Conversations with Conservatives: Tom Wriggins


I am someone who both lives in conservative Western Maine and leans very far left. I grew up in Cornish, where I returned 5 years ago upon inheriting my family home. Thanks in large part to my proximity to that region, I have never found the conservative leanings of anywhere outside of Portland and the coast to be particularly surprising or startling. The vast majority of my friends and neighbors in the region are all extraordinary and wonderful people and they have views much different from my own.

As such I find that in face-to-face conversations and on social media, I often find myself reminding liberals and other left-leaning people that it is the policies and agents of those policies—not our neighbors and fellow citizens—that we find disdainful. Questions like “Why do these people keep voting against their best interest?” are short-sighted and condescending. Asking them is like saying “I see the truth; why don’t you?” It ignores that we are all guided by different philosophies, sometimes contradictory fragments of philosophies, and that within our ever-imperfect electoral system both “sides” are perverted by special interests. Further, questions like these reveal how little of an effort many, particularly we who fancy themselves enlightened and tolerant, make to better know and understand our neighbors.

I reached out to my friend Tom Wriggins, who is both a pig farmer and a consultant for a medical industry analytics firm, to talk about the election. I wanted to talk with Tom because he and I both get along very well, we both live off of the peninsula (him an hour North of Portland, me an hour West), and we both have nearly diametrically opposed political viewpoints. Tom is, in my view, a very conservative libertarian, and I am, in his view, a left of left lefty. What follows is an abbreviated version of a conversation that we had the Thursday after the Election.

A lot of liberals and folks and moderates responded to the results of the election as if it were the end of the world. I think that happened for a few different reasons, one being that many fallaciously believe that voting is the one and only form of civic engagement and so if it doesn’t go well, you have somehow failed in a larger sense. What also seemed evident was that many self-identified progressives, particularly those based on the peninsula in Portland, really have no idea who their neighbors in the rest of the state are.

I think that point in particular is so valid. When you start to look at the map of results from throughout the state, it backs the claim that there are two Maines. There is coastal Maine, which I live in ironically enough and along with Portland it is pretty liberal, but the rest is all red. There are two different outlooks. As long as the red part of the state stays mobilized and votes, we’re going to continue to have a 20, 30, and 40 thousand vote separation.

You know, I have friends of all different sort of walks of life—you are one of them—and many of them aren’t aware of this. With you, your travels throughout not only the state of Maine but also throughout the country, you have seen that there is a much different world outside of the liberal enclaves like Portland.

I don’t believe in some of the philosophies you believe in and you don’t believe in some of the ones I believe it. At the same time, I don’t see what I believe to be the negative outcomes of your world views to be what motivates you, nor do I think you believe the same about me. We just have different ideas that have different outcomes. I think, though, that when you don’t engage with people who have different philosophies it becomes easy to believe others to be the sum of their imagined negative outcomes. In other words, one might imagine that conservatives believe in handing everything over to business, people be damned, or that liberals believe in handing everything over to government, people be damned.

That’s absolutely true. I find it highly ironic that people on your side of the aisle, so to speak, preach tolerance, tolerance, tolerance but can get apoplectic when someone disagrees with them. Where is the tolerance? I am not originally from Maine, which is a very homogenous state. I believe that being from away I have had something of a luxury to know a lot of different people. And my job also has me traveling quite a bit and so I have seen a lot.

How do you define yourself politically?

I am a libertarian, a conservative. The Republican Party should focus on lower taxes and giving help to people who need help, but to not offer it as a way of life. Those and foreign policy issues aimed at keeping the country safe, and focusing on fraud in welfare should be the focus. That’s where I hang my hat, and I believe Maine is very much a live and let live state.

Social issues is where the Republican Party loses your age demographic. Your demographic—and I am only about 12 or 13 years older than yousees those issues as one of the most important things. The Republican Party needs to move away from that and acknowledge that times have changed, that these issues are personal, and they don’t necessarily need to be legislated.

Where do you think things went wrong for Michaud?

The Bangor Daily News made a great point when they said that Michaud never stood up and explained where he was coming from, what he would do, or how he would move us forward. He said let’s undo everything that’s been done by LePage. Well, whether you like it or not, LePage has actually done some things that are very smart. Why would you be against catching fraud in welfare? Why is putting pictures on Welfare cards a bad idea? I have to show my license to buy ammunition. I have to show it to get any court document. Why is it a bad idea to show pictures on cards that get free food? That’s where Michaud made a mistake.

