ORONO, Maine — Political discourse in the United States is worse today than it was early in the 19th century, when personal attacks were rampant and duels were considered an honorable way to settle disputes between political rivals, according to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.
Mitchell, a 15-year Democratic senator who was majority leader for six years, came to the University of Maine on Tuesday to participate in a Democratic rally and the annual Mitchell Lecture on Sustainability.
“Politics has always been rough-and-tumble in the United States,” Mitchell said in an interview.
Partisanship, controversy and personal attacks among political rivals are nothing new. Mitchell said he recently read an account of the presidential election of 1800, “a bitter, personal contest between [Thomas] Jefferson and [John] Adams — two of the great men in our history. The name-calling is just incredible.”
Mitchell argued that the tumult is more severe and damaging today. U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, cited the partisan divide as one of the factors contributing to her decision not to run for another term.
Digital and television media have contributed to spreading the gap and building tension between Democrats and Republicans, Mitchell argued. He said 30-second clips that boil an interview down to a quote that carries an “emotional wallop” have played their part in the problem.
Mitchell recounted the story of when he was elected Senate majority leader in 1989 and reached out to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., to explain how he hoped their relationship would work.
“I told him I would never surprise him, I would always give him notice of what I intended to do,” Mitchell said. “I would never try to embarrass him, I would never attempt to attack him personally.”
Mitchell said he knew he and Dole would disagree often, but that personal “hostility and acrimony” would do nothing to advance the country.
“We shook hands, and to this day not ever has a harsh word passed between Bob Dole and me in public or in private.”
He said the two continued to work together, despite daily disagreements. They fought through negotiations representing different philosophies, parties and issues, but were always respectful of each other, Mitchell said.
“We’re all Americans. Everybody wants what’s best for the country,” Mitchell said. “We should be able to talk about, to disagree about, to argue about and to vote about those issues without the high level of personal rancor.”
Mitchell also discussed his role in the approaching November elections. He said he has been voicing support for Democrats in races “across the board” in hopes that the party will regain control of the Maine Legislature and retain control of the U.S. Senate.
Mitchell recorded a robo-call that has been going out to Mainers’ homes in recent weeks. The call urges residents to take advantage of early voting opportunities.
He argued that recent efforts to require voters to provide photo IDs at the polls, eliminate same-day voter registration, and attempts to prevent college students from voting in their college towns are restricting the “most fundamental right in a democratic society.”
Supporters of such laws have said they are part of a push to stem the potential for voter fraud.
“What you’re seeing around the country is a concerted effort by Republicans and their supporters to suppress voting — to discourage people from voting, which really reverses a trend that has existed in the country for more than a hundred years of trying to expand voting,” the former senator said.
Mitchell said he “deplored and condemned” incidents of voting fraud, but that those occurrences are rare in the United States and virtually nonexistent in Maine.
“We encourage everyone to vote, whatever their leanings,” Mitchell said. “We hope 100 percent of Republicans and independents and Democrats get out and vote.”