address that question, the more I realized that I needed to work with, genuinely create, a more bipartisan organization and entity. And so I was connected with a number of folks in the Republican party who have been incredibly instrumental to reframing the project. And the best of Tennessee is not just a super PAC.
We are a 501c4, we are also have a super PAC, and also a hard money PAC. We sort of restructured to have this portfolio of entities to help us execute this strategy. This isn't about policy. It isn't about Republican or Democrat. This is a non political organization. But it is run by folks from both parties. We're not using any other playbook to solve what we believe is this problem of the pervasiveness of extremism and how damaging that can be on the democratic process.
We are creating a playbook and politics isn't exactly a home base for innovation and creativity, right? We tend to reenact the same dramas. We tend to replay the same playbooks. And so the other thing is, as a criminal defense attorney, right? Like, My job for 14 years is to defend my clients. It was to test evidence to ensure that the state or the federal government could prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
I didn't have a personal agenda in that process. So for me, it feels very natural to work in a way that is designed to achieve a goal without my personal philosophy or feelings coming into it. But I think that that was something that really needed to be fleshed out and explained so much more because it's not necessarily the way things are in politics.
NIALA: What's going to be different about your playbook?
CHLOE: I think what's going to be different about our playbook is number one, that it is truly and completely bipartisan. One of the things that's also going to be really different about our playbook is we want to highlight what it looks like when government works.
We want to utilize a super PAC and independent expenditures to support both candidates, but also incumbents who are doing the work of the constituents who put them in office. We want to highlight and support folks when they actually engage in bipartisan compromise. When they start to do right by the people who put them there. To take a famous phrase, find the good and praise it.
And this is something that we're going to re-inject into our project. And I think also, you know, the way that our playbook is different is, to some degree, we're doing it at the state level. Normally when you see this kind of endeavor, it is from groups going after, change or perceived brokenness at the federal level.
This is a group that is incredibly and solely focused on the state of Tennessee, and in part because this is my home. I'm a fourth generation Tennessean. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to leave when it gets hard. We have moments of greatness and we have moments where the shit hits the fan, and I, think you don't just quit.
NIALA: How big is your budget right now and how big do you want it to be?
CHLOE: (LAUGHS) We're in the process of a relatively large capital raise, and so I'm just going to leave that there. I think ideally, through the '24 cycle, we would love to have a budget between 5 and 7 million. Through the '26 cycle, we'd like to add on another 1 to 3 million to that number.
NIALA: We'll be back in a moment with more of my conversation with attorney Chloe Akers.
Welcome back to 1 big thing, from Axios. I'm Niala Boodhoo.
I've been talking to Chloe Akers, founder and CEO of "The Best of Tennessee," a new effort to move politics in that state away from extremism.
What would be the definition of success? For your super PAC and all these other things you're doing.
CHLOE: the definition of success is to. Be able to travel anywhere else in the country and say I'm from Tennessee and feel so proud, to once again be from this place and representing this place.
It's not short term, it's long term. This is a strategy that involves a number of different cycles. Um, this is not going to happen overnight, but it's not about, for me, putting a bunch of people in office whose opinions I agree with.
And I think this is like why everybody's like, then what are you doing? Because this is politics. Um, but for me, this is about solving a much more critical problem. And I think success looks like a legislative session we can get through without having it devolve into a total and complete disaster, with robust debate. I would love to see debate in our state legislature again. I would love that. And, not name calling, but general civil debate. To see policies that are passed that are the result of bipartisan compromise. To understand that you may have to give up a little to get a little, and get back to a place where we can actually watch our leaders govern instead of watch them in what appears to be an elementary school sandbox.
NIALA: Let's go back to the beginning and that viral video of yours -- why do you think people were so eagerly seeking out your help in translating the law?
CHLOE: When I first read the Dobbs decision and then immediately read the Tennessee law that was about to go into effect as a result, I was struck by the breadth and scope of the law in Tennessee. And I knew really well how to read a criminal law, right?
I knew really fast that this law was going to put doctors and other healthcare providers in the crosshairs of essentially a culture war, right? And that this could have some really dramatic impacts on our healthcare system, recruiting doctors and nurses to Tennessee, businesses, our economy, et cetera, et cetera. So I thought people should know what the law said. And I think that that's what people gravitated to. And then that's why folks, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,they asked me to come speak. Because when I talk about abortion, I talk about these laws, in terms of how they function, which is generally speaking, how most criminal defense attorneys talk about laws. And so I could have a conversation about abortion legislation in really diverse rooms with people with very different perspectives for two or three hours at a time and it never devolved into screaming match.
NIALA: To your mind, this doesn't just happen in health care, this also happens in gun safety, where people are maybe more united than it may seem when we think about how divisive this issue might be?