The arguments are that we have spent more resources on rooting out fraud than there is actual fraud and that’s the conversation we should be having in a larger sense, but I think what ended up happening in retrospect was it was presumed that everybody already fell on one side of the issue or another. It was presumed by LePage’s opposition that he was on the wrong side and everyone knew that because everyone knows that LePage is a bumbling fool. As such, the conversation about the issue itself was never actually had, it was simply implied. After three months of that, all that became clear was that the narrative was not clear at all. This is in part because so much of the dialogue was occupied by the logistics of who was running. I am greatly in favor of many voices being included in the system, but until the system itself makes anything larger than a binary conversation possibleand that’s what efforts toward enacting RCV are focused onthe conversation will be about logistics, strategy and tactical voting more than it will be about vision.

Part of my job is looking at fraud and abuse, where I see billions squandered nationally. You say that the argument is that we are spending more than the fraud amounts to, but when any money is wasted on fraud, it is money that does not go to those in need. That is my whole interest and goal, which is to say let’s get rid of that fraud. And I am not necessarily just talking about recipients, I am talking about the providers. I am not talking about the lobsterman who might not report his whole income so he can eat. That’s irrelevant, it’s pennies in a jar. For me, it’s the physician in a small town who might be bilking the system to the tune of millions a year to bring in patients for unnecessary tests. I see that in every state.

But you’re right. Until we have a system that allows for more than two parties, and where a third party is not just a vote-stealer for either side, conversations about logistic will overwhelm conversations about policy.

What do you think is responsible for the divide in local, state and national political dialogue?

Perhaps this is a side-effect of social media, with which I spent the majority of my life so far without, but the amount of information that is available to the average person is far more voluminous than it’s ever been before. This is a good thing, but it is also isolating because people don’t have real conversations like the one you and I are having. People have 140 character conversations that are talking-points heavy. And you, like me, tend to associate with people who agree with the sort of people who believe similar things. We have forgotten as a culture how to compromise.

People like to pick on Ronald Reagan, but he was very successful in reaching across the aisle. He reached across the aisle to Tip O’Neil and there were mature conversations and compromises. Compromise doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, it means sides giving up a little but walking away with something, and what’s best for the country. For some reason, the current national administration doesn’t compromise at all. It’s either their way, or they’ll ram it down your throat. Compromise means we talk about it, don’t expect everything, and get it done.

If you are a student of history, it appears that we are destroying ourselves from within for whatever reason. I don’t understand it. Honestly, I would love to have more conversations like this to better understand it. As for my opinion, I pay my taxes, I think they should be much lower, and I will support people who need help but it should not be a way of life. There are opportunities in this country. Are they the same opportunities for everybody? No, they’re not. Those things can be overcome, but I don’t think that should be legislated. That’s where the progressive movement and the conservative movement are different. I believe in the individual and you believe in the collective.

Sure, though at the end of the day we believe it is for the common good. We believe in different models get to similar ends, where we hope people are okay and healthy. That cliche that we really differ on 10% of everything and have 90% in common is largely true. We are good people, we want to make sure our families are okay, that people in our neighborhoods are okay, if a bad thing happens we’ll step up. That is really the makeup of our day to day lives. Unless we are the few who work within the system on forming policy, the minutia of the process is not what makes up our day-to-day. When there is a car accident and someone dies, our sympathy isn’t tempered by political party, or if someone loses their home in some tragic scenario, we don’t ask about affiliation before we step up to help. That’s where we share a lot in common.

You saw it in action here on the farm a couple of years ago when our cows got loose from the gate. People driving by just stopped, got out of their cars and helped us wrangle our cattle. They helped and left without saying anything, no questions asked. To me that’s America. To me that’s Maine. I was never even able to say thank you, because people helped without question. I think we forget our humanity because of the vitriol of political discourse. We have way more in common than most people would think, and we need to stay in tune with those commonalities, to figure out or to remember how to have conversations without being reduced to name calling and sound bytes. We need to have a real conversation about how we fix the things that are wrong and enhance things that are good. When we can do that, not just at an individual level but also on a local, state and federal level, we’ll be in good shape.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.