podcast review

The Improvement Association Tries to Dismantle ‘The Big Lie’

Photo: New York Times.

One of the more pernicious aspects of The Big Lie — that is, former president Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize the 2020 election through unproven fraud claims — is the way in which it flows downstream. In governor’s mansions and state houses and county districts across the country, Republicans continue to beat the drum of election fraud against all reason and an overwhelming lack of evidence, chiefly as a way to thicken a charged atmosphere under which they seek to claim and reshape political power.

This state of affairs is the context and subject of The Improvement Association, the latest project from the renowned podcast studio Serial Productions, now owned by the New York Times. Arriving with the spicy tagline “a true story about election fraud,” the five-part miniseries follows Zoe Chace of This American Life as she pokes around rural Bladen County, North Carolina, where she’s following up on a potent lead. Bladen County, you see, is the site of one of the very few instances in modern American history when an honest-to-goodness proven case of election fraud led to the nullification of a congressional race. However, there is a twist: This particular scandal, which took place in 2018, was actually perpetrated by Republicans.

But Chace’s story is only partly about the 2018 incident. She’s brought to the county because, as these things go, there’s a longer history leading up to that point and, more importantly, there are deeper consequences resulting from it. She learns that the scandal took place against the backdrop of long-running rumors about election fraud in the region. She also learns that those rumors tend to center not on the aforementioned Republican operative, but another subject altogether: the Bladen County Improvement Association, a Black political-advocacy group operating in the area. As the 2018 scandal came and went, the conspiratorial air of fraud continued to linger. Many in the county say the authorities got it wrong, and that the real perpetrator of fraud was the Improvement Association. It’s germane to note at this point that the population of tiny Bladen County is mostly white. Which is to say that the conspiratorial air is distinctly racial.

What transpires in The Improvement Association is largely gumshoe stuff, as we’re brought into Chace’s process as she runs down those lingering fraud accusations. It’s rich with minutiae and rabbit holes — thick layers of the county’s political history and dynamics are brought to the forefront. Part of the pleasure one might get out of the journey is listening in awe as Chace works every corner, thinks through every angle, vets every possibility. Leave your suspicions of parachute journalism at the door; it’s hard to make that charge when the reporter is willing to dive into the densest webs of interrelations, personal histories, and social dynamics.

However, for some, Chace’s hyperdetailed process-driven approach may be a source of tension, not to mention frustration. In The Improvement Association, each accusation is examined, no matter how thinly sourced it may be and no matter how hard it is to establish the truth beyond reasonable (or unreasonable) doubt. You might begin to wonder what the point of it all is, which, indeed, may well be a part of what the series is trying to convey. It’s an illustration of the old adage about how lies can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots, and how those who wield lies as a weapon have a natural structural advantage in any battle. If you’re on the side of truth — not your truth, but the truth — it’s easy to get demoralized.

The series switches gears in its back half, when the narrative objective shifts from wrestling with election-fraud narratives toward grappling with the consequences of those narratives, specifically on the Bladen County Improvement Association. It isn’t really tipping any hands to say that the organization’s power gets radically depleted as a result. Substantiated or not, the very existence of fraud accusations is a landmine, severely complicating the picture for any Democratic candidate who might want to associate with the advocacy group.

But as the series illustrates during this stretch, these are the moments when the most important political choices are made: If you’re the Improvement Association, do you get pragmatic about the circumstances or do you stick to the principle of the matter? It is with this question that The Improvement Association’s underlying interest comes into full view: How do you build political power against the context of The Big Lie?

I won’t beat around the bush here: As you would expect from a Serial Productions project, this show is a cut above most other things in the podcast world. As a veteran staffer of This American Life, Chace has spent years building a substantial body of work focused on the nitty-gritty of political actors, whether it’s Jeff Flake or the Proud Boys. She’s interested in the texture of process and strategy and the interpersonal dynamics that drive the creation of power. Politics might be the art of the possible, but it’s also the art of people: knowing what they say they want, what they actually want, and everything in between. You get a lot of that here.

Still, there’s something about The Improvement Association that renders it slightly inert, at least relative to Serial Productions’ previous release Nice White Parents and the core election-fraud hook, which is about as high-stakes as they come. Part of it might have to do with the dissonance between the explosive nature of the way the subject tends to be tossed about in public discourse and the comparatively cool-headed way The Improvement Association goes about its business. Explosiveness, of course, is the exact opposite of what Chace & Co. seem to want here. In many ways, this series is a robust act of defusal, an attempt to swat down explosive sensationalism in the service of figuring out the cool hard facts of a matter and showing how quiet and mundane the poisonous effects of The Big Lie can be. However, that coolness presents problems from a narrative perspective, exemplified by the way the series ends, which feels abrupt and incomplete.

Ultimately, all that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. The Improvement Association might end up being the quietest entry to the Serial Productions canon so far, but it’s still very much worth your time. At the end of the day, it’s more or less successful in what it came to do: to show, in precise terms, how election-fraud claims yield specific and lasting effects on political power, and how their weaponization contributes to a fundamental undermining of American democracy. It leaves you with a larger, more existential question: How do you get out from under this rock? That, as Liz Cheney is finding out right now, is still up in the air.

The Improvement Association Tries to Dismantle ‘The Big Lie’