During his first term in office, Gov. Paul LePage became famous — or perhaps infamous, depending on your perspective — for his brash rhetoric and personal attacks, but in light of his success, the question becomes “Is it working?”
There’s no denying Maine’s political discourse has become more uncivil. From “you have a black heart” to “spoiled little brat,” both aimed by LePage at Democratic senators, to suggesting that President Barack Obama should “go to hell,” never have modern Mainers seen such behavior from their highest elected official.
LePage isn’t the only person who has contributed to incivility in Maine politics.
That “black heart” politician, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who now leads his caucus in the Senate, has openly accused LePage of acting like a “dictator.” The governor has been called a “bully” too many times to count and Democratic insults have also flown toward Washington, such as last year when Rep. Scott Hamann, D-Portland, called President Donald Trump a “pussy” on Facebook and suggested he’d physically harm Trump, given the chance.
Yet, the state earns national praise for its civil discourse. Maine has weathered bitter budget battles, a shutdown and ongoing impasses over issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to tribal casinos. Amid it all, Maine was named the 2016 “state most committed to civil governance” by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
“As difficult as some of the issues around here are, to be recognized nationally for our efforts is kind of a big deal,” said Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said maintaining civility is crucial to preserving any chance of progress at the sharply divided State House, but that sometimes it feels like rowing against the tide.
“Like it or not, an example is set from the top and it’s very, very challenging when that becomes the norm,” Gideon said. “That’s the tide we’re fighting against right now.”
However, only about 35 lawmakers turned out when offered civility training. Gideon and Thibodeau, both of whom are known to be quick with their gavels when debate breaches the strict State House decorum rules, invited the National Institute for Civil Discourse to Maine in December to conduct its Policy Leaders Academy with the help of the Maine Development Foundation. Thibodeau estimated that about 35 of the 186 legislators attended but said that — not unlike LePage or Trump does with an attention-grabbing comment — the training planted a seed to hammer home a larger point.
Does incivility work? Ted Celeste, the institute’s executive director, said “rough discourse” is nothing new in politics, but that in 2017 it reached a “higher peak in its intensity and nastiness.” He argues that the stakes could hardly be higher when it comes to discourse in politics.
“Our democracy depends on it,” he said.
Yellow Breen, who served in independent Gov. Angus King’s administration, is CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, which oversees the NICD’s Policy Leaders Academy and leads annual bipartisan legislative bus tours through Maine. He said that while most people don’t need to be taught what civility is, just putting opposing people together for constructive or nonthreatening interaction breeds it.
“It’s not easy to transition from the fray of a campaign mentality where you have frequently been in a very heated environment and attacked by the other side,” Breen said.
Breen said public perception of the Legislature is skewed by the fact “we usually only get a media report when it doesn’t work out.”
In an era of constant campaigning, has politics become a race to the attack? James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said partisan media companies and politicians’ ability to connect directly with constituents are widening the partisan divide and narrowing the political perspectives many people are exposed to. Third-party groups weighing in on elections and policy debates have made uncivil discourse “more normal,” he said.
“Comments that some might think are uncivil, others might say ‘this is the candor that we want. We want people to be more blunt,’” Melcher said. “A lot of people who are unhappy with the things someone like LePage says are people who don’t like his political views for other reasons.”
That politics is divisive and government is divided is nothing new, but what has changed is the way we receive our information, and from whom. LePage and Trump have proven that not only can they do and say things that once disqualified people from politics, but that it wins votes. Heightened animosity between the branches of government has complicated the divide and pushed leaders to focus more on messaging to core constituencies and less on conversation and collaboration with each other.
That intensifies pressure on Gideon and Thibodeau, who must balance their roles as presiding officers of the House and Senate, respectively, with leading increasingly entrenched, partisan caucuses. Calls for civility — even if unheeded by the majority of legislators — remain one of the few tools they have to stave off pervasive gridlock.
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