Parents of young children are familiar with the concept of parallel play. Mosby’s Medical Dictionary describes it as a form of play in which a group of children, primarily toddlers, all play in the same place without interacting at all with each other.
A political version of that dynamic is now occurring in the State House as the 126th Legislature starts work this week. Despite post-Election Day calls from both parties to put aside partisan differences, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats, who in November 2012 won back majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, have approached governing Maine as an independent activity not influenced by or shared with the other.
This form of independence thwarts effective government at a time when leaders should show responsible, collaborative behavior.
Since the new Legislature took office on Dec. 5, LePage, House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond have occasionally found themselves in the same room — for swearing-in ceremonies and to light menorahs — but sharing that space has yet to push their relationship to the next developmental stage, cooperation.
The impetus to elevate the relationship to a more advanced, productive level rests with the governor, who canceled an early December introductory meeting with the Democrats’ new legislative leaders. Since then, he has shown no inclination to talk directly with Democrats, despite telling new legislators that he wants to “ work with each and every one of you” when he swore them in on Dec. 5.
While rebuffing Democrats’ requests for a face-to-face exchange, LePage widened the chasm between his office and Democrats in the Legislature by lashing out at phantom political demons in “The Truth About Taxes,” a video his office released Jan. 3. That five-minute production consists of LePage answering questions from his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. In it, he chastises unnamed Democrats for criticizing tax cuts passed by the Republican-led 125th Legislature and responds to Bennett’s question about “a push by Democrats to increase tax rates to the higher rates of the past.”
Bennett cited Democrats’ 2012 legislative campaign claims as the basis for her question, but Democrats in the 126th Legislature have not said whether they would call for higher state tax rates. LePage might have discovered whether they plan to if he had talked with Eves and Alfond.
The 2012 campaign is over, and the state’s elected leaders have budgets to balance and much to accomplish before 2014 politicking can begin. Doing so will involve effective communication, not more counterproductive political posturing from opposite corners of the State House.
A Maine Cooperative Extension brochure on group dynamics lists “active listening” as the most important component of effective communication, especially when confronting difficult issues, which are plentiful in Augusta. Among the benefits of active listening are that it saves time by cutting through people’s defenses; it reduces the need to repeat conversations; it allows participants to assess situations accurately; and it “reduces emotions that block clear thinking.”
Bennett said “The Truth About Taxes” is part of a strategy that allows the governor to deliver his message to Maine people without interruption. But using video to communicate restricts LePage’s ability to hear constructive feedback. That strategy of detached communication, and his routine refusal to field questions directly from journalists, undermines honest attempts to check facts and provide Maine people with a proper context for LePage’s positions and statements.
Rejecting the chance to converse directly with political opponents, as LePage has done, makes it easier to maintain a political narrative based on depersonalized ideological divides. That narrative drives the kind of stalemate that frustrates so many Americans about government and makes more difficult the types of compromises that a Republican governor and Legislature led by Democrats will have to forge this year to pass budgets and make state government function.
Conversely, genuinely placing people before politics by committing to honest, direct communication, knowing it might be difficult, establishes the basis for, if not trust, then at least the kind of personal connections that make shared governance possible.