One of my earliest political memories is of hearing my grandfather, who worked as a Linotype operator at the Bangor Daily News for 46 years, refer to himself as a “liberal Republican.” He carried a union card in his wallet and voted for Ronald Reagan. Or Walter Mondale. No one really knew or was particularly concerned about it because who a person voted for was his or her own business, nor was a person defined by who he or she voted for in the last presidential election.
My grandfather thought the government spent too much money, but he wanted the roads paved and the schools funded. He believed that economic growth was the way to increase our collective quality of life, but not at the expense of the trees, water and air. In short, he, like most Mainers, had views on both sides of the political aisle and he could hold seemingly incongruous ideas in his head at the same time and make sense of it all.
One thing is as true today as it was 30 years ago when I listened to my grandfather talk politics at the dinner table: many Mainers tend to be more conservative on some issues and more progressive, if not libertarian, on others. Moreover, Mainers do not like to be made to fit into a particular bucket or categorized by anything other than their own values and principles. And in a state as unique as Maine, people’s principles are not always easy to pin down on a traditional political spectrum.
Unfortunately today, however, it seems that party platforms are increasingly controlled by the more extreme elements among them. Ideological purity and loyalty are demanded from party members, especially those in elected office, and compromise is shunned and even punished. The parties, especially at the national level, seem more interested in defeating and vilifying the other side for the sake of scoring a victory or protecting campaign contributors rather than working together to help our country make real progress. And neither side wants to allow the other to have any policy achievements, which makes working together difficult.
The result is chronic impasse and stagnation, and it is not tenable given the magnitude of the issues facing our country. Climate change and environmental quality, immigration, gun violence, trade policy in a global economy, the swelling of the federal deficit, the shrinking of the middle class: these are just some of the critical issues that require thoughtfulness, the sharing of ideas and bipartisan collaboration to solve.
The problems of partisanship, stagnation and political silos only continue to grow worse, however. Partisan gerrymandering that creates rigged electoral districts, social media algorithms that favor certain voices at the expense of others, closed primaries even as more Americans choose to be unenrolled, and the obscene amounts of money that flow into elections at every level of government are all variables that not only fan the flames of partisan divisiveness, but reinforce and perpetuate the very same two-party system that is the inherent problem. The result is a political structure that is broken, perhaps irreparably so, by partisan politics.
So, what is one person to do? In Maine, there are more unenrolled voters than members of either of the two major political parties. I am now one of them. Like my grandfather two generations ago and like most Mainers today, I have views on both sides of the political aisle. On some issues, I am stridently progressive. On others, I am squarely conservative. And I choose to reject the mistaken assumption that you have to be either a Democrat or a Republican to have a voice in the political process. The most important and most helpful thing that any of us can be is our true, authentic selves, and for me that is to be independently minded and politically unenrolled.
In 1796, during his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned of the divisive and destructive tendencies of political factions. Today, more than 200 years later, we are living the reality of President Washington’s warning. We would do well to heed his call.
Ben Sprague is a member of the Bangor City Council and a two-time former council chair.