Though we are different in many ways — one of us was elected as a Republican, the other as a Democrat — in one important way we have found common ground. We both see partisan politics for their destructive influence on our republic. That is why we have both withdrawn from our parties.
It is apparent that the federal government has been rendered incapable of any coherent and comprehensive action by the intransigence of competing political parties; we’ve both been eyewitnesses to this same dynamic in the Maine Legislature. This destructive polarization harms the reputation and credibility of Maine’s government and, more importantly, frustrates the creation of policies that affect the lives of everyday Mainers.
Political parties have become vehicles by which special interests exert inappropriate influence in government. One need only look at the list of donors to the two major parties and their candidates by political action committees to see this impact. Some donors are so cynical they contribute to both parties and competing candidates to ensure influence.
No elected official will readily admit that contributions to one’s party or campaign affect the decisions he or she makes while in office; unfortunately, this assertion doesn’t pass the straight-face test. And don’t let the “clean elections candidate” label fool you, either. Many such candidates operate PACs that raise funds and, in turn, donate them to their party, which then, in turn, operates to secure the candidate’s or others’ election. Once elected, these candidates find themselves subject to the powerful influence of these parties. Later on, they might find themselves in leadership positions within their party and in the Legislature.
Ask your legislator if a party leader has pressured him or her to reverse a vote. Or if he or she has been pressured to reverse a vote on reconsideration of a veto in order to support a governor. Or if he or she has really read and understood the bills on which he or she has voted or has merely relied on the caucus position. The answers will not surprise you, but they are not the answers that the people of Maine want to hear. Party politics are directing Maine’s future, not the people of Maine.
Recently, four party leaders negotiated a $6.7 billion budget behind closed doors. The unspoken influence of each was that “I can deliver two-thirds of my caucus” with this “compromise.” Unless your legislator or senator was directly involved, he or she had little input, and since there were no public hearings on this “compromise,” no citizens’ voices were heard. Maine people and their elected representatives had no seat at the table.
We treat policy work as a team sport with only two teams. We fall easily into the rhetoric of “Democrats do this” and “Republicans think that” because it’s easily comprehensible. It becomes easy for us to choose one side and denigrate the other. Party sound bites are much easier to throw out to a media that no longer investigates the truth. This “us and them” thinking allows us to treat our fellow citizens with disdain. To see this, one needs merely to read the online comments below any news story.
Our politics has become fraught with dirty, personal attacks. By polarizing our conversation, we polarize our community. We conclude that somehow, those who holds opinions different from ours are mentally deficient, woefully uninformed or motivated by evil intent. Consequently, our government becomes dysfunctional.
The truth is, the ideas and opinions of our citizenry are complex and wonderfully diverse.
Both of us live in small towns where issues are decided at town meeting. There is disagreement and heated discussion. But somehow, absent the influence of political parties, the citizens muddle through, do what’s best for their community and remain friends through the disagreement and discussion. Our politics in Augusta and Washington could be informed by this tradition.
Both of us have become good friends, and we respect our differences. We trust that the other is sincerely trying to do the best thing as he understands it. We disagree on a great many things but we agree on others. We recognize that issues are complex and require conversations, not arguments. We both agree that the polarization of our politics and the disproportionate power of our parties have undermined the functioning of our government and frustrated our elected officials’ abilities to vote their conscience and properly represent their constituents.
So the Democratic and Republican parties in Maine each have one less member. We are free to work together on complex issues, agreeing where we can and disagreeing when we must. We will remain friends and true to the ideals of a truly representative democracy.
Rep. Larry Dunphy is a legislator from Embden and a former Republican. Brian Jones is a former legislator from Freedom and a former Democrat.