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In bid for U.S. House seat, Liam Madden is running against the system

A man standing with his arms outstretched in front of a park in Bellows Falls
Peter Hirschfeld
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Vermont Public
Liam Madden, seen here at a park in Bellows Falls, wants to dismantle the two-party system and fundamentally overhaul the way the United States conducts representative democracy.

Liam Madden has learned to question authority.

When he was serving as a Marine in the Iraq War, Madden says he witnessed the power of the United States government to deceive its own citizens. And he suspects ill-advised military operations aren’t the only places the American people are being duped.

Now, the 38-year-old Bellows Falls resident wants to disrupt the federal power structure by becoming a part of it. And while Madden may be Vermont’s Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives, the self-described Independent is appealing to disaffected voters of all political persuasions.

“I’m feeling like a way to express my gifts is to serve in Congress, to at least shift the conversations that we’re having in the political realm,” Madden said.

More from Vermont Public: Liam Madden on his win in the Republican primary for U.S. House

Madden took on his fight against the powers that be more than a decade ago, after deploying to Iraq as a communications specialist with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The scenes he witnessed on the ground, he said, bore no resemblance to the narrative U.S. government officials were selling back home. And so he and a group of similarly concerned service members founded an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War.

“Certainly my experience affirmed … my suspicions that there was a brutal human cost to this war, and we were profoundly unwelcome in Iraq by the Iraqi people,” Madden said. “I guess I came back pretty radicalized from an experience where it is so nakedly obvious there is no good reason that we’re fighting this war.”

Madden, who’s never run for public office before, now looks back on his anti-war activism as a sort of turning point.

“And that caused me to see how good people and how societies can turn into really nightmarish places like Nazi Germany, where it’s like the people just follow orders, and they conform to social pressure,” he said.

For Madden, nothing less than a wholesale reordering of the U.S. political system will save the country from the “catastrophes” at its doorstep.

He has a raft of proposals related to climate change, health care, public education and other hot-button policy issues.
But Madden says the U.S. can’t hope to forge meaningful progress on anything unless it torches the two-party system and reimagines the democratic process.

“The problem isn’t necessarily that people don’t care about our planet or that people don’t care about the climate,” he said. “It’s that people don’t trust the government to be able to implement the kinds of sweeping changes that are being called for in a way that won’t be abused.”

“If we were to stay with the momentum of the existing political paradigm, where it’s just like, demonize the other side, create these kind of false binaries where all the nuance of certain positions is left out for the sake of short sound bites or for the sake of a million reasons, but we can’t actually solve problems well until we expand the tool sets we have to work together."
Liam Madden

Madden’s message has found resonance with an unlikely audience: Vermont Republicans.

When Madden entered the GOP primary for the U.S. House earlier this year, he made no bones about the fact that he was not a Republican.

He was using the party primary to gain access to debate stages, and attract a media spotlight that shines brighter on major party candidates.

Madden was also up-front about wanting to cut military spending by 50%, and said that he favors universal, socialized health care — not exactly red meat for a conservative audience.

But he won anyway.

In part because Madden’s core message is less about specific policy proposals than a new way of doing business in Washington, D.C.

“If we were to stay with the momentum of the existing political paradigm, where it’s just like, demonize the other side, create these kind of false binaries where all the nuance of certain positions is left out for the sake of short sound bites or for the sake of a million reasons, but we can’t actually solve problems well until we expand the tool sets we have to work together,” he said.

Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, says stances like that have allowed Madden to tap into a well of discontent.

“I think that’s one of the reasons that he won the Republican primary, is that I think there are a lot of Republicans who see things that need to be changed and fixed about the two-party system, or even just within our own party," he said.

That doesn’t mean Dame and the party proper are backing their nominee.

Dame says Madden made it clear he didn’t want to be affiliated with Republicans. And so they’re forsaking him in turn.

Madden won’t have access to the party’s voter data, financial assistance or field infrastructure.

Dame says Madden’s anti-establishment views are compelling. Admirable even. But he says Madden’s candidacy spotlights the pitfalls of that approach.

“Liam’s solution is basically to try to tear the whole thing down,” Dame said. “It’s ambitious, and it’s going to be very hard to do if you don’t work together with other people. It’s hard to be one man tilting against windmills.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons that [Madden] won the Republican primary, is that I think there are a lot of Republicans who see things that need to be changed and fixed about the two-party system, or even just within our own party."
Paul Dame, Vermont GOP chair

Madden juggles campaigning with his full-time job as director of solar energy for a home energy company. He also has 3-year-old and 3-month-old kids at home, and said his wife has been doing more than her fair share on the domestic front of late.

Madden has a trunk of a neck and a wrestler’s build, but friends say his disarming smile and kind eyes make him an approachable guy.

David Cooch got to know Madden well when the two men started a green energy business before the pandemic.

“Very charismatic,” Cooch said. “I sort of had this impression of him as this sort of very impressive, capable, motivated person. I was like, yeah, this is guy is maybe a little intimidating in that respect.”

The business they started failed. But Cooch said Madden is a visionary leader who does, in fact, work well with others.

“I mean he’s definitely motivated by a desire to uplift humanity and create better conditions for everyone,” Cooch said. “I think that comes hand-in-hand with a healthy skepticism of the powers that be.”

Madden said he wants to democratize federal government by allowing citizens to weigh in in real time on congressional policy debates. And he’s interested in something called liquid democracy, which gives people who aren’t in elected office a means of direct participation in legislative deliberations.

“I don’t think it should be on me to allocate and prioritize our common resources without a much more robust way of getting public input and engagement into our political system,” Madden said.

Though he's hoping to transcend party labels, he has some views that are likely to alienate many Democratic voters. He’s in favor of strong borders for example, and thinks migrant farmworkers who’ve been in Vermont without documentation for less than five years should be arrested and deported.

More from Vermont Public: Migrant farmworkers fight to end collaboration between Vermont police and Border Patrol

“I don’t believe we can have a country where we completely ignore law, so yeah if you come here illegally, I think you should expect to be deported,” Madden said.

He said he supports a "path to citizenship" for migrant farmworkers who've been in Vermont without documentation for more than five years. But he said they should have to go to the "back of the line" of the immigration process, and be subject to conditions related to employment and community services. Madden said he'd support federal immigration reform that made it easier for people from other countries to work on Vermont dairy farms legally.

A woman in a gray suit stands on the sidewalk in a small downtown area with Vermont road signs in the background.
Balint campaign, Courtesy
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Becca Balint, Madden's Democratic opponent in the race for the U.S. House, has raised more than $1 million for her campaign.

Madden said he’s not about to tailor his campaign platform to maximize his voter appeal. And he acknowledges he’s in an uphill battle against his Democratic opponent Becca Balint.

Federal disclosures indicate that Madden has raised about $40,000 for his campaign. But that sum was actually the result of his wife draining her business account and loaning it to the campaign, so that it would look like he’d raised the minimum amount needed to qualify for participation in one of the primary debates.

“So I basically need to like, not treat that as a donation. I need to recoup that money by legally paying for expenses that include paying the staff member — me — to basically give my wife that money back,” Madden said.

Balint, meanwhile, has raised more than $1 million for her campaign.

“In the military, it’s called asymmetrical warfare. I need to make a lot happen with a little amount of resources,” Madden said.

The former Marine is fighting a battle of ideas now. And voters will decide in November whether they want to join his side.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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