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William B. Farrell is the principal consultant for Swordfish Consulting International, LLC, in Orono.
First, let me offer congratulations to Sen. Susan Collins, Rep. Jared Golden, and Rep. Chellie Pingree on their recent election success. While staunch blue or red partisans might see a frustrating paradox in Maine with a Republican victory in the Senate, Democratic wins in the House and split electoral votes at the presidential level, I see a testament to the independent character of our state and the ability of Mainers to vote a mixed ballot.
As the deluge of campaign signs begin to recede from front lawns, I hold out hope that we will once again see respectful and considerate discourse return to our sidewalks, neighborhoods and newspaper comment sections. Certainly, much of the onus is on each of us to do our part. But we look to our state and national leaders to set an example, as a first step.
Here in the Second Congressional District, along our red-blue fault line, this campaign battle had been fought through unrelenting attack ads, dinner-disturbing knocks, and morning, noon and nighttime calls and texts trying to gain a glimpse into each household’s voting preferences. The Maine U.S. Senate race alone raked in more than $170 million in campaign and outside funding this election season, much of that used to fuel the onslaught of polarizing messaging.
And to what tangible end for Mainers, other than to drive a hefty priced political wedge between regular people? For those of us who run small businesses here in the Pine Tree State, it is not lost on us that the obscene use of money on political campaigns in Maine this year is in the same ballpark as Maine’s $200 million use of federal COVID-19 stimulus funds for small business grants, arguably a more valuable and most urgent need in these difficult times.
In most years, the insanity of politics is distant from our eastern corner of the state. This year has most certainly been different. Tribalism in politics is not new. But what disturbs me is the recognition that active forces across the political spectrum see people, not as individuals in a pluralistic society, but as chattel to be corralled, counted, and sorted into one of two categories — right-wing or left-wing.
Categorical thinking and binary choices of allegiance undermine the very sinews of critical thought, not only through direct attack, but more insidiously through self-censorship. American exceptionalism is, in part, grounded in a belief that we can freely express our thoughts, concerns, and wishes without retribution from the state. But what about the sideways looks and shunning by your neighbors and the insult-leveling that occurs in social media when someone voices a nuanced position. The strong blue wall or red wall detests flecks of purple.
For many of us, the best path to communal harmony along this fault line is to follow the advice taught to us by our parents: Do not talk about politics or religion. But time and time again, we are reminded that that age-old lesson must not have been taught in other people’s homes. Or they have simply forgotten their manners. But I also recognize that if the nuanced voices remain quiet on political issues, the echo chambers on the left and the right will have no chance of hearing reason and critical thought over the din.
As our re-elected senator and representatives return to Washington, I respectfully ask that they reflect on two thoughts for leaving an important and enduring legacy on civility and national cohesion:
First, how can they harness their leadership, networks, and gravitas to remind their colleagues — our nation’s elected officials — that national tone starts in their chambers, as well as further down the road at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Citizens, reporters, bloggers and others mirror the behavior that they see.
The present divisive, dismissive, and detrimental attitude of our political elites is corrosive to the national character and is not furthering us as a nation. We are not looking to our elected officials for posturing, malign sound bites and bitter one-upmanship. We are expecting leadership that elevates the people, not the party. Politics played as a zero-sum game ultimately leaves the people as losers.
Second, how can they bring about legislation to rein in fundraising and spending on political campaigns at all levels? A system that celebrates astronomical fundraising levels and expenditures as a metric of success misses the point: Elite-led tribalism that weaponizes dollars is not a recipe for stability and prosperity, but rather a precursor to dysfunction and dissolution.
Perhaps it is a moment to consider President Abraham Lincoln’s quote at Gettysburg as a roadmap for our future: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”