CHLOE: Absolutely, yes. I mean, the polling has borne that out time and time and time again, that Tennesseans across the political spectrum are incredibly united, that we favor very, very basic and quite frankly, very conservative, gun safety legislative priorities, things like universal background checks, things like safe storage laws.
Many, many Tennesseans who support gun safety initiatives are also responsible gun owners and really prioritize responsible gun ownership. And so, you know, it's, it's even more illustrative of the reality that our laws don't match the majority, I think, in gun safety than it is in reproductive rights.
I think that you have a situation where the vast majority of Tennesseans are calling for something and Nothing is happening.
NIALA: Understanding that this is a long term project, what is your goal over the next election cycle?
CHLOE: Our goal over the 2024 election cycle is really to utilize our super PAC and utilize independent expenditures to, through the 2024 legislative session, to incentivize incumbents to behave in ways that exhibit good government, right? So when you see someone break from a fringe wing of their caucus and start to engage in compromise and conversation, we want to support that through our independent expenditures, right?
We also want to highlight when certain fringe elements of a caucus are going beyond the pale and engaging in activity that's, that's no longer democratic, right? So, starting to incentivize and disincentivize certain behavior relationally to good government is one goal. Once we see... The landscape of the 2024 election, which we'll know more after the April 1st candidate deadline.
I think we're going to have a role to play, in particular Republican primaries. We really want to support candidates that are reasonable, pragmatic, really focused on lawmaking and policy,
And one of the things that we hope to do in our organization, particularly through our 501c4, is reminding people in the middle who feel very disenfranchised and lost, um, that they also have a seat at this table. That politics does not belong to folks on the farthest end of the extreme. That they deserve to vote.
And really speaking to those people and hoping, you know, trying to get them to the polls. In particular, reminding folks of the critical, critical importance of primary elections, and how much that matters when we're talking about extremism and eroding extremism, in the legislature to create a more effective government that voting in the primary is critical.
And then hopefully in the '26 cycle, when we have a bit more of our, our feet underneath us, we can start to support particular candidates, and really coming at it in a more offensive way, but I think for '24 session, we're going to be doing a lot of defensive work, you know, responding to the table as it gets set. I think in the '26 cycle, we might be setting the table a little bit more.
NIALA: Chloe Akers, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it.
CHLOE: Thank you so much.
NIALA: The official launch of the "Best of Tennessee" is coming in January, you can find out more about them in our show notes.
Other states are also seeing efforts pop up to bring people back to the middle, and away from political extremes. A longtime former State Senate President in Kansas, Steve Morris, is behind a 501(c4) non-profit there called Kansans First, aiming to elect more moderate candidates to the legislature by educating voters.
But all these efforts face serious headwinds… and what exactly does it mean to be moderate now, anyways? Axios senior political contributor Margaret Talev has a reality check for us.
MARGARET TALEV: It's true that more than a third of Americans identify as moderates and that there's growing attention around third party candidates in the 2024 presidential race. But let's look at the bigger context.
Gallup has been tracking Americans' political ideology for decades and here's what their data shows: Americans describing themselves as moderate versus conservative or liberal has actually declined since Bill Clintons' years from 43% in 1992 to 36% today.
Today, 37% of Americans say they're conservative, 25% liberal and who are the self described moderates. Unlike just about every question in politics, these are equal shares of men and women and it doesn't really matter how much education or income they have or what part of the country they come from. It does matter though what political party they identify with.
About half of independents consider themselves moderate, about 37% of Democrats say they're moderate, but only 22% of Republicans. And this gulf makes compromise across partisan lines much more difficult, even among people who say that they're moderate.
This is all taking place against the national backdrop where the bases and gerrymandering and the weakening of political party structures by courts and social media and dominant individuals have pulled both parties toward the extremes and that's cost many moderate elected officials their own reelections or force them into retirement.
Finally, there's the question of what does it actually mean to be a self described moderate? Is it a set of beliefs around issues or is it more of a state of mind where what you're really saying is you like the idea of compromise, you like to think of yourself as a reasonable person but that there are some issues, abortion, guns, taxes that will still be decisive when it comes to who you'll vote for.
That's all to say, there is a hunger for non extreme candidates for being able to be committed to working across the aisle and actually getting stuff done. But the system has made that really difficult to translate at the national level. And these experiments now are aimed at seeing if they can find more success for moderation in state or local government.
NIALA: That's Margaret Talev, Axios senior contributor.
And that's it for 1 Big Thing this week. You can always send feedback by texting me at 202 918 4893 - or emailing podcasts @ axios.com.
The 1 Big Thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Alex Suigura, who also composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor - and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief. Special thanks to Fonda Mwangi for her help this week.
I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - stay safe - and we'll be back with you next Thursday, with a special episode for Thanksgiving.