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Eliot Cutler: Civil debate will make Maine stronger

Posted July 03, 2013, at 8:45 a.m.
Eliot Cutler
Eliot Cutler

Happy Fourth of July, Mainers! Let’s celebrate with fireworks (carefully), but let’s also take a few minutes to think about what we’re celebrating and about how we agree — and disagree — about it.

As citizens in this great democracy, we come at issues from different places and perspectives. Nelson Mandela probably has understood that aspect of democracy as well as anyone. “Where you stand,” he once said, “depends on where you sit.”

It’s important that we hear each other out. We need vigorous and probing debate. But at the end of the debate, a healthy democratic political process ought to ensure that we will arrive at solutions to problems through good-faith negotiation and compromise.

The framers who launched the American experience in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago understood that debate is central to democracy — but also that the debate must be informed and civil. A democracy won’t long survive if leaders make stuff up and if they just yell at each other. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “When the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

We Mainers may argue about what remedies will best work to increase economic activity in our state, but who would take the position that increasing the pool of available jobs, of expanding opportunity, isn’t a good idea? We might not agree on the extent to which government should be involved in the health delivery system, but we probably will agree that our neighbors and fellow citizens — as close to 100 percent as we can get — should have access to high-quality care.

We may not agree on exactly how we can best deliver a world-class education to every child in Maine, but it is hard to imagine anyone arguing that we shouldn’t try. And however we debate the extent to which government policies should be aimed at protecting our environment, few of us in Maine will argue against protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the forests, farms and shores that make up our unique heritage.

In the end we need to be able to reach agreement on how we meet those common goals, and exactly how we go about disagreeing in the process of seeking those agreements will make an enormous difference in whether or not we succeed in getting there.

Over the course of the next 16 months or so, the people of Maine will bear witness to a long, tough and occasionally contentious campaign to determine who will be Maine’s next governor. For my part, I pledge to do just what I did in 2010: to focus on the issues in a responsible and civil way, to argue the case for reform and innovation that will give birth to jobs and broad economic opportunity. And I pledge to do so, once again, only in ways that inform and involve the voters, rather than in ways that seek to incite and inflame.

I hope that my opponents and their political parties will make the same commitment, because regardless of who prevails in the end, a civil debate over the course of the campaign will make our state stronger. Jefferson believed that only through civic education could democracy survive and prosper. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, “the fundamental skills and knowledge of citizenship are not handed down through the gene pool. They must be taught and learned anew by each generation.”

So, this weekend, at the grill or the clambake, please raise a glass and toast America — and recommit yourself to the debate, learning and civic engagement that have made America work, succeed and endure.

Eliot Cutler is an independent candidate for governor.

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