March 24, 2018
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Standing up to divide, scapegoat and conquer

By David Farmer

Public policy is being used to divide our state, to bully, to intimidate and to marginalize large chunks of people.

Ideology-driven crusades — backed with not a shred of evidence — are sold as solutions to problems that don’t really exist, while our economy continues to limp along, wounded by Wall Street malfeasance and a growing concentration of wealth.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the working poor are swelling while the middle class barely hangs on, one accident or layoff away from financial disaster.

So what are the policy solutions being offered? End same-day registration, attack minorities and college students, drug test people in anti-poverty programs, cut taxes on the wealthy, give insurance companies more control and power, and tell the university and community colleges that if they want to protect their funding, they need to lobby against money for health and human services.

In each of these examples, the underlying strategy is the same: Try to turn Mainers against one another, create an easy target for ridicule or blame. Gov. Paul LePage, GOP Chairman Charlie Webster, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Treasurer Bruce Poliquin have all joined the chorus of division.

Step one: Encourage people to blame the poor for the sluggish economy.

Gov. LePage wants to drug test people who receive public assistance, an idea that is ineffective and likely unconstitutional, though he doesn’t care about either. The goal is not to save money — it couldn’t be because such drug testing doesn’t work. Instead, it’s to criminalize poverty, and to reinforce the puritanical belief that being poor is a sin.

Following the failed playbook of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, LePage on the stump continues to push his drug-testing idea. But perhaps he should call one of his former top advisers, Tarren Bragdon, who has now set up shop in Florida to push the same extreme agenda he worked on in Maine but with less effect.

There, a court not only ordered the drug testing program to stop, the judge also tossed out a bogus report from Bragdon, saying: “the data contained in the pamphlet is not competent expert opinion.”

Maine’s efforts to drug test poor people are based on the same dubious claims, offered without proof of effectiveness.

As the Bangor Daily’s Eric Russell reported about Florida’s situation, “ preliminary figures on that new Florida law showed that welfare recipients were actually less likely than other people to use drugs. Other media reports out of Florida have revealed that drug testing there has been cost prohibitive.”

Step two: Make it harder for eligible citizens to participate in elections.

Citing the phantom of fraud, a real ghost story if there ever was one, Webster with support from Summers, continues to try to make it harder for people to vote with new restrictions and unnecessary limitations on registration.

They have illegitimately targeted college students. And Webster has taken it even further with homophobic ads while his allies launched sketchy television commercials claiming conspiracies from away.

It’s all about making it us vs. them.

Step three: Attack the institutions and programs that work.

State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, buoyed by a network of right-wing advocacy organizations, is trying to use his position on the MaineHousing board of directors to confuse people about the cost and value of public investment in low-cost housing. He is perfectly comfortable attacking the integrity of the people with whom he politically disagrees.

Step four: Make threats.

Telling Maine’s colleges and universities to lobby legislators to gut anti-poverty programs or risk having their own funding slashed is Machiavellian politics at its worst. I wonder if a similar ultimatum will be delivered to others.

Divide, scapegoat and conquer.

To Quote Robert Kennedy: “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”

Unfortunately, for many of Maine’s current political leaders, those opponents are voters, taxpayers, working families, the unemployed and the poor.

But there’s good news: Those same folks have shown that they are willing to stand up, be counted and push back against extremism.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He was the communications director for Yes on 1, which restored same-day voter registration. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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