It has become cliche to decry the appalling state of relations between Democrats and Republicans. Expectations for a two-party system that exhibits mutual respect, responsible management of differences and loads of necessary compromise are a distant memory. Few Americans would disagree with such a vision, yet most seem to have resigned themselves to and indeed bought into a political culture dominated by vicious attacks on motives instead of by reasoned debate.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the presidential election, especially in the Republicans’ demonization of President Barack Obama. Marco Rubio famously repeated in a recent debate that Obama “is trying to change America,” citing Obamacare, the stimulus package and the Iran agreement not just as misguided policies but as components of a conspiracy against the American way of life. Ted Cruz calls the president a “radical ideologue” and an “unmitigated socialist,” as though a hardworking, mainstream president by day becomes a devilish, anti-American schemer by night.
The candidates should criticize policies. But the slanderous claims against Obama are ludicrous on their face and unhelpful in clarifying policy questions voters must understand. They not only appeal to the worst angels of our nature but to the dumber angels as well. It’s easier to depict an evil opponent than to debate the merits of complex government programs, so it may be no surprise the candidates go for the easy and low blow. More disconcerting is why the electorate lets them get away with it and indeed cheers them on. Donald Trump’s rallies are exercises in self congratulation and profanity-laced name-calling, devoid of policy content. Yet the crowds eat it up, seemingly unconcerned about the actual governing that will make a difference in their lives.
This is not a Republican-only sport.
I participated in Gov. Paul LePage’s town hall at Thornton Academy in Saco last April. The governor was touring the state in an effort to gain support for his economic plan. That plan included the eventual elimination of income taxes and the first-time taxation of some nonprofits. I attended with genuine hopes of learning more about the proposal. But those hopes were dashed when anti-LePage agitators repeatedly disrupted the speaker with denunciations not only of his ideas, but of his character and motives.
LePage has given us reason to question his judgment on occasion. But to say he does not care about the people of Maine is to be blind to his words, history and record. After a former mayor of Biddeford threw a jar of Vaseline onstage, the governor ended the event. Who could blame him, given the disrespectful vitriol directed his way? The local media rushed to interview the agitators, who enjoyed extensive airtime in the ensuing days. Left without any media attention, much less any enlightenment on the economic policy, were those who attended to learn about the governor’s economic ideas, to consider them and to reach our own conclusions. This was not democracy in action. This was childish behavior suffocating necessary exchange.
Despite the partisan mess in Augusta right now, Maine is well situated to become a national leader in overcoming this sorry state of affairs. I moved to Maine in 2011 from Ohio and have been thrilled to discover the state’s unique political culture. I’ve befriended my state representative and engage with him frequently. I’ve talked at length with Chellie, Susan and Angus. That we call our leaders by their first names is not something you find in other states — Vermont obviously excepted. In 2012, I experienced the largely informed and respectful statewide debate on same-sex marriage, the opposite of what I endured in a similar referendum effort in Ohio in 2004. I have never felt as able to access the political system as I do here in Maine.
We are a purple state with an impressive record of independence. Mainers’ political behavior is neither predictable nor small-minded. Mainers can get beyond partisan bickering because partisanship isn’t important to us. Practicality, problem-solving and people are important to us. We should draw on these roots to rise above this dismal tragedy playing out among our political leaders and too many of their supporters. Let us use this presidential election and indeed the remainder of LePage’s term to show ourselves and the rest of the country that Mainers will not get caught up in the silly name-calling that comes at the expense of desperately needed debate and action.
Jeanne Hey is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New England.