Portland City Hall Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Portland City Councilor Tae Chong has had enough. Elected just three years ago in 2019, Chong has decided to not run for reelection due in part to his frustrations with the political situation in Maine’s largest city.

Key to Chong’s decision, it seems, was the impact being felt in Portland due to the Green New Deal, an initiative passed in the city via referendum in 2020 — along with other past ( and future) referendums. The ideas are problematic enough as policy, as Portland has seen a radical decline in development proposals in the first year of its implementation, but they are made all the worse by the fact that they can’t be changed for several years, despite how destructive they are. Section 9-46 of the Portland City Code prevents any referendum passed by voters from being amended or repealed for five years after it is adopted.

“I’d rather go and do other things where I feel like I’m contributing rather than staying on and feeling frustrated and handcuffed by [citizens’ initiative] policies we had no say over,” Chong said, explaining his decision to not seek reelection, as reported by the Portland Press Herald.

Feeling handcuffed by ludicrous and unchangeable policies is one thing. The new breed of Portland politics, which is heavy on histrionics and what I like to call “change rage” and light on pragmatism, collaborativeness, or any acknowledgement of ideological pluralism, is another. This has left the city government paralyzed, without much being accomplished.

“We haven’t done as much as a council,” Chong said. “I’ve decided I can be of service doing something else rather than be frustrated.”

This problem is hardly isolated to local city government in Portland. All across the country this problem is growing, and seemingly getting worse. Worse, it is seemingly self-reinforcing at this point.

Here’s the main issue: legislative bodies, be they city, state or federal, have grown more polarized and members more ideologically distant from each other. Politicians both left and right now materially benefit — financially and electorally — by genuflecting to those with the loudest voices in their partisan tribe, and lay prostrate in pathetic submission when those same voices object to attempts at compromise. This has resulted in fewer collaborations, and fewer actions taken on big problems facing the country.

This legislative paralysis has frustrated everyone, but no one more than very extreme activists on the periphery of American politics that demand submission from these lawmakers. They rage at the decrease in action, but also at any remaining action that is taken, because it “doesn’t go far enough” and doesn’t fit their extreme vision. Thus, in their righteous frustration, they seek to go around the traditional republican process of government to get done what they couldn’t get done (largely due to their own intransigence ) through legislation.

At the city and the state level, that often takes the form of referendums. Portland is about to feature four ballot questions sponsored by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, including a proposal for an $18 minimum wage. (Let me take this moment to remind them, by the way, that in the socialist utopias of Scandinavia, none of the Nordic countries have a minimum wage set in statute.) At the state level, progressive activists are sponsoring a sweeping paid-leave referendum that would once again go around the legislative process in Augusta and add (you guessed it) new taxes to workers and employers.

Extreme activists do not have the referendum option nationally, so when they get frustrated by gridlock, they start begging for the President of the United States to essentially rule like a king, and issue executive orders. Activists frustrated with “inaction” on climate issues are now demanding that the Biden administration declare a “climate emergency” and advance the Build Back Better environmental agenda through the stroke of a pen. Unfortunately such actions are increasingly frequent these days, but lest you think my irritation is partisan, remember that I have written extensively about Republicans presidents doing the same, and being equally annoyed by it.

Regardless, this should not be how we make law in this country, this state, or in our cities. Not getting our way in a legislative process is frustrating, I grant you, but our system was designed the way that it was for a reason. If our representatives in government aren’t doing what we want, we need to object and vote them out, not try to go around them.

But the more broken our system becomes — the more tribal, the less functional and the more extreme — the more power we end up giving to the very people that helped break it. Agreeing to abandon our representative republic in favor of a “winning any way we can” attitude won’t solve this problem.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...